Saturday, November 24, 2018


On arriving back at my old farm house in Central Finistere I wondered if during the drive south and the many stop offs to see friends along the way I had not somehow slipped into a deep slumber for several years. For how could such an explosion of growth within my once tidy garden be explained? I was sure I’d left it back in the spring clipped, pruned and weeded, with gravel paths raked and fruit garden dug over. I could just about make out the path but now a healthy mix of shrubs and brambles hindered my progress as I elbowed my way down to the washing line and the shed at the far end. I had assumed the summer drought would have slowed things but here in valley of the Ellez the rain during May followed by exceptional heat had produced prolific growth. In the furthest corner under the peach tree I noted the sad rotting evidence of what must have been a bumper harvest and wondered having told my immediate neighbours before I left to pick them why they hadn’t. It took a couple of hours to hack back the tangled mass of wisteria that had managed to climb the gable wall shrouding both the bedroom window and the external electric meter. Around the far side of the kitchen the evergreen climbing hydrangea had made it up onto the roof as well as spreading across the back door and bathroom window, while the hydrangea petiolaris had managed even greater heights reaching the chimney on the north gable. These I would have to tackle with a ladder over the following week but the main body of the garden was going to be a much longer project. I always assumed that shrubs would mean relatively low maintenance but without the simplicity of the bitter easterly sea breeze of the Outer Hebrides to perform its annual trimming the work here was going to be considerable. Six months growth in Brittany would equate to six year growth in Tolsta but in relaxing on the manicured garden front at least the hedgehogs have flourished.
During my journey south from Lewis I had slept in three different beds, two nights on a settee and the back of the van plus a further two on Sam’s narrow boat. Now it was time to light the fire, crawl into the old box bed, close the sliding door on the world outside and enjoy the familiarity of its firm comfort. That first night back in Brittany brought high winds and rain which revealed two leaks in the roof. One I could hardly miss as it trickled onto the slate work surface alongside the cooker and the other I heard dripping a steady rhythm on the bedroom floor. I chose to ignore both placing a bowl under each until the morning.  I dreamed of a world where the remnants of man’s ancient endeavours were barely discernable beneath aerial roots and dense verdant growth, a world where below in the dark depths sleeping beauty still slumbered and life was only possible in the uppermost moss cover branches of towering trees.
After a week of hacking back undergrowth and the accompanying bay scented bonfires the house had lost its fairy-tale abandoned look, and I had decided to rip out both fig trees and the wisteria. The sober granite fa├žade of this Breton farmhouse requires no floral embellishment. Finding a balance between artwork and the physical efforts of gardening is not always easy as the fine weather meant I should do as much as I could while the sun shined. Often by mid-afternoon I’d had enough, so stuffing apples in my pockets I would head off for a walk up the valley to call in on friends and return with a bag of blewit mushrooms and sweet chestnuts.
There are now nine houses in and around the hamlet of Lezele occupied by English people and none of them speak to me for fear I might turn out to be French. All so very different to that adventurous spirit of thirty years ago when the few intrepid English people who ventured across the channel made an effort to learn the language. We were seen as a novelty and the Bretons were fascinated to have a foreigner in the village. Back then many villages were deserted with the roof timbers of houses and sheds protruding from rampant ivy. Today as I walk through those same villages although restored and re-inhabited they seem quieter than ever, devoid of life as adults and children alike remain indoors glued firmly to their tablets no doubt. The Pied Piper of progress has removed more than just the rats.                     

Friday, October 26, 2018

Encounters with nature.

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods;
There is a rapture on the lonely shore;
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more……
(Lord Byron)
These words seem to imply that even Byron in his time had trouble with mankind and today they unsurprisingly reflect closely my own outlook. That strange longing to head off with those eight favourite discs to some deserted island. Most would imagine that to be an idyllic tropical paradise but perhaps with the frequency of hurricanes and rising sea levels something further from the equator and with a few hills to climb would be more in order.
 I remember vividly the woodland of my childhood where I could traverse ape like great distances swinging from tree to tree without touching the ground. Today I love nothing better than to leave the path alone and enter the world of discovery. It’s not unusual for me to return from a walk scratched and bleeding, or at least clothing torn from my exploits having taken the direct route up the rock face or ploughed my way through dense undergrowth and brambles. As a child in Oxfordshire I would try and follow the local hunt on foot but soon fell behind, however it was a total delight when I came face to face with the fox who had doubled back along the river. In Western Australia and parts of the Hebrides my great joy is to set off along some rocky coastline discovering hidden coves beyond the far side of the headland and to be observed by the beady eyes of dolphins or the bobbing head of a seal. Those unexpected encounters when nature accepts you back into a far greater society.

 At the far end of the beach at Point Ann in the Fitzgerald National Park, Western Australia I swam with a pod of around fifteen dolphins. On my return I took another dip and discovered a massive sting ray gliding around me in the shallows. Then on my way back up the beach I walked within a few feet of the largest tiger snake I’ve ever seen that had remained partially hidden in the vehicle tyre tracks. A great start to the day.
 I learnt one summer in France not to leave any cake out on the kitchen table if the door to the garden was open since the robin would be in for a feast. Over the winter I encouraged him with porridge oats and after a few weeks he was hopping onto my hand to eat. Now here in my nearly new studio I have a wren who has taken up residence between the outer larch cladding and the inner insulated walls. For me nature has always been a case of love and understanding while man remains a laughable mystery.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Jacob's chair of many colours.


A.R.Hope Moncieff described the Hebrides as having hardly tree to shiver, where docken, broom, or thistle may be the best substitute for a switch, and every drifting log or plank of shipwreck washed up from the Atlantic is treasured to make the rafters of a human nest. A woman brought to the mainland had no concept for trees but giant cabbages; and when a basket of tomatoes came on shore an old Highlander was excited to see “apples” for once in his life.
Even as a child sixty years ago on the Mull of Kintyre our neighbour had never seen runner beans or a real pineapple. Today things have changed and if it’s not available in the supermarkets or shops then you can order it on line. Those who were once human have been relabelled and branded as consumers and behave accordingly creating a hitherto unheard of refuse disposal industry. I do my level best not to support this industry and try to reuse as much as I can even within my own field of creativity. So scraps of tweed reused produce a bag of even smaller scraps. Often during the makeover of an old kitchen to an all-electric showpiece that would see little actual cooking the old wooden chairs that had done good service for decades must now be chucked for something more stylish in chrome and plastic. Combining my small scraps of tweed with one such old kitchen chair and in the best island tradition I produced a colourful and amusing alternative maybe more suited in retirement to that of life in a quiet bedroom.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Stripping the willow.

The willow has been stripped by recent high winds and the mantel of late autumn lays over the hillside, a glorious bronzing of heather and bracken. The sunrises shortly before eight gilding the underside of the low cloud coverage. This is the most important part of the day for if you miss the sunrise you risk not seeing it at all. Half an hour earlier I stepped out into a barely discernible dawn to pick a sprig of mint for my tea and shortly after Donald passed silent as a shadow walking the dog. The first thing to register is the wind direction, very important when it comes to taking out the ashes. Whether scattering those from the crematorium or the Rayburn a blow back is never pleasant. Stepping into the dawn I note the reflection in the porch window that sees my neighbour’s house floating impossibly above the sunrise.
As I look to the north I see a lone sea eagle making its dawn tour of inspection along the ridge pestered by two angry mewing buzzards, timing their attack together and causing the eagle to momentarily tumble and redress its vast wings. The close combat mobbing gives scale and indicates just how vast these birds are. 
Tea made and I move out to the sun filled studio glowing with the early morning tainting light, no good for painting just yet but it will soon lift and give me the require even defuse light for working. For now I content myself with my coastal view and try not to think about heading south before the month is out.

Allte na Muilne

The valley of the mills contains the burn that flows from a five square kilometre area of moorland between the high ground of Muirneag in the west to the beach of Traigh Mhor on the far north east coast of Lewis. Ten or more lochs reside within this collection area but the river can vary from a mid-summer trickle through an autumnal steady flow to a flash flood torrent at almost any time of year. Along the final kilometre beyond New Tolsta these churning peat stained waters fall rapidly through the valley towards the beach where it does salty battle with the incoming tide. For those who know how to read this landscape there are still the remains of two so called Nordic mills along this final stretch of the burn. This east facing seaward valley drops away from the northerly extremities of the New Tolsta crofts and is the view I look out on each day from my studio.
This valley could equally well be called the valley of rainbows for as I sit painting in my studio, outside all manner of intensely coloured rainbows form during days when the shallow autumnal sun highlights sharp showers arriving on blustery westerly winds. The Richard of York seductive arch tempting me in and daring me to render such fleeting marvels in paint.
Even Constable seemed only to include rainbows when they obtained the intensity of doubling as in his water colour of Stonehenge where two seemingly colourless rainbow forms dramatically dominate the sky.
 A slightly more colourful rendition appears in London from Hampstead, with a Double Rainbow, but here we see two very small sections of the arch within a shaft of sunlight.
 Only in Constables studio set-piece of Salisbury Cathedral from the meadows in 1831 does he attempt a high vault over the spire that is achieved by using the paint at the opposite end of impasto like water colour thinned to a soft veil. JMW Turner was in my mind the greatest master of dramatic lighting but even he seemed to side step the rainbow rather than fight battles in vain. 
   One of my own water colour attempts. 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Giving it the red carpet treatment.

Having just finished brushing down the stairs carpet I asked myself why I should find this particular part of house cleaning so satisfying. The answer was staring me in the face, (no pun intended) and it was the carpet itself that was the source of my pleasure. The deep poppy red short pile from the iron oxide end of the spectrum rather than a carmine or crimson cochineal red has been familiar to me throughout my life. It was there in dining room of my parents 1926 Lorimer arts and craft house on the Mull of Kintyre and when we moved south in 1961 it found a place in six out of the eight houses they lived in. It had been made in a narrow weave for stairs or corridors but later my father had joined it together with a backing of copydex and webbing. It failed to find a place in their final home but was rolled up safely in the barn where I rediscovered it. My croft house in Tolsta needed stairs carpet but these strips were too wide. Having looked at the price of new carpet I got out the Stanley knife trimming it to size and gluing the cut edge. It’s now been down for ten years and shows no sign of wear. The satisfaction I get is in seeing that my red carpet has already seen 90 years of service and will probably do as many years again. So what modern carpet could be expected to do such service? By equal good fortune I also have some of the old red velvet curtains from that Kintyre home and one pair now graces the parlour window. I still recall the Christmas of 1958 when these curtains were used to dramatic effect. We were ushered into the sitting room where the fire had been lit and the curtains across the bay window remained closed. My brother and I were told to go and draw the red curtains and there we discovered an entire farmyard of grey buildings with green roofs that my father and half-brother Bill had made in secret.  Another pair of these curtains I used to cover an easy chair in my bedroom, a chair that came originally from the croft house but was destined for the local skip. While my wonderfully over the top mahogany half tester bed (somebody else’s throw out) received a refurbished and relined pair of red velvet drapes. It is important not to confuse reuse with that of up-cycling. Reuse implies using some creative skill to bring back into service some tired and seemingly useless item, while up-cycling is the painting of old mahogany, oak, ash, chestnut, cherry, walnut, rosewood or elm furniture an off white, pink or lavender in the hopes that it will look less conspicuous alongside the flat-pack items.       

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Crewelwork embroidered mirror.

The inspiration for a crewel work embroidered mirror came from a fine 17th century fragment of bed hanging that I discovered behind later coverings on a Victorian fourfold screen. The embroidery takes the form of a tree of life with wonderfully exotic flowers and leaves and now forms the central part of my mass hung stair well display. Having been shut away from the light for many years the colours remain vivid and when comparing this to another fabulous fragment of similar size in the V&A museum I preferred mine.  During last winter’s trip to Western Australia I spent a couple of days working out the design. Some years ago I had discovered out in the loft space of my father's barn a 17th century carved pine frame that would now be perfect size wise as well as date wise for the mirror. The needlework was to be a 12cm strip between the outer frame and the finer new inner frame.
 I had discovered on scraping back the layers of paint that the original colour of the outer carved frame had been black and decided that would be ideal as a clean contrast to the background linen. The stitching work began on my arrival back in Brittany and continued during the journey north to the Isle of Lewis. As with all these stitching project it is simply a question of time and now five months on and the stitching finished, all the elements have fallen into place and the mirror is complete, another (price on request) item to be shown throughout September 2019 in a major exhibition of my work over the past quarter of a century at An Lanntair, the Stornoway art centre.