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WHY I PAINT LICHENS. And mosses. And butterflies and bees, and bunches of primroses, and skeleton leaves… by Christina Hart-Davies

Photograph of Christina Hart-Davies by Hattie Miles
Photograph of Christina Hart-Davies by Hattie Miles

When Two Rivers Press suggested that I should write a book in their Botanical Portfolios series, following on from Julia Trickey’s beautiful Botanical Artistry, I was excited and flattered but rather nervous. My two previous books were about the history and folklore of plants and involved a great deal of very enjoyable research. But this book was more personal, more exposing, with no research to hide behind. But it was an opportunity to explain what inspires me, and to show some of my working practice.

I wondered how best to describe my work. Looking back over my long career, it became obvious that one driving principle was my passion for ALL things natural, how they work and how they relate to one another. Although my main interest is in plants, I am very aware that they do not exist in isolation, but are part of a bigger story.

At school in the 1950s there was always a class Nature Table. It inspired our interest in nature in a way that glossy TV natural history programmes just can’t do, and laid down foundations for a lifelong interest in the natural world. That wiggly mark on a leaf was caused by a tiny caterpillar eating a tunnel between the layers of the leaf. That sculptural, hard, brown pupa case contained a formless goo that used to be a caterpillar and would soon become a butterfly. Those attractive lines on the petals of a wild Geranium were there to guide insects to find nectar and at the same time pollinate the flower. Marvellous!

Living in a small country town, I and my friends spent our time, as children did in those days, playing in the fields or walking unaccompanied to school. We became familiar with wild plants, even using them in our games. I was a major contributor to the class Nature Table and my painting still draws on that fascination with all things natural and the connections between them.

Forced at school to choose between arts and sciences, I opted for the arts route but never lost my interest in the science of nature too. I ended up as both a professional botanical artist and illustrator – there is a big difference between the two, but that is a subject for another time! Isolated plants can make a striking portrait and, of course, are essential in illustrations intended to assist identification. But in reality plants are not perfect; they have dead leaves and caterpillar holes. They grow in habitats with other species around them. They start off as fragile seedlings and may end up as skeletons. Insects come to drink their nectar or lay eggs on them. I enjoy showing all this in my ‘art’ work, telling more of their story.

Butterflies, beetles and moths sometimes appear in my exhibition paintings too, and not always to cover an accidental paint spot! Even if animals themselves do not appear, I like to include evidence of their activity, such as galls, insect damage, empty egg-shells or fallen feathers. Many of these have the advantage that, on the whole, they don’t change colour, or wilt.

Like many botanical painters, I had included little tufts of moss or lichen when I found them growing on the twigs I was painting. Once I started studying them I became totally hooked, and have been painting them as subjects in their own right ever since. Although by no means an expert, I cannot resist pointing out these normally unregarded organisms to everyone. I just love that moment when, having handed someone a lichen-encrusted twig and shown them how to use a hand-lens, I hear them gasp in astonished admiration!

We are surrounded by plants and have always depended on them. The history of our interaction with them is endlessly absorbing to me and ranks alongside the aesthetic and scientific aspects of my work. I like to remind people of bluebell woods, picking blackberries, harvesting from the garden. As a society we are losing touch with nature and the seasons, and that alarms me. Our long traditions, the folklore we have woven around plants, which ones we have used as simple remedies – all this too is part of the story.

As I near the end of my painting career, writing this book has been a useful review, reminding me of what I have done and what more I would still like to do. I hope The Whole Story will transform people’s perspective and inspire them to look beyond the flowers to the wider story.

Christina Hart-Davies

Christina Hart Davies is well known for her precise and accurate botanical watercolours, which feature in prestigious collections worldwide and have won many awards including several RHS Gold medals. She has illustrated many books and field guides, most notably The Collins Wild Flower Guide. In 2016 Two Rivers Press published Christina’s own book A Wild Plant Year on the history, folklore and uses of Britain’s wild plants. The Whole Story: Painting more than just the flowers is her latest book and is available to order now. Christina graduated in Typography from Reading University. Her design background is invaluable in her illustration work and influences the composition of her exhibition paintings. She is an experienced and popular tutor and enjoys encouraging people to find their own style in which to celebrate plants of all kinds.

www.christinahartdavies.co.uk

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The Art and History of Whiteknights – A roundup

Over the summer we have posted a series of articles and videos, which you can link to below, celebrating the art and history of Whiteknights. The series accompanied the publication of The Art and History of Whiteknights book, which we published together with the Whiteknights Studio Trail, with support from The Friends of the University of Reading.

2020 is the trail’s 20th year and in the unfortunate absence of the trail itself in 2020 (it will be back in 2021!) we hope that the book, together with these fascinating posts and videos, will remind you of the wealth of creative talent in our locality, as well as inspiring you to reflect more deeply on the history and roots of this special part of town.

‘There’s something about the Whiteknights area that makes people stay here.’ – From the Foreword by Fiona Talkington, BBC Radio 3 Presenter and long-term resident

The Art and History of Whiteknights: 1 – A visit to the studio of local artist Sally Castle

The Art and History of Whiteknights: 2 – Jenny Halstead writes about the Whiteknights Studio Trail and Christchurch Green

The Art and History of Whiteknights: 3 – Martin Andrews on the Old Dairy, and a tour of his studio

The Art and History of Whiteknights: 4 – Chris Mercier

The Art and History of Whiteknights: 5 – Carole Stephens

The Art and History of Whiteknights: 6 – Andrew Boddington

The Art and History of Whiteknights: 7 – Salvo Toscano

The Art and History of Whiteknights: 8 – Kennet Quilters

The Art and History of Whiteknights: 9 – Hilary James

The Art and History of Whiteknights: 10 – A tour around the Whiteknights campus with John Grainger and Ian Burn

The Art and History of Whiteknights: 11 – A tour around Southern Hill and the area around Whiteknights with Evelyn Williams and Dennis Wood

 

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The Art and History of Whiteknights: 11 – A tour around Southern Hill and the area around Whiteknights with Evelyn Williams and Dennis Wood

Filmed to mark the publication of the book The Art and History of Whiteknights this video, produced by Ian Burn, features a fascinating historical tour around the Whiteknights and Southern Hill areas of Reading with commentary by Evelyn Williams and Dennis Wood. The video complements their written contribution in the book and points out the locations of some of the artworks featured in it.

Evelyn Williams is one of the founders of the Whitley Pump, a community-based website covering Katesgrove and parts of South Reading. She is actively involved in championing Reading’s heritage and is Chair of the Reading Conservation Area Advisory Committee.

Dennis Wood is an author and speaker on the history of Whitley, Southern Hill and surrounding areas. He is Vice Chairman and a Trustee of the Friends of Reading University and a tour leader for organised groups visiting the University campuses.

~~

In a normal year, we always look forward to the annual Whiteknights Studio Trail, where our local artists and craftspeople open their houses. This is the trail’s 20th year, and in a joint venture with the Whiteknights Studio Trail, and with support from The Friends of the University of Reading, Two Rivers Press is delighted to publish a beautiful celebratory book, The Art and History of Whiteknights, which features 28 artworks all inspired by the Whiteknights area of Reading. The featured artists have all exhibited on the trail over the years, and in the unfortunate absence of the trail itself in 2020 (it will be back in 2021!) we hope that this book will remind you of the wealth of creative talent in our locality, as well as inspiring you to reflect more deeply on the history and roots of this special part of town.

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Poet of the Week – 20: William Bedford

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—20: WILLIAM BEDFORD

William Bedford has published novels, children’s novels, short stories and several volumes of poetry. He lived in Kensington during the nineteen sixties, working in the City of London before becoming an academic. His novel Happiland was shortlisted for the 1990 Guardian Fiction Prize. His selected poems, Collecting Bottle Tops, and selected short stories, None of the Cadillacs Was Pink, were both published in 2009.

William Bedford writes:

The most important experience in my writing life happened in 1959, when we moved from the east coast of Lincolnshire to USAF Hemswell in north Lincolnshire. My father was the civilian police officer, responsible for seven isolated villages. The Americans were there with their intermediate nuclear missile programme. A group of scientists from the Douglas Company who were working on the fuelling programme were also on the camp. Among their families, I made friendships which have lasted through the decades.

The first serious literature I read – virtually the first books I read – were the great American poets, novelists and dramatists of that generation. By the time I was sixteen, I was reading Lowell, Berryman, Ginsberg, Carlos Williams, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, Hemingway, Faulkner, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. I also read Shakespeare and the English classics, but more importantly for my own writing Chekhov’s short stories and plays, and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I was obsessed with Ted Hughes, the one contemporary English writer who attracted Alvarez.

The Americans brought their own way of life with them – cars and fridges and televisions we had never seen – an all-night ten pin bowling alley in one of the empty hangars, cheeseburgers and hi-fi systems. Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue was the background music to these experiences, Jackson Pollock the scenery, New York and California the imagery colouring my ambitions.

Though I have written extensively about the farming background of my father’s family, and the east end slums background of my mother’s Sheffield family, the rhythms of American poetry and prose are the deepest influence in what I have tried to write. I never struggled to escape the influence of the iambic pentameter – Eliot and Pound’s ambition – because I came too late to traditional English versification – or at least the dominant tradition until Ted Hughes pointed out the deeper roots of English versification. And in prose, when Saul Bellow begins The Adventures of Augie March with ‘I am an American, Chicago Born’, I immediately fell in love with the declarative tone.

~

WHEN THE AMERICANS CAME

USAF Hemswell: North Lincolnshire 1962

When the Americans came,
they didn’t take to our gardens:
the apple orchard smelling of wild garlic,
foxgloves growing among the runner beans.

‘Do you have vampires around here?’
a visitor from Carolina asked me.
It was a shambles, Wilfred knew that,
nodding wisely as though apologising

for the ill manners of King George,
the clematis purple in the thatched roofing.
But come the softe sonne,
there are oxlips in Fry’s woods,

forget-me-nots in the shallow stream,
lettuce and spring onions for a salad.
It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat*

I tried to tell them. But they weren’t women,
and didn’t care to listen to a boy.
They preferred the red rosehips
we used for making wine.

Danced outside the village church
round the maypole Jack Parnham made.
Now they’re gone,
the wild garlic has returned.

*W.B.Yeats, ‘A Prayer for my Daughter.’

CAMP PERIMETER

for Trisha: October 1962

I bring you Ezra Pound’s poems,
sliding foxily the fox lanes,
cruising

the six o’clock dawn bristle.
But your father opens the door,
stiffening for duty,

ready for war.
The camp is no place for poets.
Military mowers cut the grass.

The air is nuclear.
‘Traitor!’ flares from his mouth. ‘Mad!’
I run for shelter.

‘Love,’ I want to shout. ‘Love.’
The dawn’s red lunatic.

[from The Dancers of Colbek]

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Poet of the Week – 19: Mairi MacInnes

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—19: MAIRI MACINNES

Mairi MacInnes (1925-2017) was born in Co. Durham and educated in Yorkshire and at Oxford. Towards the end of World War Two she served with the WRNs. Her first book of poetry, Splinters: Twenty-Six Poems (1953) was one of a series printed by The School of Art at the University of Reading. After marrying John McCormick, she lived in Berlin and the United States. As well as some nine collections of her poetry, she wrote two novels and Clearances, a memoir. She received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, and an Ingram-Merrill Fellowship. She received an Honorary Doctorate in recognition of her lifetime’s work from the University of York in 2014. Two Rivers Press published Amazing Memories of Childhood, Etc., her final collection, in 2016.

Mairi MacInnes writes:

I didn’t think of myself as a writer, no. I wanted to be a writer though. That is, to write well and all the time. I also wanted to be a girl rider in a circus, standing on a horse’s back as it cantered around the ring; but it turned out that to be a writer was better understood, and easier.

Yes, as time went on and I got better at it, it was natural to write in response to events. Writing was a way of dealing with them, even with confronting the opposition, with gestures in words, you might say. It is tempting not to care whether the writing has an effect or not.

I began with a clunking rhyme about the Dawn, illustrated with sun, rabbits, a deer, all in thick colour. The grown-ups were amazed. My brother, harsh critic, said it didn’t scan. From there I went on to a detective story, and so from poem to prose, poem to prose forever. I like writing both. The poetry, if it’s poetry, is subtler, and draws on different spheres, and doesn’t care so much to persuade, and if it works, is much more mysterious and one can be glad in it without self-congratulation.

Sometimes I’ve written draft after draft and got nowhere, to write the final one in my head during the night a long time afterwards. Or something simply writes itself, straight off. That is common. ‘The blood jet poetry’ doesn’t come with the morning post.

But it is the experience that matters, and the writing of the experience, not the author. Surely that is clear nowadays, when the reader is ready to throw the writer out of the window. That’s one answer. The other, from a completely different perspective, is that ‘we love other people’s lives: we need their focus.’ People, with all their oddities, are like us. Writers, therefore, are not only allowed to write what they want – they must. It is a duty they owe to the truth. One hopes the art is the proof of the truth.

People have mostly been kind. Goodness knows, we need our critics, and insight and careful analysis can only strengthen the will to write well. I could do with more criticism. I could also do with less. Hence, I tend to respond with disbelief.

[from ‘Mairi MacInnes in Conversation’ at 80]

~

Hugh Haughton has chosen two of his favourite poems and comments on them here in ‘MacInnes and the Place of Time’:

Mairi MacInnes’s poems work like long-exposure photographs. I love the grainy and ferociously grounded sense they give of specific places, viewed close-up but through the medium of time and the undimmed eyes of a survivor.

Invited to choose two poems from Amazing Memories, I have lit on a pair that dwell simultaneously in two places at once, or which are, as Seamus Heaney puts it, ‘bi-located.’

The first, ‘In York Minster’, dwells in the present on one of the most numinous historical buildings in England, but takes off from a memory of an earlier time in Spain (‘Remember how they said in Aranjuez / in dry Castile that the town trees were prodigies / because there were rivers underground / watering their roots?’) It goes on to reflect on the differences between the places, naming the different rivers in York and insisting the Minster is not a giant tree but ‘only stone, bare stone, magnesium / limestone, not wood.’ Having materially and nominally grounded the building (and the poem) in its actual place, however, the end conjures a magical convergence of the woods of Castile and the Yorkshire stone, viewing the cathedral’s mighty towers as like ‘stone oaks’ and the light ‘filtered as in a wood’ and people’s voices like ‘a rustle of birds in the undergrowth.’ At the close, the two places meet and marry, as she says: ‘I walk in the nave and remember Aranjuez.’

The second poem ‘Waking’ opens vertiginously by conjuring ‘A hole in the air off the isle of Lundy, / a hole in the head on the pillow this night.’ Thereafter it flips back and forward giddily between the dawn view from her bedroom in the present and memories of ‘a cauldron of black and white puffins aflash’ on the little island of Lundy, where she dwells on the birds ‘clumping together in rafts’ and going on to ‘nest on cliffs and in burrows.’ Again, the effect is to be in two places at once, and both aerial and deep-grounded, both with the birds in their nests, and the final shot of the young milkman ‘serving these houses like a messenger.’

In both poems, I find what MacInnes calls ‘Otherness’ and another of her poems describes as ‘other worlds that move / like ships at sea, faintly visible …’.

IN YORK MINSTER

Remember how they said in Aranjuez
in dry Castile that the town trees were prodigies
because there were rivers underground
watering the roots? No rivers run under York:
when they dug a cave under the Minster floor
to pour new footing for the crossing tower
lest it collapse, they found only a drain,
a runnel oozed out of the compressed clay,
runt of the brotherhood Ouse, Seven, Seph,
Riccal, Dove, Foss, Rye, Derwent, Hodge Beck,
that spread upon our plain and keep it green.
If in the crypt you sense that giant trees root here
you err. Above is only stone, bare stone, magnesium
limestone, not wood; and yet the mighty towers
leaf like stone oaks, the window tracery flowers,
the transepts are two boughs, the light on us
is filtered as in a wood, people’s voices
arrive with the rustle of birds in the undergrowth,
and I walk in the nave and remember Aranjuez.

WAKING

A hole in the air off the isle of Lundy,
a hole in a head on the pillow this night,
holes in the air, in the head, one in the other, containing
a cauldron of black and white puffins aflash,
aflash as they whirr and soar and plummet,
each like a well-flung bottle with trailing ribbon of feet
and a red and blue lozenge of a beak
in a white head that’s striped through the eye.

The last hour of night. The windows pale.
Quiet. The milkman hasn’t yet clanked up the path
nor the postman or newsboy come tramping,
the letterbox lid hasn’t yet clacked.
The geese haven’t flown over the gardens,
wings creaking like doors, giving each other advice.
True, the sky has winched a crack
of clear white line over the rooftops,
true that pigeons clatter up from the ash trees
(but now they clatter back).
A blackbird practises one phrase and then another.
Has someone spoken? No one.
Was that the telephone? No.

The puffins lift off from rocks by the sea,
from the floor of the bucket of mind
and the hole in the air off Lundy:
till, as they fling down the sky just this once
again and rashly mount to summit grass,
cramp strikes human legs, with sling-shot accuracy.
Some watcher on the cliffs has got me.
I slip from my bed and hobble the cold floor
(puffins falling through the enormous air),
and, yes, my legs come gradually free,
and words fly out once more
like puffins after winter storms spent on the great sea,
clumping together in rafts: in April
they break camp and whirr to the greening land
and nest on cliffs in burrows, and hatch their young;
and I that after all have no part in their kind
watch the milkman come, still a youngish man,
serving these houses like a messenger.

[from Amazing Memories of Childhood, Etc.]