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Garden of Significant Inspiration and Curious A-MUSE-ments at Shakespeare’s New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon

O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

So wrote William Shakespeare in the Prologue to Henry V –  and a few days ago we were in the garden at New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, site of Shakespeare’s former family home – infusing marbles with the power of that same muse.new-place-stratford-upon-avon

In case you’re thinking that sounds eccentric and zany, you’re right – and through the path of the eccentric many of the greatest minds have found both inspiration  and ideas that have changed the world.  Below is an approximation of what Shakespeare’s family home would have looked like. No picture-of-an-approximation-of-shakespeares-new-place-his-own-family-homehouse currently exists at New Place, but is instead represented by a series of gardens is where we embarked on a “Muse Catching” journey with the United Nations Board of Significant Inspiration (otherwise possibly understood as a group of artists / creators / thinkers / acrobats / inventors / actors whose goal is to awake the imagination, fill the mind and heart with fresh possibilities, and raise up the muse for members of the public who choose to visit).

Our purpose: to each take a marble and catch in it some of that muse Shakespeare wrote about, through the four elements of earth, fire, water and air.

The journey itself is full of fun, wonder, laughter inspiration and delight – and at the bottom of this wonderful, quirky, fanciful Art Happening, is a profound question and a fascinating subject for research: is there a correlation between place, time and lightbulb moments?

Shakespeare’s family home no longer exists because it was demolished by a character Shakespeare himself might have created. This “Art Happening” as I like to describe it, was based upon the idea that “the muse” is somehow present in the location where Shakespeare lived and wrote.  Many of us are familiar with the idea of certain places having a high level of inspiration. Often it seems to be present in the air, or lie hidden in the fabric of a special building, or within a natural phenomenon or feature of the landscape. But does it perhaps emanate from the ground? This is the idea played with and embodied by the UNBOSI at New Place this Christmas.  In the roundel at New Place, several information boards explored this, noting that many world-renowned geniuses had their lightbulb moment by doing very silly things – or by having very silly things happen to them.

So let us be inspired by the fanciful, creative, quirky and even silly… for along that path may lie greatness.

 

 

 

What does Eadfrith, artist-scribe of the Lindisfarne Gospels, have to teach creative writers and artists today?

Nothing much, you may think – because Eadfrith was a seventh century monk in a monastery on an island, and we live in the fast, materialistic, time-pressured world of 2016.

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sunset on Lindisfarne

I’ve just spent three days on Lindisfarne (otherwise known as Holy Island), just off the Northumberland coast, where Eadfrith sat in the monastery scriptorium and scribed and decorated the Lindisfarne Gospels every day for two years between  696 and 698 AD, in order to commemorate the elevation of St Cuthbert’s relics. 

So why is it that the book he created is so revered and has such a hold on our imagination now? – apart  from its age and the wonderful fact of its survival?

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Display in the Lindisfarne Heritage Centre, Holy Island

I believe it’s because of the dedication, the patient concentration and the painstaking artistry that breathes out from the pages, and because of what inspired its creation: love and devotion.

Eadfrith created it “for the glory of God and St Cuthbert”.

St Cuthbert himself inspired so much reverence because he was a holy man, at one time bishop of Lindisfarne, who died as a hermit in 687 on Inner Farne (which I recently visited), and around whose body many miracles occurred.

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Sculpture in St Mary’s Church Holy Island, showing the monks who carried Cuthbert’s body to escape from Viking raiders

The astonishing story of his body, which failed to decay for many years, records how he was carried for several decades by faithful monks around Northumberland, to escape Viking attack, before finally it was laid to rest in the spot over which Durham Cathedral was built. You can visit St Cuthbert’s Tomb in Durham Cathedral, a place which has a strong spiritual resonance and atmosphere of holiness.

The glorious book which is the Lindisfarne Gospels is a testament to patience, concentration, love and devotion. preface to St Mark's Gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels

For us now, to gaze at, or to work with, the patterns Eadfrith painted is a pathway to peace and joy – hence the popularity of Celtic colouring-in books for adults, partly because the act of colouring-in forces you to pay close attention and eliminate all distractions. Celtic designs based on the Lindisfarne gospels pop up everywhere20160829_112732 – here’s an image of my lovely metal bookmark displaying Eadfrith’s designs – notice particularly his ornamental birds (Lindisfarne has long been a paradise for birds, so Eadfrith had plenty of them to model his designs on).

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Detail from the Lindisfarne Gospels, in St Mary’s Church Holy Island

In creating the ornamental designs, Eadfrith needed to pay minute attention to the geometrical foundations and symmetry of the overall design – very little was left to chance or the “inspiration of the moment.”

The book he created is now revered not just for the beauty and skill within its pages, I believe, but because that beauty is a physical representation on this earth of a spiritual reality – goodness, peace, patience, holiness and love.

Eadfrith had to source, prepare, or make from scratch everything he used – the parchments of vellum; the pen from a thick reed or quill feather; the ink, from animal, vegetable and mineral raw materials, ground to a fine powder and then mixed with egg white. I have personal experience of something of this latter part of the process at least, because I did an icon-painting course a few years ago and we mixed artists’ pigment with egg-white to paint our own icons on pieces of wood we had ourselves prepared – see the photo here of my own icon of the Archangel Gabriel.20160829_123557

After Eadfrith had created the Gospels, he left the scriptorium and as far as we know he never painted or wrote anything else – not that I’m suggesting this is a model for creative writers of today!

I find his story awe-inspiring and uplifting because it gives me an image of a patient, devoted person sitting alone in a quiet place concentrating absolutely on a work of art, to the exclusion of all else. It makes me think of many others who have created great works in similar circumstances – those who have been perhaps in prison, like St Paul, or Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote, two amongst several examples: or those who have deliberately chosen to go apart into an isolated place like Eadfrith in the scriptorium, free of distractions.

To be free of distractions and able to fully concentrate and devote yourself to the task in hand is such a luxury now, such an ideal for writers and artists to aspire to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rain Soaked Odyssey of Delight Round Highgrove Garden


Drenching rains accompanied our tour round HRH the Prince of Wales’ intriguing garden at Highgrove but with so much to wonder at, we all kept going and completed the tour.

Highgrove Garden made me think of the plot of a children’s book, quirky, fun, playful. At every turn there is a new surprise, like something dreamed up by Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear. It was an odyssey through a quirky and unpredictable environment.

Vistas and views and angles, abundant ferns and eccentric topiary, temples, thatched tree house and giant slate pots abounded.

The downpour intensified as we went round, yet everyone was so entranced by the garden, it remained a minor issue – even when we waded through deep puddles on the unmade paths.

Moving through the garden is like progressing from one chapter to another in a beguiling story. If fairies inhabited this garden they would be the wild, anarchic spirits Shakespeare portrays in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I particularly loved the juxtaposition of wilderness and artistry.  HRH The Prince of Wales has invited artists and sculptors to run wild with their imagination; everywhere you may see the evidence of free expression and creativity.

In summary, this is a unique and profoundly inspiring garden.

Believing in Dreams

It is a dream… of what has never been… true, it has never been, and therefore, since the world is alive, and moving yet, my hope is the greater that it one day will be… dreams have before now come about of things so good… we scarcely think of them more than the daylight, though once people had to live without them, without even the hope of them.

William Morris Strawberry Thief design

William Morris Strawberry Thief design

These words are from William Morris the great Victorian designer. His dream was that everyone would “have his share of the best”; he longed to see art at the centre of everyone’s lives so that they might “always  have pleasure in the things that they use.”

Right now (June-September 2015), there is an exhibition of the work of William Morris and his contemporaries at Compton Verney, an art gallery very close to where I live in Warwick, a place I love visiting.

I love William Morris designs (as you’ll see from a former post on this blog) and have just bought a tapestry shoulder-bag with the Strawberry Thief design on it.. True, art and design in our lives often has a monetary value; this seems to be the nature of human life.

But to me, William Morris’s dream of everyone having his or her “share of the best” is the ultimate democracy, the democracy of ‘value’ and quality of life, above all else, whatever our circumstances. As we know this dream is very far from being realised in our world. But how inspiring William Morris’s words are, and how encouraging his vision, for those of us who dream, and have high ideals.

Witty Insight into the London Art World

For all those who’ve wondered how one starts to get noticed as an artist in London, and is in the mood for a light-hearted approach to the subject I can recommend a book which might have escaped my notice if I hadn’t recently met the author at a conference.

witty look at the London art world by Emily Benet

witty look at the London art world by Emily Benet

Emily Benet first posted her book chapter by chapter on Wattpad and had such a good response from readers that she came to the attention of Harper Impulse, who published the book as “The Temp”.

I bought the book after listening to Emily talking about social media for authors at the recent conference at the University of Leicester. Emily certainly incorporates her knowledge of social media into this novel.

I learned from her that the book was originally called “Spray Painted Bananas”, and I believe that was a much more original title. Purely from the cover design and title that Harper Impulse have given this novel I would have identified it as generic chick-lit and probably not have picked it out in a book shop.

And yet, reading the novel, I find it much more than chick-lit. It gives a delightful and witty insight into the London art world, and I found myself thinking of the main protagonist, Amber, as a budding Tracy Emin.

It’s so easy to look at installations in the Tate Modern and think, Oh I could do that. But the reality of getting yourself known as an artist is far more complex and challenging. Emily Benet has great fun, not only with the motivations and behaviour of those who visit art galleries for private views, but also with the ways in which an artist may start to become known, particularly in London.

I loved this story, found the characters engaging and entertaining, especially Amber’s flatmate Egg, and enjoyed the rom com element as well. Highly recommended for a fun read.

For some of my previous posts on the contemporary art world, see https://scskillman.com/2013/10/09/what-do-we-do-about-art-theres-always-a-little-shop-at-the-end/ and http://ezinearticles.com/?Inspiration-for-Creative-Writers-From-Artists&id=6783241

Red Poppies and the Power of Story at The Tower of London

A family trip to the Tower of London at the weekend reminded me once again of how much I love visiting English castles.

at the Tower of London (photo credit SC Skillman)
at the Tower of London (photo credit SC Skillman)

I was trying to account for this in one of my previous posts, but a fellow-writer put it beautifully; when you go round these places you are reassured about the meaningfulness of our lives through the power of story.

No matter how grisly and macabre the behaviour of our predecessors was, we thrill to these historical sites. Everyone of all ages can enjoy them, both adults and children – whether or not the latter are currently studying medieval castles at school! And the Tower of London is immensely photogenic. You cannot move a step without itching to capture another angle, another story-filled view.

The red poppy installation at the Tower – in which the moat has been filled with 888,246 ceramic poppies in commemoration of the 1st World War – is an awe-inspiring, beautiful and moving sight.

art installation at the Tower of London commemorating 1st World War (photo credit SC Skillman)

art installation at the Tower of London commemorating 1st World War (photo credit SC Skillman)

As I am constantly learning more about the Tudors, I feel that the Tower has a tremendous emotional poignancy. I cannot look at the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula without thinking of the account I have read of Anne Boleyn’s ladies-in-waiting carrying her body to the chapel for burial, and having to wait several hours for space to be prepared for her beneath the altar pavement – because nobody had actually expected her to be executed; many believed a last-minute reprieve would arrive from Henry VIII.

But it didn’t. And Anne Boleyn’s legacy is a very special place in English history – as the chief person that springs to our minds in the same breath as The Tower of London.

The chapel at the Tower where Anne Boleyn was buried under the altar pavement (photo credit SC Skillman)

The chapel at the Tower where Anne Boleyn was buried under the altar pavement (photo credit SC Skillman)

200 Years of Australian Art at the Royal Academy: Connections Between Painting and the Spiritual Realm

From indigenous art through to ‘discovery’ by European explorers, the arrival of the first British settlers, dismay, denial and idealization, to  acceptance, new understanding and redemption, this exhibition of Australian paintings at the Royal Academy in London took me on a journey through the spiritual heart of my own experience of this great continent.

AUSTRALIA EXHIBITION, Royal Academy of Arts

AUSTRALIA EXHIBITION, Royal Academy of Arts

As Russell Drysdale said, “In Australia there is a quality of strangeness that you do not find … anywhere else.”

Reviews of this exhibition have  been mixed, with a lot of  criticism levelled at it in the UK. But from the first painting of a  convict settlement, neat, peaceful, well spaced out and idealized, through to the contemporary paintings struggling to reconcile the wounded history of cruelty, misunderstanding and conflict between aboriginal people and European colonial settlers, this exhibition was for me an opportunity to revisit and relive my own experience of four and a half years living in this great continent.

In particular a swirling picture by a Queensland artist of the rainforest-clad mountains near Brisbane seemed to reflect exactly my own experience of this beautiful landscape.

The indigenous artworks were particularly moving, with their distinctive use of rarrk – the cross hatched patterns characteristic of aboriginal artists, as they depict rain running down dunes, undulating landscapes, waterholes and trees and spirit ancestors, believing that we tread the earth for a while then come out of it and become part of the ancestral realm again.

Two phrases seemed to touch the heart of this exhibition : “access to” and “isolation from”. Both of these were exemplified in a painting by John Brack, The Car (1955) which I couldn’t help responding to with amusement and yet behind it lay a profound resonance: a family in an ugly cheap car, out for a day trip, the father at the wheel, the mother smiling, the two children in the back staring straight at you, the viewer… and behind them the vastness of the Australian landscape.

And the picture “Australian Beach Pattern” by Charles Meere (1940) of the bronzed perfect bodies on the beach, men, women, children and babies, all strong, confident, was for me worryingly reminiscent of the kind of the pictures produced by artists in the Soviet Union as part of a propaganda campaign for the Soviet communist party. Yet later, the trauma of the Second World War affected the mood of optimism and this image was superseded by Albert Tucker with a painting of red,scorched hunks of flesh on another beach.

There was no painting of Sydney Opera House, my favourite of  all buildings; but there was one by Grace Cossington Smith of Sydney Harbour Bridge being built, (“The Bridge in Building”, 1929) viewed from below,  demonstrating pride, hope, creative enterprise, ingenuity, and above, beyond and around it a distinctly spiritual resonance.

The indigenous people of Australia  were the ones who fully understand and imbued the earth with sacred forces. They were the ones who gave this continent its air of mystery and spiritual power. And yet I can,too, be thankful to those eighteenth century settlers, because they prepared the way so that I,and many others, might have access to the most sublime of scenery. Even now when I drive up a steep winding road I think “Mount Glorious” . And when I saw Kenneth  McQueen’s picture I thought “Yes!” And my heart lifted. “Maiala Rainforest” – conveyed just as I experienced it and remember it now, in swirling patterns of movement.

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