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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A lullaby of salt water, fresh water and ink.

Since Christmas an extraordinary thing has happened. People have joined together, from all over the UK, to support fundraising campaigns to purchase copies of The Lost Words to be placed in schools. Such open hearted generosity towards our book has overwhelmed both myself an Robert. This blog post is an attempt to thank all involved, from the organisers of campaigns to those who have contributed to them. 

There’s a curve in the land where water scooped out a valley. On the left as you face the sea an ancient fort rises. Today I followed the path, down to the stream, and there, after twenty-four hours, yesterday’s stone still sat.

I walked down, as far as I could, to where sweet water flowed into salt, where riversong meets wave fall and there I bent to harvest a bottleful of water. I left a stone in the place where the water came from. A small stone, by mussels and limpets, barnacles and lichens. Soon the tide would cover this curious place, between land and sea.

I had come to this place with a purpose. To leave a spell, in the wild, for a day, a turn of the tide, maybe two, a sea spell, a lullaby, a drowning song.

I wrote it first in pencil on smooth stone with the sound of the sea singing soft in my ears. But though the rock was coloured like the smooth skin of the seal it was too fragile.

I sat in pale sunshine, sheltered from any wind, listening while raven called overhead, and chough danced in the wind and I ground ink against ink-stone, with river-water, and painted a small otter, and while it was drying in the sun and the wind I wandered to find another stone to write a lullaby for a sea child on.


I love how time and tide writes on the rocks. Natural calligraphy. Our spell will be gone, I hope, by two turns of the tide, scoured away by stone and water, sand and time.

I washed my brushes in the swift river, but somehow a small giant escaped onto a stone. Then I rinsed the ink-stone and sat on a rock mid stream while the small giants dried and the sound of the river sang on.

Otters live in these waters. Seals visit these coves and beaches. Overhead a flock of about 50 linnets, voices like small bells flew. I watched the water make patterns with the light.

The sea child’s lullaby is written by Robert Macfarlane. And this thank you comes from both of us, wholeheartedly. You have taken our book into the very places we wanted it to travel, into hearts and homes and now into schools.

This, for ease of reading, is what was written on the stone. I say to you what Robert says to me: ‘to be read aloud, slowly’. I want to write it on the stones where the seals come to pup, with gold and ink, so the sea sifts the words.

Mulling over these words, in this place, sitting on a stone in the middle of the river did rinse my mind of human chatter.


Grey Seal (A Summoning Spell, A Drowning Song)

Go now selkie-boy, swim from the shore,

Rinse your ears clean of human chatter,

Empty your bones of heather and moor,

Your skull of its human matter.

Selkie-boy, selkie-boy, come join your kin,

Eager your kind are to meet you,

As salt sets its seal on your silky skin,

Let green sea rise up to greet you.

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Riversong: The language of liquid continued.

Down to the stream, where otters swim to the sea, with a stone and a bottle. River water for painting.


River water, collected at Ninewells for otter painting. Stone gift left, with palladium


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Home, and in the evening trying to clear head of all but the shape of an otter. Turning the timer so the sand slips through. The large one for an hour.

River water in glasses.

The small timer of blue sand for fifteen minutes, grinding the ink, trying to focus, empty the head of doubt, but I worry too much…..

Then paint, and some parts work, and lessons are learned and maybe the next will be better. Head more filled with that shape and emptied of the fear, and ink darker.

But I love the texture of the ink.


And, how long does it take? Well one answer is, two speakings of the otter spell. And another answer can be found in my piece for Five Dials. It’s called On Being a Bear.

I love the subtitle- the fifty six year long painting.

So, I need to bush up my otters as I will be painting one at Cambridge Lit Fest soon. And also at Hay Festival, where Kerry Andrew will be singing of bluebells and wrens.


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Otters made from Ink and Riverwater

Mixing watercolour, gold leaf, ink, otters, stone.

Large piece. £1 500

Below, smaller swimmer…… £375, ink and riverwater

Below, two small round otters to make into stamps with the English Stamp Company.

Below, small, curled otter £400. Sleeping, and dreaming the language of liquid. 

Below, small otters, using up ground ink. All three sold and money donated to crowdfunders for The Lost Words. To be put on a waiting list for future ‘small giants’ email me.  

There’s a small queue building.


Love how these small dwr-gis dry on the textured paper. So, have big sheets of heavy textured paper on order and plans to have a day or two of otter painting.


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The Lost Words, Sexism and the Press. The Curious Case of the Lost Illustrator

The Lost Words has been out in the world for a while now. Both Robert and myself were delighted when we heard that it was shortlisted for The British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year, alongside Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls and Philip Pullman’s glorious La Belle Savage.

I was not so delighted with the press coverage.

Good to know the press have judged it to be a ‘face off’ between Walliams and Pullman and the rest of us are also rans.

Anyone spot the missing illustrator?

It’s hard to say any of this without sounding petulant. At the end of the day it comes from the same source that sees men being paid more than women for the same jobs. At least the authors of Rebel Girls get a passing mention. I spent almost two years illustrating The Lost Words. It is a partnership of image and word, worked together by both myself and Robert. ( can I just add that Robert wanted me to have a larger % of the royalties for this book, the first time any author I have worked with, as he said he recognized the difference in time spent painting and writing for this book. I refused to accept. Words and images in partnership, always 50/50).

So, here I feel I have been hit with the double whammie of sexism and word over image.

The first person to really pick this up in public was the wonderful woman who runs the incredible @womensart1 on her blogged review of The Lost Words, which I think is worth a read. In the research for this she was shocked at the lack of my voice on the making of the book. It was almost always only ever there in the form of the images, often lavishly used with only a micro-credit. It seemed no one was particularly interested in my speaking voice, apart from Elementum and Artist and Illustrator.

So, is it sexism, or is it the way that word is valued over image?

There’s a campaign called #PicturesMeanBusiness that tries to campaign against this in the world of publishing. The campaign was launched by Sarah McIntyre and James Mayhew and has been championed by The Bookseller. I think we still have a long way to go.

I’m told by a spokesperson from the The Bookseller that the original press release sent out about the awards from the press office at The Bookseller included my name as illustrator of The Lost Words. Somehow these words, my name, then became lost words themselves as the press release was syndicated to many magazines and journals.

Philip Jones of The Bookseller said “I’ve asked our PR the same question: they think the original piece was written by the Press Association and syndicated to the other newspapers, so it was one error being repeated. We’ve asked the PA to correct this. I’m very clear that we always credit illustrators in the magazine, and on our awards materials.”`

I first spotted the article when I found it on the website of our local newspaper and couldn’t believe that they had taken my name out of the article, while copying the rest word for word.

Anyway, some time ago Robert and I were accused of sexism also. It’s not a pleasant thing to be on the receiving end of. We had been included in a list of best selling books that contained not one single female character. And while it was lovely to be included in a list of best selling books of the year, it was far from the mark. Via twitter I catalogued for the author of the piece, from acorn to wren, the female characters in the book. Both in word and in image this book contains both male and female creatures and beings. And is this important, well, yes, but the article was flawed by the wrongful  inclusion of our book and we were grateful to receive the apology printed at the bottom of the piece.

So, where is this all going? Well, I would like to know why words are still given dominance over image, when all words are is a collection of images, 26 of them. And images are easier to translate into other languages. I would also like to know why, if my name was on the original press release, it was the only name removed by the Press Association. Seems like a curious piece of editing to me.

And why does the Press Association think in the 21st century that this is a good piece of writing, or even an acceptable piece of writing, to put out and syndicate?

I only hope it wasn’t written by a woman.


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The Language of Liquid #3: St Cuthbert’s Otters

First, gild a stone to leave as a gift, then walk,

along the path that leads to a beach of stones, a small beach, Aberbach.

Here, place a stone in the water, where the fresh rushes down to meet the salt. Take from here a flask of the clear sweet water. Listen for a while to the riversong, the waves song, where they meet. Warm sun. Spring?

Stone, water, labyrinth. Aberbach, Pembrokeshire.

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Back home, with new inks, choose an ink, this time Akanegimo.

Use the river water to mix with the ink, and grind for 15 minutes, trying to focus on the shape of otters.

Paint. One otter.

Cuthbert had a pair of otters, who would swim around him while he prayed, who dried his feet and warmed them with their thick otter pelts. So, 15 minutes and more river water, and drench the brush in ink and paint.

Were they St Cuthbert’s otters, or was he their man?

And I try to move towards a purer, almost calligraphic representation of the fluid muscled creatures of water and land.


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