Music, the art of time.

I begin at the end.

So much work went into this series of performances, from the acorn of the idea, to the standing ovation at The South Bank. Above, Adam and Caroline of Folk by the Oak, having a well earned hug.

The journey to Snape was long, made longer by high winds the night before that closed the road out of Pembrokeshire. We travelled the land, collecting musicians, Beth Porter and Kris Drever in Peterborough, Karine Polwart and Rachel Newton in Cambridge, along with guitars, harp, cello, and various other creatures. 12 hours from departure we arrived at Snape. Jim Molyneux and Julie Fowlis were already there, Seckou arrived at midnight, and the following day saw the band rehearsing, and me also as I tried to remember ow to paint, accompanied by fine river music.

This was the first time we had seen the banners, designed by Alison O’Toole from my images, huge, framing the screen where the painting would be projected, the first performance for the Spellsongs. And though it seemed that to put together such a piece in 4/5 days, followed by the same recording, was fast, the musicians have each a lifetime of learning that enables this, and the understanding of listening, co-operation, collaboration. And to gather the venues, that has taken time too, such a intricate feat by Neil Pearson of Sounds Just Fine.

There was an edge in the air that first day. The Maltings is the most beautiful venue. While the musicians went through rehearsals I spoke to a school, who by coincidence were visiting the venue. They had been studying the Seal Children for myth and magic and were moving on to nature and the natural world, via The Lost Words. Outside the wind made patterns dance in the reeds. Inside they were full of questions.

Later, with the hall full, the musicians filled the world with music, flashed kingfishers across the stage, wove a haunting ghost owl into being and more and more. I watched in the first half, all nerves swept away by the music, sitting next to James Mayhew and Antonio and Robin, then took the stage at the interval, ground and refreshed the ink and spelled a pair of otters onto paper.

The audience had come together in faith, not knowing what they would experience. All venues by this time were sold out, but not a note had found its way into the public domain. And how utterly moving to see them rise to their feet at the end of this, the first performance.

In Birmingham the view from the hotel was so urban. I almost didn’t make the performance, as just after the talk at the beginning my sight was stolen by migraine. So I spent the first half back stage in semi darkness, breathing deeply, listening to the music, trying to get a grip. I had family in the audience, didn’t want to let them down.

The thing about sitting on the stage during the interval is that you get some time to look back at the audience. Birmingham Town Hall is a beautiful building.

All of the staff at all of the venues looked after us mightily well.

Alison had made beautiful gold silhouettes of my work, very similar to the ‘gold soul’ remnants that are created when I am gilding. Andy Bell, the visionary mixer of sounds, owner of Hudson Records, where some of the finest music of our age can be found, had brought into the mix Ben Dave, ‘the man with two first names’, to handle the smooth running of the visuals. He did far more than that, carefully projecting images of the singers into the space allowed by Alison’s designs. Amazing, hypnotic. We have plans for something different in Hay, where the next performance will be.

In Manchester, at the Royal Northern College of Music we found again a warm welcome. The stage manager found me two wonderful jars of water for cleaning my brushes. Each day a few more things crept out of my bag, onto the table. A raven’s feather, acorn cups. In London, the bone of a grey seal.

There’s a moment in the show when there’s one more song left. It’s a blessing, following a wonderful musical tradition. It’s formed from Rob’s words, shaped with the music, carries a healing, threads deep into the soul. All of this music will stay with me my whole life. I can’t separate a bit out. I’ve never wanted a funeral before at the end of my life, and I guess I still don’t. But I want the whole show! Not just one song. Wouldn’t that be a thing! ( No plans on making this happen any time soon but you never know).

In Manchester I had the inevitable ink disaster. I was using sumi ink, which was designed centuries ago for scribes to travel with, and it can’t spill, as it’s a solid block. I’d gathered by painting tools in my beautiful leather bag, and when I lifted it there was a dark pool on the stage! (So glad beyond words this wasn’t Snape) I know now that I can make two otters dance with the ink I grind so don’t need the back up. But I think I will get a bigger stone, just in case. Robin put the ink from the leaking bottle into a water container……

And so to London, and The South Bank, where a busker played the Bach Variations as I walked across the bridge where the world was made pewter in the city light. Last day. I’d already cried 4 times.

There’s a review of this final performance here and Folk Roots UK, with beautiful photographs from Elly Lucas.

I’m not sure now how I will paint without this band to draw the images from my brush. Luckily I have a rough copy of the music to sustain me, I have their other music to keep me sane. So much of the book was painted listening to them play, it was such a curious place to find myself, on stage, with them. Seems unreal now. For the last performance I stayed where I was, doodling while they played, marvelling at how different the sound was back here. I’d placed the otters on the ground and was trying to paint seven finches ( our eighth member of the band had been unable to accompany us, but we hope, oh we hope, yes, so much we hope that she will be well, and with us for Hay.

Seven finches flew. I sat back, listened to the Blessing.

The four inked otters are for sale. Manchester, Birmingham and Snape for £1000 each, and London £1500. The money will go towards working with music in schools. Each is 75 x 56cms on Two Rivers paper, which has a beautiful snag. Different versions of the paper, different colours.

Snape Otters, a frollick and splash, Sumi ink and river water. Sold.
Birmingham otters, River Dancers, Sumi ink and river water. £1000 Sold
Manchester otter, also known as the Jazz Otter, as I thought I had just worked out, after many otters, how to do it properly! £1000 email me to secure
South Bank Otters, Tail tipped River Dancers, in Sumi ink, but not river water, as the Thames does not look at all inviting.
£1 500 Email me to secure.

Thank you to all who came. I know that many of you travelled far. A huge thank you to Caroline and Adam, and also to Simon Prosser, who welcomed our idea in 2015. It was a joy that you could be in the audience on Tuesday eve. And to the legend that is Robin Stenham, who looked after us all very well.

For more on the Spellsingers have a look at the Lost Words website. If you need a new soundtrack in your life these are your people, if you know them already, then you are wise.

In these dark times we are living through, the striving to make beauty, drawing towards the light, becomes an act of rebellion.

I’m told that the thing that made one member of the audience cry most was when I took off my glasses, put them down on the paper and Ben panned back the camera. ‘The frail human and the frail bird together’. No artifice, just an accidental act of placement. Sometimes that is where art lives.

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Three hares, two owls, ink, and a heron.

Otter, Bideford Black.

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Seriously Beautiful Radio

The shortest blog post ever?

Robert Macfarlane, talking to Cerys Matthews on 6 Music. Wonderful interview. Do your soul a favour. Get a cup of tea, and sit down and listen. Beautiful music too, including Seckou Keita.


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January has come and gone, and life has been busy. Long days painting, home half of the time, and away with work the other half. And it has been wonderful to settle again to work. Over Christmas I worked with ink on a new book which publishes later this year, and more on that later. Most of January I have been deep in a series of gilded paintings for Spellsongs. What began as a request not to have a cd in a plastic case has grown to be something that we hope will be a magical object of desire, housing the music.

Next week sees the beginning of a short tour by the Spellsingers, beginning at Snape Maltings. All the shows except for Birmingham Town Hall are sold out, and in Birmingham there are only a few tickets remaining. The news came through that Spellsongs would be part of Hay Festival, and tickets for the performance there on 29th May are also selling fast. And there is also a performance at Folk by the Oak, July 14th at Hatfield House. 

Folk by the Oak is a one day festival, and Caroline and Adam, the organisers, are the brains behind Spellsongs, their fourth musical project of this nature. Sweet Liberty, The Elizabethan Sessions and Shake the Chains are previous projects run by the team. I asked Caroline what sparked her interest in The Lost Words and led to her approaching our agent with the idea to form a group, and take the spells deeper, through the medium of music. The answer surprised me, and travelled back in time.

Caroline said that she had been Christmas shopping with a friend who had told her she was going to Hay Winter Festival that evening to hear Rob and myself talk about our latest book. It seemed that Caroline knew my work well. Her mother and I had met about fifteen years ago when I had an exhibition in The Cloisters Gallery, St Davids, and she had bought a book for her daughter. After that, Caroline said, she had one of my books every Christmas, and then when she and Adam had children of their own they grew up with my dragons and ice bears and snow leopards. So she went online fast, bought a ticket and came to Hay Winter Festival. Our book was young then. We still had little idea of what was happening, but it had been awarded the honour of being Hay Festival Book of the Year, a fact that still astonishes me now.

At the beginning of our talk we played a piece of music written and sung by Kerry Andrew. Very early on Robert had asked people to speak the spells and record them for us, but Kerry had taken it a step further and woven a beautiful spell of music around the words. The next day Caroline heard Kerry talking on the radio, and fast as a kingfisher the idea to create music around the book was born, and soon the cd/lp will be available to pre-order.

On Sunday, a few weeks ago, Robert was on Six Music, talking to Cerys Matthews about this project and also the wonderful audio book, illustrated with wild sound by Chris Watson, spoken so beautifully by Cerys Matthews, Benjamin Zephania, Edith Bowman and Guy Garvey. It’s a beautiful thing. Cerys reads adder with such serpentine grace. I forgot, but later on listen again heard it while trying to complete this set of paintings which began as an idea to connect the singers to the wild.

I’d been thinking about the work for a while, but working on other things, and my time has been so fractured by having to leave home so much, but I began the work at Monnington House as the music was being made, with Rachel Newton, elegant egret of a woman, and her harp. Such a graceful woman, with a beautiful voice.

Back at home I began work on Kris Drever. In The Lake District, where we all first met, he had read the raven spell, and it seemed that I heard it for the first time, so it seemed natural to me that Kris should be raven, and his guitar is a new one to him, but he talked of how it was made by Collings, and how it sang in a way no other guitar he had played did.

Karine Polwart has long been a wren for me, fierce and feisty with a voice so strong, she’s moved through my working life with her music. And her tenor guitar is an old and beautiful thing.

Then there is Seckou Keita, who, when I asked him about his playing told me that his grandfather had taught him to make his first instrument when he was seven, and taught him to play. When I asked who taught his grandpa he smiled. “There’s the thing,” he said. “I am the 71st generation of my family to play the kora.” 71 generations. So far back in time.

And Seckou is from Senegal and lives between the UK and there, and speaks many languages including music, and has the most wonderful show with Catrin Finch about osprey migration. It seemed so right to link him and the kora to the osprey, But then I used the wrong gold leaf in the image, and the strings became tangled in the feathers of the bird and i almost abandoned the image, but then,

but then,

but then,

but then,

the errors seemed to make it more right, and I stopped worrying about how I had wanted it to look and saw how it did look.

For a while I struggled with Beth Porter. Her cello belonged to her grandma and it has a wonderful presence to it. Then she began to whistle and to sing a goldfinch charm into being, and she became a charm of finches, for she leaves little gifts of light where ever she goes.

Next was Julie Fowlis, and I struggled at first to settle, as she sings of a selkie, but I wanted to keep to birds, and a curlew was too heavy, too autumn coloured, but then the grace and the colour of the lapwing, just seemed so right. And on twitter Julie said “A curracag! Wavers in flight. Defends her young with aggression. Yes and yes.”

A Curracag. I love the way they fly.

I asked Julie about her instruments and this is the answer she sent me:

” My whistles not handed down, no.  They have come from various different sources.  The blackwood/silver ones come from a man called Chris Abell in North Carolina.  My first real whistles from my early twenties – I loved them as they feel like the pipes under my fingers (pipes is what I learned first) and they are perfect for Highland tunes particularly.  I was put in touch with Chris by Iain MacDonald from Glenuig, a famous piper and flute player and my inspiration for starting to play.
The ones with the green tips are just (cheap) generation whistles which have been lovingly fine-tuned by a pipes maker in County Kerry, Ireland.  His name is Cillian Ó Briain.  I love their sound for high soaring lines and Irish tunes as they are very sweet and pure of tone.
The silver ones are made by an Englishman living in Germany, his name is Colin Goldie.  They have the richer, breathy-er tone, good for songs.
The wooden ones with the golden coloured joints have a sadder story.  I had been desperate for years to get some whistles from a famous flute maker called Micheal Grinter – but he had a waiting list for flutes that went on for several years, and whistles weren’t his focus.  Two years ago I got the heads up from a friend that he was going to make a short run of whistles, which would not be advertised.  I called him and asked if he would keep two for me, and he did.  I have a D and an Eb and they are great.  A keen cyclist, at the end of last year he was out on a ride he has done a million times and was knocked down and killed.  I never met him, and feel so sorry that I won’t get the chance to say thanks in person.”

And Kerry. She was easy, as she has always seemed like a bright kingfisher to me, but what to do. She’s a composer, an academic, builds sound in a loop box, and plays many instruments but it seemed her voice is her main instrument. And she is the origins of Spellsongs, the source of the spring. I toyed with the idea of a microphone with a kingfisher perched. Kerry had only been at the residency at Monnington briefly, due to ill health, so I didn’t have time to settle with an instrument. Her husband sent me photos of her microphone, and there in the background was the perfect thing! A music stand. I love watching the way Kerry seems to draw music into being.

So Kerry became a kingfisher, rising into flight, fierce bright, setting the stream alight with burn and glitter. But sadly her health has been slow to improve, and she is unable to join us for the beginning of the tour. I painted her as a kingfisher rising. It’s a hope and a prayer.

And finally Jim Molyneux, who I first knew as a percussionist but who plays many instruments. On the second day at Monnington House he and Kris and Seckou worked together on Little Astronaut. He’s quiet in a room, Jim, watchful, and listening, but when he speaks he is worth listening to, and when he sings his voice is beautiful, vulnerable, especially in Little Astronaut, singing his heart out to all dark matter.

They are not spirit animals of these people, rather the people are the spirit people for the animals/birds. The cd/lp is still being shaped. The sleeve notes have expanded, along with the shape of the packaging. Neither Robert nor myself would have wanted the packaging to be plastic and none of the Folk by the Oak cds have been packaged this was. But the Spellsongs has become something more, with sleeve-notes you can read without a magnifying glass. You can pre-order through the Folk by the Oak website. It will feature the lyrics, photographs by Elly taken during the project, new spells from Robert and artwork by me, all printed on beautiful paper and with the cd embedded in the front cover.

The next live performance is 29th May at Hay Festival, and tickets are selling fast, and Folk by the Oak in July.

The Lost Words features on the longlist for both the Carnegie and the Greenaway awards, and Robert and I are both delighted.

And, if you were a bird, what bird might you be?

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Living in the country, and Country Living

When I was first fledged from college I wandered the streets of London with my portfolio, looking for work. Appointments were made from phone boxes on street corners, as mobile phones were uncommon. One of my first clients was a young magazine called Country Living. Mostly black and white, as this was before colour became cheaper to print.

Last year Country Living featured an article on The Lost Words. This year there is a piece in the magazine about my studio. Cold fear washed through me when they asked if they might come and do a photographic essay on my studio. I’ve seen the magazine, and the large country houses and the studios, so elegant. But I braced myself, said yes, but I would need to tidy up. And they were so lovely and said, no, don’t worry, we will work around you. Two van loads of stuff to the dump ( recycling centre) later and it almost looked as if trolls didn’t inhabit my studio. And Nato did the most wonderful job of carefully angling his camera.

It’s so lovely being back in my tatty little house, feeding the fire, walking the dogs, reading, painting. Each day at the beach the light is different. Yesterday I walked, looking at rocks, finding stone bowls and patterns.

I love these drawings, made by limpets grazing on plantlife on rock, and the scoops in stone made by time and tide.

Country living. Living in the country. When I left college I lived in London oh so briefly. Some people aren’t made for cities. I need space around me. When I worked for the magazine, doing these small black and white drawings I lived in Bath, always on the edge of town, in sight and with access to paths. Now I live on the edge of land and a path winds its way through my garden. Beautiful work, it lifts the soul.

And I love that Country Living referenced Tamsin Abbott, whose work shines on my windows and in the garden.

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Let me tell you of a small cat

Small in stature but loud in noise, he walks with The White Cat.

Up the Green Lane he walks. With The Dog, Rosie, with The White Cat he walks.

Side by side, brave in the world, seeking adventure, the small cat walks.

And he is mottled and dappled like the wild Clouded Leopard.

And The White Cat finds dirt, dug up by the badgers.

And the small cat finds a shoulder to ride on.

And The White Cat watches from the top of the hill.

And the Golden Dog runs in circles, fast-fast.

And the wind blows and Zephyr, the small cat prefers the shelter of the Green Lane, but not the mud in the farmyard.

Then home, past old Mr Griffith’s house, where a dog howls a small song as we pass, and back to the warmth, by the fire.

Enough adventure for one day. Tired now, the small cat sleeps.

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Eating your words

Last week, in Swindon, the Literacy Trust held a celebration of reading, writing, literacy. The Trust’s patron brought along a beautiful cake. Now, I know I should be talking about the importance of reading as an empowering tool for children, the importance of reading for pleasure, how reading can help with the learning of empathy and the understanding of the lives of others, but, well, just look at this cake!

It was made for the event by Julie Brownlee of Cake Creations. I love the conker most of all. It shines. A Lost Words cake of great excellence.

And well done to the winner and runners up of the #SwindonStories Lost Words competition: 1st place – Molly Roberts, 2nd place – Estella Smith and 3rd place – Norah Vas! I love this picture of you all with your books and smiles.

I wish Robert and I could have been there to celebrate books, libraries and reading with everyone, but work keeps us home, on our different sides of the country, making new books.

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A Week in the Woods

The Lost Words exhibition has now moved and re-invented itself in the glorious setting of Nyman’s Gardens. Last weekend I travelled across England and Wales to sit in the gallery and paint and talk and sign books and goodness me but it was busy. I’d taken work with me to do in the lulls, and on Saturday I managed between signing to gild a raven, but Sunday…. wow. It was so busy.

The Gardens are beautiful, and Robin and I were hosted by the trust in their Woodman’s Cottage, for the period of my working there. When I looked at it online I decided that what I really needed was a holiday, so we added 4 days on to our stay, and then, as ever, work piled on, so I took it with me, and worked in the cottage.

When I booked the extra days the lady taking the booking warned me. “It’s down a narrow lane, with ditches on either side, a mile or so from the nearest neighbours and there’s no street lighting. If you are of a nervous disposition, ” she said, “we suggest you choose another property.”

What we found was the most perfect little house in the woods, the kind of place, where, if, say, there was going to be a lunar eclipse, it might be a great place to stay. How perfect, as I woke in the night before the eclipse began and the ground was so frosted it seemed to glow in the full moon light. And then, waking again at 5.10 am the world was dark, blood moon dulled by the shadow of the earth. Perfect.

And more perfect still was the remnant of Rapture, an installation by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva. Chloe, the ranger, took me to where she lies in the wood, covered in gold leaf, a curious creature, a magnet for the imagination.

How very perfect, wild, strange, coincidental.

I worked away, Robin and I walked the woods. He had bought me a birdfeeder which will travel with us and while we were there I saw bluetits, great tits, woodpeckers ( greater spotted), a nuthatch or two, treecreepers, coaltits. Also a heron, and the flash of a fisher.

Somehow I made a chaos of the table, but managed also to gild a raven, paint a guitar and wren ( Karine Polwart), a cello and a charm ( Beth Porter) and make a mess of gilding a kora and an osprey, tangle up strings, and rather than throw away and start again, discover that somehow the melding of bird and instrument, and the mix of golds works.

And, I have the gold soul of a wren……

and I left a small stone on solid water….

And the gardens are utterly beautiful and the house reminds me of Rebecca by Daphne Dumaurier. In the evening light, even the house seemed to be gilded.

Home now, and good to be back with hounds and cats and the sea and the call of the ravens. Listening to the rough cut recorded tracks of the Spellsongs and working on their images, back in the chaos of my studio.





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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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