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Category Archives: English Painting

England on Fire by Stephen Ellcock and Mat Osman (Watkins Press)

England on Fire by Stephen Ellcock and Mat Osman (Watkins Press)

Which writer is not at some level engaged with place, landscape, mythology, folklore and stories? It may be overt, it may be in opposition to established histories or geographies, it may be about colonisation, rebellion or immigration, it may be about revisiting the past and present through the lens of gender, sexuality or identity, it might simply creep into our writing because we all live somewhere and hear and see things others don’t.

England on Fire is subtitled A Visual Journey Through Albion’s Psychic Landscape, the kind of phrase that smacks of vague New Age mysticism and woolly religious philosophies. It doesn’t do itself many favours by this kind of labelling, because the book – an anthology of carefully curated images accompanied by Mat Osman’s poetic prose – is much harder-edged and interesting than that subtitle and dour cover with a deer-headed figure against a circle of light suggests.

Stephen Ellcock talks about research, intuition, pattern making and collage in the brief authors’ biographies at the start of the book, all creative processes I can relate to. The book is in 12 themed chapters or sections, each evocatively titled (‘Out of Darkness’, ‘Weeds & Wildness’, ‘Rebellious Nature’, ‘Acardia’), each a cluster of beautifully reproduced painting, photos, prints, sculptures or drawings, each opening with a few hundred words from Osman, who responds to Ellcock’s themes through tangent, metaphor and storytelling.

Osman also supplies a more straightforward, if slightly polemical, ‘Introduction’, where he explains how ‘Stephen juxtaposes and weaves imagery around itself, teasing out narratives and finding wild connections in a kind of visual language’, suggesting that the project is politicised, ‘a very English rebellion of the nameless many against the privileged few’, and uses ‘a language that speaks to England’s subconscious’. Heady stuff! But fair enough, although Osman seems to find the images in here more unknown and obscure than I do.

Anyway, what do we get? To start with there is George Frederick Watts’ swirl of creation, swiftly followed by John Martin’s apocryphal ‘The Deluge’, William Blake, Arthur Rackham, Ken Kiff, Samuel Palmer, an Anglo-Saxon brooch, a photographic stereograph of ‘The Devil’s Chimney’, Norman Palmer and one of Madge Gill’s channeled spirit works on paper. This wonderful visual cornucopia is repeated throughout the book, with still from Derek Jarman’s Avebury film, fairy photographs, Notting Hill carnival images, Richard Dadd’s asylum paintings, landscape photography, mazes, the changing face of ‘Settlements’, until we get to the final section ‘Visions’. Here, Osman becomes ecstatic:

   ENGLAND IS A FIREWORKS DISPLAY
   THAT SETS THE NIGHT ABLAZE

   […]

   And us? We are flame-lit and bonfire
   -warmed. We walk in beauty like the night,
   secure in the knowledge that everything
   grows better after a wildfire […]

   England is a firework that burns forever.

Shooting stars, ‘thought forms’ erupting from a cathedral tower, abstract psychedelic inkjet prints, John Martin again, sunsets by George Shaw and Francis Danby… and then Blake’s ‘Jerusalem, The Emanation Of The Giant Albion’ and Dan Hillier’s ‘Older Light’, a heavenly figure radiating light into the darkness.

Elsewhere, scarecrows, the green man, corn figures, bonfires, dragons, druids, the Padstow Obby Oss, witches, mummers, along with Punch & Judy appear; as do ruined buildings, masks, stained glass and documentary photos from Rock Against Racism. This is Albion, an imaginary and hyper-real version of England, in all its glory. A land where races mingle and co-habit, magic and religion co-exist, as do ritual and science, poetry and song, humans, ghosts and imaginary creatures. I wish it said Britain, not England (maybe that’s just me being PC – England seems so non-inclusive) but this new book is inspirational and thought provoking, part documentary, part challenge, part of the ongoing change we are living through: ‘England is an immigrant song that changes us with every singing.’

Rupert Loydell 21st May 2022


Bonjour Mr Inshaw poetry by Peter Robinson & paintings by David Inshaw (Two Rivers Press)

Bonjour Mr Inshaw poetry by Peter Robinson & paintings by David Inshaw (Two Rivers Press)

Writing about his paintings from the 1970s which had been influenced by the landscape of Wiltshire and the poetry of Thomas Hardy, David Inshaw suggested that his main aim “was to produce a picture that held a moment in time, but unlike a photograph, which only records an event.” Comparing the world of a painting with that of the camera he went on to point out “a painting could give a more universal, deeper meaning to that moment by composing one instant from lots of different unrelated moments.” And so ‘The Badminton Game’, originally given a title from the early Hardy poem ‘She, To Him’,
holds a stillness which is quite remarkable and it interestingly graced a wall in Number 10 in 1997!

This new publication from Two Rivers Press is extremely attractive and the stillness of Inshaw’s focus upon more than the moment is complimented by the way in which Peter Robinson’s poems note the depth of the present’s conversation with the past. In another painting from 1972 which retained its title from one of Hardy’s ‘1912-13’ poems written after the death of his wife, ‘Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers’ (‘After a Journey’), a haunting awareness of how the past and the present can be caught in a stillness of reflection is complimented by Robinson’s poem ‘Haunting Landscapes’:

“But time you stop won’t go away.
Perpetually present, it has to stay
replete with others’ meanings
from gallery walls, gone into the world
of chiaroscuro, image, reputation,
not knowing how or why,”

The precision in the painting holds the attention. A woman in black stands to stare behind her with hands on hips as though to address what is no longer there. The context of the loss is given a permanency by the way that Inshaw has painted the geometrically exact gravestones, some of which lean slightly in the direction of the woman’s gaze, and the carefully tended hedge and grass that occupy the foreground:

“Each blade of grass, brick course and ripple,
whether through water, leafage or sky
dryly individuated stills its still point
into a distanced reminiscence…”

In the Preface to this beautifully designed book Peter Robinson gives an account of his meetings with Inshaw when they were both at Trinity College, Cambridge, the poet working for a PhD on Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts and the latter on a two-year stint as Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts. When his first collection of poems, Overdrawn Account, appeared from the Many Press in November 1980 it included a short prose piece which of course was not reissued in the Shearsman Collected Poems. The piece was dedicated to Inshaw and given the title ‘A Woman A Picture and a Poem’. Opening with ‘The flattened cumulus darker than slate’ it goes on to refer to the ‘deepening presence of…what if she leaves him?’. It is perhaps that deepening presence which pervades this new poem of haunting landscapes and it is worth noting Adam Piette’s comment on the book’s back cover:

“Robinson is the finest poet alive when it comes to the probing of shifts in atmosphere, momentary changes in the weather of the mind, each poem an astonishingly fine-tuned gauge for recording the pressures and processes that generate lived occasions.”

The collection of poems in this new publication reflect Robinson’s thoughts after visiting Inshaw’s studio early last year and those shifts of atmosphere can be seen weaving their paths through the poem ‘After Courbet’, written as a response to Inshaw’s 1977 painting ‘The Orchard’:

“You were working on The Orchard.
We talked about its foreground ladder,
the feet secured, it seemed, nowhere
on that unresponsive canvas
with tension problem, sunken paint
where one girl’s reaching, as for apples,
the other stares, oh distant women—”

The presence of Thomas Hardy is felt in the distant gaze and one is tempted to recall the opening of the second section of that 1866 publication of ‘She, To Him’:

“Perhaps, long hence, when I have passed away,
Some other’s feature, accent, thought like mine,
Will carry you back to what I used to say,
And bring some memory of your love’s decline.”

One might also think of James Joyce’s Mr. Duffy in ‘A Painful Case’ who now gazes out of his window “on the cheerless evening landscape” after learning of the death of a woman to whom he used to be close. Or, perhaps more pertinently, one might want to look back at the deeply moving late tale by Henry James, ‘The Beast in the Jungle’:

“It was in the way the autumn day looked into the high windows as it waned; in the way the red light, breaking at the close from under a low, sombre sky, reached out in a long shaft and played over old wainscots, old tapestry, old gold, old colour.”

Bonjour Mr Inshaw is a beautifully produced book and I urge readers to get hold of a copy immediately.

Ian Brinton 9th March 2020