Dungeness: sun, angels & black tar

 

Dungeness sketchbook spread. © Mari French 2019.

Dungeness sketchbook spread. © Mari French 2019.

Been slipping behind with posting this year, it’s been so busy, what with moving into a new studio which has been more time-consuming and tiring than I could have imagined (more of which in the next post), preparing for a solo exhibition and several other shows I’m taking part in. However, I’ve been wanting to tell you about my sketching trip to Dungeness back in August, so here goes.

I’ve been determined to return to this otherworldly stretch of shingle, old black fishing huts and strange structures ever since I spent a brief few hours there last October. So I arranged to spend 4 nights in nearby Littlestone and travelled the few miles into Dungeness each day to get as much sketching done as possible, with the intention of prompting a new series of work.

Dungeness boat and tracks. © Mari French 2019.

Dungeness, old boat and tracks. © Mari French 2019.

Dungeness, for those unfamiliar with it (the UK version by the way), is a wedge of coast sticking out into the English Channel between Dover and Eastbourne on the South East coast of England. ‘Denge’ meaning ‘dangerous’ and ‘Ness’ nose or promontory. Over a long time longshore drift has piled up acres of shingle into a landscape of dunes and levels. It’s always been a fishing area but now many of the old black-tarred huts with their rusting iron winches are decaying or gone. There’s enough of them left though, along with evidence of old MOD structures, set up between the wars, and the more recent bulk of the Nuclear power station, plus the two distinctive lighthouses, to make this a fascinating place for artists and photographers. Wooden hulks of derelict and still operative fishing boats also litter this stretch of coastline.

Bright sunshine and a strong coastal wind made for tricky sketching conditions, but I pushed myself to fill as much of my sketchbook as possible, also playing around with collaging and sketching in it back at my selfcatering place in the evenings. I went through the usual (for me) dilemma of having a fairly short time in an inspiring place, yet trying to cram in as much work as I could. I was exhausted after several fraught and tiring weeks of moving studio etc, yet I resisted taking it easy. I had to remind myself that all the time I’m there I’m taking in colours, texture, shape, sounds etc, subconsciously, even if I’m not completing as much of the sketchbook as I wanted to. I know from previous experience it will come out in the work I eventually produce, if I allow it. But it seems I have to go through this palaver each time!

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Dungeness impressions, mixed media, sketchbook. © Mari French 2019

Dungeness fishing sheds, mixed media, sketchbook. © Mari French 2019

Dungeness fishing sheds, mixed media, sketchbook. © Mari French 2019

Anyway, as you can see from this post, I did get a fair bit done, and am pretty pleased and excited by most of the results. I tried to avoid painting my usual loose, but obvious watercolour  ‘scenes’ this time. I think I succeeded a bit. I’d taken pre-stained tissue and other collage materials to help the process and to get quickly away from ‘white page’ syndrome. This was great fun when sat on shingle in the teeth of a blustery wind – hanging onto my hat with one hand and my collage bits with the other! It’s a nature reserve, and many wildflowers were growing among the shingle, the last thing I wanted to do was litter it with bits of paper!

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Dungeness fishing sheds, mixed media, sketchbook. © Mari French 2019

A few notes from my sketchbook:

So much light here. Sun is hot and wind has backed off…

Today I can see why this stretch of coast is said to have the most sunlight in the UK. The sky is a huge dome, the heat shimmers from the shingle and the tall wooden ‘angel’ structure ripples in the distance.* …

I lost the plot a bit with the wind today, it didnt work as intended, but it’ll remind me of the day! And I may be able to adapt it …

Just wandered round Derek Jarman’s garden** at Prospect Cottage. It feels like a church, very touching and, with the wind whistling in the overhead wires, beautiful but sad. ‘Busy olde foole, unruly sun’…

Dungeness Open Studios: series of small huts selling the art and linocuts of artist Paddy Hamilton. Bought one of the ‘Beach Angel’ linoprints, which shows what looks like an angel on the shingle with a trumpet, but on closer inspection turns out to be a shrimp fisherman hoisting his shovel and his great long shrimp net behind him …

If I had a few more days I’d probably get the balance of exploration, input and response about right. Wish I could stay longer …

*This very tall wooden cross structure was erected when the power station was built and was found to be blocking the view of the church which vessels used to line up their sights and navigate safely on this stretch of coast. Reminds me of Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North. A overseeing guardian.

**Derek Jarman, film-maker, artist, writer, gardener made his home here when he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. He filled his shingle garden with indigenous wild plants and made sculptures from old found wooden and rusting salvaged items. The first and last verses of John Dunne’s poem ‘The sun rising’ is picked out in wooden letters covering the whole of one wall of his black-tarred traditional cottage with its yellow framed windows. The cottage and garden are now a very popular attraction in Dungeness. Jarman died in 1994 and is buried in nearby Old Romney.

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Surfacing…

Blakey Ridge, North York Moors, sketchbook, 2019. © Mari French

I recently spent a week in Rosedale, a beautiful valley in the North York Moors National Park. Although it was intended mainly as a relaxing break (and it was) I also wanted to revisit and spend time sketching the high moorland plateau that inspired me so much back in August last year (see my earlier post ).

 

On the last visit I’d been attracted to the dramatic ruins of the old ironstone mine workings above Rosedale, resulting in several abstract interpretations that were accepted for the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours 2019 at the Mall Galleries, London, four of which are now on show at Bils and Rye, a contemporary gallery in Kirkbymoorside, near Pickering, North Yorkshire.

Abstract landscape sketch of moorland under rain, in ink and charcoal.

Rain over Farndale Moor, North York Moors. Sketchbook © Mari French 2019

However, this time I was drawn to the variety of surface texture, linear marks, colour and play of light on the upland plateau itself. Whereas the flowering heather covered the moors in a glorious purple last august, this time the colours were quieter, with striking rectangular patches of burnt heather suggesting possibilities for abstraction. With the stone outcrops, yellow lichen, patches of sienna-coloured soil and the dry vegetation, lit by sun or deep in shadow, I was confronted with an extensive patchwork of textures. Now I need to think how I want to treat these surface impressions back in the studio and where I’m taking them.

Moorland surfaces, Castlerigg, North York Moors. Sketchbook © Mari French 2019

They’ve given me inspiration and a theme for a batch of new canvases that I need to produce for several exhibitions this year, in particular ‘Surface’ exhibition at Gallery East, Woodbridge, Suffolk, in September which will feature contemporary female artists from East Anglia and beyond.

Art at the edge: Dungeness

Photo of old fishing boat, Dungeness. © Mari French 2018

Old boat, Dungeness. © Mari French 2018

What draws so many artists to challenging landscapes; those that would be considered by many as bleak, abandoned, unwelcoming, even ugly? For myself, as a painter of abstract landscapes, this kind of subject matter can puncture the complacency that can occur with more familiar types of scenery, making us notice things with a fresh eye. And, of course, they often present unusual motifs, colours and shapes. On a week’s stay in Rye at the end of October I spent a day at Dungeness, the U.K’s only ‘desert’, a remote headland of wind-blown undulating shingle, poking out into the Channel on the southeast coast of England.

Small experimental mixedmedia artwork on paper, inspired by Dungeness. © Mari French 2018

Small experimental mixedmedia on paper. © Mari French 2018

Black fishermen’s huts, some abandoned and pulled apart by the weather, punctuate the scene. Decaying wooden fishing boats with their distinctive shelving sterns to cope with the haul over shingle banks, not one but two impressive lighthouses, and of course, the hulk of the nuclear power station squatting at the edge of the sea, all under a lowering and suitably ominous sky.

Remnants & power station under a stormy sky, Dungeness. Photograph © Mari French 2018

Fishing industry remnants & power station, Dungeness. © Mari French 2018

I’d become aware of Dungeness some time ago mainly through ‘Modern Nature‘, the book by artist, filmmaker and writer Derek Jarman, who made this his home with his partner in ‘Prospect Cottage’, a traditional black wooden house with bright yellow window frames. The driftwood garden he coaxed from shingle became famous and is still visited year round.

 

The weather had turned earlier that week and the bitter strong easterly, intermittent rain and massive ink-dark weather fronts sweeping the sky made for a challenging sketching spot. I crunched over the shingle, dodging the wind behind the bulks of abandoned fishing boats and settled in the lee of a working fisherman’s hut to attempt some impressions of this place.

 

Back in my studio I considered what intrigued me about this ‘edgeland’ and how to respond to it:
thinking about the technology, old and new; the telegraph poles and pylons threading the space; the lighthouses – fingers stabbing into the sky; the nuclear power plant with its slab-sided buildings and slatted towers; the light, the shingle, the scribble of dying vegetation, the black wooden huts standing and fallen, the rusting discarded machinery – old tracks, winches and chains – for hauling boats and catch in the past.

The beauty, the desolation, the blank canvas waiting.

Dungeness, tracks & fishing huts. © Mari French 2018

Dungeness, tracks & fishing huts. © Mari French 2018