Posts Tagged ‘winter pleasures’

In the cauld blast

January 25, 2012

Burns’ Night is to many of us the great winter feast, an occasion to celebrate not only the life and works of the Immortal Bard, but to reinforce a worldwide sense of community embodied in his songs and poetry.  For the last few years I’ve been making a series of artist’s books as contemporary illuminated manuscripts, taking as a theme the turning year and the dance of the seasons, and Burns’ poetry has been a great inspiration.

Seasons Dancing is a concertina book that opens out to form a standing circle, a continuous double-sided ring of words nearly 5 metres in circumference, with a flowing, lilting circle of lines from Burns’ poems evoking each month page by page and joined at the turn of the year, flowing onward like a sound wavelength, following the cycle of the year – regular, repeating, ever new; it folds down to a manageable largish book.

Burns’ Year: Love and Freedom is in the form of four books, one for each season.

Each of the four books is made from a single sheet of handmade paper (at 2 metres x 80cm, some of the largest handmade paper in the world, made in India by Khadi Papers), torn and folded into a sequence of pages, but readily reformed to its whole state, unfolded and opened out to spread before you this sacred space open to all, like a magic carpet that transports you to another time and place, but which you can also fold up and carry about with you – the essence of ‘book’, in fact.

In the four books that make up Love & Freedom: Burns’ Year, some of Burns’ ideas about inequality, oppression and dispossession (‘how things are shar’d’), his profound sense of home and exile, and his awareness of the solace of love are bought together by means of his characteristic association of radical politics and the consolations of Nature (‘free alike to all’).

Themes of fragmentation, dispersal and restoration/reconstruction are present not only within the texts and the form of the books, but also within the materials and making processes: like the threads of a woven plaid, the flocculating molecules of the clay body, the fragments and scraps of paper pulp reform to a unity in the great sheet; like the bricks in a wall, or the parts of a musical score, the individual elements are reconstructed to wholeness.

Each book follows on from the one before, as do the seasons. In Winter Wild, the dispersal of autumn hardens into a solid state, in a setting of Burns’ poem O, wert Thou in the Cauld Blast, mapped and contained by the plaid (based on the Lennox tartan, to reference the tune for which Burns wrote this song, Lenox love to Blantyre). The fragments come together and resolve to a paradoxical equilibrium, the icy wind countered by the protecting plaid – a rather slight defence, we may feel, but time- honoured.  Here is the book, page by page:

As you’ll have seen, I’ve worked with fine thin colours, an icy silver grey and some delicate threads of wintry sunlight, the small marks defining the threads of the plaid made with the same driftwood twig that I used for the lettering. I’ve aimed to use the colours to reflect and respond to the colour and mood of each line, each word of the text, as one would in setting a text to music. To balance the different colours of the text both phrase by phrase and within the overall whole image is very important for how the book works in its dual character.

The colour palette of the four books is essentially the same, concentrated or diffused in tone according to the season’s particular light, and with a characteristic hue added for each season: silvery grey for winter, golden yellow for spring, azure for summer and russet for autumn. This colour is highlighted on the individual slipcase for each book, with its linen draw-tabs, and brought together in the box which houses the four books.

I’ll be describing each book in detail as the seasons turn throughout this year, as well as showing some more pages of the months from Seasons Dancing.

Both Seasons Dancing and Love & Freedom: Burns’ Year are now part of the National Library of Scotland‘s collection of artists’ books.

River songs in winter

December 1, 2011

I love the image of John Clare’s wassail singer telling her winter tale; she’s one of  many women whose songs, poems and stories I’m celebrating this season in my new exhibition, River songs in winter, at Woolfson & Tay in Bermondsey Square, near Tower Bridge. In this gallery within a bookshop beside the river, surrounded by books and words and volumes and images, I’ve brought together a collection of river songs from the water’s edge, a winter’s tale of the riverbank.


The Thames is my Ur-river.  Most of my life I’ve lived beside it: as a child in the 60’s playing on the toxic concrete shores at Long Reach, and in my teens totally immersed in the green leafy stretches further upriver. My partner the writer Frances Bingham is a lifelong Londoner, and after university we came straight back to London to start our life and work together, setting up our first studio here in 1986.

Later, when we came home again to London after living for a while by the sea, Frances and I stood together on the winter embankment watching a great ship slowly setting off downriver, and felt the tidal force of the river running through our life as it runs through our city.  For many years now the most homelike stretch of the Thames for us has been the reach from Waterloo Bridge down to Greenwich, and the river still retains its tidal tug; we hear the river’s voice; we read the river’s words.

Rather as a composer sets poetry to music, I work with fragments of poetry or a flow of words that to me express the essential form and volume of the individual work I’m making, whether it’s a vessel or an artist’s book or a driftwood sculpture. This exhibition includes all three, juxtaposed so that the relationship between the forms is evident:

My work is about containment and connection: the natural materials formed and shaped by water and the cosmic transformation of the fire re-enact the elemental processes of nature that form the earth and our own bodies.

Working with text is a way to examine how the light shows through, how the materials and process are given life and meaning by thought and words.  Our artists’ film Riversoup continues this balancing act of text and form with a sequence of still images about constant movement reflecting a poetic text that follows the journey of the tidal Thames from the Pool of London to the sea, and back again.

I always enjoy site-specific exhibitions, where the work relates closely to the showing environment, and the gallery at Woolfson & Tay is a beautiful bookish space, with incidentally a lovely cafe, so that you can sit to contemplate the work in warmth and comfort.

River songs in winter is on from 29th November, throughout December until 8th January 2012, open daily except over Christmas. Please see W&T’s website for opening times and details. It’s a selling show, so you can buy off-the-wall to take away immediately, and as each artwork is a signed original one-off, the show will be changing throughout the month as sold work is replaced.

Swallows on the Thames

July 5, 2011

The swallows are here, and though the weather’s uncertain, at least it’s real summer. John Clare’s birthday falls in July, and we like to celebrate with dinner outside, eating from the dinner service with inscriptions from his Shepherds Calendar. The July bowl shows Clare’s characteristic quirky spelling and punctuation, and is decorated with jasmine, honeysuckle, evening primrose and peas, in honour of a fragrant evening in the garden.

Most summer evenings when we sit out, we’re treated to a dazzling display of aeronautics from our local swifts, and one of the great joys of hanging out by the summer river has always been the swallows doing their thing.

Swallows on the Thames is a one-elephant book, made from a single sheet of handmade paper, painted, torn and folded into a sequence of pages. The whole sheet looks like this:

and the beautiful cool summery text by Matthew Arnold winds with the flow of the river:

In my boat I lie,

Moor’d to the cool bank in the summer heats,

‘Mid wide grass meadows which the sunshine fills

Where black-winged swallows haunt the glittering Thames

I’ll be showing this artist’s book in an exhibition this winter in a riverside gallery in London, to remind us of the summer river in those December days. More details of this exhibition next month, when I’ll also be showing some more of my current series of contemporary illuminated manuscripts on the theme of the dance of the seasons and the passing year.

If you’d like more information 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.

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.

The downs in snow (and the city too)

December 17, 2010

Another snowy post, because I can’t resist it. Late this morning we were waiting for a bus at the bottom of Highgate Hill when the snow suddenly started. Five minutes later it was already 3″ deep and blizzarding. I’ve never seen snow fall and settle so fast; as we walked we were snowmen almost immediately, and the streets and trees and houses instantly took on that wonderful black and white look (mostly white) – and then the sun came out and it was an Alpine scene in north London.

Virginia Woolf also couldn’t resist describing the beauty of the downs in snow again in her diary of January 1941 (as she did almost every year), and her evocative, understated text inspired this one elephant book, made from a single sheet of paper torn and folded to form the sequence of pages. The composition of the painted whole sheet reflects the folded squares of the paper, as well as the graphic layout of the fields:

With the pages torn, folded, and opened out, Frost looks like this:

As you can see, the text starts in the middle, to allow for the sweep of the downs’ skyline in the right place at the end of the sequence.

For more information about my one elephant books, or any of my work, please leave me a note in the comment box below, or click on contact details for other ways to get in touch.