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Inspiration from a Cave

I have a fascination for caves, as you may have seen from previous posts. Royston Cave in Hertfordshire has been on my radar for years. This year we were in the area and booked a tour to see the cave for ourselves.

Carving in Royston Cave
Carving in Royston Cave.

Royston is a pretty, unassuming town, but it has a Roman road running through it as well as part of the Ichnield Way, an ancient track that runs from Wiltshire to Norfolk. Royston Cave is under the ground in the chalk where the two roads meet.

On the tour we descended steps and then followed a moderately steep passageway extending underground beneath the main road. Soon we found ourselves in a round chamber lit by wall lights. I could see engravings all around the lower part of the cave – faces, figures, crosses, birdlike fish, horses. Apparently the carvings are thought to be of the 14th century – medieval – and may be associated with the Knights Templar. In the 17th century a ten year old boy was instructed to descend into the man-made cave to see if there was any treasure in it. On further investigation the carvings were found.

On the walls, there are many religious depictions and symbols, but also some pagan imagery such as a shela-mi-gig. This shows that the carvings were made when pagan beliefs had not yet been totally obscured by Christianity.

Horse and Sheela na gig
Horse and Sheela na gig in Royston Cave.

Our guide started explaining what she knew about the carvings, starting with a St Christopher figure carrying someone on his shoulder (see the photo below on the left). There are other saints depicted, including Saint Catherine, shown holding a wheel as she was sacrificed on a burning wheel. Today people light Catherine wheels on Guy Fawks night to remember her.

To the left of St Christopher is a rectangle representing the tomb where Christ was buried, along with a hand and a bird-fish, possibly symbolising the Holy Spirit or risen Christ. There is a sword and a shield, a horse and the holy family.

Holy Family in Royston Cave
Holy Family in Royston Cave. On the right you can see the top of a Templar sword.
Figures and Crescent Moon in Royston Cave
Figures and Crescent Moon in Royston Cave

There are many other drawings of knights, angels, rows of sinners and a figure holding a candle that may represent the light of the new religion that will lead believers out of darkness. Low down and to the right of the passage entrance is a crescent moon.

It was the figure of St Christopher that made the most impression on me. He is the patron saint of travellers and is said to have carried a child over a river who turned out to be Christ. I kept in mind the image of a figure carrying a rucksack, journeying on foot over the hills and drew and collaged a picture of this figure I have titled The Journeyman.

The Journeyman
The Journeyman – A pen and ink drawing with collage.

My figure is walking through a dreamlike, fluid, but fragmented landscape with the chalk figure of The Long Man of Wilmington in the distance. I like the idea of a traveller wandering the land without any particular destination, stopping here and there to find work. The ground in the picture looks unstable, symbolic of the unsettling times we’re living in.

I didn’t know what a journeyman was until I looked it up. Apparently the word originates from the Middle Ages and refers to a worker, such as a craftsman, who has acquired skills as an apprentice, but who is not yet a Master. He would work for an employee, often for a day (‘journée’ means ‘day’ in French) and was also known to travel around the country working here and there. There was a strong journeyman tradition in Europe.

When I googled ‘journeyman woodcut images’ I was surprised at how similar my drawing was to one of them.

I then decided to create an altered book titled The Journeyman.

The Journeyman Altered Book
The Journeyman Altered Book

I had in mind a present day journeyman walking over the Umbrian hills in Italy. I’ve never been to that region of Italy, but I imagined dry, rocky paths, leathery-leaved oaks, ibex and lynx. In my book you can see the spire of a church in the distance, a village in the valley. I’ve featured a cave and remember that there is the unusual, underground, spritual community of Damanhur in Northern Italy.

The altered book has seven illustrated pages on the left of the central spread and six on the right. It will be for sale in my Etsy shop and Reflections website shop soon.

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To the Forest Ball and Papercut Dresses

Back in 2016 I learnt about an intrigueing 17th century dress hauled up from a shipwreck off the coast of Holland. Apparently it belonged to the Countess of Roxburghe, lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. It’s a romantic story that you can read about here. From then, I decided I’d like to do an art project centred around a dress, something that has been done many times before.

17th century shipwreck dress
17th century shipwreck dress.

I forgot about the idea until it was rekindled by a visit to see the paper dresses of Stephanie Smart at both Danny House, ‘Maison de Papier‘, in 2017 and Firle Place, The Regency Wardrobe, last year. (Firle Place was where the film Emma was filmed.) Here is a photo of one of the dresses in Danny House:

Paper dress by Stephanie Smart
Paper dress as part of the exhibition ‘Maison de Papier’ by Stepanie Smart at Danny House.

You weren’t allowed to take photos of the dresses at Firle Place, but I managed to take a general scene. You can see photos from all exhibitions on Stephanie Smart’s website.

Paper dresses in ‘The Regency Wardrobe’ exhibition by Stephanie Smart at Firle Place.

I’m always curious about paper art. There are other paper dresses, dress illustrations and paper objects made by different artists that I like. Check out Marina Terauds‘ dress illustrations here and artist Chris Lines’ mixed media dresses.

I like the idea of dresses and stories, dresses and words, sea mottled dresses, dresses underwater… the latter reminds me of the tragic drowning of Sarah d’Avigdor-Goldsmid, depicted in the sea by Chagall in the beautiful windows of Tudeley Church, which I have written about before.

I decided, as usual, to do an altered book. I reached out to the sea for inspiration, but nothing returned to me. I’ve been too embedded in the woods and forests, too much with trees, so trees had to be involved. I started the book last autumn, but it wasn’t going quite as I wanted it to. After much experimenting with folding paper to create a paper dress that could be folded into the altered book, I decided the result was a bit too similar to a gaudy Spanish souvenir doll in a flamenco dress :) I stuck with it though. I’ve used gold pen and gold paint on the papercut pages along with coloured inks. Here is To the Forest Ball altered book on a stand made out of a metal coathanger:

To the Forest Ball Altered Book
To the Forest Ball Altered Book

And here are a few of the inside pages with a lot of gold brambles and blue, dusky trees:

To the Forest Ball will be available in my Etsy shop and website shop soon.

I hesitated a lot while working on this book, feeling ambiguous about the dress. I don’t wear dresses myself, but over the years I’ve found myself illustrating women in long, old fashioned dresses.

I embarked on a picture that will be made into a card. I’ve called it Waiting for Rain because the woman is holding out her hand. I thought that I’d work on paper collaged with brown paper using pen and ink, gold paint and metallic inks. I also wanted to pattern the dress with a bramble design. The drawing is size A3. It shimmers in the light:

Waiting for Rain
Waiting for Rain – mixed media on paper
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St Mark’s Church Murals

We managed to get away for a couple of nights to the Hampshire/Surrey border. There we discovered a church with some beautiful murals painted about 100 years ago. The artist was Kitty Milroy (1885 – 1966), a woman local to the Upper Hale, Farnham area. When we visited, a friendly woman was about to hold a mum’s and toddlers’ play group. She said she had been aware of the murals all her life, but it was only last year that they were restored to their present state.

St Mark's Church mural
St Mark’s Church mural – the left side.

The left hand side shows figures standing beneath apple trees. Each one has a symbolic name. From left to right there is Showers and Sun united by a rainbow, then Moon and Clouds. Each of the figures stands squarely and was based on a local person.

On the right hand side there are a further four figures; Waters, Summer, Winter and Winds. I like how, at the bottom of Winds, there are wood anenomes depicted, woodland flowers we are trying to grow in the garden. They’re flowering around now.

St Mark's Church mural
St Mark’s Church mural – right hand side.

I like the pastel colours – especially the luminous, dusk blue of the sky and the glowing corn golds – and the delicate way the murals are painted. I also like how the figures are in natural surroundings. They remind me of the art of Watts Chapel (see Churches, Chapels and Frescoes) and were created around the same time, the time of the British Art Nouveau Movement.

Below the paintings of the figures are smaller paintings, quatrefoils (images shaped like a four-leafed clover) depicting some local and natural scenes – Crooksbury Hill, Crescent Moon, Stars of Heaven, Fire and Heat and others. I like the symbolism and the references to places local to the church.

St Mark's Church murals
St Mark’s Church murals – around the windows and altar.

The murals are inspiring. I have plans to paint the inside walls of our shed with a mural when it gets warm enough to sit outside. I can’t do as good a job as Kitty, but I can try. That will be a future post :)

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Nest Project

Nest Oracle Card
Nest Oracle Card – the deck is growing!

I could tell you about how grim the start of my year was and how, after one thing and then another, I caught Covid and am now recovering. Covid wasn’t so bad, but…enough about that. I’ll tell you instead about the Nest Project that I’ve been working on.

It’s time for nests. I’ve been watching a blackbird looking for suitable nesting sites in the garden and I’ve seen a crow diligently prising off twigs from one of our elder bushes for a nest in a tall tree a few doors down. I love finding nests from previous seasons, their intricacy intrigues me.

I recently went to an exhibition called Undercurrents by Louise McCurdy and Steve Geliot. It was about the starlings on the Palace Pier and their murmurations. Here is a photo from the exhibition of a giant starling’s nest. I love the interwoven flowers.

Nest in undercurrents Exhibition
Nest in Undercurrents Exhibition at the Phoenix Arts space, Brighton

Apparently flowers and bark have aromatic chemicals so if woven into a nest they can fumigate it and deter parasites.

I’ve got out of the library, Nests by Susan Ogilvy. The book is gorgeous with lovely pink/cream pages and her watercolour paintings are exquisite. Here is one of her wren’s nests made of fine twigs, grasses, moss, skeleton leaves, feathers and hair:

Susan Ogilvy's Wren's Nest
Susan Ogilvy’s Wren’s Nest

And here is a photo of a wren’s nest I found in the garden last year, deep in the ivy (photographed after the wrens had fledged and left). You can see that the materials are very similar:

Wren's Nest

Below is my feeble attempt at painting an old mud-lined song thrushes’ nest as a still life:

song thrush nest in watercolour
Song thrushes’ nest in watercolour, mud-lined with dry moss and grasses.

I’ve been working on my Altered Sketchbook and have added the next section, section 2, a nest in the undergrowth. I’ve based it on a willow warbler’s nest, which is typically domed and made close to the ground. I’ve made a short video showing the whole of the altered sketchbook so far, including the nest section:

Here are some images of the Nest section (click on the images to see larger versions):

I’ve started working on a Nest nature booklet/zine. So far I’ve drawn blackbirds at their nest in the undergrowth:

Blackbirds at Their Nest
Blackbirds at Their Nest for my new nature booklet/zine.

In Wolstonbury Woods, just outside Brighton, there’s a large circle of sticks in the shape of a beautiful, human-sized nest:

Nest sculpture Wolstonbury Hill
Nest sculpture Wolstonbury Hill

Who made the nest I had no idea, until I did a bit of research and discovered the website of artist Flick Ferdinando. You can see more photos of the nest and a film about it on her website.

I’ve collected together images of some of the nests I’ve found over the years – a lesser black-backed gulls’ nest; a dormouse’s summer nest; an unknown nest with woodpigeon and blackbird eggshells; a long-tailed tits’ nest; a blackbird’s nest(?) in a hornbeam; a wren’s nest. Each one has a story, told very  briefly below each image.

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Papercut Concertina Card – The Wood at Dusk

Dusk, when the edges of all things blur. A time of mauve and moonlight, of shapeshiftings and stirrings, of magic…

I have a new concertina card, The Wood at Dusk. I wanted to create one that was also papercut, giving the card a window on to a layered wood at sunset.

Here it is:

The Wood at Dusk papercut concertina card
The Wood at Dusk papercut concertina card.

On one side of the card there are badgers beneath the trees, through which one can see a deer against the sunset. On the other side there are deer, a fox, a flying tawny owl and a hedgehog.

The back of The Wood at Dusk papercut concertina card.
The back of The Wood at Dusk papercut concertina card.

The Wood at Dusk papercut concertina card.

The Wood at Dusk papercut concertina card.

the Wood at Dusk papercut concertina card.

I went into the woods yesterday evening just after sunset. The sky was pink blue blending to flame red. It was still and the air was a bit cold. I saw no deer or badgers, but the blackbirds, song thrushes and robins were singing, and the odd mistle thrush flew across the land as it descended into shadow. As I sauntered back, the moon, big, bright, white and full followed me through the trees – Wolf Moon, Old Moon, Ice Moon. I think I’ll call it Chalk Moon – it was so white – or Watching Moon, the first full moon of the year.

Sunset at High Park Corner
Sunset at High Park Corner Wood, just north of Brighton.

From my winter retreat I need to revisit the woods and, once again, feel a sense of belonging.

The Wood at Dusk is available in my Etsy shop.

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Doodling with Gold

I’m playing at being King Midas, gold-fingered, doodling with gold paint. I was very grateful to be given some blank notebooks for Christmas by a friend who knows how much I value them for writing my diary. I decided to decorate the covers with pen and gold paint.

Gold Tree Diary
Gold Tree Diary

I found it interesting to discover that Gold came into being in supernova explosions and by the clash of neutron stars. It’s been present in the dust of the universe from which the solar system formed. A lovely, mind-blowing thought on a wintry day.

I first started doodling tall, lanky, gold trees against a dark, starry sky on one book. Then, on another, I doodled brambles surrounding a fox contained within an ouroborus, that snake circling to bite it’s own tale, an ancient symbol of alchemy meaning infinity, beginnings and ends. In every end there is a new beginning. A fox had to appear somewhere on a book as it seems to be one of my totem animals.

Gold Fox Diary

It’s the end of the year and I’m not sad to say goodbye to it. It’s been a mixed year of trying to make things work, disconnection from my best self and minor struggles. But I’m not complaining, I’m grateful in many ways.

Recently I’ve been wanting to make a deck of oracle cards, so I have started in the same gold vein. Here is one – again with an ouroborus, but this time containing a mountain. It signifies distant lands, dreams, hopes and contemplation for me. I would like to know your thoughts about it’s meaning too.

Oracle card

I’ve blended gold acrylic paint with pearlescent acrylic inks in mauve, red and blue. The photo features a fossilised mollusc I was given for Christmas by my sister (a nautilus or an ammonite?). It’s amazing to think that it’s the beautiful trace left by a beautiful creature that, no doubt, lived in a tropical sea millions of years ago. Treasure – and far more precious than gold to me.

Shell fossil

I’ll buy some more kraft card and continue to make more oracle cards as and when I feel inspired, until I have a deck. I’ll let the images come to me. If any of you have ideas, I’d love to hear of them and then I’ll try to capture them on cards.

Anyway, wishing you a very happy 2022.

Diaries illustrated with gold paint

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Deep in the Winter – a Christmas Concertina Card

Just a quick post to say I have a new Winter/Christmas concertina card, Deep in the Winter.

Here’s the front side:

Deep in Winter concertina card
Deep in the Winter concertina card – front.
Deep in Winter
Deep in the Winter concertina card – front.

And here’s the other side:

Deep in the Winter concertina card – back.
Deep in Winter concertina card
Deep in the Winter concertina card – back.

Featured are deer, a squirrel, a robin, a fox, snowy trees and downland beneath a full moon – a Cold Moon (December), a Wolf Moon (January) or a Snow Moon (February) I guess.

It seems strange to be talking about snow and winter at the moment as it’s not that cold here in Brighton and certainly not snowy. I hope it isn’t a really cold winter when it comes!

The card is available in my Etsy shop and Reflections website shop.

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Altered Sketchbook – Section 1

I’m working on an’altered’ hardback sketchbook, which differs from any I’ve done before. One difference is that every page is illustrated, the backs of the pages as well as the fronts. Someone will be able to open the book anywhere and see a double page spread illustration with papercut work.

The other difference is that most of the book will be illustrated and cut – not just the central 12 pages. I stick two pages together between spreads for strength and because I like to papercut thick paper. I intend to make about five sections, each with a different scene. It’ll be like five books in one – and will be a lot of work!

So far I’ve done the first section – a night wood scene with badgers and owls beneath a crescent moon:

The first spread of my altered sketchbook.
The first spread of my altered sketchbook.
The second spread of my altered sketchbook.
The second spread of my altered sketchbook.
Spread three of my altered sketchbook.
Spread three of my altered sketchbook. Note the reverse side of the badgers :)
Spread four of my altered sketchbook.
Spread four of my altered sketchbook. Note the backs of the owls :)

Sections to come? Perhaps, deer, foxes, nests… I’m not out of the woods yet!

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Painted Diary Box

I was looking at the artwork of Azul Thomé and dreaming about how I’d like to be able to paint like her. I thought for a bit. I have no real patience going on a course and, besides, usually I’m only really interested in what I can create from myself, whatever it’s like. I’m not interested in painting like anyone else. One only gets better by trying, by working at it. So I got out my acrylics and started decorating a couple of diaries and a piece of bark rounded like a bowl:

Decorated diaries
Decorated diaries and circle of bark.

Pleased that the colour had come back into my life, I thought, if I decorate diaries, why not the wooden boxes I keep them in?

I have three wooden boxes from Hobbycraft and The Works that I store some of my diaries in. I dived in and started painting the outside and the inside of one of them and varnishing it. Here is the result, a monstrous, pink, shiny box painted with a tree, of course, and roots on the outside …

diary box
Diary box.
Base of diary box
Base of diary box.

and a figure inside, the guardian of my diaries:

Inside diary box
Inside diary box showing the head and arms of a guardian goddess.

I wanted to paint the figure as a goddess. Then I added face paint and she began to look male. Perhaps the figure represents the sacred union of the Masculine and Feminine. Now though, I tend to think of her as a ‘she’, a woman of the Wild, Golden Sun and she’s discovered a nest (just as I like finding nests), a nest of memories, thoughts, dreams.

Diary box with diaries
Diary box with diaries.

My diaries are strangely special to me. They are what I’ll leave behind, as I have no children, even if my writing is just banal or drivel. The box is a sort of treasure chest and that reminds me of the grave goods of the Ancient Egyptians. I’m not really thinking of death and beyond though, I’m enjoying making creations and painting. I may be improving a bit I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter to me at the moment. Now to work on my other two, wooden boxes…