The excitement for me as an artist lies not in exploring the unknown but in how I can effectively organise a visual arrangement that reflects the atmosphere and intensity of an environment, evoking a precise moment of the day under specific light and conditions. I hope you enjoy the work
Feature of the week 28/01/2018
Evening in Valleraugue
Evening in Valleraugue 2015
This painting was completed in 2015 shortly before I revisited the East End in the exhibition, ‘Lost Time’. The building in ‘Evening in Valleraugue’ is still inhabited and situated in a remote mountainous region of Southern France - the Cevennes, an area that I have known for over forty years. I am struck more and more by certain similarities and connections that crop up between the two strands of my work- different subject/locale, similar content.
First the differences, The Cevennes has always been a harsh country in which to bring up a family and earn a living. Composed of granite and schiste, high peaks and deep valleys render it difficult to access and can be inhospitable to modern building and farming methods.
Yet there are parallels to East London, for over 400 years the area has provided a welcome refuge to the dispossessed, from Huguenots fleeing from the religious wars in 17th century to the secretion and feeding of Jewish people in lead mines during the Nazi occupation in the 20th century. The inhabitants wander in by accident seeking refuge and in many cases, never leave. A lot of their descendants, some my friends and people I have known over decades, have never seen the sea only fifty miles away.
When interpreting a Southern European landscape I still bring a Northern sensibility as in my London work. No brash, vivid hues, nor excited, flamboyant mark making, but modulated tones and composed, organized spatial arrangements. For me this prevents the work becoming too dreamlike or vague.
The house where I stay is in a hamlet called La Valette (know a street near London Fields, Hackney of that name?). The building is a magnanerie, a barn once used for the incubation of silk worms, that as readers of GA blog will know, feed on mulberry leaves. Mulberry trees, Black Mulberries in this case, once abounded on the narrow terraces of the Cevennes. During the 18th and 19th centuries spinning, weaving and the manufacture of silk products provided a good living for the dwellers of the valleys.
This way of life was devastated by disease attacking the silk worms in 1850s, but, like the East Enders, the Cévenols did not vacate their homes. They are resolute, stoical and adaptable. Buildings were transformed according to need. If one crop failed, another was tried. Chestnuts used to be staple diet until affected by disease in 1871. Soil erosion on a massive scale caused catastrophic floods during the 19th century, but was halted under the direction of forestry engineer, Georges Fabre, who deduced that the erosion would wash down through the rivers and silt up major ports, Bordeaux being one of them. Having made this known, he had the local population of Valleraugue plant over 6 million trees by hand in order to hold the soil and restore the slopes, you can see a few of these trees in the background of my painting.
Nowadays the cash crop is the sweet onion that sell for over 5 euros a kilo in Paris. In some valleys every available nook and cranny of the terraces has been made use of for this purpose.
As with the East End, time has left a patchwork of patina and surfaces layers- traces left by generations struggling to survive under harsh conditions. These marks are absorbed into the fabric of the buildings and the landscapes. There are few human beings visible but evidence that they have lived and continue to do so is everywhere. Look at the dry stonewalls painfully constructed stone by stone from local materials and remember the higgledy-piggledy constructions put up along the Thames waterfronts to house dock labourers.
To my mind the content in all my work, whatever the location, is survival, continuation of life against the odds, marks left on both the land and the canvas of an unsettling stillness, inhabited by memories, echoes of the past and hope for the future.