Paradise Found- New Visions of The Blackdown Hills

Thelma Hulbert Gallery- 18 March- 3 June

Curated by Tim Craven, Sandra Higgins and Fiona McIntyre

Edge of the Wood, Applehayes- Looking Back  Graphite on Bristol Board, 2023, 18 x 24 cm

Looking for Spencer Gore

Many times I have taken the beech-lined road which runs along the Blackdown Hills on the southern edge of Taunton Vale- but never properly ventured into the nearby cluster of valleys and knuckle of accompanying hills which knit together in the hinterland between Somerset and Devon.

I was one of 36 artists invited to make a contemporary response to works created by members of The Camden Town Group who stayed in the area in the early 1900’s. My piece was Edge of the Wood, Applehayes by Spencer Gore.

Wanting to interpret the brief as carefully (yet creatively) as possible, the question was- edge of which wood? The first thing to notice when leaving the main road to drive down into the valleys around Clayhidon is the way in which the area is circuited and protected by woods, an abundance of woodland on the surrounding high ground, with fingers of hedgerows making forays down into the valleys. Finding the location of Gore’s painting was going to be a challenge.

The Cinder Path by Gore has remained a favourite painting since first seeing it in The Ashmolean many years ago. I was pleased to have the opportunity to delve into a location, to understand its nature,  the way it had been painted and maybe to learn more about Gore himself. It had seemed hard to find information about Gore but the book Fragile Beauty by Richard Emeny was helpful in locating Gore and the spots in which he had stood.

The first visit was in heavy rain, and we parked outside Applehayes. Looking at the painting Across Wiltown Valley Towards Ringdown provided the first clues to Gore’s footsteps; the profile of Ringdown is still distinct and a small, lone barn, isolated in a field on the hillside above the lakes, made the location of this painting easy to identify. Emeny states that:

“Gore’s pictures… were mostly executed within a few yards of Applehayes. Their titles may be generic, such as West County Landscape, but their subjects are the fields, hills and hedgerows of Clayhidon Parish, many being clearly identifiable if anyone cares to walk the lanes, so little has the landscape altered.”

The rain came hard and a plan to walk further was shelved, taking refuge in the beeches of Ringdown itself. These seemed intriguing, a beautiful play of light underneath the ebbing autumn canopy, and an idea for a picture formed but this was too far from the brief, and not even the same painting as Edge of the Wood, trying to make it ‘fit’ wasn’t good enough. The ancient lanes approaching Ringdown with their fine ancient oaks and abandoned buildings were appealing and attractive, but we were moving further away from Gore and the painting I was meant to respond to. 

Another visit was planned, delving back into Fragile Beauty, re-studying the paintings by Gore and going back to Richard’s statement. I realised that this revealed more than I thought. Gore’s pictures were literally executed within yards of Applehayes, so there was no need to plan extensive walks to get the feel of this ‘place’, which is my usual approach, but merely to radiate out from Applehayes and we might find the spot. 

Returning later in a very mild autumn, the trees were still holding on to summer although the colours of the canopies were slowly yielding to the turn of the year. Something felt different this time. We’d realised from going back to the book that the latter part of Richard’s statement, about the fields, hills and hedgerows being clearly identifiable, might be the thing to focus on and help find the location we were seeking. So much would have shifted over 100 years, but what remained? Driving past Applehayes, we soon found the viewpoint for Landscape Near Applehayes, with the summit of Ringdown Hill distinct but from a different angle to last time. It was the roof of  Lear’s Farm (?), its distinctive length and colour, along with an exposed triangle of whitewashed wall which had been recorded by Gore’s brushworks and was clearly identified. The feeling of being in the same spot of a second painting gave a sense that we might be able to find the other pictures, including Edge of the Wood.

Driving back up to Applehayes, we parked again and set out across the fields behind to walk a modest circuit which would take us past a small wood. After crossing the fields, we returned passed another farm to then change direction along a small ridge with woodland. We were looking for a flat skyline, with the delineation of field systems and hedgerows, but unsure of what the wood itself might look like after 100 years. We felt that we might be in the right area and soon noticed that the younger wood, consisting of birch and hazel gave way to oaks and other more mature trees. We quickly realised that we were looking across to a flat skyline across the valley, slightly obscured by trees, but there it was- similar field patterns in the distance and the edge of the wood in the foreground. The field shapes were almost identical to those depicted in the painting and although the wood was not quite how we expected it, the boundary and light seemed to all suggest that this was the spot. The longer we looked, the more confident we felt that we were in the right spot. The sense of relief was huge! Now, I could focus on how to interpret the location for my own piece.

Where Gore stood to paint ‘Edge of the Wood, Applehayes’

As Gore worked in colour and my work is monochrome, I felt that a different interpretation was really needed. If I was going to spend time on this, I needed something that would excite me. The trees in Gore’s picture were not really playing with the light as I would like, and Gore’s composition, although working well with his palette, was structurally uninteresting. However, a couple of ideas started to form. One would be to execute a quick study using a looser way of working which I had adopted during lockdown- which gave a sense of energy and movement. The other idea was to turn my back on the scene, to go to the oaks which stood behind us and work with those. The oaks felt precious, semi wild and would have sheltered Gore as he painted the scene. I could feel the sense that this was ‘right’ starting to flow. It would be two pictures, one ‘me’ and one ‘him’, back and forth across a century.

Paradise Found opens on 18 March with a preview

The Camden Town Group in Context

Thelma Hulbert Gallery- Paradise Found

#Art #ArtExhibition #ArtCollector #Nature #Environment #BlackdownHills #Devon #Somerset #Painting #Printmaking #Drawing #SpencerGore #Arboreal #Trees #Woodland #Wildlife #Ecology #Walking #SouthWestEngland #CamdenTownGroup #ArtHistory