Tag Archives: john clare

coming home

Saturday 9 May 2015

They take away our belts so that we must hold
Our trousers up. The truly mad don’t bother
And thus are oddly hobbled. Also our laces
So that our shoes do flop about our feet.

so begins Anthony Hecht’s poem ‘Coming Home’ [1976], a creative retelling of the English poet John Clare’s escape from an asylum house in Essex back to his ‘homeland’ in Northamptonshire, in the summer of 1841 [from John Clare’s journals].

but what connection does this excerpt from a poem have with a bright blustery morning in early may?

well, out of the blue, the picture editor of The Times Literary Supplement [TLS] contacted me and asked if they could use a picture of mine to accompany a poem by John Clare as the ‘Poem of the Week’.

the request was for something “wild and woody”, as they liked my ‘Clare inspired’ sketchbook paintings in this journal [blog]. i hadn’t conceived of these painting sketches as outwardly ‘clare-inspired’ but i had, in a curious inversion, quoted a couple of lines from John Clare’s poem ‘The Progress of Rhyme’ to accompany the sequence of paintings from some muddy and muted days in winter.

maybe it was something to do with seeking hope, on the horizon, escaping to the country, side-tracked, down a country lane, a nearby hill, the corner of a field, or down on the marsh – all reflected back in jaded eyes. an overwhelming sense of ‘enclosure’ in these agricultural landscapes could make anyone go a little stir-crazy after a while, but in John Clare’s poem i was reminded that sometimes it’s small nature that grasps and grounds you. one can easily ramble on about these things, it’s a common side-effect of the ruralist condition.

the progress of rhyme’ is, as the title suggests, a poem about poetry: nature as muse, his enduring love for ‘poesy’ as he terms it, intertwined with memories of past acquaintances, the indifference and fickleness of others, finding beauty in weeds, uplifted by birdsong – “cheer-up cheer-up cheer-up”, solace and joy in nature. it goes on. & on, & on [with quite a lot of curly ampersands en route]

the progress of rhyme’ is also a poem that requires repeated reading, not only because it is quite long and there is a quirky dialect to be deciphered in the words, grammar and spelling, but because with each reading a short rhyme might chime out with new resonance.

whenever i take time out to skim through the two books of John Clare’s poems i have, there is always an interesting pause for thought in the wider narrative. maybe this is the nature of poetry – you read what you need – as i must confess i have not yet read all of the poems, nor have i fully comprehended them in the academic literary sense.

but i must get back to the original back-story, for this is not about ‘the progress of rhyme‘, but another poem…

in reply to the enquiry from the TLS, i sent them pictures of five landscape painting sketches for consideration, not knowing which John Clare poem they might be associated with. naturally, i was flattered by the picture request even though no fee was involved, as i like john clare’s poetry, and oddly, maybe it would be some good exposure for a hermit artist [i’m not really a hermit, it just appears that way in comparison to other artists’ lives].

then a small muddle-up occurred as it transpired that the ‘poem of the week’ wasn’t going to be a John Clare poem after all, but a poem inspired by Clare’s ‘Journey out of Essex’. i had not previously heard of the poet Anthony Hecht, but have discovered via the wonder of the worldwide web he is/was a prestigious american poet [now deceased]. i was still happy with the picture agreement.

i later emailed a friend who has more literary connections – they have worked in graphic design & book publishing, and are currently working on illustrations for a new book of poems – and i said that i found it unusual that a small wintery bleak painting of mine was chosen to illustrate a journey taken in summer time. they replied: he sleeps in ditches. this sounds reasonable, but i wouldn’t want my painting to be interpreted that things had got that bad. in any case, ditches can be beautiful in summer, overgrown with the tall, swaying fluffy-ended stems of meadowsweet.

after re-reading the poem, the contrast made more sense: John Clare’s escape from the mental asylum to a place called home, as reinterpreted by Hecht in ‘Coming Home’, is a solitary and inhospitable journey: he travels wearily “by the dark of night”, the trees in the landscape are “unimaginably black and flat” against the grey sky, puddles are “flagstones of silver”, he goes hungry, takes a nap in a ditch, is “troubled by uneasy dreams”, forgets he has a wife and child, and still holds on to the hope that when he arrives ‘home’…

here is the link to the full poem mentioned at the beginning, ‘Coming Home‘ by Anthony Hecht, in The Times Literary Supplement: [http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1552228.ece]

some other sources of information found on the internet this week:

Interview: Anthony Hecht, The Art of Poetry N0. 40, the Paris Review: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2487/the-art-of-poetry-no-40-anthony-hecht

John Clare Cottage, Helpston: http://www.clarecottage.org

[note to self: there are probably some inconsistencies in using capitals, with regard to my usual ‘house style’ of typing]

[another thought: as a result of the general election here in the UK this week, a cloud of despondency has descended upon the liberal and left-leaning voters of the population. five more years of austerity. any analogy will do….]

another winter, in pictures

Friday 1 March 2013

another winter stuck out in the sticks; or how i have endeavoured to evoke a fleeting sense of this winter landscape, in pictures.

what follows are some of my small sketchbook paintings (on paper) from the months of january and february.

flooded field landscape sketch painting

[flooded corner of a field, sketchbook painting, acrylic on paper, 7″ x 10″]

these small paintings will probably mean very little to those who do not live or work in the countryside, but perhaps to some of those who do, it might look slightly familiar: of dreary rain-drenched days, the flustering blustering wind which blows this way and that, or the earthy dampness of a foggy grey morning, the veil of mist or frost on fields, or days when the air is piercing and clear, freezing the landscape into a tundra-like quietude.

winter landscape sketchbook paintings

[sketchbook paintings]

i am always drawn towards the skyline, where a thicket of skeleton trees or the raggedy fringe of a hedgerow meets the open skies.

and how, at this wintry time of year when this landscape seems even more bleak, earth and sky are still ever-changing in their hues (because of the weather)… on a bright winter’s afternoon when an expanse of dark brown field turns a shade of rippled bronze, or when a sulky leaden sky flattens the mired landscape with a melancholic hue.

dark dusk field hedgerow sketchbook painting

[dimly dusk, sketchbook painting, acrylic on paper, 5″ x 7″]

marsh rain landscape painting sketch

[rain on the marsh, sketchbook painting, acrylic on paper, 7″ x 10″]

it is also curious how the rural landscape in winter can give a [false] sense of being in a wilderness, because there are few houses, and in these modern times, very few people are needed to work this agricultural land.

this landscape can appear desolate at times.

winter landscape sketchbook paintings

[sketchbook paintings]

remains of snow field landscape painting

[remains of snow, sketchbook painting, acrylic on paper, 5″ x 7″]

it’s always the little things that catch your eye: the vibrancy of green when framed by the gap in a spindly hedge, a puddled corner of a field glinting silver in the low sun, or the last traces of snow melting in the long shadows… insignificant, transient things.

anyone who cares to notice might want to tell you about these incidental things, never mind trying to take a picture…

suffolk winter landscape painting sketch

[snow melting, sketchbook painting, acrylic on paper, 5″ x 7″]

 field hill landscape sketch painting

[sketchbook paintings]

winter landscape sketchbook paintings

[shingle hill, sketchbook painting, acrylic on paper, 7″ x 10″]

each painting ‘sketch’ took about fifteen minutes, so cumulatively this amounts to only three hours of field work.

here, inside the pages of a sketchbook (or two), i was aiming to express, very loosely in paint, what the rural landscape looks and feels like on some days in winter, from observation, memory and experience. everyone will have their own point of view: nothing really changes, every day it changes.

it is interesting that buildings and people (or animals) do not interest me here, so perhaps i was only looking to seek that elemental sense of a wilderness in winter, isolating the isolation, finding solace in the solitude.

this is what i find myself returning to at odd moments when it seems i have made little headway in my other work. i hope one day to get better at expressing the thoughts and ideas in my head…

Where little pictures idly tells
Of nature’s powers & nature’s spells,
I felt and shunned the idle vein,
Laid down the pen and toiled again

[John Clare, The Progress of Rhyme]

on a small painting, out of the woods

Sunday 11 September 2011

this is a small abstract painting on watercolour paper, completed a couple of months back. it’s for the forthcoming ‘mini artworks prize draw’ in the artworks exhibition. the sombre, muted colours and vertical, layered striations in this small painting appear to be slightly influenced by my time sketching trees and bark in local woodlands.

small abstract painting, trees, bark, dark green, woods, woodland
[wildwood iv, 2011. 6″ x  6″, or 15cm x 15cm]

there is also a small copse (perhaps it is now a real, grown-up, maturing ‘wood’) bordering the far end of the garden. although i see this small piece of woodland everyday, i do not go into it to paint or draw as it is privately-owned land – perhaps just to rescue an errant roosting hen who once had a free two-night stay on the wilder side of the fence. on the third (could-be) night of freedom, a short time after dusk she was eventually located by taking a slow, spiralling inward path around the copse, sleepily plumped between the lower fork of branches of a tree. this twilight woodland escapade inevitably disturbed the dozing wildlife of pheasants, wood pigeons and so on – and i was reminded of these words:

‘we do not have to be long in the woods to experience the always rather anxious impression of going deeper and deeper into a limitless world.’

[gaston bachelard, the poetics of space]

this ‘limitless world’ seems to be a psychological or phenomenological one, a self-realised world mostly obscured by the modern day-to-day concerns of stability, security & safety. it is not often that we are allowed go there. it is in our human makeup to have fear & doubt (and respond to it) and the experience of being in the woods (or forests, mountains, seas or oceans) enables both a sense of place and the natural order of things in the world – and it is most deeply felt when one is alone. the naturalist david attenborough has often said that we should always be reminded that we are just one of many species co-habiting the earth.

bachelard made an interesting distinction between the perception of woods (or forests) and fields. in the landscape of fields we are a witness and perhaps an accomplice to the passage of time; we experience, share and create memories in the seasonal or manmade rhythms of it. in the dark depths of the forest bachelard perceives time as ‘before-me, before-us’, that is, it is behind us, in the past. the forest is ancient and the trees are the ancestral markers of time. in the woods, i sometimes sense that time has paused, it has ‘disconnected’ me from the brightly illuminated present, time idles in the shadows.

when i have studied the more philosophical or poetic appeal of woodland i have found it overgrown with many metaphors, myths, rituals, stories and legends, often wildly conflicting with the socio-economic changes of the times (fuel, timber, hunting, livestock and so forth). by the 11th century it has been estimated there was no more than 15 percent of natural woodland covering england and the remaining woods and forests developed into sites of rural industries. it was ‘not an imaginary utopia; it was a vigorous working society’, as the historian simon schama describes it, later saying that the ‘greenwood idyll was disappearing into house beams, dye vats, ship timbers’ – and with more bureaucratic management of woodland, a little corruption and misdemeanour along the way.

it seems, quite naturally so, for there to be an urgent need to re-establish or conserve our woodlands, with something of a reversion to the pre-industrial green wildwoods of folklore, but if the woods are not really a ‘greenwood idyll’ or the way into a more mysterious, esoteric other-world, then what, exactly…

and that deep softness of delicious hues
that overhead blends – softens – and subdues
the eye to extacy and fills the mind
with views and visions of enchanting kind

[wood pictures in summer, john clare]

i have been reading carus again, and he sums up the experience of the woods in a manner that i relate to:

tranquil reflection takes hold of us; we feel our unruly ambitions and aspirations held in check; we enter into the cycle of nature and transcend ourselves.

[carl gustav carus, 1824, from nine letters on landscape painting]

whether there is any direct relation between this german sentiment and previously referred-to eastern aesthetics i cannot be sure – perhaps it is a universal sentiment which is merely muted by the concerns of modernity.

trees (or nature, as it is perceived) will continue to be seen as a symbols of hope over adversity. however, i am conversely reminded of the idiom, we are not ‘out of the woods’ yet. for the artist, ever aware of the past, present and future, hopes that every picture paints its own story – and i have been drawn into the woods in a desire to escape routine – and, like the errant roosting hen, it is one of those times when one momentarily forgets to take the usual path home…

so many words to accompany such a small painting! over a thousand words and i should thank you for reading them.

however, i must conclude dear reader, by saying that someone somewhere will (soon) acquire the small ‘wildwood iv’ painting on paper shown above. tickets for the artworks prize draw are on sale at £2 each (and you can buy more than one, too). all the mini artworks are 6″ x 6″ and they are window-mounted for easy framing. the thirty mini artworks are currently on display in the artworks exhibition (which opened yesterday). i will also purchase a prize draw ticket to be in with a chance of winning one of the thirty original artworks illustrated below, but if i won my own painting then i should have to give it away again.

the ‘janette place’ artworks prize draw is named in recognition of one artworks artist, janette place, who initiated the first artworks prize draw (she died in 2005). the prize draw supports artworks ‘artists in schools’ programme, with a proportion of the money raised given to a local nominated charity. this year artworks have elected to support Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Bradfield Green Oak project, an education centre built from green oak harvested from SWT’s own nature reserves as part of their conservation management programme.

the artworks prize draw takes place at 4pm on saturday 1st october 2011. you can read more about the mini artworks prize draw on the artworks blog.

i have ten works currently on show in the artworks exhibition at blackthorpe barn, rougham, suffolk, which runs from 10 september to 2 october 2011 (10am – 5pm, open daily). there is also the ‘ artworks shop’ with a changing display of small artworks for sale: paintings, original prints (no reproduction giclees!) and drawings, 3D works and an extensive range of artist cards. i have some of my papier mache bowls in the shop.

Artworks is a professional art group of thirty contemporary East Anglian artists. Each September we have an annual exhibition at Blackthorpe Barn in the heart of rural Suffolk.

some new works also on show at Reunion Gallery’s ‘Refresh’ tenth anniversary exhibition on now and until 22 Oct 2011