Posts Tagged ‘Vita Sackville West’

Stories and marks

March 1, 2011

John Clare’s ‘tale of spring’ is a very encouraging beginning to the month, promising an imaginative glimpse of what’s to come. His delight in the narrative ballad of the seasons is a constant inspiration in my work, and I love the idea of the story of the turning year. Translating this deeply familiar theme into words that strike us as fresh each time we read them, and accurate, John Clare transforms a time-honoured, repetitive trope into a work of art that captures the essence of individual experience, universally, giving us back something that we’ve perhaps lost or forgotten.

This idea is the inspiration behind my Books of Hours, contemporary illuminated manuscripts contemplating the movement of time and the mystical dance of the seasons through fragments of poetry, exploring different ways of translating the text into objects of illumination. This month I’m working on Seasons dancing, setting Burns’ poetry of the turning year – which I’ll be showing in these pages next month. Meanwhile, I’ll show you the March page from Singing the Year, with text by Vita Sackville-West, with just a glimpse of February past and April to come:

Capturing the feel of a text that in itself is vividly visual is a very exciting challenge to me, and one that it’s not easy to define in terms of actual process or techniques. I try to let the light through from the text, rather than illustrate it. In the Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy last summer, I overheard a puzzled visitor say ‘It’s just marks, isn’t it?’  And later in the year, when we were revisiting the sacred texts in the John Ritblat Gallery containing some of the most precious treasures of the British Library, another overheard remark was ‘These are just stories’. Marks and stories is just what we do.

A painting of mine is the cover image for The Principle of Camouflage, my partner Frances Bingham’s new book (a literary novel, coming out in April this year, and available now from Two Ravens Press). I painted Sea light in response to the story, rather than as an illustration to it; I was aiming to catch the fleeting luminous quality of the light, and something of the particular space and atmosphere evoked.

I used a board with quite a rough ground, prepared many years ago by Frances’ great uncle, the artist Guy Worsdell, who had a studio at St Ives and whose paintings and woodcuts (though not often landscapes) are drenched in that light. I like to think that some of it comes through my overlaid marks.

Maureen Duffy has said of The Principle of Camouflage:

A true work of the imagination, transporting Prospero’s isle, and us, to wartime Britain on a shining wave of sea images.

and this vivid imagery has inspired several other works of mine, including a small group of elephants (artist’s books made from a single sheet of handmade paper, painted, torn and folded into a sequence of pages). Sometimes the setting of the text seems like a form of performance – a way of inhabiting the text in the moment, not unlike reading it aloud, in the way it concentrates the mind on the form and flow of the words while making the marks. I will be showing some of these books in Watermarkmy next exhibition, at the Ice House Gallery in Holland Park during May (I’ll be adding full details here soon) and meanwhile I’ll give you a preview of one of the books, called Storm.

Before tearing and folding, the sheet looked like this:

And after, like this:

I’ll be adding details about Watermark next month. Meanwhile, if you’d like more information about any of my work, please leave me a comment in the box below, or click on contact details for other ways to get in touch.

Bees in winter

February 1, 2011

The February plate from my dinner service (with text from John Clare’s Shepherds Calendar) reminds us to hope to see a few drowsy bees on fine February days.

The accuracy of John Clare’s observations of nature reminds me of Vita Sackville-West’s great poem The Land, and her intimate knowledge of her particular bit of England:

In February, if the days be clear,

The waking bee, still drowsy on the wing,

Will guess the opening of another year

And blunder out to seek another spring.

I wrote last month about my project for the year, a series of Books of Hours or contemporary illuminated manuscripts; I’ve begun with a large-scale book called Singing the Year, with text from The Land celebrating the cycle of the seasons and their ‘recurrent patterns on a scroll unwinding’.

The February page here shows a clear frosty starlit night in recognition of the pleasures of the season, rather than sleepy bees, but the poem also warns us:

Forget not bees in winter, though they sleep,

For winter’s big with summer in her womb.

So I’ve been making a few spells for the bees, while they sleep, in the hope that they will resume their summer vigour for another year:

Blessing the bees in winter is a very ancient tradition:

I found the text for Skep in the Greek Anthology; it’s by Diodoras Zonas, in a translation by Alistair Elliot. I particularly like the invocation to the bees themselves, encouraging them while simultaneously discreetly removing their stores. The text is lettered on a large sheet of creamy-white handmade paper, with a pen I cut from a piece of Thames driftwood, and an ordinary wooden peg.

Thrive adapts a text by Apollinides (from a translation by Peter Whigham in the Greek Anthology) in a paper construction made with different handmade papers reflecting the layered cells in the hive. The lettering is set to evoke the movement of the bees among the cells, regular, orderly but individual, singing. This time the text avoids mentioning the inevitable theft and confines itself to powerful words of blessing and encouragement. Amen to that.

Returning to the theme of the pleasures of the season – what Burns refers to in his line:

And O for the joys of a long winter night

– February is also of course the perfect moment for one of the great celebrations of the year, the feast of St Valentine, ‘the start of true spring’. Love is the theme of much of my work:

This group of pots includes a large celebratory wine jug, based on the inscription (by Lorenzo di Medici):

Viva Baccho, e viv’ Amore

– roughly: Long live Bacchus, and long live love! Amen also to that.

These two wine jugs both celebrate love. On the left, John Clare’s

Tis womans love makes earth divine

and on the right, the encouraging proposition from Thomas Shadwell:

Come let us agree there are pleasures divine

In wine and in love, in love and in wine.

And behind them, Burns’ blessing on a large dish:

Thine be ilka Joy and Treasure,

Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure.

Night is a One Elephant book made from a single sheet of handmade paper (70cm x 50cm), torn and folded into a sequence of pages, with a deeply sexy text from Spenser’s Epithalamion:

The text is set onto the blank sheet of paper, and then painted over, to give that feathery, floating effect. After painting and folding, but before tearing, the sheet of paper looked like this:

These books can be shown like this, framed on the wall, or folded as books, so that they can be read and handled, turning the book as the text follows the cycle of the pages.

Another of my One Elephant books very appropriate for the time of year is Amo Ergo Sum. Kathleen Raine’s profound and simple poem was the starting point for this book, where the text flows outward from a steady, glowing core, source of everything good, all-powerful, wholly benign:

The text here is lettered over the painting; before the lettering, it looked like this:

And once lettered, but before tearing, like this (you can see the sequence of the pages flowing out with the text from the core):

And once folded and torn, like this:

This beautiful text was also the inspiration for one of my new River Vessels:

This tall bowl is full of midnight blue, with the text lettered inside and out:

Because I love, there is a river flowing all night long.

Most of the work on this page is for sale, prices ranging from £75 for the Womans love wine jug to £500 for Skep. My One Elephant books are usually £300 – £400 each, with small elephants about £150 each, including individual slipcase. Every piece is a one-off, unique and original signed artwork. To find out more about any of my work, please leave me a note in the comments box below, or click on contact details for other ways to get in touch.

A vision of a better future

December 11, 2010

All things – driftwood sculpture by Liz Mathews (text by Vita Sackville-West)

Vita Sackville-West was an optimist; in deep mid-war at Sissinghurst, when the gardens were covered in snow and the earth undiggable, she wrote

I will believe in April while I live.

A visionary, able to see her own country so clearly from the remote differentness of Persia (where she finished her great poem about the Weald The Land – essence of England), her imaginative empathy was strong. Writing of the beauty of overgrown gardens in the war, neglected perforce by owners called away to war duties, she imagined the imagination of the garden’s creator:

… the fond gardener wandered as a ghost

Only in thought…

Her ‘vision of a better future’ was not only for herself, her family and her privileged class. She had a concept of the interlinked, interdependent connectedness of our lives with the earth that enabled her to see human life, however central in importance to her, as part of an organic whole:

We are all things, the flower and the tree;

We are the distant landscape and the near.

We are the drought, we are the dew distilled;

The saturated land, the land athirst;

We are the day, the night, the light, the dark;

The waterdrop, the stream; the meadow and the lark.

We are indeed all in it together. This week’s events are yet another example of how much the Coalition’s cuts will affect all parts of our society – but how much more severely for those least able to afford it.

When I went to university in the 1980’s I was on a full grant, with my tuition fees paid – just like the generation of MPs who have brought this scheme forward – and I would otherwise not have been able to go to university at all. My degree (in Art History) did not lead directly to high-paid employment, nor did it give me a sound grounding in business studies, but it did equip me for life as an artist, in which I was soon self-supporting (and tax-paying), and have been ever since – and as an artist, I have been able to contribute considerably more to society than I possibly ever could have otherwise.

Austerity measures which ensure that poorer people are denied access to further education, like those that close theatres which provide more income in VAT receipts than the entire government expenditure on the arts – are so shortsighted and illogical as to be difficult to believe, let alone accept. And it’s hard to avoid the observation that the class imposing the hardship caused by the cuts will be the least affected, will inevitably suffer least. A better future for whom?

Rebecca West also had a vision of a better future that was also shaped by her understanding of a world in conflict , and of the essential inhumanity and unsustainability of capitalism; speaking of the destruction of popular artforms by commercial imperative she wrote:

Here was the threat of a world where everybody was needy, since the moneyed people had no art and the people with art had no money… The art of the gypsies commands no respect, for the capitalist system has discredited popular art, and only exploits virtuosos… Also the gypsies are poor, and the capitalist system despises people who don’t acquire goods.

(from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

But her observation resulted in a certainty about who was the most needy, between those who have art and no money, and those who have money and no art:

Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and tasted…

In other words, with art we can actually live our lives, experience them and understand them. Without art ‘we feel about ourselves as though we were reading a bad book’ – distanced, unengaged, unable to understand what’s going on, in constant need of distraction and oblivion – and unable somehow to put it down.

There is surely another way; we should be able to recognise the value of the things that make life worth living – education (by which I mean opening minds to the possibilities of knowledge and the gifts of humanity, giving powers of independent thought, rather than a brutalising training for worthless wage-slavery), adequate healthcare and equality of welfare and opportunity, the arts (so much a measure of humanity, marker of courage under oppression, of the fire of the human spirit) – and at the same time recognise those things that we don’t need, and really can’t afford anyway – like another Trident, or some new nuclear power stations.

Of course higher education and the arts are not more necessary to our society than the NHS, but like every prudent person, we should be paying off our overdraft by converting it to a loan with a sensible repayment timescale, and rethinking our purchasing priorities – retaining and investing in the things we do need, and not buying those that we don’t.

Vita Sackville-West believed that ‘Winter passes’, and in the Russian snow, Anna Akhmatova kept her poems in her head. Of course, the arts will survive, because they’re like that. But so many fewer people will have access to them, that our society will be living in a long cold winter.