Down By The Old Caol Stream

Skibbereen has a flooding problem and the flood-relief project is in full swing now. A lot of it concerns the stream that runs through the town, under several bridges, past Field’s supermarket and the West Cork Arts Centre, to empty into the Ilen River by Thornhill’s Furniture Shop. The stream is tidal, creating flooding hazards from above and below.

The lush growth along the stream: Buddleia (Butterfly Bush), Valerian, Twiggy Mullein and Bindweed; Red Valerian and Twiggy Mullein; Twiggy Mullein close-up.
Clockwise  from Left: Field Bindweed and Meadowsweet; Hemlock Water-dropwort (yes, as it sounds, poisonous!); Red Valerian and Monkeyflower

While the stream has enormous potential to be an attractive part of Skibbereen’s urban environment, nobody could call it beautiful – it’s neglected, choked with ‘weeds,’ and full of rubbish. But wait – it also happens to be home to an astonishing variety of wildflowers!

A sea of yellow. Clockwise from Top Left: Marsh Marigold; Marsh Ragwort (not the unwanted Common Ragwort); Monkeyflower; Yellow Water-lily

Or rather, it WAS home to the wildflowers. As the project advances, the flowers have become collateral damage in the march forward of the steel barrier that will (we hope) keep flood waters contained. Most of us who shop in Skibbereen cross the bridges over the Caol Stream (pronounced Kale, Irish word for ‘narrow’) several times a week, normally without a glance over the side.

This is Water Figwort, closely related to Common Figwort but adapted to an aquatic environment
Clockwise from Left: Yarrow – although Yarrow is mostly white, this one is a lovely deep pink; Short-Fruited Willowherb; Snow-in-Summer or Dusty Miller

I decided to record the biodiversity of the stream flora before it disappeared and took photographs over the course of the spring and summer. It’s amazing really, what flourishes in such an unpromising environment. This photo-essay is an homage to what I observed.

Clockwise from Left: Ivy-leaved Toadflax (look for it on the wall); Common (or possibly Long-headed) Poppy; Marsh-bedstraw

Purple Loosestrife

Stream beds are a particular type of habitat. Tony O’Mahony in his magisterial Wildflowers of Cork City and County, points out that riverine habitats provide a welcome environment not only for native, but also for naturalised alien plants. Combined with the fact that the Caol Stream runs through a town with cultivated gardens backing on to it, this means that many of the wildflowers I saw are non-native, naturalised species. But all, native and non-native, are uniquely adapted to this watery channel, even tolerating periods under water.

The area behind the steel barrier is being filled in with gravel. I don’t know if it will be topped with soil. Hoping so.
Left: Below the uppermost bridge. Right: the stream where it empties into the Ilen – the vegetation has already been stripped

Wildflowers are incredibly resilient. One of their favourite habitats is waste ground – no sooner is a plot of land disturbed than the flowers move in. My prediction is that, despite the seemingly barren and hostile environment created by the sterile gravel fill behind the steel barriers, we will start to see, as early as next spring, the shoots of little plants moving in to colonize the available space. The Willowherbs first, perhaps, followed by Loosestrife and maybe Figwort.  And of course good old Herb Robert (below), which seems to survive and thrive just about anywhere


This is a highly poisonous plant called Lords and Ladies – perhaps we could do without this one, although no doubt there are critters that depend on this too

Direct access to the water will no longer be as easy, though, because of the steel barriers, so the flowers may take on a different character. It will be fascinating to see what happens over the next few years. Keep watching!

The Community Orchard seems to be far enough upstream that it may escape major flood works. This is a beautiful and contemplative place. I was shown around by an eager young boy who knew the names of all the plants

This is what it looks like now – the view from the upper of the two bridges leading to Fields

What can you identify in this picture?

Terry Searle – A West Cork Artist

It’s all happening in West Cork at the moment! In particular, there’s a lot going on in Skibb: the fabulous Skibbereen Arts Festival continues to run all through the week and we have already enjoyed some memorable events. The first West Cork History Festival has been a resounding success – and a learning experience: look forward to great things in the future. But don’t leave Skibbereen without visiting the O’Driscoll Building at Levis Quay, in the town centre. Opening at 1pm on Saturday 5 August and running through to 2 September is an important exhibition of the work of two artists: Terry Searle and Ian McNinch. I’m concentrating today on the life and work of Terry – one of the ‘West Cork Artists’ Group’ who built up a reputation during the latter part of the 20th century, and the story of which has still to be written. Finola and I were privileged to meet with Terry and his wife Penny Dixey recently, and thoroughly enjoyed their accounts of the somewhat Bohemian life and times of artists in West Cork.

Penny (left, with Ted) and Terry (right) at home in Schull

The exhibition is a retrospective of Terry’s work. His great grandfather was from Dublin: he was born in 1936 and brought up in the East End of London. Like many of his contemporaries he was evacuated to the countryside during the war and spent six years away from his home. It’s hard to imagine how that experience might have affected a young, evolving mind: his positive take is that it imbued in him a permanent love for nature and this has been reflected in his life work.

Terry is a painter. At the end of the war Terry was called up for National Service, where he rubbed shoulders with would-be actors, artists and musicians: their outlooks attracted him and, when he moved back to London, he started evening classes at St Martin’s School of Art and then signed on for a full-time course at Goldsmith’s College of Art. Although life was hard – there were no grants available and he had to fund his studies through a variety of jobs occupying all hours – he never looked back. As he says “…life in the coffee shops in Soho was enjoyable, with a lively social scene…”

Terry’s influences were many – particularly the large, colour-full abstracts of Rothko and Joan Mitchell – but his life-long hero is JMW Turner. London’s Tate Britain has the world’s largest collection of Turner on exhibition, so Terry had the opportunity to study his hero at first hand. Turner challenged the art traditions of his time (first half of the 19th century) and his techniques appear very ‘modern’ to our eyes. Terry is no slave to Turner’s style, but has a very particular way of viewing his subjects. I think Terry’s work is vibrant – colourful – approachable – very attractive yet with a powerful individuality. I can see some parallels with William Crozier, whose work is currently being shown at Uillinn. By chance, Terry Searle and Crozier once lived in the same road in London but were only on nodding acquaintance. As their lives and work progressed, both found their way to West Cork.

Terry Searle at work, probably around 1986

Terry first visited West Cork when travelling with a group of friends in the 1970s. A number of visits followed and he found himself “enchanted” by the natural beauty of the place, and the civilised pace of life here. He must also have been aware of the strong artistic movement which focussed around Ballydehob and Skibbereen at the time. When he made the permanent relocation to the west of Ireland in 1981 he quickly became active in that movement, and was one of the founders of the West Cork Arts Centre. He contributed to the 1985 exhibition of West Cork artists in Zurich, and in 1987 was part of the important Living Landscape ‘87 Exhibition, which showed in the Crawford Gallery, Cork, as well as in the West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen. This extract from the introduction of the exhibition catalogue is enlightening on the spirit of the time:

…Skibbereen is a small town in the South West of the country with a population of 2,000 people. Ten years ago, because of the number of artists living in the area, a small interested group started an art society and held an annual members exhibition which ran for two weeks every July in a local hall. The demand from artists and local people increased over the years and due to the hard work of a dedicated committee, they realised a dream come true – an Arts Centre for West Cork; and with the essential practical help from the Vocational Education Committee in the provision of the building, we became the proud ‘owners’ of a thriving Arts Centre. We run exhibitions monthly, organise musical and theatrical evenings, and provide classes for all, covering a full range of artistic interests in our newly reconstructed classroom. Today, we are very proud to be hosting the first ‘Living Landscape’ exhibition by the top 25 landscape artists working in this country. Our intention to make this a prestigious annual event is ambitious, but then all our plans are ambitious…!

The Living Landscape exhibition shown at The Crawford and in Skibbereen: Terry is third from the right

I wonder how many of those involved in those times could have foreseen just where those ambitions would lead? With Uillinn in Skibbereen, the West Cork Arts Centre now has the foremost public gallery west of Cork city, and it is pushing the boundaries with major exhibitions of contemporary work. Readers will be aware of the recent West meets West exhibition – which heralds a regular exchange of art between West Cork and Cornwall – and the gallery, currently, is hosting a collaborative exhibition with IMMA on the opus of William Crozier.

It’s so good that Terry Searle is being appreciated with this show: he has never been a self-publicist, and it is high time his work received full and proper recognition. He celebrates his eightieth birthday this year. A few years ago he was diagnosed with a degenerative neuromuscular disease and has now been forced to stop painting altogether. It is painful to imagine what a loss that must be to a creative ethos such as his. This exhibition is a very special one – be sure to see it!

Robert is lining up further posts on the stories of the West Cork Artists group dating from the 1960s (and still thriving!) and would be delighted to hear from anyone who has personal accounts, reflections or memories from those days…

Postscript – In the Tracks of the Yellow Dog

Uillinn – the West Cork Arts Centre gallery in Skibbereen – has a great facility in its exhibitions – a Discovery Box which can be used by children (or anyone else) to express their reactions to whatever is on show. I went in the other day to have a last look at the West meets West show of the work of Cornish Artists (hurry! – it closes on Saturday 8 July) and was delighted to see that someone had used some elements from the box to place a little installation under Matthew Lanyon’s painting aptly titled ‘Skibbereen’.

The Discovery Box in action at Uillinn – left, with Phil Booth’s impressive construction Gwennap Head in the background and – right – set against Tony Lattimer’s wonderful ceramics. (Photos courtesy of West Cork Arts Centre)

The Discovery Boxes are tailor-made for each exhibition. This one has been assembled by Sarah Ruttle and includes (amongst a multitude of inspired shapes) fish and fishing nets, miniature coiled ceramics reminiscent of Tony’s work – and a yellow dog! Why a yellow dog? Well, one of the most striking exhibits in this show is a tapestry designed by Matthew Lanyon – In the Tracks of the Yellow Dog.

Upper picture – the Discovery Box installation under Matthew Lanyon’s ‘Skibbereen’ painting and (lower left) the tapestry with (lower right) the paw print of the Yellow Dog substituted for the artist’s signature

The tapestry was manufactured by Flanders Tapestries in Belgium: cottons, wools and acrylics were selected in close collaboration with Matthew to achieve a tonal harmony from his original design. The yellow dog, a reference to Yellow-Dog Dingo from Kipling’s Just So stories, makes only one appearance; the paw print from a dried out salt lake in central Western Australia substitutes for the artist’s signature. 

We will miss the excitement and impact of those large, very Cornish works once they are packed up and sent back across the Celtic Sea, but that’s the nature of a gallery: the moment has to be enjoyed and then set aside as it will be soon replaced by other stimuli. Following on from West meets West at Uillinn is The Edge of the Landscape a major retrospective of the art of William Crozier (1930-2011), opening on Friday 14 July at 7pm. Born in Scotland, Crozier spent much of his time in Kilcoe, West Cork, from the mid-1980s, and this exhibition will present many of his works which have been inspired by the landscapes so familiar to us.

Below: Matthew Lanyon’s Skibbereen

Saintly Pigs and Curious Carvings

This is the last in the series of West meets West posts, which have been running alongside the exhibition of Cornish artists at the West Cork Arts Centre’s gallery in Skibbereen – Uillinn.

The painting (above left) by Cornish artist Alex Smirnoff (courtesy of Bryony Harris) wonderfully illustrates the story of Saint Credan who, like Saint Piran before him, travelled from Ireland to convert the heathens in Cornwall to Christianity in the 7th century. Our Saint Credan is looking a little melancholy. That’s because he accidentally killed his own father and therefore spent the rest of his life as a swineherd in penance. As a compensation it has to be said that he raises very fine pigs! Behind him is the ancient parish Church of Sancreed, very accurately portrayed with its huge colony of rooks in the trees behind. In the same picture is one of the five ancient crosses in the churchyard. The church itself dates from the 14th century: the crosses may be much older than that.

Above right is from a fine study of the entrance to Sancreed churchyard – by the Irish-born ‘Father’ of the Newlyn School, Stanhope Alexander Forbes. It is titled ‘October’ and was painted in 1898. Sancreed was the church attended by many of the Newlyn School artists, and the churchyard contains the graves of some of them, including Forbes and his wife Elizabeth Armstrong. In the church is a memorial designed by Forbes to commemorate their only son, Alec, who was killed in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Close by is a holy well, described by Amanda.

The crowning glories of this church, however, are the unusual carvings on the rood screen inside, which date from the 16th century. Last week I showed you the carving of the Chough – a bird closely linked with Cornwall and Ireland. Today I am illustrating some more of these carvings, and these show very strange beasts indeed! Some of them can be recognised as heraldic; no doubt they all would have carried symbolism when they were placed here five hundred years ago.

A basilisk is hatched by a cockerel from the egg of a toad. Be careful, because it has a lethal glare and poisonous breath. The basilisk carved in Sancreed church (above left) looks fairly personable, while Alex Smirnoff’s version of it (above right – inspired by the Sancreed carving) should be given a wide berth. Look at the shadowy figures – and the ancient cross – hiding in the background of Alex’s painting: typical of his work.

It’s not just strange creatures that are depicted at Sancreed (and there are many more of them) – there are figures as well:

Above are two panels with ‘Janus’ figures, male and female and – on the right – is a most curious character who seems to be a musician playing, perhaps, a serpent or a cornett. But he seems to be part bird, or wearing a feathered cloak. Below is a three-headed figure and a representation of an angel, perhaps: could this actually be Saint Credan hiding in his own church?

All this might seem a far cry from the exhibition in Skibbereen, which features three contemporary artists from Cornwall… But it certainly is art from Cornwall – and in a church which was founded by an Irish Saint; and a church, moreover, which had a special meaning for many of the Newlyn School artists, including Irish-born Stanhope Forbes, founding ‘Father’ of that school.

This series consist of twelve posts (including this one). You can link to them individually through this list:

Off to Skibbereen
A Saint’s Day – Ciarán and Piran
West meets West
Connecting with St Ives
A Watery Tale
Ways West
Sheep’s Head: Searching for Cornish Miners
Artists of the Western Coasts
Up and Running!
Forbes – An Irish Artists in Cornwall
Choughs – and their travels
Saintly Pigs and Curious Carvings

There’s still time to visit Skibbereen to see the exhibition of the Cornish artists’ work: West meets West is on until July 8 at Uillinn. Enjoy it!

Forbes – An Irish Artist in Cornwall

In yesterday’s gallery talk as part of the West meets West exhibition at Uillinn, Skibbereen, I concentrated on one of the many artists who made their way to Cornwall in the late nineteenth century: Stanhope Alexander Forbes. He deserves a Roaringwater Journal post of his own, as he rather neatly embodies the concept of linking the two westernmost seaboards of Ireland and England, which is an essential element of the West meets West project. Colloquially known as the ‘Father of the Newlyn School’ of painters who were established in the West of Cornwall, and who have left an impressive legacy of their work in the most remote part of the peninsula, it was probably his longevity that earned him that title (he lived in Newlyn for most of his working life and died there in 1947) rather than a particular comparison of his work with others. There was a large group of talented artists, men and women, who contributed to the reputation of the Newlyn colony.

Header Picture – Perranwell Viaduct, Cornwall, painted by Stanhope Forbes in 1933, when he was 76 (The Medici Society Ltd). Above – a photograph of the Newlyn Group, taken in the early 1880s: shown are Frank Bodilly, Fred Millard, Frank Bramley, William Blandford Fletcher, William Breakspeare, Ralph Todd, William Wainwright, Edwin Harris and (seated lower right) Stanhope Forbes

Stanhope Forbes was born in Dublin in 1857. His father, William Forbes, was manager of the Midland Great Western Railway of Ireland. William was also a folklorist and probably passed his interest in traditions and traditional lifestyles on to his son. Stanhope’s uncle, James Staats Forbes (also a railway manager) had a large collection of paintings from the French Barbizon School whose members (including Corot and Rousseau) abandoned formalism to draw directly from nature. Stanhope was familiar with these works and the aspirations of these painters, and it is likely that when he embarked on a career in art he was heavily influenced by their heritage.

Forbes early works: left – A Street in Brittany 1881 (Walker Art Gallery), and right – Beach Scene St Ives (City of Bristol Art Gallery) 1886

Norman Garstin, another Irish artist who joined the Newlyn group and documented some of its history, described the Forbes family as “…essentially of the nineteenth century, full of its movement and restless activity…” Stanhope attended the Royal Academy School in London where he would have had a traditional training in still life and figure painting in the studio. London itself in those post-Industrial Revolution Victorian days was no doubt dirty and noisy, and the air would have been polluted. Forbes and many of his student companions would have longed for clean air and light and yearned to join the then fashionable (but daring and rebellious) en plein air movement where the object was to paint ‘natural’ colours and tones direct from life, albeit with the inherent problems of changing light through the days and seasons, and the practicalities of carrying easels, canvases and equipment to wherever they wanted to paint. As Norman Garstin said: “…your work could not be any good unless you caught a cold doing it…” The young artists were attracted to Brittany, where they discovered an ‘idyllic’ unchanging lifestyle and, latterly, to Cornwall, where they also perceived the ‘rural idyll’ existing closer to home, among the villages, farms and fishing communities.

A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach by Stanhope Alexander Forbes, completed in 1885 (now in the City of Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery). This spectacular painting – five feet long – is a masterpiece of composition and contains portraits drawn from real life: Newlyn locals were delighted to receive ‘sitting fees’ from the influx of artists

It’s probably true to say that the Newlyn artists romanticised the way of life in rural Cornwall by concentrating on the fishing communities and the beautiful seaboard. There was another reality: the interior of Cornwall’s peninsula was heavily industrialised in the 19th century by the metal mining industry. The artists must have been aware of this reality but ignored any recording of it. There was, at least, some acknowledgement of the hardship and distress of those connected to the sea itself. Frank Bramley’s Hopeless Dawn (beautifully painted although also romanticising in a very Victorian way the aftermath of lost lives at sea), painted in 1888, depicts the widow of a drowned fisherman being comforted by her mother; the lighting and composition of the interior view is remarkable.

Upper picture – the industrial landscape of inland Cornwall: Dolcoath Mine 1883. Lower picture – Frank Bramley’s A Hopeless Dawn, painted in 1888 (Tate Gallery, London)

Stanhope Forbes lived into his ninetieth year. By all accounts he achieved success in his chosen profession, but his personal life saw some tragedies: Elizabeth Armstrong – an equally talented artist who travelled from her native Canada to work in Newlyn – married Stanhope in 1889. She pursued her own career as a painter and etcher until her early death – aged 52 – in 1912. Their son Alec died on the battlefields of France in 1916. All are buried in the beautiful churchyard of Sancreed, in Cornwall.

Blackberry Gatherers, painted by Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes in 1912 (Walker Art Gallery)

West meets West – a celebration of three contemporary artists from Cornwall – runs through to 8 July at Uillinn, Skibbereen

I am indebted to Stanhope Forbes and the Newlyn School by Caroline Fox, published by David & Charles 1993, for much of the biographical information on the artist in this post.

 

Up and Running!

I was allowed behind the scenes to experience the exhibition of Cornish artists – West meets West – being unpacked and arranged. It’s quite a process. All the works are large scale and were packaged for protection during the journey across sea and land from Cornwall. For a while Uillinn’s spacious ground floor gallery seemed overwhelmed, and it was hard to envisage how the various elements (two dozen substantial pieces) would come together in harmony with each other.

Header: first day. Upper picture – the layout is under discussion with Gallery Director Ann Davoren, technical maestro Stephen Canty and Robert Harris; lower picture – the work is gradually unpacked and mounted

The work comprises paintings, a tapestry and a laminated glass piece by Matthew Lanyon; relief sculptures by Philip Booth, and ceramic sculptures by Tony Lattimer. Many are heavy, and they all have to be handled safely and carefully (white gloves only!).

The exhibition runs over Uillinn’s two galleries, and there was a bit of ‘trial and error’ involved in deciding how the dynamics of the pieces would interact. In fact, I believe all the exhibits are strong enough to stand alone but also relate to others when, inevitably, the viewer moves around and experiences the various juxtapositions.

Juxtapositions: upper picture – Lattimers and a Lanyon create excitement when seen together. Lower picture – Booth, Lattimer and Lanyon sing to each other, and perhaps we can see something of the shared elemental nature of all the works, which have a Cornish conception in common

There are a few ‘firsts’ in West meets West – it’s the first time that Cornish artists have visited Uillinn in a group show; this is, hopefully, a first step in a collaborative venture which will see the works of contemporary artists crossing between Cork’s west coast and Cornwall’s westernmost peninsula. Both communities have strong historic links and both have supported creative centres for arts and crafts going back a century and more – and still do. It’s also the first time that some of these works have been publicly shown.

Upper – Philip Booth’s dramatic enormous triptych, inspired by the landscape around Gwennap Head, Cornwall, displayed for the first time ever at Uillinn. It is constructed from an array of materials and uses a complex pallette. Also exhibited for the first time here is the newly completed ‘Altar Piece’ (Lower picture), a laminated glass triptych by Matthew Lanyon, here in use during the young childrens’ art exploration programme

Every exhibition has a formal opening. West meets West was opened by the Mayor of Cork County, Seamus McGrath, who spoke of the importance of maintaining links across the sea, particularly in these divisive times of ‘Brexit’. On the following day, there was a very well attended panel discussion where the artists were given free rein to relate their experiences in conceiving and creating their work: Matthew’s widow, Judith, represented him and gave us some wonderful insights into why the Lanyon works were made and how they might be interpreted. Philip Booth talked us through the processes involved in designing and building his complex constructions, while Tony Lattimer effusively expressed his working methodology.

The panel discussion (top), with Judith Lanyon, Phil Booth and Tony Lattimer

It has been a great achievement to get this dynamic, vibrant and colourful exhibition into the galleries at Uillinn. Please don’t miss it – it runs until 8 July – and look out for some extra events: I will be giving a talk following a guided gallery tour on Saturday next, 10 June, commencing at noon. Tony will be giving a ‘walk and talk’ on his work at 3pm this Thursday, 8 June – keep an eye on the Arts Centre website or Facebook. We are also planning a coach tour of sites in West Cork which have Cornish connections (there are many!). Please ask at the gallery if interested.