Posts Tagged ‘Vita Sackville West’

Eight artist’s books by Liz Mathews

February 18, 2020

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Paper Wings

55 love poems by Maureen Duffy set to paper by Liz Mathews

A contemporary illuminated manuscript in the form of a double-sided concertina book, setting 55 love poems by Maureen Duffy with one poem to each page of handmade paper (30cm x 42cm). The dazzling variety of the poems, and their recurring themes and motifs proved inspirational for the use of vibrant and diverse materials and tools in making the book. Materials include handmade papers, acrylics and watercolours mixed with honey, wine, blood, snow-melt and rain; lettered with diverse tools including reed pen, Japanese brush, driftwood stick, clothes-peg and swan’s feather quill. The book was originally exhibited (before construction) as an installation flying overhead in the London gallery of Enitharmon Press in 2014.

Book measurements: 31cm x 22cm x 7.5cm closed: opens to 11.5m long x 31 cm high. (Portfolio slipcase 33cm x 23cm x 8.5)

One-off original in slip-case £4000

(A half-size facsimile of this book copy – 1 in a special facsimile edition of 5 – is currently on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library, in a new exhibition of the work of 17 contemporary book artists – all women.)

 

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Tatter’d colours

Text by Anne Finch from The Soldier’s Death (17th century)

Eight flag-pages made from French linen canvas, bound with a continuous length of linen bookbinding tape, to be read as a book or hung in the form of regimental colours. I came across this poem by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, in AP Wavell’s Other Men’s Flowers (Jonathan Cape 1944), and found its appalled pacifist-Jacobite overtones both astonishing and inspiring within the Field-Marshall’s collection of favourite poems, known to him by heart. I too am a pacifist (probably also an ‘appalled pacifist-Jacobite’ in fact), and much of my work has been concerned with conflict, and, like this poem, with the effects of war on the individual. (For more on this, see The Dunkirk Project, and my artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk.)

Materials include linen thread and bookbinding tape, acrylic ink and paints, charcoal, soot, ash, chalk, clay slip, mud, tea and acid-free matt varnish, the text lettered with a driftwood stick and large Japanese brush. Contained in a kitbag/cover made from English cotton duck, linen thread and tape, and acrylic paints, with materials and instructions for hanging and restoring to book form lettered on the flap of the kitbag case.

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Tatter’d colours (artist’s book by Liz Mathews) exhibited at The Forum, Norwich, and photographed by Gary Florance

‘To hang Tatter’d Colours, remove book from kitbag cover and unroll to flat book form. Unthread the long end of the tape binding the pages at top left, and hang from hemp ropes or beams in diagonal sequence as illustrated on the kitbag flap, fixing each flag with twine through the loops at the top. To rebind into book form, fold pages into sequence, aligning top edges with care, and thread the long tape back through the top left loops in the order indicated on the kitbag flap.’

Measurements: each page 70cm high x 40cm wide, book opened to hand extends up to 4m including the interval tape linking the flag-pages. Kitbag measures 47cm x 14cm x 11cm

One-off original  £1000

Tatter'd colours by Liz Mathews (detail of kitbag/cover)

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Sir Orfeo

Text by Maureen Duffy from her epic poem Sir Orfeo (published in Past Present, Pottery Press 2018)

Artist’s book made from a single huge sheet of handmade paper. The paper is painted, lettered, folded and torn into 12 double pages, but still retains its ability to be restored to the whole image – in keeping with the text, a contemporary retelling of the Orpheus story in an English medieval romance about a king who loses his queen and his position and identity, almost his life, and then by great good fortune and his own goodness, regains everything. This restoration to wholeness is echoed by the form of the book.

The whole sheet is lettered with Sir Orfeo’s name; the large letters then form the framework of the design for the individual pages, where the story is told and reflected in a semi-abstract design of watercolour and handmade acrylic inks. This book was originally shown as the stage backcloth to the first public performance of this bardic poem by the poet, accompanied by jazz pianist and composer Dorian Ford and world singer Vimala Rowe, performing Dorian’s original settings of words from the text (at Burgh House in Hampstead, London, 2017). After the performance, the backcloth was folded into the form of the book, but can easily be restored to the single sheet. I am particularly interested in this tension between duality and integrity of form in my books, especially where it reflects some aspect of the text itself.

Measurements: whole sheet of paper 200cm x 70cm high, book closed 25cm x 28cm x 2.5cm. Contained in portfolio slipcase made from handmade papers 33cm x 29cm x 3cm

One-off original £800

 


 

Singing the Year (text by Vita Sackville-West)

Singing the Year

Lines from Vita Sackville-West’s English epic poem The Land.

In the form of a double-sided concertina book with 12 pages, one page for each month, Singing the Year is constructed so that the December page can be attached to January, and the year flows in a seamless cycle, repeating and renewing, like ‘patterns on a scroll unwinding’. I have kept the design simple to allow the vibrant colours, sounds, sights and atmosphere of the text describing the organic seasonal cycle to speak for themselves.

Materials include various handmade papers, watercolours and handmade acrylic inks, acid-free adhesive, and the book is lettered with driftwood sticks and a wooden clothes-peg. In the ‘May’ page shown below, the blue beehives are made with little stacks of paper, the swarm with a scrap of russet gold paper attached to the page with honey mixed into the acid-free adhesive, and the warm golden colour of the lettering also has honey mixed into the paint, lettered with a little wicker stick.

Each page 42cm x 30cm (approx), opening to a circle with maximum diameter of about 5 metres

One-off original in slip-case  £1200

May page from Singing the Year (text by Vita Sackville-West)

February page from Singing the Year (text by Vita Sackville-West)

 


 

Version 2

The Seasons Alter

Text from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the 1623 First Folio version, with original spellings and renderings.

This book is made from a single sheet of handmade paper 52cm x 72cm, painted, lettered, folded and torn into a sequence of pages which draw the text continuously across both sides of the paper, creating a double-sided painting which folds to a book with 24 pages in sequence. The text is from Titania’s prescient Act 1 speech in which she warns of climate chaos and the dissolution of the cosmic order as a consequence of conflict, exploitation and reckless violation of the natural world. The colours and brushwork reflect the flowing sequence of the text and present the confusion of the seasons swirling to an inescapable vortex, mixing the gentle, traditional and predictable characteristics of each season with violent disruption and discord.

Materials include handmade paper and acrylic paints mixed with mud, rainwater, icicle-melt, so that the weather has a material presence in the work; it was air-dried in winter sunlight, and first shown in an exhibition in Norwich Millennium Library. In slip-case made with the same materials.

Measurements: double-sided single sheet of handmade paper 72cm x 52cm

One off original £1200

 

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Swallows on the Thames (text by Matthew Arnold)

Swallows on the Thames

Lines by Matthew Arnold from The Scholar Gypsy

Another book made from a single sheet of paper, setting Arnold’s lines in a painting made with acrylic paints mixed with water from the Thames, and lettered with a Thames driftwood stick. The single sheet is made up of 12 pages that flow across the sheet ‘as the ox ploughs’, in a continuous unending sequence, and fold down to a book 20cm x 20cm x 1cm (approx), and the work can be read page-by-page as a book, or framed for display on the wall. This dual nature can perhaps reflect an imaginative idealisation of a mid-summer reverie, an afternoon’s shady lazing on the river in its country-mode, which contrasts strongly with its urban manifestation in the following book, Strand of the Thames.

Measurements: sheet opens to 72cm x 52cm, and the closed book is 20cm x 20cm x 1cm (approx). Contained in portfolio slip-case made with the same materials.

One-off original £700

Swallows on the Thames (page 5)

Swallows on the Thames (page 6)

Swallows on the Thames (detail) text by Matthew Arnold

 


 

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Strand of the Thames

Text by Virginia Woolf, from her Diary (1939)

Artist’s book in the form of a 1930’s photograph album: a setting of Virginia Woolf’s diary record of a Thames-side walk, set in 15 grisaille watercolours of the actual sites where she’s walking; watercolour paint mixed with Thames water and the text lettered with a Thames driftwood stick. This book lent itself particularly well to a small edition; I took monochrome photos of the watercolours for each page, and constructed each volume for the edition in the same way as the original/prototype, as a concertina photo album on black handmade paper, fixing the photos in with acid-free photo corners. (All materials in both original and edition acid-free.)

The one-off original is now in the permanent collection of the British Library.

Measurements: original 42cm x 31cm x 5cm (approx); limited edition 15cm x 12cm x 1.5cm

Signed and numbered limited edition (of 20) £40

Read more about this book on the British Library’s blog in a guest article by me: Virginia Woolf’s Haunted Walk

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Rag – Luideag

Text by Ruaraidh MacThomas/ Derick Thomson; book by Liz Mathews

I was inspired to set this extraordinary poem (in the original Gaelic as well as the poet’s own translation to Scots English) by the moving poignance of the idea, and by how surely the words describe the fragility of the language, surviving shredded and scattered, clinging to sharp rocky headlands, used only by ‘ragged children’, exposed to the wind and weather, sounding with the sea in its voice.

I set the lines in both languages, one like a shadow or reflection of the other, on 8 clay pages, scraps torn from a single sheet of stoneware clay, the words scratched into the surface of the clay, so that they are ‘written on the rocks’. The hard sharpness of the fired clay shards reflect both the harshness and fragility of the poem’s atmosphere and meaning.  The clay pages are tacked with linen thread to a rough cotton cloth, ripped and wind-torn to a ragged softness. The scruffy cloth is distressed with a mixture of paint, charcoal and soot, strong tea and Scotch whisky, and finished with an acid-free sealant. Contrasting in texture with the stony clay, it wraps the shard/pages to protect them when the wall-hanging is folded down to a book. The closed book is contained in a box made from recycled cardboard and handmade papers, tied with a rough cotton and linen strap, like an old cardboard suitcase.

Measurements; box 30cm x 16cm x 13cm; book opened to wall hanging approx 120cm x 70cm at widest

One-off original  £1600

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Liz Mathews with young visitors to turnthepage artists’ book fair, Norwich

 

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.