27 November 2016

Like a bird on the wire

For much of this past year an imperfect Mistle Thrush sang from first light to last, in the tall trees that border the field behind my home.  Imperfect in that he had only one leg.

Sometimes, in the afternoons, he would leave the swaying branches at the tip of his favourite ash, to sing from the ridge of the house. In these hours, looking up through the studio roof lights, it was possible to see quite clearly his single pale yellow leg, the delicate pink inside of his mouth, the exquisite dappling of greys and cream on his breast and the sheer bodily effort of every note thrown, head back, into the valley.

For months this hand-full of a bird sang all day and every day.  He sang from four in the morning, through March winds and the long hours of June afternoons, until well after field and hedge smudged into the blue-dark of night.  I wondered when he ate, let alone procreated.  In fact I'm pretty sure he didn't. How can you eat when you have to make sure the world keeps turning? 

Sometimes but only sometimes, in the stillness of evening air, I would hear another thrush calling back an equally elaborate paragraph or two from some oak-top, deep in the valley.

For me, (radio off - unable to take the diet of lies and fear), thrush-song accompanied my every working day. Until late in July when he stopped singing. Quite suddenly from one day to the next.  This is completely normal - all birds go quiet around the time of their annual moult.  Why announce your presence to the world when you are drab and short of feathers to fly with? And now, although the world does apparently continue to turn - the valley seems somehow empty without him.  

The following thoughts - intended as metaphor -  are emphatically not  projection or anthropomorphism.  They have waited, unpublished in my note book for some months.  I'm hesitant to write them out, even now.  After all, what place poetry in a time of catastrophe? 


I have wondered in these quieter months of autumn, in the calm exile of work, if there is something of the song thrush in the painter or poet?  Do you draw all day because you don't know what else to do with life?   Do you write to sing the world into existence?

You work in all weathers, (real,  political and economic),  and although you are intimate with every species of fear, you cannot know fear.  You cannot stop.

With all you have, you try first this phrase and then that, you return to themes over and then over again.  You try the same sequence - starting in a different place. You insist, you persist.  Each mark follows the one before - hard won.  Each line works against the silence - staccato bursts - in themselves and in the moment, entirely abstract...approaching music.

By definition you are improbably and impossibly fragile - unprotected.  No more than a handful of blood, bones and dappled feathers; you exist to sing.  No, not to sing - to hurl your mad songs, (for they are many), again and again, into the world, lest it stop turning, lest, heaven help us, it doesn't make sense after all.

"Presence" Charcoal on paper. 40" X 60" © Sarah Gillespie 2016


Last night, having written the above but still unsure whether to hit 'publish', I went to bed, opened my new copy of Jonathan Bate's biography of Ted Hughes, and read the following:

"Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn't actually want to say but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of.  Perhaps it's the need to keep it hidden that makes it poetic - makes it poetry. The writer daren't actually put it into words, so it leaks out obliquely, smuggled through analogies...we're actually saying something we desperately need to share.  The real mystery is this strange need.  Why can't we just hide it and shut up? Why do we have to blab? Why do human beings need to confess? Maybe if you don't have that secret confession, you don't have a poem - don't even have a story."

Ted Hughes interviewed for the Paris Review (Spring 1995) 

6 July 2016

This is not our finest hour.

This is madness.

What is going on?

I make no apology for the absence of paintings in the following.  As the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote: “what place poetry in a time of catastrophe?”

This piece is about racism, assumptions and my despair at finding so much of the former still festering in the country I call my home.  And yes, it is still about the studio because it is about two men who put me on this path, gave me the conviction and skills I needed and about whom I still think.  Every day – especially when things get tough.

If  I tell you that two men who have most influenced me and given me most are an Irishman and a black man…what do you think?  What picture comes to your mind?

Let’s start with the Irishman.  My father.  An ‘off-the-boat’ Irishman.  You might think navvy, you might think building site? You don't perhaps think lonely, asthmatic, dyslexic orphan.  A boy who lied about his age to get into the Royal College of Art, who then made television sets for the likes of the Beatles and Shirley Bassey.  A three dimensional genius who could literally make anything.  Who, by the end of his too-short life, employed in excess of 50 people, and was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Architects.  You probably think, “Catholic”? Wrong – Church of Ireland but actually many of his 12 aunts were theosophists and one, Greta, was the first female circuit judge in India.   Our assumptions are almost always wrong.

I have memories of going out with my father as a very young girl and seeing signs on pubs that read:

No Blacks
No Irish
No Hop-pickers

This must have been in the late 1960s or early 1970s.  We lived in Farnham in Surrey and I had no idea what a ‘black’ was.  I knew my father was Irish because we went back at least once every year to visit family. As only a small child could, I rather liked the signs, as ‘we’ were on the same list as the ‘hop-pickers’ and I liked the hop-gardens that filled the fields around our house.

My father told me I could walk through walls if I wanted to badly enough.

When I finished school, my dad – immigrant that he was – said, ‘well if you want to be an artist, you’d better go to Paris.'  And that is how I met the second most important man in my life.

A black man.  A very black man. 

So what are you thinking now?

Patrick Betaudier was born in Trinidad. Of West African origin, his skin was blue-black.  Like my father, he was devastatingly good looking and - like my father - for his own safety, he had ‘acquired’ an English accent.  Patrick, confusingly, sounded like the actor James Mason. 

Betaudier was a Catholic - his father was a Knight of the Vatican.  Bought to England from Port of Spain with some kind of colonial education program,  he went to Cambridge and served in the RAF before attending St Martins and the Royal College of Art.  

He left London in the 1960’s for a life in Paris, because London was a ‘racist city’.  At 17 I had no idea what he meant and was mildly offended at the suggestion.

He taught me everything I know about painting and more about European cultural history than my expensive education had come close to.  Married to a French woman with Jewish ancestry, they had been in the thick of both the American civil rights movement in Southern Illinois and  the student riots in Paris 1968.  He could recite T S Eliot at length and cooked food the like of which I had never tasted.

My learning curve was steep.

And from this man, in the long, long hours of the Atelier , l learned how to mix colours from all over the world, I learned the secrets of perspective (Greek/Arabic) and the highly esoteric oil painting technique of Van Eyck .  Jan Van Eyck  (Flemish 15C) is widely credited with ‘inventing’ oil painting – the pinnacle of European culture.  Certainly he mastered it but it is known now that there were monks in Afghanistan mixing oil with pigment as early as the 9C.

Returning from Paris to England in 1982 to take up a place at Oxford, (both men were so proud) I heard, for the first time in my life, people refer to ‘wogs’  and 'darkies'.  I have never felt less at home.

 2016.  There are no words to say how much I feel we have let down both those brilliant men and many others,  who worked so hard, faced down so much hatred to follow dreams.  For the first time in my life I’m glad neither one is alive to see what is happening now.

Where do you want to send people back  to?  How far back do you want to go?

Today I had lunch with my dealers;  a second generation anglo-Indian, ( father was church of Scotland,) and a white woman who grew up in Africa. My husband's mother is French, my children consider themselves Europeans and have friends and colleagues from all over the continent.

Do you want to unpick everything of our fabric?

How do we justify the idea that it is apparently alright for us to have spent centuries going to other countries and helping ourselves to whatever raw materials or knowledge we desired but it is not ok for the citizens of those countries to come here – even if they are bringing the badly needed raw material of their labour and knowledge?

And – just for good measure – if we close our eyes while our government exports weapons of war beyond the curve of our horizon, do you not think it inevitable that the poor people of those countries, bombed out of their homes and their livelihoods, will seek refuge beyond the curve of their own burning horizon, in our beautiful, safe country?

As President Obama has said this week in the Canadian Parliament - We were all  strangers somewhere once. 

Patrick Betaudier 1928 -2008

David Gillespie 1936 - 1998  (and me)

31 December 2015

It takes a stout heart.

The end of the year and, for some reason, my mind turns to Cennini: 


You, therefore, who with lofty spirit are fired with this ambition, and are about to enter the profession, begin by decking yourselves with this attire:  Enthusiasm, Reverence, Obedience, and Constancy.  And begin to submit yourself to the direction of a master for instruction as early as you can; and do not leave that master until you have to.

Il Libro dell Arte - by Cennino d'Andrea Cennini (15C Florence.) I was seventeen, owned half a dozen scrappy brushes, a few tubes of oil paint, had just arrived in Paris and this was the first thing my painting master, Patrick Betaudier, handed me to read.  I read the whole thing at once - overnight.  "Read it again!" Was the command the next day. In fact frequently during that year of studying 16th & 17thC methods and materials was I sent back to the little volume. I have kept a copy in my studio ever since and, though I no longer scrutinise the chapters on "The method for painting various kinds of beards and hair in fresco (LXVIIII)" or "On the character of a green called verdigris (LVI,)" and I can laugh at Cennini's injunction to avoid indulging too much in the company of women (lest it make your hands shake!)  I do still return to the introductory chapters from time to time.  Call it a touchstone.


Nature[..] outdoes all other models; and always rely on this with a stout heart, especially as you begin to gain some judgment in draughtsmanship.  Do not fail, as you go on, to draw something every day, for no matter how little it is, it will be worthwhile, and will do you a world of good.

Enthusiasm, reverence, obedience, constancy and a stout heart.  How unfashionable.  These days we value passion, irreverence, iconoclasm, individualism and the ephemeral.  A clever idea carries so much more weight than a good heart. The digital dispenses with such dreary and uncomfortable notions as daily practice and we are so far from nature we barely know where to start.

Roger van der Weyden (1400 - 1464) Portrait of an Unknown Young Woman

Two exhibitions from the many riches offered in the last year:  Agnes Martin at Tate Modern and the Silverpoint drawings in room 90 at the British Museum.  Worlds apart and yet both shared a quietness that has stayed with me.  It wasn't particularly helpful to know that Agnes Matin suffered from schizophrenia.  Her constancy and obedience to her own light shone through the surfaces of the canvases, silencing young and old in the huge Tate rooms.  The gold and silver-point drawings at the BM were much harder to look at.  Room 90 is necessarily dimmed to preserve the paper.  The drawings are small, the contrast low,  delicacy is all.  It's a difficult technique rendered more or less obsolete, initially by the need to make large 'cartoons' through which charcoal could be 'pounced' for wall-scale fresco design and then by the advent of lead pencils, ink, modern paper brighteners and so on. What struck me, aside from the humility and honesty in the exquisite drawings by Roger Van der Weyden, Holbein, Durer et al, was how bad we have become at looking at things.  Spoiled as we are by the quick win and easy viewing of a brightly coloured, back-lit screen, it took some effort to slow the heart down, adjust the eyes and enter into these tiny, 400-year-old pieces of tinted paper and their language of hard-won marks.

How to be quiet, to trust to daily practice, to keep a stout heart in times such as these?  The art-world won't help you - mad, facile and celebrity-driven as any other. It's not a good place to get lost in. 

So, as the year ends my mind turns again to Cennini, to the hand-made, the darkness, to the finches in the apple tree, to Bach, to my family, old friends, the warmth and simplicity of my dog, to devotion, to poetry and the constancy and silence of the studio.

Homage to Mark Rothko

I tried their ways for a little while,
But wasn't at ease with them, they
                                                        not bringing me to the revealed.

Still I kept on praising them.
I cast my body upon the earth.
I cast my body upon the waters,
                                                    and kept on praising them all.

The glories refused to shelter me.
Nothing explained, nothing brought to bear.
I tried their ways for a while, 
                                               but nothing was ever revealed.

We enter the fields of memory and devotion.
Allow me, as Paul Celan says,
                                                 to thank you from there - 
Landscape, this world, this poor earth
Under the sun, holding nothing back,
This almost-nature that goes from light to light, that melts
The gold coin between our teeth,
That raises, like water, the shadow of the wound
                                                                               up to our necks.
Allow me to thank you from all the language there is in that.


I tried to give form to the formless,
                                                         and speech to the unspeakable.
To the light that shines without shadow, I gave myself.

Charles Wright

Unfinished work in the studio 31st December 2015

26 August 2015


There is something wonderful about printmaking.  Often thought of as the poor relation of painting, it is hard on the hands, messy, brain-tanglingly difficult, (you work in mirror image) and frequently frustrating but to those of us who love it …well there is nothing quite like it.

However difficult it might be to explain why  one makes prints, it's even harder to explain how.  In fact, I'm often asked to describe the process of my own intaglio methods of mezzotint and drypoint, only to find a look of mild panic cross my listener's face as I wave my hands about, produce tools and bits of copper and talk of rockers and scrapers, scrim and swan-skins, pressure and blotters.  Truthfully, it has to be grappled with.  You have to get your hands dirty and have a go - and I would recommend that to anyone.  In the meantime, I thought a photo-blog might go a long way to explain at least the physical printing part of the process itself.

What follows are photographs of me printing a 16" X 16" copper mezzotint plate.  Some two hundred hours of work have already gone into engraving the plate at this stage.  I have already 'proofed' the plate several times, establishing colour, pressure, how it is to be wiped and so forth and now it is ready for final editioning.  After proofing, a mezzotint plate will make around 40-50 good prints before the plate is worn out and will yield no more.

So this was my day...

The copper plate.  Clean and ready for printing.

Setting up.

(Promise this one wasn't a set-up, I only spotted what I'd done once I started taking photographs!)

Ink is carefully spread onto the plate...

…then gradually wiped off with balls of scrim, using a sweeping circular motion.  The idea is to leave ink in the pits and grooves of the plate and remove it from the smoother surfaces.  How much ink is left on and how much taken off is an art.  I think it took me at least a couple of years to be really in control of this stage.  

The edges of the plate are bevelled (another afternoon's work,) so that they don't damage either the dampened paper, or the blankets as the plate is passed through the press.  These edges are now carefully wiped clean and the plate is ready to print.

On to the press and 'registered' to ensure the image appears square on the paper.
Dampened paper, then tissue paper, then three wool blankets are laid over the plate.

The big wheel turns…

Out the other side - tissue and blanket are turned back.

Finding the corner of the paper carefully using a folded playing-card as a 'paper-grip' to avoid getting ink from my hands onto the hand-made paper.

Moment of truth.

It'll do. 

Quick inspection and then the print is put to dry,  sandwiched flat between more tissue, blotting paper and heavy boards.

Time for a cup of tea and then start all over again…

I printed eight today - two of which I discarded.  About average for a large, complicated mezzotint.

Thanks to fellow print-makers Alice Leach and Fran Gynn for help with some of the photography.

8 July 2015


I didn't mean to do this drawing and I can't bring it home with me.  It's in the 'visitors' book at the studio here in France.  When I started it, I thought to just draw one or two interesting insects on the page and write a thank you message to the owners.  But…while here, I have read Dave Goulson's fascinating book, "A Buzz in the Meadow".  Prof. Goulson is an entomologist and Professor of Biological Sciences at Sussex University.  His book is funny, modest, fascinating, sexy (yes,) and very readable.  It also packs a powerful punch in the last few chapters on the science of conservation, pesticides (Neonicotinoids in particular,) and our shocking record with the more-than-human-world.   I can't recommend it highly enough if you are at all interested in the natural world.

Anyway, reading this book had the effect of sharpening my attention to the miniature world around me and the drawing grew and grew.  It maybe just the heat, and it may be that, with so much more space, agriculture is much less intensively practised in this part of France but the effect is that there are hundreds, probably thousands, more insects.  As I searched in the one or two text books I'd bought with me, or more frequently googled those I didn't know, their world - and my interest - expanded. It was also depressing to find so many articles on line about how to 'get rid' of insects.  Most of us, it would seem, simply cannot live peaceably alongside other creatures, let alone appreciate that if they go….they are taking us with them!

Here is my drawing then.  A very, very incomplete and not-at-all-to-scale selection of some of the life that crawled over, or fluttered past me whilst out drawing here in the beautiful Tarn et Garonne.

Carpenter Bee
Clear-wing Moth (of some sort)
Ground Beetle
Buff-tail Bumble Bee
Large Green Grasshopper
A beetle I don't know
An Ichneuman Wasp (of some sort)
Marbled White Butterfly
Dor Beetle
Common Brimstone Butterfly
Miniature jumping spider that drove me mad in the studio all day…
Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly
House Centipede (the one thing here that will really bite)
White Admiral Butterfly
Humingbird Hawkmoth
Fire Bug
Six-Spot Burnet Moth
Mud (or thread-waisted) Wasp

"The damage we have already done is considerable.  The Earth's climate will continue to warm for decades, regardless of whatever action we take now, leading inevitably to famine and hardship.  Countless species are already extinct, or exist only in relict populations that are doomed to extinction.  But that is no argument not to act - and act now.  At a global level, conservation efforts so far have been a dismal failure.  We need to up our game.  The sooner we stop ravaging the Earth, the less awful our future will be.
This book is intended to inspire, to encourage everyone to cherish what we have, and to illustrate what wonders we stand to lose if we do not change our ways.  Biodiversity matters, in all shapes and forms.  Conservation is not just about Javan rhinos and snow leopards; it is as much about bees and beetles, flowers and flies, bats and bugs….Go outside, look and listen."

Dave Goulson 2014

"A Buzz in the Meadow" by Dave Goulson is published by Jonathan Cape.

26 June 2015

On not knowing what to do

This is my studio for the summer.

In January I had the great good fortune to meet a man whose passion for art extends far beyond acquisition.  Over the years, he and his wife have quietly and consistently looked for creative ways to provide practical support for working artists. This place, on a hill in the Tarn et Garonne, is one such example: for fifteen years, asking nothing in return, they have invited painters and sculptors that interest them to work here in the summer months. The studio is huge and monastic, the rooms simple and sweet, the courtyard and gardens herb-filled and private.

Alongside an ineffable cool stillness, the walls exude a generosity that is hard to describe.  I thought I would feel belittled, intimidated by previous, greater incumbents. Instead, like Alice opening doors on the first day, I find a glorious smelling, small ante-room,  stuffed with bottles of turpentine, jars of linseed, rolls of paper, fixative, tubes of paint, rolls of paper and even easels – accompanied by pencil notes, wishing future artists well, bidding them use these materials that could not be carried home and to drink the local wine and be well!  

Stone walls, turpentine and quiet.  Deep, deep quiet.  Packing in England, I had been full of anxieties: what I would ‘do’ with the time and space?  I'd tried very hard to trick myself into thinking I would  allow myself a break, “it’s absolutely fine to do nothing…I might just read..etc.”  In fact it is such an extraordinary studio that it has been easy to slip into a gentle routine of working for several hours in the morning, reading after lunch and then putting in a few more hours in the afternoon before a walk or perhaps a spin on the Enfield into Cordes for a cold beer in the evening.  Home along empty roads that wind through sweet smelling hayfields, under swift-filled skies, past lime trees still humming with bees at ten at night.

Then, after a fortnight of such rare solitude and calm, I have a visitor.  Last night I went to shut up the studio, only to find a young black-redstart fluttering weakly at one of the higher windows.  Distressingly, its parent was flying up and down the glass on the outside.  I couldn't reach him so for half an hour I did my best to shoo him out with a very long piece of dowelling (left by some previous occupant for who knows what,) but he only became more and more distressed.  Eventually, worried that my proddings would only cause him to be terminally entangled in one of the thick expanses of cobweb that lurk in the high window reveals, I left him a dish of water, locked up and went to bed.

In the morning there he was.  Alive at any rate.  Opening all the windows and door - and, having first swept up all the dead insects and frass that he had kicked down from the beams onto my table in the night - I settled to work.  For the first hour he flew the short hops back and forth from one tie-beam to the next, high in the space above me.  Then he stayed mostly directly over my head emitting regular high-pitched ‘peeps’.  The distress was unmistakable, heartbreaking and impossibly distracting.  But – it worked.  Suddenly through the largest window, a parent.  (A winged parent with beak full of food, so much better than the strange and wingless creature below!) The fledgling changed pitch, vibrated delightedly and was duly fed.  The adult redstart flew gracefully around the huge space a few times and then deftly swung out of the same window.  The pattern was repeated all morning.  Now the little bird was quiet and just sat in the rafters waiting for his next visit.  I think both parents came – about one every twenty minutes – all day.  After the first visit they were clearly trying to coax him off the high tie-beam and down out through the window.  Repeatedly they flew from the beam, down to a staging post on a ledge, or crack in the rough stone wall, back up to their offspring.  Cheep cheep! Vibrate… and then down again and out through the wide open window.  The adults had no difficulty doing this whatsoever, elegantly negotiating the beams and cobwebs to drop through the air and swoop back in to the sunshine.  The baby was having none of it.  He, or she, simply would not follow.  Along a metre or two, yes.  Up, yes.  Out there? No.  It was agony to watch.  Returning to the studio after lunch, there was the relief of silence.  I felt sure from the quiet that he’d worked it out and flown.  But no, ten minutes into work on a large mezzotint plate and my heat sank to the unmistakable ‘peep!’ from high in the ceiling.  The adults returned, fed, demonstrated the required manoevre, returned, fed and demonstrated all afternoon.  (I began to think the baby bird was actually quite happy!) How long will his patient parents keep this up?  How long will it take him to mature enough to copy their example and swoop beautifully away?

This evening he is still there, as reluctant to leave the studio as I am.  Tomorrow is my birthday and the only consolation is knowing that I can do nothing about either his reluctance or mine. The only gift I want, that we are both still alive in the morning.