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.