How many flowers fail in Wood—
Or perish from the Hill—
Without the privilege to know
That they are Beautiful—
How many cast a nameless Pod
Upon the nearest Breeze—
Unconscious of the Scarlet Freight—
It bear to Other Eyes—
The Flower Paintings
This poem by Emily Dickinson uses elements of the natural world to convey deeper thoughts of human existence. In a parallel way, a painting of flowers can evoke layers of personal resonance for the viewer.
Watching the seasons pass in a garden is a reminder of how flowers bloom and fade. The appeal of their pure colour, combined with their transience and fragile form, seems to have ensured the survival of flower painting as a genre down the centuries.
In my flower paintings, the choice of a particular receptacle and background will help determine the mood: vibrant; sombre; graceful; contemplative.
To go into my studio, knowing I will be spending the day attempting to represent in oil colour the delicate qualities of a petal or leaf is one of my favourite challenges as a painter.
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
Still Life Paintings
This poem of poignant observation set on the west coast of Ireland might, on first reading, appear to have no connection to still life painting. To me there is a palpable link. Growing up on a small island off the tip of Cornwall, everything that surrounded me was affected by the sparkling light reflecting off the Atlantic Ocean. Inevitably, visual awareness was heightened, in a place where clear sunlight made colours vivid and shadows intense.
The painting ‘Three Observer’s Books’ can be viewed as a distillation of my childhood and adult life, using the titles and colours of pocket-sized reference books that many of my generation collected and still use today.
Now I live inland, far from the ocean, and my focus in painting is concentrated on the way light falls on domestic objects, at a precise moment in time. Glass, china, pewter, silver and pearls have durable surfaces I find absorbing to depict in paint and I like to contrast these with the softer surfaces of cloth, paper and twine.
Associations between the paintings are not always apparent. To give an example of the start of a string of pictures: the idea of using crumpled white paper as the background in ‘Shuttlecocks’ arose when I was searching for a sympathetic way to complement the feathery lightness of the shuttlecocks. Crinkled paper, on a smaller scale, then led to the ‘Heart Cockle’ painting, a seashell floating on a sea of whiteness. In turn came ‘Leonardo Lady with Torn Paper’, where a foreground of pale gold tissue paper was torn vertically, to reveal a glimpse of Cecilia Gallerani holding an ermine. From experimenting with one Old Master painting, came the idea to paint a copy of the eyes of Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and to surround them with a double loop of pearls, referencing the romantic ‘eye miniature’ jewels which were popular as gifts in the late 18th Century.
Ideas arrive in various ways, most of them are rejected: a chance encounter with an interesting object might lead to it chiming with something else in my collection, or a painting can stem from the work of other artists. The still life paintings of William Nicholson are a continuous source of inspiration, as is the work of artists ranging from Morandi to Matisse, Euan Uglow to Fra Angelico.