Painting, Music, Words

When, in February of 2015, I wrote an email to Robert Macfarlane< I never imagined in my wildest wild dreams that in 2019, in January, I would find myself working with some of the finest people in the land.

I’ve spent the last week in the fine company of Adam and Caroline from Folk by the Oak, who set about commissioning and developing The Lost Words, Spellsongs. We were staying in a beautiful house, and one by one by two or more musicians began to arrive. We had all met before, for a couple of days in the Lake District and in the intervening time ideas had begun to form, but now, in these few days, songs were to be written, spells and summonings out of silence, and a stage show organised. Five venues, four shows in February, a cd/lp to record. I had been so looking forward to this, but on arrival found I was, well, a bit shy……(didn’t last long)

Caroline had the perfect thing to relax us. She had arranged a foraged feast, put together by her friend, Liz, who conducted the evening with glorious showmanship, cooking in the amazing kitchen in Monnington House. So amazing.

What followed over the next few days was astonishing. Listening to these people make song from silence, add such a layer to our book, well……..and while they crafted the air to vibrate and take the spells deeper into the soul, I worked away to shape the package that would hold the disc, the vinyl, upstairs, in a corner of the bedroom. I wanted to show the musicians, and Caroline and Adam what I had in mind. I wanted to paint each musician as a creature, with a part of their instrument, worked on gold leaf, to echo, harmonise with The Lost Words, and I began with Rachel Newton and her harp.

Sketch became painting…..

After putting a wash on the egret ( a thing which confused a good many people) I took the painting downstairs to add the gold while the musicians played. White gold for this one.

Later I added the colours to the strings and thankfully got them in the right order, and worked into the image to balance it better.. It was wonderful to paint with the harp beside me. All the other pieces will need to be worked using sketches and photographs.

And all the while songs took shape, working in pairs, alone and then together, adding words, lines, harmony, and it was just wonderful to hear the developing picture of the music. And Robin looked after us all, and Caroline and Adam came with food, and it was heaven on earth, utterly being in each moment, wanting to hang on to it, but knowing that I needed to go home, and paint.

There was much watching on my part as well as listening. Trying to find each creature. Jim was a barn owl at first. But then he changed. He’s quiet. Listens. But when he opens his mouth to sing, he has a beautiful voice. So, he’s a lark. And Chris is raven. I will work on these over next couple of weeks as fast as I can paint. Working on the rough drawings while listening to the music was sublime.

So, we have four performances coming up. I think the Southbank is sold out. And I will be on stage, painting. So, I painted otters while the music played and I spoke, enchanted, chanted and spelled an otter in ink with Robert’s words then a partner for her while a river of music washed over us.

Later I inked a small charm.

Now the musicians are all in the studio, working hard to put the cd together. Alison, who designed The Lost Words and the walls of the hospital, is working on banners for the stage, and the cd/vinyl design. I am home for a week working on the binding of creature to instrument to musician, a different kind of spell.

There will be more images to come as Ellie Lucas was there with her camera. She’s the photographer for the project, and has put images up on The Lost Words Spellsongs instagram and twitter. Follow all the musicians for more, on this project and all the work they do. There are links to them on the Spellsongs website.

What a way to start a year.

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Day began with walking at the beach where creatures drew patterns in the sand. Lines drawings of journeys.

Later, coffee with a friend and I was reminded of some work that I keep seeing. First it was a giant sparrow on the wall of a building in Haverfordwest. I drove around town twice so I could take a second look. Beautiful. Then in the homes of friends, small birds landing.

I remembered that the gallery in Solva had some of this work in the window, so went to see, and found…

Warren’s work is gorgeous. Understated, beautifully drawn, small souls of birds painted on wood. Each bird looks as if it might fly away any second. And the gallery is such a peaceful, interesting place to be.

I bought a small flock to hang on the walls once I have painted them. We talked about the shape of birds, how all drawing is from memory, how to catch that shape and how the only way to learn is to do, over and over. And after I had bought a robin and four sparrows I said he really should put his prices up. (My advice is to get in there now and fast, because these are such beautiful creatures)

I think this says it all….. ‘I would like to paint the way a bird sings’……… you can take that in many ways.

You can see more of Warren’s work in Oriel Fach in Solva, near the Harbour Inn, or online on his website.

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The Lost Words and the Last Year

The last year has been a whirl of a year. Far too much away from home, not enough time spent painting, but when I did it was with a sharper focus, I think, and a stronger desire to learn and grow.

Sometimes it’s hard to find the words that are needed. This blog post is just to say thank you. Thank you to all of those who found The Lost Words, took it to their heart and helped it to grow, from bookshops to readers, to all of those who took it upon themselves to fund raise to place the book in schools, hospitals, care-homes, hospices, thank you. To all those who donated to make the crowdfunders into such a success, thank you, and to our publishers for being open to such an astonishing movement of people, thank you. And look at these crowdfunders. Aren’t they amazing! And there were others, where The Wildlife Trust in Suffolk, Norfolk, Herefordshire, and more partnered with people to raise the funds. And The John Muir Trust gave us a platform for the Explorer’s notes and under the guiding hand of Rob Bushby we reached out to so many teachers, explorers. And thank you again to Hamish Hamilton for supporting and extending this to the Challenge Cards, which, like the Explorer’s Notes was crafted by Eva John with help from Robert and myself.

And thank you to all the teachers who have taken The Lost Words into the hearts of their schools. The work both Robert and I have seen inspired by the book is amazing, and the enthusiasm the children have shown is incredible. At one school Father Christmas reported to me that all the children were full of talk of kingfishers, acorns, wrens and nexts and when asked what they wanted for Christmas it was their own copy of the book. How utterly amazing and beautiful.

Thank you to Compton Verney who continue to tour The Lost Words Exhibition, and to the 52 000 plus visitors to the show so far. It’s been such a pleasure working with all the people at Compton Verney, and The Foundling Museum and The Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh were just amazing. It’s such a privilege to have my work shown in such amazing places. ( The next venue is Nyman’s Gardens in West Sussex and I will be there for 2 days talking to people about the paintings and signing books.)

Thank you to Hay Festival for making The Lost Words their Book of the Year last year. If you don’t know the Hay Player then follow the links, for those who couldn’t make it Hay sometimes record, sometimes film…Both Winter Fest with Robert and Summer Fest with Kerry Andrew and Nicola Davies were amazing!

And thank you for all the coverage in the press for the book, but mostly thank you for this thoughtful piece from Daegan Miller which grew from this amazing review.

I think the best way we can say thank you is to begin work on something new. Over the last few months Robert and I have been talking, with each other, with our publisher. It’s time now to settle to work, to make a new book. That will be our best way to say thank you, to try to craft something, together. Another creature that we hope will find a way to hearts in the way that The Lost Words has. Not a book for children. Just a book for people, of all ages. As we settle into it, let it embed itself into our hearts, we will be able to say more.

But for now, just thank you. And I hope your Christmas is a peaceful one, and as good as it can be.

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Take a Moment

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Turning otters into books

Because I can, and because it eases my soul to do so I’ve taken to ink again. These inky twisters are for sale for the library fund that will be held at Kenilworth bookshop for Paddox school. 

Once upon a time I was a child. I know the power of a school library to change lives, open minds, encourage empathy. When I grew up we had so few books. A book was a luxury. I remember taking slim pocket money into W H Smiths to buy a book, being so scared that I would ‘get it wrong’, buy the wrong book. Libraries, with librarians, and teachers, help children to find the right book. And some bookshops, most indie bookshops, will do the same thing. They grow the readers of the future.

Otters, made from ink, can turn money into books. So these are offered for sale, and the money will go to Kenilworth books for the children of Paddox school, and maybe, if the teachers know of a child who really could do with a book at home, to keep, then they could quietly gift that child a book from the library, or from the book fund. Because I hear more and more of children who have no books at home. Children who are scared to go home and children who cry because they will be hungry when they go home. 

Kenilworth Books is a wonderful indie bookshop. I’ve watched Tamsin and Judy help people find the right books. Many in publishing are so comfortable with books and reading they fail to realise that not everyone feels like that, and that fear can be a wall that excludes people from the joy of reading. It’s almost as if we are in a club, but don’t make it easy for others to join. My parents weren’t big readers. They didn’t know about which books I would enjoy and couldn’t guide me. But they did know that the ability to read was important. Beyond the simple mechanics of being able to read there’s the alchemy that can take you anywhere. Reading is the only way to time travel. It’s intimate, as that one voice of the author whispers inside your head. It can open your mind, help you live other lives, see other places. It’s my passion and my joy.

So, I ask you to help me. Each of these otters is £250. To secure an otter email me with the words ‘otters for books’ in the subject matter. I will place them below to help identify which otter. Then I will tell you how to pay. Thank you. The auction still continues until this eve, unless more bids come in. Now, I’m off to play with ink.

Painted at Compton Verney last week with ink from Katherine Rundell, who went to Japan to write an article about a painting by Hokusai. 10 x 25cms ‘Otter with a chine’ £250Sold
Painted, again with ink from Japan at Compton Verney, this is a tumbling romp of two otters with a ‘Ring of Bright Water’  made from gold leaf 10 x 25cms and £250Sold.
Painted today, with the same ink, a soul’s ease of a tumble with chine. 10 x 25 cms Sold
Painted today, ‘Infinity otters’ 25 x 10 cms £250 Sold.

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An auction, a school visit, an otter

I have to confess to being utterly confused by the new interface with wordpress, BUT I want to auction a piece of work for a school library, so I will try my best to make this work, but if I am silent for a while afterwards it’s because there are things I would rather be doing than trying to get to grips with this. But first, a puffer fish Christmas bauble.

Last week I went into a school in Rugby. The school had been working on The Lost Words, and there was wonderful work on the windows to greet us as we arrived.

I get so many requests from schools to visit, and so many are working on The Lost Words, often using the Explorer’s Notes written by Eva John. But I can’t go to them all. I need to be home, making new work. This visit had been planned for a while.

In front of an assembly of children and teachers I talked about how the book came to be, and why, and how it was made and then using an otter spell, speaking an otter out from the brush in ink and water I painted otters. Later, as two classes watched, asking questions while I worked, I a wren on an acorn, a small dragon.  Kenilworth Books supported the event, and Tamsin had been in the school before me, working with the children. They are the most brilliant bookshop who work so hard to support authors and illustrators, independent publishers, build readers of the future. They help to find grants for schools to purchase books for school libraries and bake the best biscuits. Oh, and do other amazing things too

After school parents bought books for the children. I left the two big otters I had painted for the school library, and the wren on the acorn and the Paddox dragon, to watch over the school, but the other otter came home with me. Because the other otter has a job to do.

This otter is a different kind of library otter. And now this otter has white gold letters, and an otter spell, Robert Macfarlane’s, but written by my hand in pencil, and gilded splots, and now this otter is for auction.

To bid on this otter, who is painted with sumi ink on watercolour paper, gilded with white gold leaf and is 75 x 56 cms leave a comment on this blog post with your bid in £. The reserve on the otter is £100. I’m happy to post anywhere in the world. The money raised will be paid to Kenilworth Books where it will be held for the school library of Paddox school to draw on to buy books for the school. ( Like many bookshops Kenilworth offer a discount to schools, as well as advice on new and brilliant books and fantastic backlists by authors) It’s like a Christmas present to a whole school. The auction will close 24 hours AFTER the last bid has been placed…….. so, it may take a day, a week, a month, but probably not so long….. but it’s not like eBay where people can sneak in a last bid before it times out. The aim is to raise as much money as possible for the school. All comments have to be actioned by me. And I will try to keep an eye on the blog, and authorise comments. As auction comes to a close I will contact bidders by email. Please email me if you have any questions, or if you wish to keep your bidding anonymous, and I will add your bid for you.

If you could, please share. Help us turn ink into otter into money into books into readers. And, well, I seem to have got to grips with the new interface, so maybe an old dog can learn new tricks. Right, I’m away to read my book. And Ivy is very pleased to have me home.

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Kingfishers and Kent

This time last year there was a crowdfunding movement to raise money to place a copy of The Lost Words into every school in Scotland. The campaign raised so much, and it was possible to send with each book the printed notes for teachers to help them use the book to inspire learning. On the success of the campaign more grew, and a community of people blossomed, helping each other to find ways through large and small donations across Britain, colouring the country with places where mine and Robert’s book has been given to schools. We’ve seen amazing work produced by incredible children with teachers just astounding us with their creative use for this tool, this book, that we made.

In Suffolk the campaign was led by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, and books often flew into schools accompanied by owls.

Harry, who makes murals, has made this wonderful map that he updates regularly as new areas spring up and new campaigns become successful. Robert and I have tried to support where ever we could. For Suffolk we made a piece of art that became something like a ‘raffle prize’, a feather of a barn owl, and also a print of an owl with a new barn owl spell that became a book plate for each book. Inked otters became a new form of currency.

The movement spread and in Wales Earth Science Partners raised money to place the book in care homes, and in Oxford, a movement grew to put a copy of the book in every hospice in the land, and work onto the walls of Sobell House Hospice. Amazing.

In support of The Lost Words for Kent Robert is donating one of the few remaining limited edition prints, of the kingfisher, for auction. This is produced by Aquarelle Publishing who are a joy to work with. They worked and worked to find a way to gild the prints, and this is Robert’s personal artist’s proof of the special edition gilded kingfisher.

Kingfisher was the place we began The Lost Words, in 2015. Robert wrote the spell as his first acrostic, and I painted, not this one though. This was my third attempt, and this is the one used in the book.

There are only 2 of these artist proofs. The other belongs to my sister.

I’ve held auctions before on my blog. This is how it works. The reserve for this is £350. To bid you leave a comment on this blog post with your bid in £s. All money will go to The Lost Words for Kent schools. 

All comments have to be actioned by me, so sometimes things get muddled, your bid will only appear when I have authorized it, but I will email you if someone has bid more, and usually, somehow we make it work. The auction ends 24 hours AFTER the last bid has come in. It’s not like eBay where you can wait until the last minute and sneak a bid plus a quid in. And as the last few bidders are left standing I will email to let bidders know if they’ve been outbid to see whether they want to  place another bid.

Although it is a print it is unique in that it has hand written piece on front and Rob is happy to write the whole of the kingfisher spell on the reverse of the print and dedicate if requested. You can find out more about the pieces here at Aquarelle’s website.

If you would please share the post that would be wonderful.

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How a book became a building

At the beginning of the year I was asked to ‘express an interest’ in a commissioned piece of work. The request took me by surprise, but once I had written, confessed my ignorance, had the procedure explained to me I thought about it for a while.

The commission was for the atrium and walls of the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore. The history of the hospital linked the outside, the natural world, to health. The site had been moved from central London to the greener edges of the city where the air was purer.

The Lost Words had already brought us many stories of healing, so it seemed the best idea to pitch to somehow take the core of the book, the close connection with the natural world, as the central idea for my ‘pitch’. For this I needed help, from Robert, for his words, but more especially from Alison O’Toole, who designed The Lost Words. Together we put forward our pitch, moved on to the next phase and then I had the terrifying experience of my first job interview in my life, before a board of interested people, from the chair of the charitable trust, to doctors, nurses and surgeons working in the hospital.

Over the next few weeks Alison helped me to show how the book could work, transferred to the walls. My initial vision had been a kind of freeze along the walls, but Alison, well, she had better ideas. What followed, once we had won the job, to decorate the corridors of four floors of the hospital, eighty panels in total, was a very steep learning curve.

Each floor was colour co-ordinated, and the children’s ward was the Buttercup ward, so Robert was commissioned to write a buttercup acrostic, especially for the ward. I looked around and found out of season buttercups growing at the airfield. A morning lying down in the long grass, a few days painting buttercups and Alison magicked up a meadow.

Alison took elements of images from The Lost Words and other books, and paintings of mine, and made a tapestry, rich with colour, but also singing with space and light. On each of the panels in the Buttercup Meadow there is a small vole to find. We both thought long and hard about the people who would use the building, see these walls every day. The patients, parents, visitors, doctors, nurses, cleaners, surgeons, clerical staff. Alison thought about how people move around, on stretchers, in wheel chairs, walking. She is also a nurse, or was before design won her away, and she knows how people move around in a hospital environment, so words where placed where people could stop and read and not be in the way. And we thought about those patients who would spend considerable time in the place, trying to leave small gifts for them to find. And at the nurses’ stations, something special. Here, a small otter, playing.

Each floor tells a story. And somehow Alison has made the place seem lighter, filled with air, fresh, alive.

I painted seven bluebells, Alison made of them a bluebell wood.

She took a handful of finches and made a charm.

A single minnow, painted in the margins of my time in a shepherd’s hut in Derbyshire became a shoal of minnows, and the waterweed also, a few strands, threaded into a wonderful underwater world where otters play and kingfishers dive.


Newts hide in the waterweed, and a frog, and tadpoles. Some of these were newly painted. Alison gave me a list of ‘things required’. A diving kingfisher, a rising otter, a heron, pond weed, a fox, and I painted as fast as I could and sent them for scanning.

A few willow branches were made, by Alison, into a dense tree, with luscious green foliage.

It is remarkable to see the finished result. Anyone who knows the book well could have a great time working out what was drawn from where, and what is new. Bees buzz through the walls and on the top floor a ladybird had come to join them. I  had painted a ladybird, but this wasn’t mine, but a real one, seeking a place to hibernate.

This could not have happened without the skill and courage of Alison. She worked until 4 am many mornings, taking the small vision I had for the work far beyond anything I had imagined and enhancing my paintings beyond my imagining. We were lucky to have her as the designer for The Lost Words, luckier still that she helped to shape this project.

I hope people who are patients of the ROH find peace in the images on the walls. I know the education program there have plans to use the walls in their work, which makes me glad. This isn’t my work. It’s mine and Alison’s. Together I hope we can go on to do other things.

Below is my favourite image. The heron and the moon are from The Lost Words. Some of the willow boughs are from the kingfisher page, coloured by Alison, some from the new work. And the breeze blows gently through the boughs.



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About an event.

The dark seemed to come early, outside the mullioned windows of a city pub where I drank herb tea in the afternoon with Robin. City lights, the edge of winter and a curious numbness that descends before an event. Often this is a time for quiet contemplation, but in this case it was sound checks, stage managing, and here, Robert making sure I draw things in the right way and don’t make too much mess.

But this wasn’t an ordinary event. This was a fundraising event for Sobell House Hospice, to hopefully bring the art from The Lost Words into the walls of the new wing of the hospice.

The event had grown, in the same way the crowdfunding for books into schools had grown, from a tweet. Robert Macfarlane had tweeted about hospice architecture and mentioned, in passing, that he and I had begun work, with designer Alison O’toole, on the artwork for four floors of the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in London. Rachel Clarke saw this, and knowing how the book was being used to help patients in the hospice she works at find peace, a voice, escape she got in touch. And so together the three of us planned.

Around 500 people joined us in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, to talk about art, writing, nature, life and death. I’m still trying to understand what happened next. It wasn’t like being on stage.

We talked a little about the book, its genesis, and some of its wild life, the connection first made between Robert and Rachel, that lynches upon a stone from the Arctic circle, that fits and sits in the palm of a hand and carries with it a deep time in every sense of the word. Joe, who paints birds, spoke, words shared with strangers, precious moments of his life shared as he is so close to the end of his life and how he shines. Such a beautiful man, and such life in his paintings. God but how lucky we all were who shared those moments with him. And Valerie’s daughter. Valerie who has written her own words, illustrated utterly beautifully by her grandchildren, to make the genesis of a family book, a treasure, and how she wrote of the joy of life in a feathered thing. And Ed. Ed who teaches children to see such beauty in the world. His words are shared here, so that those not fortunate enough to be in the audience can share a celebration of a life and a love.

What made this special? The music, both Kerry’s and Diane’s, woven around Robert’s words, Diane’s words. Rachel, whose fierce intelligence and desire to help people live to the last moment, orchestrated the evening. The coming together of people to celebrate life and the wilder world. The strong feeling of hope that thrummed through the room like sap through trees. That warmth. And outside the city buzzed with commerce but in that space, for a moment it seemed it was time to stop, take stock, move forward with life. Did others feel it so? Did everyone there take away something different?

I think it was good that there was a reception at Blackwells afterwards and can I give a huge thank you to Blackwells for donating a percentage of sales to the hospice. Thanks to all who bought at the auction.

I would love to hear what others thought of the event, how it left them, what they took away. Do others feel that connection with the natural world that stills the heart, drops away the tensions, lifts the soul? I come back again to that brief moment in time, watching a sparrowhawk take out a small song from the sky as it hunted. It’s not that the natural world is a benign blanket to wrap up in. It’s fierce, can be deadly, and yet always it is the trees I turn to, the birds, weather, the sound of wild water in the form of rain, river or sea. Do others feel like that? Please tell me.

These words haunted me through the evening, by Raymond Carver, and then, later.

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.”

We wanted to leave the audience with a gift. I had asked Chris Jelley if he could put a film together with the music for the bluebell song by Kerry Andrew. The beauty of Kerry’s voice entwined with Robert’s words is wonderful. I find myself returning again and again to the peace of it. Do listen with headphones.

Bluebell Spell – The Lost Words from Christopher Jelley on Vimeo.

And what was that evening about? Partly to raise money for the artwork to be on the hospital walls. The costs arise in printing and design as Robert and I are donating the words and the images. But mostly to celebrate the work of the hospice, the love and the light.

If you were there can you tell me, what did you take away from the night?

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Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford: A Talk for Sobell House

It feels a little as if I have stepped out of time. This year has been such a round of being at home, being away. And sometimes if I feel I have to pinch myself to see if I am dreaming it’s hardly a surprise.

I grew up in Evesham and Broadway, not so far from Oxford, but never went there until I was much older. Last October I found myself beneath a T-rex, signing books with Robert Macfarlane. We had just finished a talk at the Natural History Museum in Oxford.

Just over a year on and we are back, but this time we are in the Sheldonian Theatre. Oxford always seems a little surreal to me.

What an amazing venue. Like walking into the very best parts of a Philip Pullman book.

The event is a fund raising event for Sobell House hospice, and Robert and I will be talking to Dr Rachel Clarke, woman of genius, with a big heart, the biggest, about hope, love, the power of the connection to all that is natural in the world, about life, death and words. Spells will be spoken and otters painted and there will be songs inspired by The Lost Words. Kerry Andrew’s beautiful Bluebell song will be played, so haunting, and we hope that the evening will be a place of peace.

Tickets are still available, priced at £8, with a hope that people might donate towards the movement to bring artwork from The Lost Words into the new annex at Sobell House. Already the money has been raised to provide copies of the book to every hospice in Britain. ( The money is to pay for design and printing and installation only.)

After the event there will be an auction of artwork and book signing in Blackwell’s Bookshop.

It’s hard to know what to say about this event. I met Rachel in Hay on Wye during the festival in May. She is an amazing woman. She is a passionate advocate for the NHS. She has so many stories bound up inside her.


I don’t think I can describe the event, and I don’t think there will ever be another like it, so please come, if you can, and please tell people who live near by, or those who might wish to travel to be there. Oxford is such a wonderful place to visit. There’s also the Spellbound exhibition on in the Ashmoleum Museum.

Hope and wonder. Joy. Ink, otters, words. We will do our best.




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