Across the Old Stile to Winter

Herefordshire, deepest Herefordshire, comes at you from the past. Not dawdling back from censorious Victorian autumns, nor leaping headlong from hedonistic Georgian springs. Herefordshire lies recumbent under her primal mantle. Sculpted by time’s passing she bears, gracefully, the marks of early man’s hand, like inked ciphers upon the virgin parchment, or chiselled scars upon Kilpeck’s stone.

Stand in her lanes and see. Raise your eyes to the raven’s nest, follow silvered streams through misted valleys, lift your gaze to wooded folds and cloud-scoured hills. Feel truly English before England’s nascent aspiration reared its head. Feel Celtic passion inscribe its foliate imaginings upon your contemporary self. Feel truly old.

Now come, take a hand, pass quietly down the lane to where the Monnow Valley lies.

*  *  *  *  *

I came in search of Piper, Sutherland and Braxton, of Minton and of Nash. I came in 2015 following the flickering beacon of British Neo-Romantic art; Nicolas and Frances McDowall lighting the way. I knew of their work through the Old Stile Press. I knew of the Old Stile Press through the variant routes of Rigby Graham and Clive Hicks-Jenkins. Both artists and makers of books; both illustrators and illuminators of singular vision; both torch-bearers (wittingly or not) for that peculiarly British genius loci – that spirit of place.

MonnowWeaned on Samuel Palmer and William Blake I am, have ever been, lost in the hinterlands of British Neo-Romantic art. I roam these lands a willing acolyte, gleaning from the landscape what pickings I can find, for book-shelf or for wall. This passion survived the frisson of the fin-de-siècle, a full forty years in passing, lying latent for its inevitable re-awakening. Beardsley graciously gave-way to Piper, with an eloquent nod of appreciation (I love him for it still).

The McDowalls built their collection in tandem with their press. Those drawings, paintings and prints hung that day as an emotional testament to a particular passion. And I became ensnared, caught-up in a singular vision of what it is, or was, to sublimate that spirit of place onto paper or canvas; a wonderful alchemy of perception and craft.

Nourished by the offering of paintings and drawings I turned to the collection of prints and monotypes to refresh my palette. Richer fare awaited. Copper plate and box-wood block; lino-block or lithographer’s stone; each medium captivated and challenged. Challenged the eye to believe that graver or crayon could fashion such conceit, could capture such vital spirit and leave it animated in the amber of the printer’s stamp.

Blake and Palmer met me there, and charted my steps through the landscape. A landscape of vision and dream, of sense and perception. A landscape of imaginings, filtered through the lenses of Nash, Tanner, Hermes and Trevelyan. Bryan Ingham was there, and Rigby Graham too.

And so they led me to the close …

A Poignant Memory (for Ellis), 1999, wood engraving by Garrick Palmer.

I knew this Palmer, my Palmer’s namesake, through his work for the Old Stile Press, and particularly through the stunning book LAND, illuminated with his incomparable wood engravings. These are engravings of ethereal power, enlivened by a weaving together of the anarchic vigour of natural growth and the geometric imperative that would bind it.

A Poignant Memory captivated me. It sent me back to LAND. It saddened me. It set me on a quest. It snagged me, and would not let me go.

Winter GardenThree years passed, and by benign chance I found what I was searching for. Winter Garden was its title. A large watercolour in subtle ground-hues, capturing the leaden beauty of that winter place. A daring, unconventional, spirited, and perversely geometric vision of a dormant winter plot. The trees pregnant with latent vitality; the solstice sky heavy and brooding.

I wrote to Garrick last year, and he graciously answered. The painting and its creation was fondly remembered, as being representative of a “very productive period”. It was the winter of 1960. The location was close to his parental home in Fareham, Hampshire; a small garden that overlooked the landscape towards Wickham. He remembered visiting on a number of occasions to make drawings. Most notably, he remembered all with great affection.

Enlightenment can sometimes reach out to us from the fog of ignorance, and in so doing serendipity serves us well.

And well served I feel by that memorable Monnow morning, as I wander alone through the Winter Garden.