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.
         

WISE WORDS



There are times when having read some consider wise word from the past that they strike home and clarify my own present day visions. Such was the case when Simon handed me the short volume “Living Traditions of Scotland” by his father George Scott-Moncrieff a slim booklet published by His Majesty’s stationary office in 1951.
The booklet encompasses all Scottish traditional crafts throughout the ages from the perspective of architecture which was George’s life-long preoccupation. When considering ornamentation he states that simple “functional” objects can be more pleasing for their line and shape than the over ornate. I was reminded of some equally wise words of advice having planted a rambling rose on the front of my studio here in Brittany: A good architectural façade requires no embellishment, use the climber to hide the hideous. George goes on to state that due value is given to an object through the proper use of material and their associated qualities, be it stone or wood or metal, wool or straw or linen. Concerning the traditional Highland “black house” while acknowledging that modern improvements are possible, it is always foolish to assume that any old tradition was pursued merely because our forefathers did not know any better. The ruined remnants of such houses will still be standing long after today’s kit home constructions have blown from their concrete foundation slab.
“In Scotland, as elsewhere, what is remarkable is the quality of design and workmanship shown in very early times, as through man’s innate sense of, and desire for, beauty could inspire him to remarkable heights even against a comparatively slight background from which to draw; a tradition established, maintained, and developed right up to the limitations of its materials and techniques.” We would do well to reflect on that the next time our gaze falls on a selection on key rings or fridge magnets in the local tourist shop. “It is difficult fully to account for the general deterioration of design during the nineteenth century. Certainly much of the blame must lie with the development of the machine, with its divorce between the designer and his materials, and its too great emphasis upon facility of production and cheapness of cost”. He emphasises that machine goods need not be ugly but warns against the tendency to be over-concerned with production and profit to the detriment of design and functional beauty. In looking at the fine things that men and women have made and that they still strive to make we may feel that they stand for the control of mind and hand, for a generosity of labour, for a search for perfection within the bounds imposed by the immediate object. When the work is done with intimate care then the craftsperson impresses their own spirit upon it. “By sympathetic use of the tools in their hands they can interpret their life and build and maintain their tradition”. So the computer generated image stitched onto tweed by an installed program has no soul and without that important human element also has no intrinsic value. Our highly skilled crafts people are being asked to debase their ability in order to produce work that is cheap enough to market for the masses, which in turn only increases the amount of produce that ends up in the rubbish bin. It is bad enough sitting through a slideshow of friends latest holiday without having to say thank you for some ghastly bauble from the Bahamas. I gave up buying gifts many years ago and instead treat myself to something special approximately every five years and this will have absolutely nothing to do with key rings of fridge magnets.   
The second half of this 1951 booklet is concerned with advertising where Reid and Taylor Ltd of Langholm Dumfriesshire boast of being makers of the world’s most expensive Twist Cheviot Cloths suitable for town and country. Nicoll Brothers of Bankfoot, Perth makers of sporrans since 1834 emphasise wholesale enquiries only, while Bailey’s Edinburgh branch offer Chateau Moulion Rose Medoc at 8/6 per bottle or a Chateau Mouton-Rothschild at 10/6.
      

Saturday, November 24, 2018

IN SEARCH OF SLEEPING BEAUTY.




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 façade 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.