Monday, 14 December 2009

It is snowing in the book of my childhood

WHEN I WAS SMALL, my family travelled to Oberammergau, a Bavarian village at the feet of the Alps where the houses are painted with fairytales and the winter snows are deeper than the doorknobs. We lived there on and off over a few years with the cowbells and woodcarvings, the Kofel mountain, the Bavarians with their rules, and the Passion Play for which Oberammergau is best known.

I have fond and vivid memories of this time. The summers of my recollection are sunny green grass and bees and buttercups, the river Ammer where my brother threw his toy helicopter, and paper windmills and glass jewels stuck in the earth between the flowers in the garden of Frau Jaekel who lived in the village. But the winters... that cold winter when my parents had to tear the wallpaper from the walls for a fire to warm the old house we had just moved into. In the very deep snows, we couldn't drive our van to buy groceries and so my mum pulled us and the shopping along on a wooden sledge which still sits upstairs in my parents' house. Nuns used to leave us gifts of food on the door handle, I wore a pinstriped snowsuit, and Schnuffel the St Bernard ate icicles.

(that's a little Rima driving the sledge with my mum and brother)

I have been thinking lately... this snow in all its blue lustre and creaking cold beauty has stayed with me always, in my imagination and in my paintings. Every winter I paint a snowy picture which usually turns into my Christmas cards. There is snow in this painting of mine, and this and this and this and this and this. I don't know where it comes from. I think if the world in my paintings were to be hunted for on a map, it would reside somewhere North, somewhere where there are white nights in the summer and dark days in the winter, somewhere blanketed in snow. Perhaps an Eastern-European Scandinavia? A Finnish Siberia? A Germanic Russia? A Russian Svalbard? A Saami Holland? Wherever it is the snow hangs heavy on the conifer forests and logs are stacked under low hung eaves for fires by which stories will be told.

These thoughts led me back to the books of my childhood, three in particular, which I think played an enormous part in carpeting my imagination with winter.

The first, a well loved favourite, given to me when I was quite young I think, is The Fox and the Tomten by Astrid Lindgren, after a poem by Karl-Erik Forsslund and illustrated by Harald Wiberg. This is a story based on the Scandinavian folkloric character of the Tomte which I have written about before.

He is a protector of the homestead so long as you leave him a bowl of porridge on winter nights; in this tale he reliquishes his porridge to Reynard the fox to stop him eating the chickens. Harald Wiberg's paintings (watercolour I think) have stayed strongly with me, the shadows on snow so blue and moonlit, the still quiet of a snow covered night so well described, the hearth-glowing family interior so warm in contrast with Reynard out in the cold through the window, and the filigree of white branches so delicately frosted.

The second, a book I would read with delicious expectation every Christmas Eve of my youth: The Night Before Christmas by Clement C Moore and illustrated by Douglas Gorsline. This too was given to me young, and I can still recite the well known poem in my head. The excitement and magic, not just of Christmas for a child, but of snow itself, was conjured in a young me by this book.

"The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow
gave a lustre of midday to objects below."

And the wonderful reindeer entourage arrives over rooftops, bringing sugar canes and bells down chimneys worldwide. The night before Christmas was always far more wonderful than the day itself for me because of all the possibility of strange and impossible rooftop visits and the almost unbearable anticipation of stocking-rustlings and chocolate coins at the bottom of the bed.

The third is a book I have mentioned before. Trubloff by John Burningham is the story of a mouse who wanted to play the balalaika. He lives with his family in the panelling of an inn bar somewhere in Eastern Europe, and is enchanted by the music played by the gypsies who stop at the inn for food and shelter.

Burningham's illustrations are wonderful in their rough scratchy paint-stipply simplicity. I envy his ability to create innocence in deceptively simple brushstrokes. With this book too, a memory of snow was made in me. These skies are grey blizzard skies, and the air feels freezing.

The huge yellow block-printed moon is somehow far away. And have you ever heard of a mouse on skis? Let alone one who can play the balalaika...

Now as well as these favourites, there were many others. I remember well the page in Beatrix Potter's Tailor of Gloucester when Simpkin the cat ventures out into the snowy town on the one night of the year when all animals can talk.

And those stories like that of the Ant and the Grasshopper when one animal has been diligent in his preparations for winter and the other has frittered summer away and ended up cold and homeless, a little like red-footed Thumbeline, taken in by the mouse, in this version of the tale illustrated by a genius of watercolour - Lizbeth Zwerger.

There are an awful lot of animals out in the snow in these books aren't there? Mice and foxes and cats and reindeer. I do wonder how their conversations go on that one wonderful night.
And finally I'd like to tell you of another book about an animal out in the snow. Though it is one I have discovered more recently, the beauty of the illustrations must be sung. Gennady Spirin is an artist whose work I have long admired.

This story, Martha, is a true account of Spirin's young son Ilya finding a wounded crow in the Moscow snow and nursing it back to health. It is a simple tale illustrated exquisitely and should be on everyone's shelf. I love the cover for its black and blood red against white, and the snowflakes all over.

I have a theory that the storybook imagery you experience as a child enters you in a different place to visuals taken in as an adult. There is a separate storehouse for these precious visions, limited in their number as your childhood years, but brighter and more musical by far than the myriad pictures that pass your eyes in later living.


In my musings on snowy imagery, I must not forget Pieter Brueghel's beautiful winter paintings. His bare branches against duck-egg sky, his many peasant colours against snowy Dutch landscape, are for me a triumph in painting, and a beauty to aim for.
Here is The Hunters in the Snow:

And here is The Numbering At Bethlehem:

And last I bring you some winter paintings of my own. Over these last weeks I have painted two snowy scenes, both in watercolour, one the tale of a fleeing, what from I do not know, and one of a well loved rooftop visit on the night before Christmas.

Here is Snow Flight Under the Seasky:

(in progress details - click to enlarge)

(print available here)

And here is Father Christmas:

(print available here)

I am taking a little hibernation from blogging for a while, but in the meantime I can highly recommend the A Polar Bear's Tale blog for a plethora of snowy painting inspiration and other Northern delights.
I wish you all a splendid Wintertime, a happy Christmastime, a magical Yule, wherever you are, may there be hoofprints in the snow and chocolate coins, Christmas Eve rustlings, tales by the fire and love.


And I leave you with the childhood Christmas words of an oft-quoted favourite, Dylan Thomas, from A Child's Christmas in Wales:

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.

( the rest here)

Friday, 4 December 2009

Sunrise, Moonset, Lanternlit, Rainwet

FIRST FROST after weeks of wet. And the crystal grass is pinking with the sun-up. It is beautiful and it is cold and I jump back in to light the morning fire. Our truck has moved again, though only a few feet this time. Now we are tucked behind the early cock-a-doodling chicken enclosure, protected from winter winds and our back door faces east to greet this:

Our windows see new things now, different branches from before and the sunrise shoots right through the windscreen. The round bedroom window faces west now and shows us the setting sun, though sunset is far earlier than bedtime!

Nights are noticeably long - endless dark hours seem darker when your evenings are lit by lamplight. If you wander out in the field after dark, the crisp moon nights are clear and cold and lit just enough to see where to put your feet. The grass is wet and there are sounds of roosting birds rearranging themselves in the hedgerow, a knotted layer of blackness in the black. When the moon is up behind the bare night tree bones all you can see of our house are a few orange lantern spots in the distance.

In these last few weeks I have been to see my family again. In London we saw some wonderful works of art. The Sacred Made Real exhibition at the National Gallery is a rare and unique opportunity to see seventeenth century Spanish devotional painted woodcarvings of exquisite quality. Many of them are lifesize and imposing in their realism, and yet somehow more than real. There is blood and bruising, ivory teeth, glass eyes and horn fingernails. This figure of the dead Christ is by Gregorio Fernández:

These figures are still in use today in religious processions in Spain, they are kissed and revered.
The photos can in no way portray the powerful presence of this beautiful work.
We also went to an art and antiques fair, and saw (amongst all the nasty chintz and china and polished veneer) a stall of Russian icons. Hanging all together like this they were beautiful. A patchwork of wonderful painting. And, I noticed, all in my favourite ochre-red-olive Rima-palette.

All together these artworks were a triumph of painting on wood. But the Spanish carvings and the Russian icons also had in common that element of devotion to the object itself in some way. I think that artists over the centuries who have made with their hands and their souls objects that are beautiful, are intercessors, portrayers of the inexplicable wonder of life or the divine or whatever you choose to call it. And in seeing these beautiful objects, these sights that delight the eye, some transformation takes place within you, because of what the artist was feeling whilst creating. Often I am asked to explain my paintings, which seems to me a slightly ridiculous request. As a visual expression, a work of art should need no explanation in another medium (words) I think. Of course it is interesting to learn of the stories behind paintings, but for a work of art to be utterly dead to you until you read an essay explaining the underlying idea, is failure.
Philosopher Roger Scruton delved into this further the other day, in his excellent programme Why Beauty Matters. It is about time someone pointed out that the Emperor that is conceptual art has no clothes on.

I returned to Devon on train tracks flanked on either side by lakes that were once farms. All over England the rain has fallen and fallen and rivers have burst their banks. Luckily we are parked on top of a hill, but the river Teign which we must cross to walk to town is certainly full and ferocious. The clouds have been passing over and over, rain storms then a brief sunny respite, then rain again. Everywhere is wet and constant rivulets run down all the lanes' gutters.
The sunlit interludes make the roads and the hedges sparkle, and birds busy themselves before winter. But there is always a leaden cloud in inky sky bringing up the rear.

While I was away, Tui had been making beautiful cupboards again. This delightful thing is a shelf for all those bits of paper that you write things on and put down somewhere! And it's for books that are left on corners and road maps and leaflets and thesauruses (thesauri?). It is made from an old piece of wood that was something else, and the broken paint surface makes it look like an antique piece of folk art I think. Here it is by day:

And perhaps you can spot it here below by night, amid the glow of an amber evening. An evening for heating bath water on the fire, for crocheting next to a candle, and for reading books with a horlicks.

I have been painting snowy paintings for winter, which I shall show you soon. Meantime, I am selling pictures at the Chagford ChristMART tomorrow, Saturday 5th December in the Jubilee Hall from 9am - 1pm. I shall be in excellent artistic company, and there'll be mulled wine too.
May your evenings be warm and lanternlit, and all England's puddles freeze in the December sun.