Monday, February 18, 2019

THE VILLAGE WELL.



From left to right; Madame Salaun, Marrie L’hours, Niroko Rosineux, Loisique, Madame Sisan, Tom Hickman, Monsieur Le Lay, Monsieur Lostanlen, Pierre Louis Cleran plus Din Din the collie dog.
While browsing through some press cuttings I came across this one from the late nineties concerning the restoration of our village well. What struck me first was how naturally the group divided into men and women, without the slightest prompting from the journalist. It has to be said that although there are three who are married none of them appear with their respective partner. During an interval of twenty three years all but three of those villagers remain including myself.  All the men are dead. Monsieur Le Lay a devout man died on the church doorstep having attended morning mass while Monsieur Lostanlen after a lifelong battle eventually succumbed to the demon drink. It was extra ordinary to think he’d lasted so long having never managed to secure an employment other than to drink his way through the fortnightly deliver that arrived on alternate Thursdays by lorry. As a local resistance leader during the war Pierre Louis was considered the unofficial mayor of the village and as such was first in line for the fish van that also called on Thursdays. My mind slipped easily back to that damp afternoon where for the first time I felt accepted in village and was impressed by the fact that out of the nine houses then occupied in the village all but one had its representative in the photo.
The old slate front was all that had been partially visible to indicate that buried in the earth bank was a well, and it irritated me that it had at some point been put back upside down. One summer I noticed that a hole had appeared above the slate and on investigation I discovered the old planks covering the well had rotted making it potentially very dangerous for any inquisitive children. Before I made any attempt to restore the well I had first to prove that it was the village well and as such belonged to everyone. Monsieur Lostanlen was sure it belonged to him as it abutted his father in-law’s old house however consulting the 1836 maps it showed the well pre-existing outside the limits of the later house. The well is situated half way between the two oldest houses in the village and on the same spring line as two other later wells. Our first job was to empty the well and during a period of rare sobriety Monsieur Lostanlen loaned his pump. The next step was to climb down the well using the foot holds conveniently provided by the original constructors. I am more comfortable climbing above ground but at six meters down I found only one lump of wood and surprisingly little mud. The spring source was easily identifiable already clear and strong in the front right hand corner. The large arched cut granite was most likely a recuperation from Manoir de Keryvon and would have been one of a pair that served as a well head being placed flat. However since now only a single stone had been reused I felt it more appropriate to raise it vertically so as to form a well entrance. Pierre Louis was pleased to have found and adapted an old winder and the required length of chain. The well would have probably been originally covered by a single massive slate but since that was no longer at hand I made do with a selection of smaller rustic slates, surmounting them with a line of interlocking lignolets slates ornamented with a date of 1692 the same age as my own house. The only thing missing now was the original granite trough that had been removed by Monsieur Lostanlen’s father in-law. Since mains water had arrived the well remained unused and so when Monsieur Jaffrey removed it when enlarging the entrance to his house nobody complained, but now his son in-law was more than happy that it be returned to its original emplacement and could regain its original purpose of holding water rather than soil and some annual bedding plants.
On the death of her husband Madame Lostanlen was not slow in getting one of the local farmer to take back the trough and despite a visit from Plouye mayor plus a professional arbitrator the forlorn trough remains stranded and empty in the centre of her lawn. So the family tradition of steeling the trough is maintained. Her father in-law’s house has since been sold and she made sure that the notaire included the well in the sale so that now the present owner retired from the south of France thinks the well is his. Such is life but it won’t stop me parking my van alongside to wash it.

         

Monday, February 4, 2019

FROM MY WINDOW



The first trace of morning arrives, filtered through cobwebs behind the oak shutters and despite the door of the lit clos being firmly shut the feeble light is determined to welcome me into a calm winter’s day. Through the fanned fretwork of that door I detect the vague forms that resemble the sun’s rays and know it’s time to rise and shine. I fumble for the switch and the harsh lamplight floods the black interior of the six by four double panelled. My box bed is more akin to sleeping within an old wooden coffer and if you’ve never tried resting your weary bone with wood then I recommend you try at least once before the coffin arrives. It would seem a shame to have missed the conscious experience.
 For almost a month I stopped winding the clocks and returned to daylight hours as far as dawn rising. Although the evenings are noticeably drawing out, the mornings seem to persist in a sluggish grey awakening. Now with the old long-case clock once again ticking I am dragged from the fruitless dreams of shallow slumber by the rowdy bashing out of the hour.
Having recently discovered that I am of pensionable age there followed a few days of sluggish retirement redundancy blues and a feeling of no real urgency to do anything. This was followed up smartly by a degree of discomfort in that for the first time in my life I was being paid for doing nothing. Should I think about doing some voluntary work, was I truly old enough to help out at the local charity shop?  Then my own list of things to do rather quashed that idea. I might be slightly richer in monitory terms but with each day that passed I was becoming time poor, so slide open the lit clos door, no time to linger with the trialling of coffins, get up and get on with the day. First ritual job is to empty the ash along with any success of last night’s mouse trap and then relight the fire followed by a full pot of green tea while I consider whether to glue more feathers or continuing where I left off with last night’s stitching. I find mornings are a case of keep calm and carry on, ease into the day preferably in silence, there will always be plenty of time to catch up on the rotating or perhaps rotting round of world news. Last night the high winds roar within the chimney and rattled the door but here within the confines of thick granite walls my one room existence stays warm. On gusty mornings skeletal trees flail wildly while the neighbour’s cockerel leads his four hens to their favoured scratching spot beneath in the leaf litter. The blue winter iris huddle in the lea of the low wall and snowdrops in full flower seem strangely taller as we head into February. Yesterday a confused peacock butterfly awoke and fluttered briefly in the afternoon sun and I noted that a second cut of rhubarb may be possible in the coming days.
Beyond the dawn of the morning comes still silent Sunday, even the birds seem to have made their chorus brief. The sun slips low across a heavy mist that sits dank within the valley of the river Ellez. Beneath the pin oak lay soft moss covered pebbles and unfrozen puddled water, the trunk vertically defining westward with a liberal covering of silver green lichen. Standing waste high in the abandoned neighbouring garden golden grasses static and yet not frozen. Within, shutters open and table as yet uncluttered, the old clock bashes out the noisy hour signalling time for coffee and decisions; inside or out, studio or garden, framing or feathers? 
        

Monday, January 28, 2019

FINDING A FLOOR STANDING SLATE FRAME.



 For several years now I’ve been searching for a floor standing fully adjustable slate frame and although these are readily available the modern version is nowhere near as good as those of the 19th century. So imagine my delight when in the local depot vente I discovered a fine fruitwood example in perfect working order for only 40 euros. They had no idea what the contraption was or just how useful it would be to me. The one big advantage with a floor stand support is that both hands are free to work which theoretically speeds up the process of embroidery. In addition this 120 year old example had split hinged rails with gripping pins that allowed for quick assembly as well as rolling on if required for longer pieces. I’m in the process of making a William Morris influenced embroidered bag for a fine carved wooden hinged support that has been kicking about for ages on my to do list.  The old curtain material dates from the early part of the 20th century and I remember them from my childhood days when mother was either taking them up or letting them down depending on what height the windows of our latest house were. I felt only a slight guilt when cutting a section off but I needed no more curtains and this fine fabric could also do well for upholstery or cushion backing. Nothing will be wasted, not if I can help it although as I folded the remainder back into the chest I did wonder just how long it would be before they saw the light of day again.           

PAINTING OVER GOD


The first and only painting my father bought from me was a rather uncomfortable looking female nude study. I never understood just what attracted him to that image beyond the fact that his son had painted it. It soon became a point of embarrassment between us and like most mistakes ended up in the downstairs toilet. Some years later and following a reasonably successful still life exhibition I suggested that I paint over the nude and with a look of relief he agreed. I made no special preparation other than turning the image upside-down and painted this second oil directly over the first. The resulting freely painted gourds and brass rimmed wooden bowl was a great improvement and I enjoyed the fact that I could still make out the partial ghost image of the first painting. 
So enjoyable was the experience that I repeated the process of painting over another nude study with a Breton scene of a girl collecting water form a well. Here again the traces of the nude model seated contra jour before a large window still remained ghostly visible to my eye at least within the granite gable wall of the farmhouse but to the purchaser all appeared fine. When reusing canvases in this way I enjoy the process of painting through the confusion that often results in capturing a second image and the incidental nature of that under paint can at times provide interesting texture.
Only once have I had an inquiry to buy a painting that had already disappeared beneath a second or even third layer so on the whole this method of working has provided more sales than it has lost.
There are occasions when a partial repaint is required to correct a composition and this worked particularly well when transporting my father’s prize winning pig from inside the sty to outside in the field with a view of the old barn at Quarry farm near Poulton in Gloucestershire.
 While the entire background was repainted the Wessex saddleback pig remained untouched. A similar process was required when recently I converted a large canvas of cattle within a Breton landscape into a South Uist view where only four out of the seven cows were retained.    
Almost a quarter of a century ago shortly after the old presbytery in Plouye had been emptied I discovered in a local bracante the front panel of the altar covering from the chapel of St Salomon which depicted a rather naïve rendition of God, resplendent with red cape, triple tiered trinity crown and clutching an orb between three raptor like fingers. During the subsequent restoration of the chapel it was not deemed necessary to incorporate this panel and so it has remained forgotten in my attic. So the other day while preparing a couple of old door panels for painting I felt it also was time to paint over God, replacing him with something suitably naïve but perhaps a little more sophisticated in its execution. While I wanted the subject matter to be more decorative I also needed it to be less ecclesiastical and so I settled on an architectural façade.
A few years ago a friend lent me a rather distressing photographic book on demolished building of Scotland throughout the 20th century. I selected the burnt out ruined remains of the mid-18th century Ward House in Aberdeenshire as the perfect subject matter for the panel repaint. I wanted a complete house portrait that would fit the landscape aspect of the panel but also to include some period people to add interest and scale. While some primitive folk art painting can be very simple and effective this would require a more pain staking detailed approach. I find myself slipping back more than half a century to my early days at Tregony School in Cornwall and a time when my drawing and painting remained unsophisticated, still retained a certain level of naivety.                    

Thursday, January 10, 2019

TULIPS


Tulips
1 Schoon Solffer 2 Lawrence’s Polyphemus 3 Rose Bacchus 4 Strong’s King
5 Beste Bruyne 6 Tulipa lutea lituris aureis 7 T. orphanidea 8 Speramondi
9Semper Augustus 10 Nazende al 11 Furuzende 12 Agate Maurine.
The wild tulips are native to the Mediterranean regions, Asia Minor and the Caucasus and extend as far east as China. The finest of these species are found around Bokhara and in Turkestan. It is generally considered to have been introduced here from Turkey during the mid-16th century. The German collector Graeber who worked for the Dutch nursery firm of van Tubergen wrote in the Botanical Magazine of Tulia lanata in the Asiatic Soviet Russia, “Every ravine in the red sandstone slopes reveals new forms which break the monotony of the leathery leaved pistachio and almond scrub. From the first days of spring there sprout here anemones, crocuses, irises, tulips, fritillaries and long shafted eremuruses.”
It puts me in mind of springtime in Tolsta, the crofts carpeted in orchids and on the machair and dunes the scent of primroses.
 Having purchased an illustrated volume on tulips from the Bathesda charity shop for 50p I was inspired to paint a few specimens that illustrate the diversity the family tulipa encompass. While flowers attract insect life to aid in the method of reproduction so they also lift our spirits. We enjoy both giving and receiving flowers and the youngest of children without bidding would pick a bunch of wild flowers for mother. I remember a friend telling me she was so overwhelmed with the carpets of daffodils on the outskirts of Bath that she didn’t think at all before stopping and picking a bunch. She was brought back to reality with a jolt when a passer-by hurled some verbal abuse her way and threatened to call the police. Today’s bouquet of exotic blooms can be purchased throughout the year at any filling station or supermarket, carefully chosen foliage texture setting off the vibrant flowers full of sadly odourless colour. There are flowers for every occasion with Lily of the valley still being given to customers on May 1st. Weddings demand flowers but one has to specify no flowers at a funeral if you don’t want a repetition of the Lady Di syndrome. In France chrysanthemums are reserved for the dead and while arum lilies associated with funerals in England it is common to see them in a French bride’s corsage. Roses are inexplicably linked to love and war while the blood red of poppies are reserved for remembrance. The extra ordinary value put on tulips in the 16th century meant they were seen as a symbol of wealth that in the inevitable crash was once again observed in the late 20th century equivalent of bursting of the dot com bubble.       




Birds of a feather


This time last year I was enjoying the warmth of Western Australia and the hospitality of friends, recovering from the usual round of seasonal party gatherings and looking forward to a walk about adventure in the National Parks of Cape Le Grand and Fitzgerald. This also proved to be a lucrative time as far as collecting feathers in the form of road kill. I hasten to add that I was borrowing the old Discovery Land Rover solely for transport and not as a method of destroying feathered wildlife. Given the speed of vehicles these days it is hardly surprising that casualties on the roads are inevitable but when I find myself at the side of the highway recovering some innocent victim to pluck I do take time to thank them for allowing me to take some of their feathers for my artwork. 
Exporting feathers from Australia is not a problem but getting them back in most definitely is. When in the spring of 2013 I held an exhibition of these feather bird pictures in Perth WA I brought them in unframed and decided to take the risk of not declaring them to customs. They were well wrapped into a sealed sketch pad and I breathed a sigh of relief when the nice Golden Labrador sniffed my back pack and moved on. That time all the work had been completed in Brittany but this time I decided to complete the botanical water colour part while in Australia. Now back in Brittany I am busy with the gluing of feathers and trying to keep warm in the studio during the rather non-physical process. As with all of my art I try to push myself to the limits of my capability, which in the case of this exacting work leads to ever more complexity and precision. The birds are entirely of my own Hickmanii imagination and bare only passing resemblance to any living species. When mounted and framed they will feature as another wall of exhibits in the “All that I do” exhibition at An Lanntair, Stornoway Arts Centre this coming September. 
By reusing natures detritus to form works of art there is also a true sense of recycling and while in no way can this be regarded as up-cycling in shape or form they do possess more decorative charm than their dearly departed. The finished framed pictures will be for sale from £250 to £400 each.     

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

A new herd of folk art sheep coming onto the market in 2019.



It was during the winter of 2014/15 when out in Western Australia that I stitched the first small flock of sheep on tweed. Between the soaking windswept crofts of Lewis and the parched stubble outback of south west Australia there would seem to be no possible connection and yet sheep manage to thrive in these most extremes of climate. In the extreme heat of the day and in what seem like impossibly dry conditions sheep gather beneath a lonesome gum tree with heads bowed close to the ground, while out on the Hebrides the Scottish black face sit tight up against whatever shelter they can find as the prevailing north westerly storms bring lashing rain. The oldest recorded sheep in the world was in Australia and at 23 years of age it died of heat stroke. On the Isle of Lewis in the village of New Tolsta John A Maciver discovered one of his sheep bore an ear tag which indicated it was 24 years old. The ewe had gone missing out on the moors for several years and had become wild and very weary of humans. She was accepted back into the fold still with a good set of teeth but during handling lost one of her rather fragile horns. During a violent winters storm while grazing near the cliff edge she was blown into the sea which seemed as fitting an end as heat stroke was in Australia.
I started stitching on the long haul flight to WA and completed a small flock during my three month stay and the reaction from friends was so positive that I was encouraged to frame them up for sale.
During an exhibition in 2017 in the Victoria Gallery in Bath the small flock of twelve all sold and since then these folk art textile images have continued to sell. As with all forms of artwork each unique rendition continues to evolve with additions of flowers, crofts houses, light houses, ships and even wind turbines. The images have also become more complex with more than one sheep or a lamb and ewe and with the additional work comes an increase in price. Down south in galleries they were retailing framed at £265 while from my studio I can sell them without commission for £185.
Next year’s flock of sheep on tweed are taking shape. It is rare for me to follow a line of creative production for long but in the case of the sheep on tweed they have proven amusing as well as saleable.
 Being stitched entirely by hand means each sheep is unique and while I give little thought to the complexity of any particular image I am now compelled to start pricing them on an individual basis which takes account of the hours entailed in their production. Up to now they have been set at a uniform £185 each but next year I expect there will be some around £250 plus. Time is always a sensitive point when dealing with labour intensive work and while I consider myself to be a more than competent embroiderer I am not prepared to debase that work simply to produce a more affordable object or to accept less than the minimum hourly rate. Each images is crafted to the best of my ability and many contain an element of experimentation and discovery which give them their folk art charm.     
The sheep in this latest series are contained within a landscape that evokes island life whether that be simply the proximity to the sea with boats and light houses, the traditional shielings and habitation, or the more recent visual impact of the wind turbines. Thanks to the very generous donations of tweed off-cuts by local weavers the backgrounds have become an equally important part of the finished product. Over the next couple of months I will turn to making the frames and hope by lambing time to have a further 20 for sale.