Monday, November 10, 2014

Would you Adam and Eve it.

Adam the first man and progenitor of the human race, Eve wife of Adam and representative of the female sex in Eden a garden where they lived according to the Creation story of Genesis 2; a place of delight; a paradise.
Here we have it, the possibility for each and every one of us to conjure up the picture of a perfect world where beauty and harmony abounds and tranquillity rules over all living things and I wonder just how long it would take for the rest of humanity to destroy that dream. The apples would be left to rot for surely only peasants and those from Eastern European countries pick fruit. Modern man would have correctly surmised that within and beneath the garden there was much he could exploit in order to pay those fruit picker a minimum wage and still leave plenty to embellish the dull winter months with a few plastic flowers of his own design.
For many centuries the pictorial representation of Adam and Eve has been a particular favourite amongst those working a needle. A description of a manor house in King John’s time states that in the corner of a certain apartment stood a bed, the tapestry of which was enwrought with gaudy colours representing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The fifteenth century poet H. Bradshaw describing the tapestry in the Abbey of Ely wrote:-
“The storye of Adam there was goodly wrought
And of his wyfe Eve, bytwene them the serpent”
This tiny early 18th century sampler became my starting point and it seemed almost inevitable that I should turn to that familiar imagery for my next needlework picture. The classical central tree of knowledge divides the evil temptress from the frail contemptible Adam while the devilish serpent coils around the trunk possessively looking to broker a deal. 
Everything floating and in need of a cover up.

Things starting to get grounded.

I left Eve without hair until the background work was complete.

The finished wrk ready to frame

Embroidering the nude figures on a small scale has always proved difficult and resulted in the subject treated for the most part from the point of view of the animals to be introduced rather than our first parents. During the 18th century the subject was again popular in samplers done by children where the charming draughtsmanship of the human figure was at its most primitive. I decided to remain with the technique of stump-work but to use painted fabric to emphasize the shocking nature of that carnal knowledge. Those who saw the work in its infancy were eager that I didn’t delay in applying fig leaves and I was pleased that the startling contrast between the stitched covered wool surface and the naked flesh remained in the finished
picture. Other procreating forms of life that enjoy chomping into a good juicy apple are represented in raised work from mice and birds to insects and snails. In fact all looks very colourful and rosy in the garden however that procreating has as yet born no fruit and the begetting has yet to wipe the smile from the face of the sun or drive God and me to go for a “lets try again” and the next needlework image.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Another mobile phone free retreat for Alex Salmond at 17 New Tolsta

For the past four years I’ve attempted to let out the croft house at 17 New Tolsta and certainly during that first year I had hopes that this might just work as far as paying for its upkeep. The house was very basic but there were annual improvements and several people rebooked which was the best possible indication that they enjoyed the house and the location. However each year the number of weeks rented out declined to the point that this past season there has been not a single enquiry. Selfishly I have enjoyed having the house to myself and with friends over from Australia it has been far from a solitary time.
The season started with an extra ordinary display of soft white cotton grass out on the moor as if winter had returned to carpet the moors again and was a direct result of last years fire and the subsequent re-growth. The long days of June saw the growth in the vegetable garden pick up after a slow start. July was holiday month the dawn’s golden glow gilded everything including the lilies, late evening walks and wild camping with plenty of opportunities to swim before the jelly fish peeked.

Having no holiday bookings I was free to open the parlour and hall as a summer art gallery but despite having put a sign out on the beach road only a hand full of people have bother to call in. There has been no shortage of traffic particularly at the weekend, people making their way down to our two magnificent beaches and certainly no decline in the number of camper vans bristling with bikes and surf boards filling the car park and tents pitched out on the machair or sheltering in the dunes.
 The latest trend when decamping is to burn the tent leaving scorched grass and a few charred metal posts. This year there have been three such incidents and this week I found two abandoned tents blown beyond the dunes flapping manically in the breeze hooked on the barbed wire fence. The camper vans have over the years got a bad name as they come fully equipped from the mainland and are of little benefit to the local community. At most beaches there are large wheelie bins which often in high summer struggle to contain the quantity of rubbish generated by visitors. I observed a camper van driver a few weeks ago while down on the island of Berneray having used the facilities at the ferry terminal to dispose of his chemical toilet he then headed across the car park with a large plastic bag of rubbish for the bin that was situated at the top of the slipway. On finding the bin full to overflowing he spotted that some idiot had dumped a bag alongside which had been subsequently ripped apart by seagulls. So instead of hanging on to his bag until he found another bin he took a furtive look around and dropped his bag along with the growing mess. Disposal of garbage is a costly business as tourist numbers increase year on year so the least visitors can do is keep their rubbish in their vans until they find a bin that isn’t brim full. It is not difficult to fathom out why my own self catering holiday Croft House seems to be of no interest. Certainly it can’t be the price as it is one of the cheapest on the island and the end of the road location with the two wonderful beaches of Traigh Mhor and Garry make it an exceptional place to stay. Looking around at successful self catering places it would seem that what they offer is total luxury; new kitchens and en-suite bathrooms, television and internet connection and it goes without saying guaranteed mobile phone reception. Well we have none of these, this is a traditional croft house with its stack of peat out front that fires the old Rayburn stove and as for the technology there is simply no need for it, the location is more than enough and surely a true holiday must mean freedom from a logged on world. Alex Salmond when asked this week where he would go to wind down after the referendum said the Island of Colonsay as he thought it still had no mobile phone connection. Here in the coastal wilderness of the Isle of Lewis you can remake contact with nature, watch Minkie Whales out in the Minch or Sea Eagles along the cliffs or simply lie down on a bed of orchids and breathe in the perfume of the machair, maybe rediscover your partner, your children or even yourself. No 17 New Tolsta is a refuge from the hustle of modern life where I can guarantee wonderful solitude and yes, no mobile phone reception or internet connection, no land line or television but a chance to truly relax discover the rugged calm of the vast moors roam along the dramatic cliff coastline or walk bare foot along our beaches. Well that’s my every day existence and yes it is a tough call.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Hebridean Dreaming: What to do with two large sacks of Harris Tweed sa...

Hebridean Dreaming: What to do with two large sacks of Harris Tweed sa...: Stay long enough on the isle of Lewis and you’ll find yourself either cutting peat, working with sheep or weaving, I’ve already ticke...

What to do with two large sacks of Harris Tweed salve edge.

Stay long enough on the isle of Lewis and you’ll find yourself either cutting peat, working with sheep or weaving, I’ve already ticked the boxes on the first two so last week I was not at all surprised to find myself building a loom. An old black an white photo of an islander at his loom looked inspiring and like a true naïve I thought if I kept it simple warp and weft surely couldn’t be all that difficult. Well after a couple of false starts I borrowed a book from a friend and discovered all about headers sheds and shuttles.
A few weeks ago a neighbour asked me if I wanted any off cut wool from his Harris Tweed weaving and so already having completed one needlework picture and always willing to accept any raw materials I said yes thank you thinking this would surely come in useful at some point. When two enormous bags stuffed full with salve-edge arrived on my doorstep I realised this was going to be a larger scale project. I’d seen a friend’s work with salve edging where she knitted it into hearth rugs and bath mats but having seen an illustration of a Navaho Indian loom I felt this might be an ideal and relatively simple way to start weaving. The natural dyed wools of Harris Tweed evoke every colour of the Western Isles and so I felt whatever I did with the wool would be bound to represent the surrounding landscape. There is something wonderful about launching into a new method of creation, and through play finding out just what is possible. Within half a day of starting the floor of the studio was covered almost knee deep with mounds of wool and the process started to make sense. It was also obvious that this process allowed for much in the way of versatility as I thought of all the different things I could incorporate within the weave and my mind raced on creating extravagant finished hangings within my head. Having started weaving one evening I dreamed of the repetitive process for most of the night so keen was I to press ahead. With visitors gone and the days proving far too damp and midgey to continue painting the roof I pressed ahead with childlike enthusiasm for the magic of seeing my first woven hanging appear before my eyes. My thoughts drifted back to Shill School in Burford and my very first close up encounter with a loom when on Wednesday afternoons we (all 18 of us boys) would march single file over the bridge that crossed the river Windrush to the Mouse house. We would rip up old sheets into thin strips, boil onion skins to make dyes and learn about keeping bees such were the joys of a small weekly boarding school in the early sixties. I raised my eyes hearing feet crunching on the gravel outside the studio window. I’d left the open sign up for days now in the forlorn hope that people might just happen by and was this at last someone come to look, if so the colourfully clothed couple were walking in the wrong direction. By the time I stuck my head out the door of the studio they had made the road walking heads down with a brisk purposeful pace outrider sticks tapping out a rhythmical stride. How strange I thought to have walked up across the dunes through the croft then climbed the boundary fence as well as that of my vegetable garden and not to have even glanced sideways at the pictures in the window. Evidently not everybody is interested in art but I felt I had just cause in feeling slightly miffed. The walkers had stretched the idea of the right to roam to the full so while traversing my garden they might have at least made some pretence at looking at my art. Later that afternoon they came back and I was full of smiles and ready to show them around but they only wanted to enquire what time the bus came past. Being polite can at times be such an effort. I’m often told I must have tremendous patients to create such complex works but I tell you now opening your doors to the public so they might see those creations requires infinitely more.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Bargin


I could never afford stump work, or at least that’s what I always found during the years when I was dealing in antiques and today you rarely see examples outside museums. “Stump” or “stamp” work refers to high relief embroidery popularly supposed to have been invented by the nuns of Little Gidding and appears almost invariably to have been worked separately stretched within a frame, and applied when complete. While hair or wool was used as a stuffing foundation sometimes hands and heads of figures were in carved wood covered with satin or silk on which the features were either painted or embroidered. My version of stump work was to be entirely in wool on a piece of finely woven 19th century French linen. The raised portions of the embroidery were indeed worked on a separate and lighter cloth before stitching them into place onto the canvas making sure to leave a section open for stuffing with cotton wool. Having already worked a similar sized naïve rendition of Hebridean crofting I wanted this time to try for a slightly more realistic impression. That first attempt had already been described by a friend as painting with wool so once again I allowed the image to grow with very little preparatory drawing of the initial idea pencilling out the central scene within its intertwined oval border. Beyond this the idea of thistles was there from the start but exactly what form they would take was unknown. The two animals in the lower corners is an echo back to the 17th century stump work embroidery where the inclusion of such animals was common. The thatched “White house” not to be confused with the earlier “Black house” which had no visible chimney or windows sits central on the ridge above a Hebridean black sheep and a Scottish blackface sheep.
 The horns of these sheep were the final part being worked on copper wire and standing proud of the embroidery. I have noticed that while I am out sketching people passing by will often approach to see how I am representing the landscape before me however if they see a man sat stitching with needle a thread they keep at a safe distance much as they do when I’m plucking dead birds for making of feather bird pictures. I started stitching on June the 20th and spent on average a minimum of 3 hours a day until finishing on Sunday the 27th July, a full five weeks. So if I was to conservatively count my time it took just over one hundred hours. The needlework will now be stretched mounted and correctly contained within a deep box glazed frame which will not come cheap. It is important for me to execute such pieces of creative artwork for my own pleasure and so time and money do not come into it. An artist who perfects his or her craft will be able to produce artwork but if the technique is altered or debased in any way either to mass produce or to speed up production then the result must be categorised as craft. Today people are encouraged to buy cheap crap preferably made from recyclable materials since it will not be long before it’s broken and deposited in that correctly sorted bin. While this might make economic sense I find it difficult to understand why when money is so difficult to come by that so many fritter it away on cuddly key ring junk. Today’s world wide tourist industry is a particularly bad offender in this area offering a remarkable selection of poorly made and dull mass produced trinkets in the name of local crafts. Some well known artists have also been tempted to join the throng and debase there work reproducing it on everything from book markers to fridge magnets. Since the general public will part relatively easily with a few quid it is hardly surprising that less skilled craft workers are drawn towards this market which will pay while those producing fine work will quite often obtain a far lower hourly rate of pay. So what would you expect to see as a price tag on this embroidery, £60…. £600? The correct price with frame and given that many galleries now take 50% is nearer £6000, which puts it way beyond the reach of most people. So you can’t afford it now but wait a few years when someone removes my creations and possessions to the local hospice charity shop and it’ll be £6, a bargin.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Knot perfect.

They’re not perfect—not uniform – not standard –not like you’d buy in the shop imported fresh out of season from Israel or hand picked by an eastern European who still knows the meaning of work in the field. No these are Outer Hebridean strawberries picked fresh from my own garden; admittedly from under a makeshift plastic cover sheltered from the chill of the easterly and taking full advantage of the very long summer days. Sunrise is at 5.00 and sunset around 10.00 giving the potential for 17 hours of vitamin D intake but the night sky is never truly dark as the sun rolls just below the horizon. By seven in the morning the first bus of the day has passed and Donald comes by taking his two collies for a walk. At ten in the evening Roddy is still out with the hosepipe spraying the windows to clean off the sea salt spray and while he’s at it perhaps remove some real or imagined spider’s webs from under the eaves. The back breaking days of cutting peat are over, the setting up to dry is done and we must now wait till late July for tractor and trailer to bring them in. Recently my creative energies have been diverted from paint to wool and the complexities of stump work, French knots and long-stitch as I try to rest my aching back. In the garden after a relatively mild winter shrubs are putting on somewhat delayed but extra ordinary growth.

This year there was no April heat wave to entice early growth and no bitter easterly to follow and burn off those first tender shoots, the growth has been fruitful, sturdy and out at the limit of my plot it keeps pace with the grass which one day I hope it will surpass and stifle, maybe even become small trees that will screen the neighbouring red roofed garage and bungalow. Out on the moor 14 wind turbines are to be built in 2020 once the mainland power connection is in place so I’m also hoping by then that the growth will be sufficient to reduce the impact on the westerly horizon. While I try to understand the insatiable craving for more energy to power our increasingly irrational lives I worry what the substantial sum of money generated by these turbines will do to this remote community. There is a school to keep open and even improve and the village Post Office shop that could incorporate a much needed café and meeting place, so many positive things that money could bring but also in my mind so many negative pitfalls of jealousy and blame. For now though I am content to start each day with a few imperfect Hebridean home grown strawberries on my muesli, put up the gallery open sign and return to a comfortable chair with my needlework picture and a large bag of wool.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


Stitchery of Pictures. “Tent-work, Raised-work, Laid-work, Net-work, Most curious Purples or rare Italian Cut-work, Fine Fern-stitch, Finny-stitch, New-stitch and Chain-stitch, Brave Bread-stitch, Fisher-stitch, Irish-stitch, and Queen-stitch, The Spanish-stitch, Rosemary-stitch, and Morose-stitch, The Smarting Whip-stitch, Back-stitch, and the Cross-stitch, All these are good, and these we must allow, And these are everywhere in practise now.” The Needles Excellency.—John Taylor Once the structure of wool, hemp, cotton, flax or silk are dyed spun and woven it has been the final accomplished place of needlework to embellish and decorate, from the Turkish cushions embroidered with pearl or the fine traditional Breton waistcoat to the early stump-work and samplers of our own ancestry. As a child I watched with fascination and admiration at the skill of my great aunt and the patience she possessed in creating the most delicate silk pictures of thatched cottages with fabulous herbaceous floral displays. I decided this summers wet Sunday’s creative occupation would be a needlework picture. Given my love of the naïve I thought my first attempt at painting in wool should be kept simple, start at the top and work down maybe? During my days in the antique trade I had sold many long-stitch pictures and they didn’t look very complicated. Making it up as I went along seemed the easiest choice and soon I lost myself in the creative process. An adaptation of the French knot stitch produced billowing clouds and two other tighter stitches served as the sheep.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


At first sight it may look like a massacre, well that’s what I thought when I first saw the way the Bretons cut their trees. Then when I moved across the channel to live in Central Finistere I began to understand that the hedgerows or talus were as valuable as the crops in the fields. Pollarding a tree every ten years gave wood for warmth and cooking while the mass of small branches were tied into faggots and used for heating the bread oven. This is the domestication of trees, no longer growing wild in ancient forests but managed as a crop between field separations. My first impression of central Brittany was as a forgotten land of sleeping beauty, abandoned, peaceful, a step back to my childhood and yet full of myths and mystery.
Pierre Le Lay sat almost invisible in the dung dark of the cowshed, his head pressed deep into Marguerite's flanks, Marguerite being one of seven slow moving beasts with whom he prefers to hold his council. He and his sister Eléen had hand milked their cows for decades, and never in all those years had they once thought of taking a holiday. The silence between them could be put down to the daily habitual tasks they methodically undertook, or one could mistake the peace for that of an old married couple who had long since said everything there was to say. One of the two new calves stood blinking at the doorway into the sparkle of a dew-light morning that held the certainty of another still hot day. An arrogant male sparrow wiped his beak on the weather beaten spigot hung door his rhythmical action as if sharpening a knife in preparation to carve the Sunday joint. His mate threw herself with great gusto into the dust dry hollow at the roadside and a powder-puff cloud enveloped her as she fluffed herself up to twice her normal sparrow like self. The fast growing brood of multi-coloured young chickens roamed the yard unfinished in their juvenile feathered form, moving with measured gate, their precise pecking and expert concentration belying their youth as they worked their way around the lower slopes of the oozing midden. On the top side of the five acre field the oak trees stand naked and armless stripped of their branches after the ten year cut. Hundreds of dormant shoots now burst from the pollard trunks and over the following years the trees will take on the familiar shape of the farmed French oaks, locally known as the têtards, or tadpoles. The barn is stacked high with logged wood and in the yard the oak harvest stands drying in neat walls of logs, from small limbs to brushwood bundled nothing is wasted.
The hedgerow harvest leaves the massive lumpy forms trimmed back in what seems like a brutal fashion but which allows the trees to re-grow from at times a centuries old trunk. This method of cutting makes it possible to obtain a greater quantity of wood in a sustainable way as the already well established tree will put on growth far quicker than a newly planted tree. These were my first impressions which over the past twenty years have been shattered by the brutal hand of progress, where trees are cut at ground level with the greed of a final harvest before the hedgerow is removed completely. Têtards have been a particularly local feature of this region for centuries but in recent years the once familiar skeletal winter hedgerow form has changed. After the passing of the remembrement, where small parcels of land were regrouped to form more economic use of land the government also encouraged massive demolition of hedgerows. This destructive process set in a continuing cycle of destruction with ever larger machines able to destroy in minutes what their ancestors had taken centuries to create. This land was so rich in wood that it was not uncommon to see the front door left open while a blazing fire filled the chimney. Now when the old farm house and fields were sold off practically every tree was removed in a final harvest and many an English buyer arrived horrified to take possession of their denuded fields. The closing years of the eighties saw the end of a way of life as the peasant farmers moved into retirement and their children who had abandoned this land showed no signs of wanting to return. This led to evident change and a tremendous loss of charm as a worn out generation could no longer maintain the required upkeep by hand. Thankfully there are a few who understand the wisdom of the old ways and in my hamlet of Lezele we are trying to re-establish the remaining tetrads. To pollard a tree after many years of neglect requires leaving one or two branches to help draw the sap up to enable re-growth and after a couple of years those branches can also be removed leaving the tree ready to continue its ten year cycle trim.
There would seem no possible similarity with this method of gathering fuel and that found in the Outer Hebrides since trees are extremely rare and the only cutting is that of peat. However the traditional use of this sustainable resource of fuel is also at risk of changing with the introduction of machines to do the cutting and fewer young people prepared to take on this exhausting work, and yet when the drying and bringing in is over there is that same satisfaction of admiring ones peat stack as there is in a well made stack of firewood that gives a glow of warmth way before any fire is lit. A well maintained talus and well cut peat bank are both a beauty to behold. There is however one big bonus with cutting peat in that it is silent with no ear splitting chainsaw wining against the chorus of spring birdsong. Now that March is drawing to a close and the sap begins to rise the wood cutting comes to a close but out on the Scottish Isles the harvesting of peat will not start for another month or more.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


During the depths of this very soggy winter I have undergone a self enforced hibernation. It started with a candlelit Christmas very romantic but none the less rather dim as a working light, after four days when the electricity was eventually restored I marvelled at just how bright even a forty watt bulb was. Having retrieved the contents of my freezer from friends who had retained power a few miles away I had all I required to close down the outside world, no phone or internet connection and I let friends know that Mondays would be visiting days should they wish to check on my progress. 
Upholstery was to be my indoor occupation and during the first few days it was finishing off the re-covering of a late 19th century easy chair that I had acquired from a pile of discarded furniture at the back of a West Country saleroom.
 A double drop ended Chesterfield settee that came from the same free source will this summer be going up to my house on Lewis and miraculously will match the parlour curtains. To cover the chair I used the “Gothic Arches” fabric printed by Stothert and Miles back in the late eighties copied from a rather ragged old quilt I had purchased for the outrageous price of £20. Having got into the rhythm of upholstery I pressed ahead with a few more jobs I had put aside for a couple of decades. The first was a wreck of an elm armchair that had during its heyday been the pride of someone’s parlour but for many a year suffered in silence in the corner of my bedroom beneath layers of rotting rexine. The seat had been stuffed with any and everything; hay and straw, newspapers, old invoices and an ancient pair of bloomers. The remains of a rather fine pineapple pattern single early Victorian curtain proved ideal in returning this fine old chair to its former glory. In the swing of it now and having had my sowing machine serviced I set to making new covers for the mattress cushions of an iron fold out chair that had for many years served in my studio to recline the occasional nude model. Fourth on the list came a chair that had been given to me twenty years ago and which even back then require serous attention. Now its prolapsed seat showed springs protruding through rotten webbing and the entire back had slumped into a very unflattering sagging posterior. From the outset this was always going to be an entire rebuild as the lumpy back stuffing revealed itself to be little more than a rats nest of kapok and hay. I knew one day I would find a use for the old kelim carpet but when it came to chopping it up I discovered even that required some repair.
The exterior faces were done in old 19th century linen; an entire unused roll found on the tip, and although it took well over a week to complete the end result was very pleasing. I find that variety is always a good thing and so interspersed with upholstery I continued my shell work with the biggest arrangement of shell flowers under dome to date. There are well over a hundred flowers and many of these flowers consist of between forty to eighty shells, so one could say it’s a labour of love and in the way that love can often resemble madness by an observer so this work seems to send me a little strange simply with the concentration required. Other objects d’art were two obelisks, one shell encrusted and the other clad entirely in old mercury mirror.
And during these long dark TV free evenings I sort through the many sketch books I’ve filled from the Outer Hebrides and piece together a travel diary in the hopes of getting funding later this year to go into print. Drifting through the islands I meet and observe many fascinating people but those who impress and stay close to the surface of my memory are often the elderly.
There amongst all the modern supermarket shelves I see him, a great lumbering fossil of a man, something prized out from between the pages of my youth, and I wait for the smell of oily sheep's wool to waft past. He examines a plastic bag of mixed chopped veg and I wonder does he know about stir fry, wasn't it just tatties and swede in his time? His Harris Tweed jacket is almost shiny at collar and cuffs as he slumps forward on the bar of his trolley for support. His glasses are half way down his nose, a nose that sprouts hair externally as well as internally, white stubble powders his leathery sunken cheeks speaking of ages past, of evenings sipping peaty whiskey in smoke filled rooms, and his gnarled oversized hands that attained such grandeur with professional skill of shearing sheep during long summer days. Now they grip the bar of the trolley like two great claws of a perching raptor long since extinct. This is a man of my youth from Tarbert market that lent heavily on the iron gates as he tipped his head to the auctioneer and twitched his mouth in a silent bid. The man that held at arms length an ash crook with rams horn handle to catch a young lamb by the neck. The man from endless summer afternoons who walked the stubble fields behind a clanking binder standing oat sheaves into stooks. The man who took my tiny smooth white hand in his and shook it with a grip both firm and tender leaving me confident that in his presence I would always be safe. I pulled myself back from another age and century with the strangeness and abruptness of an unexpected moon landing, as I stared at my own short shopping list; fruit, bread and cheese.