LookingAugust 30, 2019
How many times do you stop and really look at something?
In our fast paced world, taking time to really look, to study a subject intently, can be a rare pleasure. Moving from a brief glimpse to a thorough, deep look at something can be revelatory. It is always surprising what can be seen when you hold your gaze, nuances of colour, textures and the effects of light and shade, the relationship of things to their surroundings, all these (and more) become visible. We see only from our own perspective, directing our view to what interests us, to what captures or catches our attention and to what is required for us to function in the world, but what of the hidden world that is excluded from our everyday visual range?
The river Cam encompasses a shifting, moving colour palette, constantly affected by light and weather conditions. A shimmering, fluid, rippled surface of moving water punctured by various forms of river craft, wildlife or the occasional swimmer, breaking the reflective surface. What Colour is the River? explores the colour of the water’s surface through a series of photographs shared on social media. The images demonstrate the incredible qualities of water as a reflective material as it absorbs and plays back the surrounding conditions and physical features of the landscape. What these images do not communicate is the colour and imagery held within the river water. I have been exploring this in a series of surface and underwater images taken whilst swimming in the Cam. The photographs suggest other worldly landscapes, colours that are vibrant and luminous, light and water intermingling reality and reflection, the unseen river Cam captured in painterly underwater landscapes.
Raverat’s RiverAugust 6, 2019
Over the past months the artist Gwen Raverat has been a regular point of reference, not least when visiting the Fitzwilliam Museum and the New Hall Art Collection to see her paintings and prints in the flesh. My exploration into her practice has recently extended out to an investigation of the viewpoints from which she created her works depicting the river Cam, plotting these onto a map of Cambridge to reveal her frame of reference and the extent of geographical range from which she worked across the city of Cambridge. The resulting information has been designed into a physical publication and digital interactive resource which investigates twelve works, and pinpoints as far as possible, the viewpoint from which Raverat would have worked.
This process has revealed some fascinating discoveries – for example, the wood engraving entitled Winter/Back of the Mill that is in fact in reverse – was this due to a glitch in the process, a conscious compositional decision, or the use of photographic negatives? In some instances building work has obscured past vistas, requiring some careful deduction to settle on the correct map coordinates.
This resource document will be used as a starting point for six students from Anglia Ruskin University to make a collection of contemporary responses to Raverat’s viewpoints. You can download an interactive PDF of the document from the link below and use it to discover Raverat’s viewpoints as you walk with your smart phone or tablet near to the river Cam. Raverat’s River_Interactive PDF
What colour is the river?July 10, 2019
In an age when snapping photos is an everyday, commonplace action, how much time do we give to stop, look and think about the things that surround by using all our senses. In walking the length of the river Cam, I have observed the public (and I include myself in this) capturing the river on their smartphones. The mobility of the smartphone as a device for recording affords users a performative approach to the consumption of surroundings where the taking of the image is as much, or more, the moment of looking mediated by the screen, as re-visiting images after the event. Matthews and Pierce research how the portable smartphone has added to the way we consume place and situation, noting that capturing images maintains awareness of certain dynamic qualities albeit on an often arbitrary schedule. The photograph taken on a smartphone creates an alternative spectacle that competes with the subject, but under different conditions. The multi sensory experience of the changing image in reality complicates notions of understanding.
Capturing the water in the river Cam fixes it at a moment in time, arresting fluctuating conditions. Asking what colour the river is, is a seemingly impossible task. Taking photographs of the river water using a smartphone, and sharing on social media platforms attempts to determine enough information from which to consider the question; an arrested moment offering a frozen palette.
Matthews T and Pierce J 2009, No Smart Phone Is an Island: The Impact of Places, Situations, and Other Devices on Smart Phone Use, IBM Research Report
Trees and riversMay 4, 2019
I was recently able to join Cambridge City Council’s arboriculturalist on a walk along part of the river Cam, to learn about the willows that grow alongside and nearby the river bank. One purpose of the walk was very specific – to identify and view a fallen tree from which a section might be suitable to form into printing plates through planking. Viewing the work of Gwen Raverat (see earlier journal post), and the connection many of her prints have to the river Cam in terms of subject matter, prompted an idea to visually examine the river through the influence, lens and positioning of Raverat, by creating a portfolio of work as a contemporary response. I am approaching this with an open mind as to media and approach, however, one starting point is to test out the wood from the fallen willow for its suitability as printmaking plates. Willow is a hardwood, though on the softer side of hard, and the tree in question fell some two years ago so there will be some seasoning that has taken place. An upper limb may have less sap, and as Raverat’s prints were modest in size, planked sections formed into plates can be kept small, thereby reducing some risk of warping. If the wood is very warped, then application and printing from the inked surface will prove challenging.
The tree itself has a beautiful curved form, lying as a body on the ground. Introducing this particular wood into the process of printmaking brings circularity to the production of work, bringing added resonance between site and artwork.
River SamplingApril 17, 2019
The Rush is a fast flowing river offshoot that runs in parallel to the River Cam, winding across Sheep’s Green and joining downstream of Bishop Mill Sluice, in Silver Street Basin. Every month two volunteers, Mike and May, meet and undertake monthly river sampling to determine the numbers of invertebrates in The Rush as a way of showing long term trends in water quality. This is a national initiative involving angling organisations, the Wild Life Trust and the Environmental Agency. The river sampling involves capturing a measured sample of river water and painstakingly sifting through the weed, gravel, mud and other river material to find, identify and count all invertebrates. A list of eight species are nominated identifiers – Cased Caddis, Caseless Caddis, Mayfly Ephemeridae, Gammarus, Stoneflies, Olives Baetidae, Blue Winged Olive Ephemerellidae, Flat bodied Heptageniidae— and these are carefully counted from the sample, with other species noted.
May and Mike undertook training to equip them with the knowledge to carry out the task, and have been working on The Rush and a second stretch of water in Barrington for over a year. To capture the sample they perform a well-established kick test, which requires 15 seconds disturbing the river bed through energetic walking on the spot in the river whilst directing water (with its contents) through a very fine meshed net. This is undertaken 12 times in different positions along the river.
Both Mike and May have a strong relationship to water and to the river – for May, the river holds memories of river swimming with her school. The diving boards at the City’s Men’s Bathing Sheds on Sheep’s Green were still in use in the early 1970 over the Cam. For Mike, a water engineer and canoeist who crossed the Atlantic in a two person rowing boat in 2006 (for which he held the record for the oldest pair to cross any ocean until recently), water is “part of my life”.
River sampling is an ongoing initiative conducted by volunteers across the country.
View short video clips of the kick test and a cased caddis found by May and Mike by clicking here.
Inside the archiveApril 12, 2019
I recently spoke at the University of Greenwich as part of a symposium around the subject of famine and lost or silenced communities. One of the speakers mentioned a book entitled The Allure of the Archives by Arlene Farge that explores the intense exhilaration of delving into historical records and artefacts. Farge argues that uncovering the past involves an emotional, tactile journey that is not necessarily about always looking for the moment of revelation. She suggests this can undermine the richness of systematic analysis of information, when looking is ordered and structured, and implies only this way does the extraordinary discovery shine out.
The image above, dated 1895 and reproduced by kind permission of The Museum of Cambridge, was filed away in the Museum’s archive. It depicts the Lion Hotel Staff on a boat trip on the River Cam. Initially known as the Red Lion Hotel, and established in the 16th Century in a building of three and two storeys with attics, The Lion Hotel was situated on Petty Cury in Cambridge. Demolished in 19689, the name lives on in the present Lion Yard shopping area. Later staff outings may have had a specific destination in mind as noted in Mike Petty’s Cambridgeshire Memories and Reflections, but on this occasion it appears that a trip along the Cam was the main focus. Looking at the photograph from a 21st Century perspective, seeing the wholly male workforce in their formal dress serves to illustrate the greater equality today, which whilst there is some way to go, is a very different picture.
The Print WorkshopMarch 24, 2019
One of the wonderful things about being an artist in residence is the research into a wide variety of things connected to the subject of the residency. In a previous post I mentioned the artist Gwen Raverat, granddaughter of Charles Darwin and resident of Cambridge. She worked predominantly in print, usually making exquisitely fine small woodcuts often showing the river Cam.
Following the exploration of Raverat’s work, I was recently able to visit Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), specifically to see their print workshops. This was a wonderful opportunity to re-connect with the process of relief printing (printing from a block or plate, usually of linoleum or wood, that has been cut to create different heights and marks in the surface that hold the ink and transfer it to the paper). During a short demonstration of the technique, the students and I were treated to a demonstration of a three colour print. In this case, the print was formed from three different patterns cut into three identically sized plates. Relief printing is a process that requires thinking in reverse – cuts in the surface are in fact negative shapes and will leave the white of the paper showing though, raised, uncut areas hold the ink. Any text in a print would need to be cut into the plate back to front. Not only does the print require a methodical and process led approach, it also requires patience, an understanding and . knowledge of materials and an openness to experimentation. There is no doubt that experience born out of time spent in the print workshop leading to a tacit knowledge of the papers, inks, plates and printing pressures all need to align to create a good quality print.
The visit was a reminder of the challenges of working in this medium, and I experienced a greater sense of appreciation for Raverat’s delicate, controlled marks. Witnessing the easy operation of the equipment, and the sensitive handling of ink with care over colour, evenness and amount by John, the ARU workshop technician, demonstrated just how many factors are at play when working in this medium.
Small discoveriesMarch 9, 2019
Imagine my surprise when, on being called to fix an overloaded bookshelf at home, I came across a 1943 volume entitled The Fair Rivers of Southern England with an introduction by Fletcher Allen and photographs by J Dixon-Scott. My husband immediately recognised the cover as one from his father’s collection. Eric Wright was a great collector of books about geography and travel in England and a publisher under the imprint Wright & Brown.
After a short introduction, the book takes the reader on a visual photographic journey. At a time when tourism was being established, enabled by the railway network, increasing numbers of cars and significantly, the Holiday Pay Act of 1938 which gave those workers whose minimum rates of wages were fixed by trade boards, the right to one weeks’ holiday per year, travel books were increasingly popular.
The introduction speaks of rivers as ‘More than waterways more than quietly moving streams which drain the land, they have served to build up local character, to establish communities and to determine the siting of industrial enterprise’. Further on, the river Cam is noted with ‘As for sheer entrancement, travel the Cam, to catch a clear sweep of King’s Bridge framing Clare Bridge, or to see the Bridge of Sighs, enclosed and monastically aloof, disclaiming any puritanical merit’.
My father in law determined to educate his children in the geography of their country, by planning trips and holidays to different locations across England. Knowing this book must have spurred many family trips, it suggests the river as destination. Even the concise introduction offers a sense of the river viewed as a spectacle to see and experience. That notwithstanding, the book illustrates the beauty of the river, and the manner in which it ’fits’ into our lives and landscape.
FLOW – the filmFebruary 14, 2019
Very excited to write that the film of FLOW is now live! So great to be reminded of everyone who took part in so many ways, watching, carrying the precious water, cheering people on and of course the excellent support crew. Click here to watch the film.
Footage captured by Ryd Cook and editing by Rosie Powell. FLOW was part of In Your Way.
The Works of Gwen RaveratJanuary 28, 2019
It is not unusual for creative people to be drawn to rivers as a source of inspiration. The ever changing constitution of a river through colour, sound, shape and form may be some of the reasons but the contemplative nature of being near water, and looking deeply at it over a period of time is a pursuit that offers much to everyone whatever their interest.
Gwen Raverat, the granddaughter of naturalist Charles Darwin, was born and brought up in Cambridge and pursued an artistic path, including study at The Slade School of Fine Art in London. Her practice to a great extent is a diary of her life as a woman in the early and mid 1900’s, depicting scenes from her home city, her husband, painter Jacques Raverat, as well as imagery from a period living in the south of France.
It is fitting therefore that there are substantial collections of her work in two Cambridge institutions, Murray Edwards College (as part of the New Hall Art Collection) and The Fitzwilliam Museum. Working in paint and in print, usually woodcuts, Gwen Raverat had a keen compositional eye, exploiting linear perspective to maximum advantage in her work to give the viewer a sense of distance and invitation into the scene. Her attention to detail is evident in the meticulous mark making in her prints, coupled with a sensitive and delicate balance between light and shade requiring keen observation. The river Cam appears frequently in her works, as a feature in the landscape or at the centre of the community, where it forms a main character in the works, passing under bridges and alongside the buildings of Cambridge.
Works by Gwen Raverat from New Hall Art Collection, Murray Edwards College and The Fitzwilliam Museum can be viewed by appointment by contacting the institutions via their websites below.