Stitching souls

For a while now I have been wondering about gold leaf fragments. Sometimes they are lovely. And for a while I have been wondering about stitching them together to make quilts of leaf.

Now, with Lambeth and Wandsworth Crowdfunder for The Lost Words having only 2 days to go I want to try to help push them over the line by offering experiments with soul stitching for sale towards the target. 38 people have pushed this to almost half way. Another 38-40 might take it over the line.

First, one fragment of gold, from a painted stone labyrinth. £35-  the gold is 8cms x 8cms.

Email me , with the subject title of ‘stitched souls’ if you want it, then donate fast to the funder.

Second, two; again just one labyrinth, a bigger stone. £50  Stitched together with silk, these are fragile things, but they glow, holding the light of evening.

Third, three. Three stones, placed on the beach, somewhere in Pembrokeshire, and these are the echoes of their gold souls. Three, moongold, stitched with silk. £75 (SOLD)

Fourth, and we have four, in greengold and yellow and redgold I think. £100

And then there is this, flawed, but somehow really like a piece of gold magic. Fourteen stones gilded, fifteen squares in various shades of gold, greengold, moongold, red and yellow. Really inexpertly stitched ( I missed a bit at one point), but would work in a frame as a curious creature. There’s something about the flawed and fragile nature of this that I like. £300. It’s the first of something new I hope, big pieces, stitched together. Next time I will mark where the stones were placed. Some of these will have been picked up, others will have lived in the sea, as tide finds before human.

I’ve more souls to stitch, some big pieces, some small, but I need to get better. I think I have the tension right on the machine now and I love the sound it makes as it stitches. I’m in need of learning, it’s also in need of a good clean, but it seems to me that stitching the gold souls of creatures might be a little akin to magic.

You can if you wish, in the next couple of days, donate to the crowdfunder here: The Lost Words for Lambeth and Wandsworth.

Do email me before donating if you wish to secure one of the pieces as they are all one offs.

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Imagine The World: Hay Festival

So, imagine the world.

It seems as if the human world is in quite a mess at the moment, getting deeper in, not deeper out. And the trouble with this is that because as a species we are, or feel we are, so dominant on the planet we endanger every living thing, not just ourselves.

It seems to me the way forward is to find new ways, learn new behaviours and in order to do this we need to imagine a better, not a worse future.

This year’s Hay Festival has as its strapline Imagine the World.

It seems counter-intuitive to me that at a time when we need the dreamers, the thinkers, the ‘imaginers’ in order to find and design a way out of our predicament our government continues to underfund the arts and undermine the teaching of the arts in schools. It’s a joy to my heart that The Lost Words is finding its way into schools and doing its best, through the power of brilliant teaching, to undermine the government’s attempts to do this, inspiring children to find a voice.

So, imagine a child who loved to draw being told that she couldn’t make a living as an artist and had better just stick to it as a hobby. That child was me. This year I have been awarded the Hay Medal for Illustration, for my part in The Lost Words, written by Robert Macfarlane. Our subversive creature of a book continues to unite, to be read across generations, to heal, to be read at weddings, at funerals.

To thank Hay for this, and I hope to help to inspire a new generation of young people to have confidence in their bright minds, to aspire to work in the arts, I have agreed to set up my studio table in the new Illustration Gallery at Hay and work. I will be there most days, gilding at times, playing with ink, writing with otters, with some of the things from home around me, with sketchbooks and with stories. I’m happy to sign books, but happier to answer questions, chat, and most of all work. Obviously when I am engaged in the events on stage, I won’t be in the studio, but otherwise, appart from maybe Tues 22nd and the afternoon of Friday 25th ( on 25th I will be painting in the beautiful Booth’s Bookshop.) For those who know me from Art in Action it will be a bit like a solo version of that.

I will try not to bring the filth, and cobwebs from my studio, but may bring my da’s typewriter, brushes, polar bears and their shrine, and odd bits and pieces.

Below is the start of a trial piece. So far in otter, reading vertically it says….

Well, maybe I will let you work that one out. For ease I will put the code beneath. Think I need a bigger piece of paper!

So, come if you can. There are no tickets left now for the walk I am doing, but still tickets to see and hear me and Kerry Andrew….we hope to make some magic happen. And for those far, far away I will try to remember to tweet, but I hope I will be wrapped up in gilding. I’ve an image almost ready for gilding now. It’s huge. It began as a sketch and a search for lost wings and an owl’s foot.

It began as an image to accompany Robert Macfarlane’s Barn Owl. But then as the wrens sang sharp thorn song outside my window they crept in too. Hunted.

More balance will be added after gold leaf.

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More on the language of liquid

It is time to introduce you formally to the twenty-six otters of the alphabet. They have been made for me, from my original painting, by the wonderful team at The English Stamp Company.

Now it is time to use them and play.

The first thing I did was to use the capital otters to write the world otter.

For £30 (SOLD) this could be yours, signed. Just email me to secure and then donate £30 to Herefordshire’s campaign to place The Lost Words in Hereford schools. 

In their campaign you can pick the school you wish to support and choose to donate personally or anon. £30 will support 3 schools. After this first one has gone, anyone still wishing to have a stamped otter word can do so at £20 to the campaign. Or…

There is this, which is as Otter letters should be written. £40 ( SOLD) to the Hereford campaign will secure this one. Again, email me, using the email link.

Once this one has sold, if you desire the Otter Word then a minimum donation of £30 will see one coming your way.

And for decoding, here is the otter alphabet.

This is a sizeable piece, the first printing, and comes complete with error as I printed the ‘i’ upside down. 76 cms x 56, printed lettering. Signed. £500 to the Hereford school campaign will secure you this piece. It will be unique, as I hope to get all the letters the right way up next time! And….

Well, these are something I would not normally offer for sale. They are a piece that went wrong. I was trying to handwrite the otter letters of love in large size, but misjudged my placement and ran out of room. And ordinarily this is the kind of piece that I would have to dispose of, but, well, it seems quite fitting really. Love is always rather difficult and so this, now is ‘the Otter Letters of lov’ and instead of throwing it away I am offering it for sale, in exchange for £1000 donated to the Lambeth and Wandsworth Crowdfunder for The Lost Words. 

To secure the piece please email me first before making a donation, as it’s a one off. They only have 5 days left and a way to travel yet, and it would be amazing if the target could be achieved. Long ago I lived briefly in Wandsworth, before I realised that city life was not for me.  I loved the parks there, but the noise and pace and crowds were not what I needed. No reflection on London. Visiting is always good, especially to see the beautiful trees. but how wonderful would it be to see The Lost Words greening city schools? ( I will add the missing whiskers if a buyer wishes. Leave them out if not) It’s a big piece this, 105 x 75cms on beautiful thick watercolour paper.

To give you an idea of what a ‘bargain’ the Three letters of lov are, below is the word ‘soul’, also known as The Soul of Otters, also in sumi ink and river water ( both are painted with Solva Woollen Mill river water) and this piece will be for sale at £3 000, at some point.

Soul is written in joined up otter writing…. there will be more. Money for the Soul goes to me though, because even artists and their children need to eat.

These otters feed my soul.


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A tale of two illustrators

Once upon a time, not so long ago two illustrators were talking. Both were struggling with aspects of the world of publishing. Both worked hard for a living. Neither were particularly happy. And during the conversation, about crafting of books they spoke of how they were not really taken seriously as writers, for sometimes it seems that the words in picture books are seen merely ( merely?) as pegs on which to hang beautiful images, when in fact the words and the images work together to create a space between where magic dwells, neither more important than the other.

The two illustrators made a pact to write a text, each for the other. James Mayhew wrote first, and Can You See a Little Bear was born.

Beautifully written, it’s a book that can be read fast, for tired parents, or slow as slow as the images are packed with opportunities for stories and tales to be told.

Because James is an illustrator he understands how space needs to be left for the images to be imagined, the world of Little Bear to come into being.

Little Bear did well. It sold out in hardback very fast, was translated into a few languages, came out in paperback, and a small board book that was like a little gem, but then it went out of print, and despite asking, pleading, bookshops requesting, the publishers decided not to reprint. And sometimes this can be the death of a book.

But now Can You See a Little Bear is back, in a beautiful new hardback, with a mock linen cover and beautiful paper. This is the cover I wanted on the book originally, and it’s cute as buttons.

Both James and I had small children at the time of making this book, and we wanted something that was beautiful and packed with details and we hoped it would be a book that would be tucked under a pillow at night to inspire dreams. We wanted Little Bear to be a friend.

Can You See a Little Bear publishes in July but is available from Solva Woollen Mill a bit earlier we hope. Anna has Can You See a Little Bear available for pre-order. It has a really small print run, so if you want a first edition be fast.

Meanwhile, time passed….. books were published…. James and I continued to talk, then…… Mrs Noah started to talk to me, and it rained. James became involved in many wonderful concerts, bringing music and art to so many children, and I wrote Mrs Noah’s Pockets. There’s more about the genesis ( see what I did there?) of the book in another blog post.

I still remember how nervous I felt sending the text to James. Would he like it? Such a relief when he said yes. And then it was my turn to be amazed as James danced into a new and beautiful language and put flesh on the bones of my spare story.

Mrs Noah is a rebel with a sewing machine. She knows her own mind and quietly gets on with doing what she knows is right.

Some people love her, others have described my text as a ‘butchering of the biblical story’ (wearing that badge with pride, thanks for that.)

Both of the books are published in hardback by Otter-Barry Books, distributed in USA by PGW. Signed copies of Mrs Noah’s Pockets are available from Solva Woollen Mill along with my other books in print.  They also have what I think might be the last copies of East of the Sun, West of the Moon for a while….but that’s another story.

Meanwhile I am really pleased to say that Mrs Noah’s Garden has been commissioned and James will begin work on the artwork soon.

And now, I have much to do, before heading to Hay on Wye with prints, London for the British Book Awards and then Edinburgh for Connect with Nature festival and The Lost Words exhib at Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. I will be doing a talk on the Saturday at the festival, followed by leading a talk around the exhibition, which will be a bit like doing a powerpoint, but with lots of gold leaf.

For now, I have prints to prep, and a fish to finish painting and words to write in otters. But first I need to turf the golden dog child out of my seat. For she has found a pool of sunshine.


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Home, with ink.

Too much travelling around leaves my mind unravelling. Back home in my studio I had a week to try and pull myself together for a photography shoot. Now, that’s even worse than being away. The more travelling I do the more my home is a harbour, and this week I have been interviewed by Caroline from The Bookseller, for a piece about publishing in Wales, and also photographed for another magazine. Fortunately both Caroline and nato ( the photographer are lovely and professional. But now, just for a week, I’ve time to settle, paint, think, walk. And, I found treasures while I was tidying. Fairy lights for the duck ( I had said on twitter that I was hoovering the duck, but in the end I used a feather duster, which seemed more appropriate), and badges.

Today at the airfield I bathed my ears in the song of larks and cuckoo.

I’ve prints to prep, for an exhibition at Richard Booths Bookshop in Hay on Wye. The show is on now and until end August. Work may change as and when paintings sell. There’s new work, including otters, signed books and prints.

Back in the studio, thinking about 3 different jobs, easing my soul with the movement of dark ink. I’ve new paper, large sheets, thick, textured. perfect for the liquid souls of otters.

75 x 105 cms

£2 500 unframed

and below, same price, same size, either way up, Dancing Dratsies.

Below is a Small Giant, sold faster than painted, all money going to the Dorset Crowdfunder to place a copy of The Lost Words in all schools in Dorset. 101 wonderful supporters have so far raised £3 300 taking the target to 92% funded. Now with only 3 days to go it still needs £300. Hopefully there will be another Small Giant in the next 3 days, but every little helps. We are seeing the most astonishing work coming from schools where inspirational teachers are firing children’s minds with thoughts of green…..

Just look at these, from the children of Hotwells Primary School in Bristol.

How very wonderful, to see such words and images spinning from the catalyst of our book and children so very engaged in their school day. Another school reported that the children wanted to stay in and write poetry in their break time. Just wonderful.


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Words for sale

Words for sale. Small drawing of swallow, a sketch in pencil, will be added. £75 SOLD to The #AcornIsToWood campaign.


Written, on my dad’s old green typewriter, in between tidying studio. The keys are racing green.

I need to write more. Paint more. Go away less.


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There are so many crowdfunding sites springing up to bring The Lost Words into schools in the UK. Jane Beaton’s campaign in Scotland was successful and the books are beginning to work their way into schools now. In Suffolk the first books were delivered by owls. And here in Wales books are working their way through.

As part of #AcornIsToWood, the Wales campaign, Anna at Solva Woollen Mill and I have set aside 10 copies of the book to be donated to schools in Wales. If you are a school, in Wales, or a teacher working at a school in Wales, please contact Solva Woollen Mill with your details and the first ten teachers to do so will receive a free copy of the book. ( You can also request a dedication)

There is a facebook page, co-ordinated by Sam Hicks, for #AcornIsToWood 

This includes a film of ideas to raise money, and add to the forest of books that is growing in to schools in Wales.

The campaign has many branches, including The Lost Words campaign with Gwent Wildlife Trust.

In Pembrokeshire The Friends of the National Park are raising money for copies in Pembrokeshire schools.

There are many campaigns in England also.

So, if you are a teacher, or a school in Wales then contact Solva Mill for one of the ten free copies. And if you wish to add a donation  you can do so through the two links above, or by #payingitforward at Solva Mill to add to the ten, or by buying and dedicating a book to a school.  ( The photo of the book above is one dedicated to a school in England where class copies have been bought for the school)

Robert and I have both been watching the most wonderful work unfolding from books that are already in classrooms. Beautiful work, rich language, gorgeous paintings and very happy children.

Teaching notes accompanying the book are to be found on the John Muir Trust website.

I’m tired now. Need to get on with tidying my studio. Need to settle to work next week.

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The language of liquid, continued.

I have to say that I hold Robert Macfarlane entirely to blame for what you will read next.

For a while I have had in my head a desire to paint the twenty-six otters of the alphabet. Why? Well, in the Willow spell there is a line,

“but you will never sense our sap, and you will never speak in leaves,”

And also, at The Foundling Museum I drew an otter, in pencil, but then said,

“The thing is, I love pencil, but when it comes down to it liquid is my language”

And I think perhaps it is my truest mother-tongue. The language of liquid. For are we not all, mostly water?

So, it was not leaves I wished to speak, though I would love to understand the slow time language of trees. Rather, the language of otter. And wound around this is also my struggle as a child to learn to read. And the fact that we have been sent many a message from teachers and parents about ‘reluctant readers’ and how they have cleaved to our book.

I struggled to get the alphabet to sit in my head. Struggled to find a way to draw these figures I was show, to relate them to words. But I got there in the end. Many don’t.

So, let me introduce you to the twenty six otters of the alphabet, who came first in small sketches.

They have twined and twisted in my head for a while now, and the few people I have talked to about them have looked bewildered and changed the subject.

Today I drew them, in sumi ink, with water from the river beside Solva Woollen Mill, where otters swim. There’s a dipper there too, and kingfishers. Eels run the weir, pushing upstream and sometimes a heron hunts at weir sill.

I want to paint all 26 letters as big pieces also. This will act as my key, and my aim is to write Robert Macfarlane’s otter spell using the twenty-six otters of the alphabet. Hopefully The English Stamp Company will help me with this. Just seeing now if a set of stamps can be made to enable me to use them to write with.

And I also wondered whether to auction a word, or your name, painted rather than stamped, in sumi ink, in otter? The size would depend on how much the bid is, how long the word/words. A name, a word a phrase, in ink, and the language of liquid. And the money would go to one of the many crowd funders for The Lost Words, or be split between a couple.

This auction is now closed.

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Spells and Magic of the Wild and Green Kind

This is a tale of some magic.

An elemental story.

It concerns an event that took place on Saturday in Cambridge when Robert Macfarlane and I got together for Cambridge Literary Festival to talk about the extraordinary wild life of The Lost Words.

But the story began a couple of days ago when Robert went to gather wild water for me to paint with.

Now, this is water that probably has not yet met with the shape of an otter, coming as it does from a chalk spring, rising out from the earth, pure and clear, a mirror for the sky.

Gathered into a gin bottle, nestled in the beech leaves.

Robert lives in Cambridge. I live in Pembrokeshire. Across two countries we worked closely together on making and shaping The Lost Words.

He wrote of “the moment of gathering, the landscape – in its full sense – of gathering.”

“As I filled the bottle with water for you to paint your otter with I could hear: four skylarks torrenting their song down, a woodpigeon, the rusty hinge-creak of a pheasant, a blackbird, a chaffinch, the London-Cambridge train passing a hundred yards away, a light wind in the tops of the trees around, a great tit, the clang of construction ongoing at Addenbrookes hospital, the caw of rooks, a small plane flying over…. This is very much an edgeland wood, but it is also a special place, made so by the ordinary miracle of springs rising from bedrock, and by the clarity of the water that flows through it (clear, with just a faint blue tinge; rather like gin, in fact, which is appropriate as I gathered the water into a cork-stoppered former gin bottle…), and because its interior belies in volume the extent of the wood as seen from the outside, as with all woods, really. May its springwaters flow through your brush and enter without falter onto page as otter.”

Then the water waited, caught in the blue of a Harris Gin bottle, to be freed with the mixing of ink, while my mind’s eye churned and turned with otters.

And meanwhile I struggled to work out how the otter would sit with Robert’s words on a page of heavy textured Arches watercolour paper.

I wrote the otter capitals, drove to Cambridge, where Robert inscribed the otter spell, and then, at The Cambridge Union, in front of an audience, I ground ink made from pine soot into the water from the spring at Ninewells, freeing the dark pigment to swirl, and part way through the talk, using water and ink, words and the memory of the shape of otter, unleashed a creature from the mind’s eye and onto paper.

This piece is the first made together that will be offered for sale. There are others. Peregrine is still travelling I think. Barn owl was worked into a sketch for Suffolk Wildlife Trust and has another destination as its resting place. Wren was a gift to those who had worked so hard to shape our book, a single painting with the wren spell written on it, cut into four. And Goldfinch can be found in Elementum Journal volume 3.

The resulting artwork is now being auctioned, to raise money for a new campaign, launched also at the event, to raise money to place a copy of The Lost Words in every school in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.  The auction will work in this way:

The piece is on heavy (640) watercolour paper, 76 cmd x 56cms. Ink, pencil, gold leaf, signed by Robert and myself.

This auction is now closed.


If you wish to donate to the Cambridgeshire appeal you can do so here: CambridgeCandi. 

Cambridge Candi are a registered charity so if you wish you can gift aid your donation.



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Stamps, crowdfunding, finches.

I am dreaming in ink and wishing to write in otters.

But I have made promises, so other work needs doing before I can play. This week I have been working on a Christmas card design for Suffolk Wildlife Trust. This will be the third card I have designed for them.

The Trust ran a campaign to buy copies of The Lost Words for schools in Suffolk very recently. Robert and I supported this by making a unique piece of work, based around the barn owl. Robert wrote the words ( to be spoken aloud, but in a quite voice), I painted a hunting owl. A copy of this will be pasted onto the front endpapers of every book given to Suffolk schools by the Trust. I also painted a feather, and gave them the artwork to offer as a ‘prize’ so that all who gave money would be in with a chance of winning the feather, and the Trust turned this into a bookmark to be given to every Primary School child in Suffolk.

How wonderful. What could possibly be more magical? How about delivering the first book, to Woodbridge Primary School, with owls?

So, a Christmas card.

First, a sketch. And I wonder, do two goldfinches count as a charm?

Teasels in my studio, and outside, amazingly ( as I do not often have them here) a small charm chattering and chasing each other, wild through the blackthorn hedge. It’s holding its buds tight against the cold, but soon will blossom and hum with bees.

Almost finished. Will try not to overpaint it.

Suffolk exceeded their target, which is wonderful. Robert tweeted a wonderful thanks to all the crowdfunders on International Children’s Book Day.

It’s quite a story, the life of our book so far. Soon there will be an outdoor theatre performance at The Timber Festival.

And soon we have other news to share as the book seeds itself into other artistic disciplines. It has a wild life of its own.

But meanwhile, crowdfunders. Robert and I have been trying to help the brave people who have set them up. There’s a Lost Words for Schools website that shows what is where ( thank you Hereward) set up by Hereward from Yellow Lighted Bookshop, who also exceeded his target for the Lost Words for Gloucestershire campaign. ( Love this bookshop. Always has a treasure waiting, and no, Hereward, I’m not talking about you!)

With so many now it’s hard to know how to help, but if you can, take a look at the sites, help spread the word.

Hereward had asked if he might be able to get a stamp made so he could make the parcels going to schools look more magical. As I was getting one made I thought I might as well make more, so I did. And the stamps I have done are made by the English Stamp Company in Dorset. At the moment you can’t buy stamps designed by me, BUT, I thought, to help  campaigns along I would offer prints from the stamps. £30 will put 3 books into 3 schools. So, if you would like one of these 3, printed onto watercolour paper, then email me, with “Otter”  ( Maybe say which of the two: facing right, facing left) or ‘Finch” or “Fox” as subject title, with your address and donate £30 to the Lost Words for Lambeth and Wandsworth School Campaigns.

I think they are about 10cms. Fox is a bit smaller.

And, I have the gold soul of the two finches. This is on 9 sheets of thin paper, gold leaf remnants. I’m still trying to work out if I can stitch them together, but they are offered for sale, as they are, unstitched. A curious thing. These odd pieces always look lovely framed.

Each square of gold is 8cms. For sale at £200. (SOLD)  This is a one off piece…..the stamps I can just keep stamping….

Thank you again to all those who have contributed to all the funders so far, and those wonderful people who have given their time so freely to start these things.

There’s another crowdfunder in Kenilworth and Warwickshire where we have donated a small original with letterpress, which, if the crowdfunder is successful and achieves its target, will be a prize for someone who has donated towards the funder.

I hope all of this makes sense. I feel I need to go and sit in a stream or listen to the wonderful larks at St Davids Airfield. There is an exultation of them there now. And yesterday I saw swallows. And there is a snowy owl on St Davids Head.


I have a slightly larger tumbling otter at £200

and I have new gold, ink sticks that weigh heavy and come with warnings about keeping away from nose, but they smell gorgeous, and..

I love the instructions. Part of the process of making these inked otters is the time spent creating the ink, from walking to grinding with river water. I need to go to a place where barn owls hunt and harvest some water and see what this gold ink is like. And find that silence that crouches to ground, and listen, for a while, with owl ears.


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