Monday, 28 July 2008

Nancy is on holiday

('The Wanderer Destroyed' by John Bewick from Tales for Youth, London, J. Crowder for E. Newbery, 1794)

Saturday, 26 July 2008

The Cycle by Neil Bousfield

Neil Bousfield is the only artist I know to produce a wood engraving of a Job Centre. This image expresses the tension between two brothers competing for little benefit, and both the subject and the artist's medium are handled with great delicacy.

The print is one of two hundred in Neil's 'novel in wood engravings', The Cycle, which he showed me recently. The narrative of The Cycle refers to a pattern of social exclusion repeated through the generations in a family who escape their difficult reality through crime and alcoholism.

The Society of Wood Engravers have sponsored Neil through recent printmaking projects. Nonetheless, with the epic project of this book before him, Neil took a very economical attitude to the job, and disciplined himself to produce one engraving every day. The integrity of art and politics calls to mind the book works of Frans Masereel. Neil is now planning a print series which will portray different aspects of the city of London. I can't wait to see it.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Beatrix Potter Drawings at Sotheby's

A maudlin Sotheby’s sale in London yesterday offered not so much as a hiccup of interest in the inscribed Yeats or Auden volumes but there was some unexpected entertainment for those who managed to stick it out to the very end. The last lots included ‘The Rabbit’s Christmas Party’, a series of three recently discovered watercolour drawings by Beatrix Potter. Aside from the usual crowd of holidaying Americans and bored London dealers, some might have been surprised to see at the very back of the room a young girl with golden hair, not unlike Potter’s ‘Lucy’, but dressed in an aquamarine hoodie and lime green wellington boots instead of a smock and kerchief.

The first watercolour in the series, which shows rabbits arriving at a party in a formation that has been compared to Renoir’s Les Parapluies, had a high estimate of £60,000. Despite using her paddle more like a Regency fan to hide behind than a tool to bat down other bidders, the unknown girl saw out several other parties and beat the price up to £100,000 before deciding to withdraw. Bidding in the room was fierce for the second image ‘Dancing to a Piper’ which details debauchery almost unparalleled in any published Potter text, which I dare not reproduce here for fear of offending the internet watchdog.

No doubt many assumed that ‘Lucy’ was miffed, but she entered the fray again with the third print in the series, ‘The Departure’(which featured on the catalogue cover, above). Astutely allowing several dealers in the room to reach the limits of their pockets, she waited until the lot seemed sure to go to a persistent telephone buyer before bidding £101,000 to a general gasp of surprise. With great tenacity and courage, she continued up to £200,000. The pauses to touch base with reality (and a party of relatives) between bids grew longer and the auctioneer Tessa Milne appealed for patience. Finally, the telephone bidder realised he was no match for his opponent: she secured the drawing at a hammer price of £240,000 (£200,000 more than Potter drawings tend to fetch - and said to be the most expensive illustration ever bought at auction) and received an ovation from the room.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

'But No Pips': Lemonade 1834

For light summer reading, I've fallen back on Mrs Beeton. I highly recommend her recipe for lemonade, although I haven't yet followed her charming injunction to add a little sherry. (For the benefit of the modern reader, 1 lb= 450g and 1 quart = 2 pints).

Ingredients: The rind of 2 lemons, the juice of 3 large or 4 small ones, 1 lb of loaf sugar, 1 quart of boiling water.

Mode: Rub some of the sugar, in lumps, on 2 of the lemons until they have imbibed all the oil from them, and put it with the remainder of the sugar into a jug; add the lemon-juice (but no pips), and pour over the whole a quart of boiling water. When the sugar is dissolved, strain the lemonade through a fine sieve or piece of muslin, and, when cool, it will be ready for use. The lemonade will be much improved by having the white of an egg beaten up in it; a little sherry mixed with it, also, makes this beverage much nicer.

Above, a young lemon spotted at Chelsea Physic Garden

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Work in Progress

For the last few weeks I've been collaborating with the artist Paula Naughton. Paula is a photographer who I first met when we were both working at The Center for Book Arts in New York in the early noughties. Our first collaboration was on t-shirts sourced from the garment wholesalers around the Center and printed with wood type. The current project is taking shape around a series of photographs of a derelict country house in Ireland.

My words should illuminate Paula's images, so rather than reiterating what she shows I'm trying to shift my focus sideways to avoid repetition. A collaboration is a little bit like dancing: instead of copying the other person's movements you should listen to the shared music. It helps to have a long-standing knowledge of the person you are working with.

Paula’s strength is an impetuous, sharp intelligence which she combines (unusually) with both a lyrical imagination and practicality. Like many photographers, she’s an illusionist, playing with light. She knows that the appearance of a scene conceals many stories. Her world-view is curious and evocative, suggestible to memory and changes over time.

The sense of loss in Paula’s work is a problem to me - I can only express personal reactions to an emptiness which is usually left for the reader to interpret. Yet I don’t want to clutter this cathedral silence with my cracked voice.

Objects: stained mattresses; bedsprings laced with leaves; old mirrors; a nest of twigs in a chimney. I drafted some prose poems about these artifacts but even the vaguest stories seemed presumptive. I wanted to write not about the domestic scene but my awareness of the images as photographs. I began to look at the sense of stillness in the rooms, the way light intruded on otherwise abandoned rooms and introduced a sense of time passing. Light has always been a metaphor for spiritual awakening. Paula's photographs suggest the arrested moment of discovery, which made me consider how a scientist would have captured such a scene – the masses of related objects, the speed of light, the complexity of fixing time in quantum theory. In the stillness ideas lurked. Einstein believed that equations waited to appear to the right person, like writing in steam on a mirror.

Once Paula suggested slides as a format, my ideas for a scientific text were given greater scope. I imagined photos and words imprisoned between glass like cells under a microscope, ready to be subjected to the viewer's eye. I like the miniature intensity of slides, and the use of a light projection also references the original act of photography. Alongside my own text, equations will offer finite equivalents to the light rays interrupting the abandoned rooms: the Angle of Minimum Deviation of Light, the de Broglie Equation, Newton’s Rings and Young’s Slits.