My mum was born in Chatham, Kent, in 1930. She lived there until she was about 12, when her family moved to Gravesend. At the age of 90, she remains one of the town’s biggest fans. She acknowledges that Chatham is ‘not what it was before the dockyard closed’ but she still has fond memories of a lively town full of sailors in their crisp uniforms, on shore leave. Very much On the Town.
Just up river from Chatham, at the mouth of the River Medway, is Sheerness, another former naval town and seaside resort. Mum remembers day trips there with her dad. They used to set off from Sun Pier in Chatham, sit on the front eating rolls with butter and cheese, which they brought with them. And then they’d have their dinner at the Co-op cafe – fish and chips – served with ‘real tomato ketchup’, which was really hard to find, apparently, and so was a real treat.
It’s funny how those impressions of places that we have as kids or as visitors to a place can contrast so starkly with the experience of the people who live there – how we can miss the more threatening undertones that are everyday reality for others.
Like my mum, Joe Machine (born Joe Stokes), one of the founder members of the Stuckists (see previous blog) was born in Chatham, but over 40 years later, in 1973. But there, any similarities with my mum’s experiences end. As a child, Joe was exposed to extreme violence and had every reason to fear sailors.
Growing up in Marine Town ‘I was brought up in pubs and clubs and my father’s business was near to some pretty unpleasant pubs,’ Joe remembers. ‘By the time I was 7 years old, I’d seen a lot of alcohol fuelled violence. Sailors to me were men of violence. I used to see fighting in the pubs, windows going through, pretty unpleasant stuff for a young child to see.’
Joe went to school in Marine Town, in Sheerness, where he was badly bullied.
A lot of the kids at Joe’s school had fathers in the Royal Navy. Joe tells an unsettling story of going round to a friend’s house to play when he was just 8 years old.
‘I went into this terraced house and his dad was cooking in the kitchen,’ Joe says. ‘I can remember seeing his dad’s blue serge Royal Navy uniform and square rig hat hanging up there. That really did make an impression on me.
‘So I went upstairs playing with this kid for a while and when I came down to use the toilet his dad said, “Come over here”. He asked me if I got bullied and when I said I did, he said “Look I’m going to give you something that will stop the bullying”. So he got a toothbrush and held it over the gas stove and he melted one end of it. Then he got two razor blades and he set them in the melted end. He said, “Look lad, I’m going to give his to you. Take it to school with you and if anyone upsets you, slash them in the face with it”
‘I was absolutely terrified, completely and utterly terrified. I wanted to get rid of it. I couldn’t take it home, so I dropped it down the drain. The next time I saw weapons like that was many years later, when I was 16, in young offenders institutions.’
Drawing on experience Young Joe’s way of dealing with the violence he witnessed was to draw. At first school he drew scenes from his own experience – pictures of the things that scared him.
‘While other kids were drawing what they were supposed to, I was the kid drawing people with blood jetting out of their necks, people getting glassed in the face, people getting their eyes popped out,’ Joe explains. ‘I think making drawings of the kinds of violent acts that I’d seen was a pretty healthy way of dealing with things, but it wasn’t seen that way at school. They stopped me drawing and I had to go and sit at the back of the room away from everyone else.’
Things got worse for Joe as he moved to the next class. He wasn’t allowed to draw at all without having the subject matter checked first. Things came to a head when a teacher humiliated Joe in front of the class. His drawing of the incredible Hulk had spilled off the paper and he had coloured in some of the table as well. Joe couldn’t take any more. He grabbed a blackboard compass and stabbed the teacher in the hand with it. He was removed from the school aged just 6.
Throughout the rest of his, sometimes chaotic childhood, Joe continued to draw. Outside school, he worked for his father in the arcade, but when he wasn’t sweeping up or cleaning fruit machines, he was doodling and drawing.
‘Drawing saved me,’ he says. ‘I don’t know what I would have done without art. The things I saw as I grew up really did affect me. They worried me. They disgusted me. I produced thousands of drawings, most of which ended up in the bin. Drawing for me was a kind of therapy. It was like an externalised part of what was going on inside my head. It helped me make sense of it.’
Thievery As well as showing an early talent for drawing, young Joe also showed an aptitude for theft. Even as a very young child, when his dad took him shopping, Joe was caught putting things into his pocket.
‘I’ve got no memory of it but my dad says he picked me up and shook me and a load of batteries fell out of my pocket,’ Joe says. ‘Most of my friends, their parents were alcoholics or drug addicts so they’d be out stealing. Everybody was at it. It was just natural – and I took to it like a duck to water!’
Joe started with easy targets – he stole from his mother’s purse, his dad’s arcade, local shops – but as he got older, he got more ambitious and took more and more risks.
‘It was like a drug to me,’ he reflects. ‘I think I kind of justified it as, I was trying to claw something back. I was trying to make something of myself in a society that I thought wasn’t up to much and had failed me at every level.’
For a while Joe made good money from a ‘pretty foolproof’ method of breaking into arcades. He bypassed the alarmed steel shutters on the front doors by dropping down through a hole cut in the felt and baton roofs . But his luck finally ran out when he tried to steal a till from a greengrocers in broad daylight. He cut through the electric cable but didn’t realise that the till was also secured to the wall by a chain.
‘I eventually managed to get away with the till,’ Joe recounts. ‘I got round the corner, where I dropped it. So I had to leave it there and run off. But, of course, they knew who I was. I got grassed up and about a day after that the police came to my mum’s flat and that was it.’
In 1989, Joe was convicted of theft and sent to Borstal, Young Offenders Secure Training Centre where he was allowed to paint.
‘I carried on painting sailors and things like that,’ Joe says. ‘But I still couldn’t quite paint what I wanted to because everything was highly censored.’
Bill Lewis, the Medway Poets and Stuckism After two years in prison. Joe went straight back into crime. But things had changed while had been away. His parents had split up and Joe was living with his dad. He was still paining but also writing.
‘I’d been writing for years as well as painting,’ says Joe. ‘I had this silly idea that I was going to be a novelist and I’d written loads of stuff all of which was rubbish – really, really bad.’
Fed up with him hanging around and getting into trouble, Joe’s father suggested that he join a creative writing class. The class was taught by Bill Lewis – member of the Medway Poets and, as it turned out later, another founder members of the Stuckists (see previous blog)
The creative writing class folded after a short time because numbers were low so, instead Joe and two others met at Lewis’s place in Chatham. After a while, the other two students dropped away, leaving only Joe and Bill who became good friends. Bill introduced Joe to the Medway Poets and, in the early 90s, Joe started writing and performing with them.
Through that connection, Joe met Billy Childish and Charles Thomson and with them and others, went on to found the Stuckists. It was possibly an unlikely alliance. Joe was one of the only members who hadn’t been to art school. But although his background was in crime, rather than punk, he identified with the punk ethic of the Stuckists – rebelling against the established order. He also enjoyed being in the company of other compulsive obsessive painters – ‘people who just couldn’t do anything else’. And he shared their contempt for conceptual art.
‘The more I thought about Brit Art, the more I thought that it was utter rubbish – contrived, prefabricated rubbish,’ he explains. ‘I was painting stuff from my life. I didn’t know how to do anything else. What they were doing was as far away from honesty as you could possibly get. It was nihilism. It had no belief whatsoever. They were doing it for awards. They were doing it because they wanted to be famous.’
Joe started exhibiting with the Stuckists. His work was given prominence and he did well. He became known, particularly his ‘sailor paintings’, depicting the violence of his childhood and the sex and pornography that he was exposed to too early, in the homes of his friends’ parents. In 2006, he had a sell-out show at the Spectrum Gallery in London, where most of his paintings were acquired by the David Roberts Art Foundation
Through the Stuckists, Joe finally had an opportunity he craved to work through his early experiences through his art. The more he painted, the further away he became from being involved in crime.
‘I realised then that I had no need to be doing some of the things I was doing,’ Joe explains. There was no point in me putting my energy in that direction, it was either going to end up with me being dead or in prison fo a long time. So I slowly turned more to painting than the other criminal stuff and once I started giving my energy to that, it gained its own momentum and it worked out very well for me.’
Family matters Joe’s mother was an Ashkenazi Jew and his father was an English Romany Gypsy. They were both from East London originally. Joe’s great grandfather was a professional bare-knuckle boxer, fighting in a travelling boxing booth owed by the family. When he retired, he became a boxing promoter.
His paternal grandfather was a professional boxer, but he never spoke about his career with Joe.
‘He never talked about violence but I knew it was there because that was his life,’ Joe explains. ‘All my other relations, my cousins, were terrified of him because he had this kind of glowering violence about him. But that never came across with me. He was always kind to me. I was his favourite grandson and I loved him fiercely.’
The subject matter of Joe’s early paintings, his previous criminal activity and his post-jail work as a bouncer on the violent rave and ecstasy scene have caused some commentators to mark him out as a tough guy too.
Joe says they’ve got him completely wrong: ‘I’m not a tough guy. I’ve been involved in violence but whatever I’ve done has been a reaction to the things that I’ve seen. I certainly didn’t feel like a tough guy when I was a kid. I felt vulnerable and that fear of violence has never left me.’
Spirituality and sucess Becoming involved with the Medway Poets and then the Stuckists were key steps on the road to a new ‘more holistic’ life for Joe.
In 2000, after exhibiting with the Stuckists, Joe was announced as winner of the Stuckist’s Real Turner Prize show and his painting of Diana Dors, painted in response to a chance meeting with Dors as a child, was used as the cover image for the original Stuckist book. He was gaining recognition as an artist and able to devote more time to painting.
‘It was a big thing for me. I’d gone from seeing all the stuff I’d seen, being in prison, working in situations where I was threatened with guns and knives, to sitting in rooms where I could be at peace, I could paint, and it had a restorative, cathartic element to it,’ Joe says.
Fellow Stuckist, Charles Thomson describes Joe as a very spiritual person and Joe himself talks about his ‘great faith in God’.
‘I’ve always had the sense of the hand of God in what I was doing. Even as a child I knew there was something else, something was there, a very definite presence,’ Joe explains. ‘There was no epiphany or red pill moment, the realisation has gradually crept up on me that it has always been there. I’m not a religious fanatic. I don’t do organised religion. I’m not born again. But I speak the truth when I say I don’t believe in God, I know God is real because of my experiences of Him.’
The Stuckist protests against the Turner Prize and the wider art establishment (see previous blog) grabbed the headlines and attracted a lot of publicity for the movement. Many art critics were hostile, but independent art critic Edward Lucie-Smith took an interest in their work and in Joe’s work in particular. He described Joe as his ‘favourite Stuckist’. Lucie-Smith has gone on to hail Joe as ‘one of the most important British Artists’ and ‘the successor to Francis Bacon and William Blake’.
Joe too holds Lucie-Smith in very high regard.
‘There’s nobody like him,’ says Joe. ‘He’s incredible. He’s a legendary art critic and he’s a maverick. Although he works with the art establishment, nobody tells him what to do.’
Joe met Lucie-Smith for the first time at a Stuckist exhibition in 2008, and from 2012, the pair began to collaborate more closely. Lucie-Smith promoted Joe’s work and encouraged him to broaden his artistic horizons.
‘Edward sat me down and said “I like most of your work, but I don’t like all of it”,’ Joe laughs. ‘I think Edward wasn’t very keen on the sailor stuff – the sex and violence – because he thought I was going to be pigeon-holed. He helped me see the potential of working in other areas.’
Joe has since illustrated two volumes of Edward Lucie-Smith’s poems, Making For The Exit and Surviving.
In 2012, Lucie-Smith encouraged Joe to enter the Cork Street Open Exhibition in London. Joe won the Grand Prize for his religious painting God and Tree. The painting shows God standing next to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, from Genesis. The idea came from some work that Joe had been doing with Charles Thomson about Kabbalah, matters of spirit and meditation, but it was Joe’s son, Joseph, who finally gave him the confidence to paint it.
‘My son said, “You do this stuff so much in your life, why don’t you paint God?”‘ says Joe. ‘I told him, I can’t. I’m not really supposed to depict God. I’m Jewish. But Joseph said, “I don’t think God would mind”. So I did. I took his advice and painted it, and that’s when things really started to take off for me, artistically.’
Religion and mythology Spurred on by his success and supported by Lucie-Smith, Joe gained the confidence to tackle a greater variety of themes in his painting, themes as diverse as the Russian Revolution and landscape paintings, inspired by Kentish woodlands.
In 2013, again supported by Lucie-Smith, Joe held a solo, retrospective exhibition Machine Evolution, at the Cock ‘n’ Bull Gallery, beneath the Tramshed restaurant in Dalston, featuring some of his Russian Revolution paintings. The restaurant, owned by celebrity chef Mark Hix, recently went into administration.
Ironically, the gallery was named after an installation by artist, Damien Hirst, bête noire of the Stuckists. The piece, a Hereford cow and a cockerel preserved in a steel and glass tank of formaldehyde, was on permanent display in the restaurant.
‘The irony wasn’t lost on me,’ Joe laughs, ‘and I think Edward could see it as well!’
The exhibition was a great success and, in conjunction with the show, Russian investors brought out a major hardback book of Joe’s work.
It was at a private view of Machine Evolution, hosted by The London Magazinethat Joe was introduced to magazine editor, academic and mythographer, Steven O’Brien, who is now his agent.
In 2015, Joe and O’Brien collaborated on a book Britannic Myths which retold ancient stories from Britain and Ireland through text and painting. The collaboration generated a number of London-based exhibitions of the paintings included in the book.
Also in 2015, Joe was invited to become artist-in-residence for the Prometheus Project in Trieste, Italy. This project, the brainchild of Italian concert pianist Claudio Crismani and Edward Lucie-Smith, was based around Alexander Scriabin’s last musical work Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, reinterpreting it through music, visual art, literature and history.
‘It was a great time and resulted in three wonderful shows for me,’ Joe recalls. ‘I had a sailor show but also new paintings of Greek Gods and the myth of Prometheus were exhibited in the Arts Centre at Trieste harbour and at various other venues around Trieste.’
Joe now refers to myth as ‘his preferred genre’.
‘Over the years I’ve done so many paintings working through he stuff about sex and violence,’ Joe remarks. ‘But more recently, my work has moved further and further into religion, spirituality and mythology so that is now about 90 percent of what I do. There’s no way when I was first involved with the Stuckists that I would have painted some of the stuff I’m painting now. I still do the other stuff sometimes, but now I’m more whole than I used to be.’
Joe is now working on a series of 30 paintings showing scenes from the Arthurian legends for another of Steven O’Brien’s books, and has been commissioned by mythographer and author, John Matthews, to produce a series of paintings featuring the characters from the old English poem Beowulf, which will be used to illustrate a series of oracle cards.
Among his other roles, Steven O’Brien is a curator for the Vatican Arts Trust. Through him Joe has been invited to exhibit a new series of paintings Saints of Britain in the Vatican, Rome and Certosa di Tresulti monestary, Collepardo. The exhibition is planned for 2021, pandemic permitting.
Joe is still astounded by his success. ‘Who would have thought that a boy from the back streets of Kent, with no prospects, no hope, a criminal record, would through art and through his own momentum, propel himself into getting a show in the Vatican,’ he says. ‘And that’s pretty much because I followed my star. I kept painting because it is the only thing that ever helped me. And it’s only by sticking to my guns that I’m in the position I am now.’
Bedtime stories When Joe first met the Medway Poets it was as a poet, not a painter and he has recently returned to writing, alongside his art. He still writes poetry and he has recently written that novel. It is called DeadTown Boy and and tells the story of Joe’s childhood up to the age of 18, when he was released from Borstal Young Offenders Secure Training Centre.
But Joe now lives in Somerset with his wife and five children. His current writing project is a novel for children The Invisible Kingdom based on the bedtime stories he made up for them when they were very young.
‘It’s an allegory of World War II, where my children are characters in the story,’ he explains. ‘When I was a kid, my dad used to sit on the end of my bed telling me stories about the Kray twins, who he was friends with in London during the 1960’s. It wasn’t the kind of Rupert the Bear stuff most kids got.’
Joe is trying to use his past experience in a positive way these days, including through working with charitable groups and young offenders.
‘I have to square my past with being a father now and doing the right thing by my children,’ Joe reflects. ‘There’s no way you can be be involved in the kind of life I had and maintain a good relationship with your family.’
Now Joe feels positive about the future.
‘It’s wonderful, I do feel very happy and very, very lucky now,’ he concludes. ‘Because I’ve been able to turn around an obsessive, compulsive need as a child to produce work that was based on my experience. I’ve gone from having to do that to that, to wanting to do that and then absolutely loving doing that. It’s an obsession in another way I suppose, but it’s a good obsession.’
I am painter (sometimes) but I’m not really a ‘joiner’ so I’ve never considered joining the Stuckists. Being any kind of ‘-ist’ doesn’t suit me. I like being a ‘me-ist’.
But I come from Kent, where Stuckism originated. One of the founder members of the Stuckists, Sexton Ming, lived just around the corner from me in Gravesend. The art world is a small one, so we all run into one another in person or online from time to time. I sometimes post my art on the Stuckist Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/groups/stuckism/
And I’ve been given some great art opportunities from my association with the Stuckists. Some years ago, I was invited to exhibit some of my paintings in a Stuckist exhibition at the View Two Gallery in Liverpool. I also recently sent some (possibly never to be seen again, as I don’t think they’ve turned up) drawings for a Stuckist exhibition in Iran. And it was through an introduction from the Stuckists that I got involved with Art on a Postcard https://duncangrantartist.com/2019/06/26/art-on-a-postcard-urban-contemporary-vs-street-photography/
When we did the community art project Hand of Artists, five years ago now, Stuckist founder member, Ella Guru, painted the ten of clubs for one of the packs. It depicts her packing up her art things and moving from London to live in her new home in Hastings in Kent.
In the Hand of Artists project, different artists were asked to design their own playing card based a card they were allocated, at random, drawn from two decks. The ‘designer packs’ were then sold to benefit local art charities. Coincidentally, Ella also designed her own set of tarot cards, inspired by a similarly collaborative project http://ellaguruart.com/?projects=tarot
And in a more recent collaboration, my art will also appear on the cover of Charles Thomson’s forthcoming poetry anthology.
So who are the Stuckists? Over the next three blogs I’ll tell you a little more about the only international art movement to come out of the Medway Towns, and feature the stories and art of a couple of the founder members, Joe Machine and Ella Guru.
This first blog looks at where the Stuckists came from, where they’ve been and where they might go in the future.
The birth of an international art ‘non-movement’ In the late 1970s a group of six arty, young poets – Miriam Carney, Billy Childish, Rob Earl, Bill Lewis, Sexton Ming and Charles Thomson – were performing anarchic, punk-inspired poetry at festivals and in pubs and colleges in and around the Medway Towns in North Kent. After about a year, The Medway Poets as they were known, went their separate ways. But a chance meeting between Charles Thomson and Billy Childish, nearly twenty years later, was the start of a quite different collaboration – an international art movement known as ‘Stuckism’.
It was the late ’90s and Britart and the Young British Artists (YBAs) were the new darlings of the art world. Advertising mogul and art collector, Charles Saatchi, widely credited with Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory with his slogan Labour Isn’t Working, used his considerable financial and media power to fast-track the artistic careers of YBAs by buying, exhibiting and promoting their art. ‘Conceptual art’ was in vogue. Artistic concepts and ideas took precedence over the more traditional concerns about aesthetics, technique and materials.
One of the most successful conceptual artists at that time was Tracey Emin once, as an 18-year old fashion student, associated with The Medway Poets through her, then, boyfriend, Billy Childish. Emin’s celebrity artist status and the way it changed her, appalled and concerned former Medway Poet Charles Thomson. He believed that the Britart ethic (or perhaps lack of it) signalled a dangerous decline in artistic values.
‘Tracey Emin became a celebrity in the nineties because she got drunk and said “fuck” a lot of times on television; she backed it up with a novelty line in embroidered tents and unmade beds,’ Thomson wrote in his 2004 essay, A Stuckist on Stuckism. http://www.stuckism.com/Walker/AStuckistOnStuckism.html‘The celebrity caucus of YBAs promoted by Saatchi effectively excluded all who were not part of it. Art students now saw their goal not as producing good art but as producing art which they hoped Saatchi would buy….the main requirements are art gimmick, shameless self-promotion and getting to know as many of the right people as possible….’
Any artist speaking out against the brave new art establishment was dismissed as traditionalist or reactionary. Thomson felt that his own painting and those of other artists he knew and admired, like Billy Childish, Philip Absolom and Bill Lewis, were becoming marginalised and excluded, and he found that outrageous.
‘The art that we were doing, painting, was not establishment art and I knew we’d really have to fight a battle for recognition,’ Thomson remembers. ‘Billy [Childish] had read out this poem in which he recalled that Tracey Emin had insulted him and said that he was “stuck, stuck, stuck” because he was not doing conceptual art. So I suggested to Billy that artists that I liked and thought ought to be promoted join forces and call ourselves Stuckists.’
There were 13 founding Stuckists – Charles Thomson, Billy Childish, Bill Lewis and Sexton Ming from The Medway Poets, joined by Philip Absolon, Frances Castle, Sheila Clarke, Eamon Everall, Ella Guru, Wolf Howard, Sanchia Lewis, Joe Machine and Charles Williams. The group appear around the table in Ella Guru’s painting The Last Supper, with Thomson depicted as Jesus and Childish as Judas. Behind them are some of the other Stuckist groups that emerged later, alongside the original group.
When I say group, I use the word loosely. The Stuckists are more of a network of individuals who come together from time to time to exhibit their work. They are not required to subscribe to ideas in a manifesto (although there is a manifesto, more than one). They don’t necessarily like or agree with each other’s work. And you’re unlikely to recognise a Stuckist by the way they paint.
‘Stuckism is not a style that everyone subscribes to, it’s an ethic, it’s a feeling,’ explains Ella Guru, one of the founder members. ‘Stuckism is about expressing what is happening now using a very old medium, paint. It’s usually figurative and it’s very important for it to be sincere, not gimmicky like conceptual art. It’s about doing your very best.’
The Stuckist Manifesto After six months in which ‘not very much happened’ things began to move for the Stuckists.
In 1999, They had their first show called Stuck! Stuck! Stuck! in Gallery 108 in Shoreditch, London. And Thomson and Childish launched the first Stuckist Manifesto, which sought to define who the Stuckists were and what they stood for (and against) http://www.stuckism.com/stuckistmanifesto.html
‘We got completely engrossed in it…rephrasing every sentence…because we knew what we wanted to say about things, but we didn’t know how to say it because nobody had said it before,’ Thomson remembers. ‘And as soon as we launched the manifesto, other people said, yeah, that’s what I think too. They were thinking it but they hadn’t said it, but we said it.’
Some aspects of the manifesto proved controversial. For some, one statement in particular Artists who don’t paint aren’t artists smacked of arrogance. It seemed to say “if you don’t paint you aren’t an artist”.
Thomson points out that that was never what was meant.
‘It’s a complete logical contradiction, because if you are an artist how can you not be an artist?’ he asks. ‘If we’d wanted to say “if you don’t paint you aren’t an artist” we would have said it. The manifesto was a real mixture, some of it was deliberately provocative, some of it was profound but there was nothing there that wasn’t meant in some way or another. But with that particular statement we were appearing to say something but simultaneously contradicting it, knowing full well that people would make a superficial interpretation of it.’
Nonetheless, painting is at the heart of Stuckism and the Stuckists are all painters first and foremost, although some also work in other media. For example, Jasmine Surreal, founder of the now defunct Merseyside Stuckists, which also included Liverpool artist Andrew Galbraith http://andrewgalbraith.co.uk/ has recently moved from painting to video because her health makes it increasingly difficult for her to continue painting. https://youtu.be/-YTn4Vohqjk
‘I became a Stuckist in 2008,’ Jasmine explains. ‘I’m a surrealist and there weren’t many outlets for my whacky, eccentric paintings and I wanted to be part of an organisation that had a broader outlook on things.’
Since then, Jasmine has been involved in over 30 shows including, in 2014, her own show Fantasy Reality: Paintings by Jasmine Surreal and Her Toy Cats at the Trispace Gallery in Bermondsey, London, curated by Charles Thomson. https://youtu.be/rMDdW6LHwyc
If some aspects of The Stuckist Manifesto are open to interpretation and debate, there is no mistaking what the Stuckists were against – ‘Britart’, ‘ego art’, conceptual art.
And while some Stuckists can see something of value in conceptual art – Ella Guru admires Grayson Perry’s pots and has written in her blog (2017) that when seen in real life Rachel Whiteread’s installations were ‘cast in materials that take some knowledge and skill’ http://ellaguruart.com/?p=1371 – for Charles Thomson and many Stuckists, conceptual art has no value.
Thomson cites Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s basic psychological functions – intuition, sensation, thinking and feeling – to explain the balance that must be present for him in a ‘complete art work’. He claims that conceptual art can never be complete and can never, therefore, be ‘good art’.
‘Conceptual art cuts out emotion because there is this theoretical background to it that justifies its existence,’ Thomson explains. It cannot justify its existence by itself. It negates emotions and emotions are the heart of art and of human life. There’s obviously a spectrum, but the closer you get to a complete art, the closer you get to a painting, until, eventually, you end up with a painting.’
Protesting against the Turner Prize
The Stuckists received significant media attention for their Stuck! Stuck! Stuck! exhibition largely because it was a reaction to the Tracey Emin insult. Also, by coincidence, during the same year, Tracey Emin was nominated for the Turner Prize. Charles Thomson’s painting Sir Nicholas Serota Makes an Acquisitions Decision (2000) satirised Tracey Emin’s Turner Prize nominated installation My Bed (1999).
From then on, the Turner Prize at Tate Britain became a key rallying point for the Stuckists.
In 2000, they launched their own alternative event The REAL Turner Prize Show and, as an adjunct to this, staged their first anti-Turner Prize demonstration outside Tate Britain. These demonstrations, which were held each year from 2000, whenever the Prize was staged in London, had two aims: to declare the movement’s serious opposition to conceptual art and, at the same time, cynically perhaps, to drum up some valuable publicity for their movement.
‘It’s no good relying on good art to win through by itself,’ Charles Thomson asserts. ‘If you want anybody to take any notice of the art, you have to get the attention of the media. We just took advantage of that. The Tate gets the press along. We turn up and do a demo and they feature us.’
In 2001, Billy Childish left the Stuckists saying that there was too much of the work and public persona of the movement that he couldn’t relate to, as he explains in this brief interview with Charles Thomson https://youtu.be/ND5JfGLaZP4
But the public face of Stuckists was in fact extremely effective in drawing attention to their work. The press coverage of their clown demonstrations generated interest, although the reaction of art critics, with a couple of exceptions, remained extremely hostile. Undeterred, the Stuckists continued to paint and exhibit.
In 2004, a curator from the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool who had heard about the Stuckists through their protests, got in touch with Charles Thomson. The Stuckists Punk Victorian exhibition was held at the Walker as part of the 2004 Liverpool Biennial. It was the first national gallery exhibition of Stuckist art, featuring over 250 paintings by 37 Stuckist artists from the UK and around the world.
Cleaning up the art establishment Of course, as Charles Thomson concedes, the clown protests were never a serious threat to the Turner Prize but other Stuckist interventions have hit harder.
In 2004, claiming a shortage of funds, the Tate appealed to artists to donate work to the gallery’s national collection. The Stuckists offered a donation of 160 paintings previously exhibited at the Walker Gallery. Tate Director Nicholas Serota said that he would put the offer to the trustees. In July 2005, Serota replied, rejecting the offer and commenting, “[The Board of Trustees] do not feel that the work is of sufficient quality in terms of accomplishment, innovation or originality of thought to warrant preservation in perpetuity in the national collection”.
The letter angered Thomson and prompted him to look into the Tate’s acquisitions procedure. He discovered that, at the time the Stuckists’ offer was being considered, the Tate had been seeking funds to buy The Upper Room, a work by Chris Ofili, one of the Tate trustees, who had rejected the Stuckist donation. Thomson contacted the press about what he saw as a conflict of interest. The Charity Commission launched an investigation and concluded that the Tate had broken the law. The Tate trustees were forced to apologise and to reform their acquisition policies.
Charles Thomson continues to be exercised by ‘the way things are done’ in the established art world. He quotes Robert Hiscox, art collector and former chairman of Hiscox Insurance, who referred to the art world as “the last unregulated financial market”.
‘You can do things in the art world that would get you in prison in the financial world at large,’ Thomson remarks.
But Thomson’s appetite for protest and publicity has waned. These days he prefers to leave the politics to others, and to concentrate instead on his poetry – he is planning a new collection of over 400 poems written in the last few months – and his painting. His style has changed over the years from meticulous outlines and flat colours, to a more spontaneous style with broken colours and broad brush strokes.
‘After 20 years of Stuckism I feel jaded at the moment with some aspects – the publicity, the interviews, you can only do so much of that,’ he explains. ‘During the last demo at the Tate, two years ago, I turned up as an observer but I refused to hold a placard and I felt such a relief at not having to protest.’
Becoming ‘established enough’ The Stuckists are now established enough not to rely on the publicity their political activities provided.
‘I’ve always known that all the media stuff was ephemeral,’ Charles Thomson reflects. ‘It was a launch. It was like a booster on a rocket that catapults it into space and then drops away. And that has been done.’
After 20 years, Stuckism is on its way to becoming recognised as a major, mainstream art movement. ‘It is phenomenal to have an art movement that has lasted that long,’ Thomson observes.
Painting has had something of a resurgence, partly because of the Stuckists, who Thomson believes were ahead of the game.
Members of the original Stuckists, such as Ella Guru whose painting was disparaged at art school as ‘shallow’ because she had no concept to explain, and Joe Machine who believes that painting saved him from a life of crime, now enjoy successful careers as artists. Paintings by the Stuckists have become sought after by some significant collectors.
‘Even the people who have left and now want nothing to do with Stuckism – Stella Vine, Gina Bold, Billy Childish – will still be seen as Stuckists,’ Thomson claims. ‘Salvador Dali was kicked out of the Surrealists but, it doesn’t matter what you say, he is still a Surrealist. Billy, Stella and the others, their work is so embedded in Stuckism, what else can they be classified as?’
There are over 250 Stuckist groups in over 50 countries now and Stuckism is included in the curriculum of many mainstream academic art courses. The Stuckist Manifesto is featured in the Penguin Classic, 100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists (2011)
Charles Thomson believes that Stuckism now has its own momentum and ‘is just established enough’ no longer to need his leadership and direction to survive.
‘Stuckism is like a ship – the hard part was building it – but now it is launched,’ he states. ‘It’s got its own engine. It’s got its own crew and it is sailing!’
In this blog post, Ella Guru, explains the back story for her painting The Last Supper which is the feature picture for this post https://youtu.be/ND5JfGLaZP4
There is also an extensive and detailed analysis of it by Charles Thomson in the book An Antidote to the Ghastly Turner Prize (Victoria Press, 2010)
I’m not from a musical family really. I played harmonica in a band when I was at college. In fact, one of my mates, Steve Firth, wanted to be in the band but didn’t play an instrument, so he taught himself bass guitar. Ironically, he was the only band member to go on to have a career in music. He played bass with the successful Britpop band Embracehttp://www.embrace.co.uk/
My dad was a decent singer though and, when asked if he played a musical instrument, he used to say that he played the spoons. As far as I know, he couldn’t play the spoons. It was just one of those things he said if the subject of music came up. Like, when we came home from school asking if we could have recorder lessons, or violin or trumpet or whatever was on offer, he’d say ‘Yes… if you can play The Sound of Silence’ or ‘Will they teach you Over the Hills and Far Away?’ or ‘OK…so long as you practise up the top of the garden’.
I do remember him making stuff. He made moving tanks from cotton reels, elastic bands, sticks and matches, and a kind of percussion instrument – a notched rod with a propeller on the end, which rotated when you ran a stick across the notches. He stretched elastic bands over tobacco tins to make a kind of harp, blew over the top of bottles, ran his fingers round the rims of glasses and made duck sounds by blowing on blades of grass stretched between his fingers and thumbs. His favourite homemade instrument was a makeshift kazoo made from a Rizla paper and a comb.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but since speaking to the extraordinary Henry Dagg, I think maybe Dad might have been onto something.
Holistic musician It is hard to find the right words to define Henry, although many people have tried.
If you search online you’ll see him variously described as ‘composer’, ‘musician’, ‘bohemian’, ‘self-taught engineer’, ‘blacksmith’, ‘craftsman’, ‘sound sculptor’, ‘creator of musical instruments’, ‘world-class musical saw player’, ‘visionary inventor’ and ‘genius’. And they are all right. He is all of those things. But Henry prefers to be known as ‘a holistic musician’.
‘Holistic musician describes the vocation of musicians like me whose work includes composition, performance, and developing new musical instruments and sound sculptures,’ he explains.
Electronic to acoustic Henry’s virtuosity was apparent from an early age. He grew up in Dublin, the child of classical musicians. Aged eight, he began learning the ‘cello and was building electronic circuits, which he modified to produce a range of unusual sounds – a process now known as ‘circuit bending’. His first ever public performance, at a school concert, featured a primitive home-built synthesiser, which he used to imitate everyday sounds, including fire engine air horns and his geography teacher’s bubble car.
‘The audience was so enthusiastic that it probably altered the course of my future,’ Henry remembers. ‘I continued to build similar projects, the largest of which was a kind of portable electronic music studio, on which I composed my own version of ‘musique concrète’.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musique_concr%C3%A8te
During his teens, Henry taught himself piano and electric bass. He transcribed chunks of prog rock from bands like Focus https://focustheband.co.uk/ and Genesis by ear, and dreamt of a career as a composer for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (RW), which specialises in producing bespoke electronic music and sounds for BBC radio and television programmes. https://www.soundonsound.com/people/story-bbc-radiophonic-workshop. In particular, Henry admired the work of John Baker, whose compositions consisted of recordings of real acoustic sounds spliced together from tiny pieces of tape.
So hoping to follow in the footsteps of John Baker who had joined the BBC as a studio manager, Henry joined the BBC sound engineering section in Belfast. Eventually, he was sent on a very short attachment to the RW but was not offered a post. Instead, having impressed RW head Desmond Briscoe with some of his compositions, Henry was commissioned to compose original music for TV and radio programmes, while still based at BBC Northern Ireland, often still using tape editing and manipulation techniques. Digital sampling was available at that time, but it was unaffordable.
It was during his time at the BBC that Henry brought his first house in Belfast and set about converting it into a series of workshops and studios. But renovating his house while also holding down two jobs – sound engineer and a composer – became too much. He decided to leave the BBC to concentrate on music, supplementing his income by busking on the streets of Belfast playing the musical saw. https://youtu.be/dp5UKVN8B9c
A 1987 BBC documentary about Henry, Anything that makes a noise: A man and his music provides an insight into the way that he works. https://youtu.be/ljCYiCwNx7E Henry is meticulous and inventive, developing new processes and techniques to get the quality of outcome he wants, whatever the task. The documentary also features Henry at work on a ten-minute tone poem Fanfare for the Bogie Man, commissioned by the BBC for a programme about a train journey from Belfast to Dublin.
The freedom to work for himself, brought about an important change in Henry’s approach to composition. He turned his attention from electronica to acoustic music and sound sculptures.
‘I’d become a bit disenchanted with the whole process of making music that had to be assembled laboriously in a studio,’ he explains. ‘Affordable digital samplers were still years away at this stage and my experience of using synthesisers had convinced me that, for my ears at least, music really becomes most alive when the sounds are made acoustically and mechanically by the physical vibrations of real moving objects.’
Henry had already experimented with multi-sampling, using authentic acoustic sounds. An early commission required a rendition of Three Blind Mice for a BBC Schools programme, played by drops of water falling into jam jars. The drops, which Henry chose from hundreds, were selected for their natural pitch, even though it would have been considerably quicker to use variable speed to alter the pitch of a single drop.
‘The great thing about multi-sampling like that is that you capture all the individual variations that happen with acoustic sounds,’ Henry explains. ‘No two acoustic sounds are exactly the same and that’s what makes acoustic instruments special. If you use just one sample on a digital sampler that’s exactly what you get every time you use that sound. It loses it’s original quality completely and just sounds artificial.’
‘I started wishing that there was some way that I could keep using new, unusual sounds but performing my work live in a band with other musicians,’ he continues. ‘So I began to imagine a new family of instruments that reconfigured existing acoustic principles to allow live performance using new sounds. I’d already been doing this to some extent for Fanfare for the Bogie Man, where I’d been building little musical devices, but I was also greatly inspired by the new instruments and sound sculptures featured in a California magazine called Experimental Musical Instruments and particularly by the work of Harry Partch. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Partch. I felt we were kindred spirits, so sound sculptures featured very heavily in my thinking when I was setting up my workshop.’
The Biscuit House and its musical railings
By 1993, the growing collection of machines and tools necessary to create Henry’s new instruments and sound sculptures had outgrown his Victorian Belfast house that was ‘trying to be a factory’. So he relocated to a former mineral water factory building in Faversham, Kent. As with his previous house, he called his new home ’Biscuit House’, a reference to Henry’s system for baking shortbread biscuits in various shapes, including musical instruments, stamped out with his precision, custom-made biscuit cutters.
The first sound sculpture that Henry completed in his new workshop was a set of hand-forged, musical railings and gates for the building itself. The installation, which spanned 40 metres, took him five years to complete and was designed to be played like a glockenspiel.
‘I felt obliged to exploit the long frontage of the building to create a manifesto for my work,’ Henry explains. ‘So I composed a 28-bar chord sequence and built it in groups of chime bars embedded in a wrought iron structure, with a score notated in nuts and bolts.’
When it was finished, Henry invited world-famous solo percussionist, Dame Evelyn Glennie, to open the musical gates and railings with a premiere public performance.
‘She very sportingly came and improvised for 20 minutes in front of a big crowd and camera crews from three television channels,’ Henry remembers.
Henry’s first installation is still there and, these days, it doesn’t attract a lot of attention locally. But at the time, it proved to be a very good investment in terms of the interest it generated for future commissioned work for Henry, as well as providing a splendid, practical addition to his new home.
Rochester Independent College Musical Gates
The first of Henry’s new commissions was for a new set of 12-foot high, 28-foot wide, stainless-steel musical gates and railings for Rochester Independent College. https://rochester-college.org/ Like all Henry’s work, they were made by hand in his workshop. The commission took him four years to complete.
The completed installation, which is adorned with flying pigs in sunglasses – the mascot of the College – is designed to be played by a group of musicians performing together.
It has a range of over six octaves, comparable to a full orchestra and features vibraphone bars, tubular bells and organ pipe-like tubes sounded by strings that can be plucked, struck or bowed. These two video clips tell something of the story of the magnificent gates, from initial design through to the opening concert https://vimeo.com/238815007https://vimeo.com/293949840
The Sharpsichord A second commission to come as a result of Henry’s Biscuit House gates installation was for a sound sculpture for the gardens of Cecil Sharp House – home of the English Folk Song and Dance Society – in Camden, London. https://www.efdss.org/cecil-sharp-house.
Cecil Sharp was a 19th century musicologist, noted for his collection of English folk song and dance. Henry’s design – a programmable acoustic harp for public use – was a sculptural tribute to Sharp, with much thought given to the context in which it would be erected. He called it the Sharpsichord.
‘As Cecil Sharp House had music at its core, I thought it wouldn’t do them justice to make a sound sculpture that just made random noises,’ Henry explains. ‘My design for the Sharpsichord was inspired by Cecil Sharp himself, who set up the recorded music library using a cylinder phonograph to record songs. I also wanted it to be fully chromatic and concert pitch so that it could be incorporated in arrangements with other instruments that might be played in the garden.’
The resulting sound sculpture was a two ton, 46-string, solar powered, weatherproof, programmable pin-barrel harp.
It works like this.:
Two solar panels at the top charge a battery, providing power for a large rotating pin-barrel to be turned automatically. Alternatively, the instrument can be powered manually using a handwheel
The music is programmed manually on the pin-barrel itself, which is drilled and tapped with over 11,000 holes in a grid pattern. It can take up to a day to arrange the pins to produce just a minute of music
As it rotates, the pin-barrel activates the mechanisms that pluck the strings of a harp at the back of the instrument
The sound from the plucked strings is channelled into a stainless steel box and amplified, in stereo, by two giant acoustic horns. The smaller horn is for treble notes and the larger for bass notes
There is also a keyboard to help the programmer to find note positions on the pin-barrel. If a musician has the strength and stamina to exert the considerable pressure needed to pluck the strings, the Sharpsichord can also be played directly from the keyboard.
‘The idea was that visitors to the garden would execute their musical ideas by inserting pins into the cylinder and then they would leave that musical idea behind,’ Henry explains. ‘This would then be developed by the next people who came along, so the tune would morph from one thing to another in the way that folk music tends to do.’
Although the outline drawing was simple, the work required to develop the Sharpsichord into a functional prototype was enormous, with many very time-consuming challenges to overcome. Because of this, the build overshot the original timescale – what should have taken six months took five years – and escalating metal prices meant that costs also went up by a factor of ten.
And there was another unforeseen difficulty. The rising price of metal had sparked an epidemic of metal theft.
‘Even before it was completed, everybody who saw the Sharpsichord pointed out that it would never survive in a garden in Camden with no real security oversight in the evening and at weekends,’ Henry explains. ‘So that made me think. I realised that this was something of a scale I would never be able to do again and it just didn’t seem at all appropriate to risk its demolition. And so the only solution in the end was to repay the Society its original contributions and, with the help of generous admirers and supporters, buy it back.’
So the Sharpsichord remained in Henry’s workshop where it still lives today. But that is not the end of the story.
One day Henry, who had been arranging and uploading short videos to You Tube to promote the Sharpsichord, got a call from musician Matthew Herbert. Herbert said he’d sent one of Henry’s videos to Björk and that she was very keen to record a song with the Sharpsichord for her new project and album Biophilia, released in 2011.
However, it transpired that the length and structure of the song, called Sacrifice, which was already written, were far too long and elaborate to fit the cylinder in one programme. As Björk wanted a fully live performance, Henry arranged the song to include a live keyboard part, to be played on the Sharpsichord keyboard in synch with the cylinder programme.
During the recording session at Henry’s workshop, Björk asked him about the possibility of taking the Sharpsichord on tour with her, for live performances.
‘It was an exciting prospect for me as it would give the Sharpsichord great exposure,’ Henry recalls. ‘But it was not straightforward. The Sharpsichord was designed simply as a sound-sculpture installation, so it could never have travelled in one piece without considerable, and very expensive, modification.’
Nevertheless Henry agreed to tour with Björk and, over several months, converted the Sharpsichord into a mobile structure that could be lifted by crane onto the flatbed truck ready to be taken to her shows in Manchester and at Alexander Palace, where it proved a great success. You can see Henry and Björk working together with the Sharpsichord in this video. https://youtu.be/n2kbd1Pt5d8
In 2016, the Sharpsichord made another excursion, travelling to Norway where Henry gave his TED talk The Quest for New Music From Old Technology https://youtu.be/GQqJjEDCpGM
Although the Sharpsichord has not ventured out recently, Henry believes its future lies in guest-performing with other artists or bands, and he is planning to create an auxiliary memory to augment the Sharpsichord’s current 40-90 second memory, so that it can retain enough material for a concert.
‘I envisage an optical memory based on lines written in felt pen on a roll of clear acetate,’ Henry says. ‘Whatever it is will be pretty low tech. You could computerise the whole thing but it’s not in the spirit of the Sharpsichord. Everything you hear, you can attribute to something you see.’
In this clip Jack Hues (formerly of new wave band Wang Chung) sings the Beatles song She’s Leaving Home, accompanied by the Sharpsichord. https://youtu.be/eoWdefgfxgI and here Hannah Peel and Laura Groves sing The Beach Boys song God Only Knows, accompanied by Henry on the Sharpsichord. https://youtu.be/LpD1PsZS-sU
Extending the acoustic range Over the years Henry has invented and built a range of innovative and unusual acoustic musical instruments, usually in response to commissions.
Perhaps the most well known is the CATASTROPHONY, a miaowing cat-organ, which famously reduced Prince Charles to tears of laughter during a recital at a royal garden party in 2010. Here is Henry playing the CATASTROPHONY at Jools Holland’s Hootenanny in 2010. https://youtu.be/cHfBQCJaJoI
The Ring Cycle came about as the result of Henry’s involvement in a schools project in Basingstoke in early 2005.
A group of musicians – Henry, jazz musicians Herbie Flowers and Buster Birch, and Dave Jackson from Van der Graaf Generator – was appointed by Anvil Artshttps://www.anvilarts.org.uk/ to hold workshops in schools. The musicians helped children to make their own music and encouraged them to get involved in a public performance at The Anvil concert hall, along with the four musicians and members of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Henry’s role was to challenge primary school children to create their own instruments, and also to devise and produce a new instrument that could be played by a whole class at the concert.
Henry came up with The Ring Cycle, a line of rotating cylinders of tubular bells, powered by one person on a cycle frame, that could be played by 30 performers. Each player had one cylinder in front of them, and a mallet. They followed the conductor, who had a flip chart with a series of numbers on it, and then, when their particular numbers came up, brought their mallet in contact with the rotating bells.
‘It was really simple and didn’t require any ability to read music, just the ability to remember a string of numbers,’ Henry explains. ‘The kids were very good at it and took to it really naturally. They played three pieces and it made a fantastic, really loud sound.’
While he was thinking about possible instruments that the children could build from readily available materials, Henry came up with the idea for his Hooty Scooty. Although he quickly realised that the project was too technical for children, he later developed it into a very playable instrument.
The Hooty Scooty combines the working elements of a hurdy-gurdy, two phono-fiddles and a scooter. The front wheel of the scooter drives the rosined wheel which bows the strings. This means the performer has to be scooting while they are playing in order to make the sound. You can see Henry performing on the Hooty Scooty alongside pianist Rimski and his pedalling piano at the 2013 Duchamps Festival in Herne Bay, Kent. https://youtu.be/m2Msy7LwTQI
When the Tour de France came to Canterbury in 2007, The Canterbury Festival asked Henry to come up with some bicycle inspired musical contributions as part of the celebrations.
‘They had heard about my Ring Cycle so they commissioned me to write a new 20 minute suite for that,’ Henry says . ‘They also wanted me to create a new pedal-powered monophonic instrument to lead a parade of cycling-inspired instruments. So I devised the Voicycle.’
The Voicycle uses the pedalling power from an old tricycle to drive a heavy flywheel, that in turn powers an acoustic siren, with a lever to control the pitch. Here is Henry performing Edelweiss on the Voicycle at the Duchamps Festival in Herne Bay, Kent in 2013 https://youtu.be/iGUhGKbr1x8
Achieving the dream After the opening performance of the Rochester Gate Harp, Henry took a break from time-consuming commissioned projects. He is now spending time converting the former offices and canteen in his factory-home into a habitable residential area.
‘It’s now 25 years that I’ve lived in a place with no insulation and no central heating and I’ve decided that this needs to take priority over commissioned work,’ Henry says. ‘ I have never embraced the bohemian lifestyle, living in a cold, crumbling canteen-cum-bedsit. It just became a necessity because once you accept a commission, your time is sold before you can get your hands on it.’
And while Henry has achieved a great deal of success and support from his commissioned works, he feels that he has still not really yet achieved what he hoped when he left the BBC all those years ago.
‘The reason for the existence of a lot of my instruments is not because I really wanted them at all, but because other people wanted them,’ Henry explains. ‘They don’t really represent my ideas of the electro-acoustic ensemble that I’ve been trying to reach all my life. I think live performance is the experience that musicians live for and what I really want to do is to be able to perform my music live, with others.’
She has just returned home having spent weeks in hospital and then rehab, after she fell over and broke her hip. We’re now thinking through what needs to be in place for her so that she can continue to live independently into her nineties.
Before her accident, during the lockdown, we used to joke with mum that she had been socially isolating for the last ten years! And, actually, that’s not far from the truth. Macular degeneration has left her with very little vision and that, along with poor hearing, makes it difficult for her to recognise faces and to follow conversation in social spaces. So, she prefers to stay at home listening to her audio books and receiving the occasional visitor.
Wendy Daws The isolation that some people with sight loss experience is something that Medway-based artist Wendy Daws has been thinking about for a long time. For nearly 15 years, Wendy has been working with groups of blind and partially sighted (BPS) people, as Lead Artist Volunteer for Kent Association for the Blind (KAB). https://www.kab.org.uk/ KAB is celebrating its centenary this year.
Discovering the value of touch
By training, Wendy is a sculptor. She grew up in Hoo in Kent, and after leaving school at 16, worked in a series of admin jobs, taking City & Guilds courses at night school. Uninspired by classes in book-keeping and shorthand, Wendy switched to pottery and sugar craft instead and then, aged 29, she left work altogether to go travelling. When she arrived back in the UK ten months later, Wendy was ready for a change.
‘I was determined not to go back into admin work,’ she remembers. ‘I wanted to do something more creative and be my own boss. I did a City & Guilds welding course and doing that convinced me that I just wanted to learn more.’
In 2003, after what she refers to as ‘three mad years hoovering up art courses and being very skint’, Wendy got a place at the University of Brighton to study for a degree in Three Dimensional Craft and Design. And in her 2nd year, she took an artist residency at Nagoya University of Fine Art in Japan.
‘I wanted to go to Japan because I was interested in Samurai armour,’ she explains. ‘I wanted to know how it was made, how all the elements are held together.’
While she was there, Wendy learnt an etching process, in which an image is transferred onto a copper plate and then put into acid, to leave a raised outline. It was a seminal experience for her.
‘I became really interested in the potential of that raised, tactile line,’ Wendy says. ‘It brought back memories of when I was about 14, on a school trip to the National Gallery. I was drawn to a luscious red cloak in one of the paintings. I remember reaching out my hand to touch it and being told off by one of the guards. And it got me thinking about how we’re not allowed to touch things in museums and art galleries – and I completely understand why we can’t – but I wondered, what if you’re blind, what is there in galleries for blind people?’
Back at university, Wendy developed the etching techniques she learnt in Japan and started to use them in her sculptures. She describes how she started to make miniature ‘blankets’ from little pieces of copper stitched together on latex.
‘They were quite tactile but they had holes in them, so you’d never be warm, you’d never be cosy,’ Wendy explains. ‘I lost my mum when I was 20 and, in hindsight, I think I was somehow trying to recreate a hug from her. Something to wrap myself up in.’
Another key influence on Wendy’s art at this time was the work of South African artist, Willem Boshoff, whose exhibition Blind Alphabet C was held at the Brighton and Hove Museum. https://www.willemboshoff.com/blind-alphabet-feature It was groundbreaking show, designed to improve the accessibility of museums and art galleries to people with sight loss, and to help redress the discrimination they experience.
Boshoff’s exhibition featured a series of lidded, black mesh shoeboxes, mounted on plinths. Inside each box was a carved wooden sculpture, inspired by an unusual word beginning with the letter ‘C’. For example, ‘cassidiform’, which means ‘helmet-like’ and cetacian , which means ‘whalelike’. The mesh box prevented fully sighted visitors seeing the contents. At best they might be able to make out blurred shapes. Detailed explanations of the contents were provided, but they were written in Braille. To appreciate the exhibits, sighted visitors had to rely on visually impaired guides and museum staff , who were on hand to help them.
The intention of the exhibition was to give sighted people an insight into how difficult it is for those with sight loss to appreciate public art. It also aimed to promote understanding of the ‘social model of disability’, where people are disabled by the barriers that society puts in their way, and to prompt discussions about how these barriers might be broken down.
‘I was absolutely gobsmacked by the exhibition,’ Wendy remembers. ‘It just embodied everything I’d been thinking about.’
So ignoring her tutor’s suggestion to explore Samurai armour from a feminine perspective in her dissertation, Wendy wrote about her new passion – the value of touch in art. Her dissertation, The Value of Touch: Blind Alphabet C and Museum Approaches to the visually impaired visitor was published in 2004.
‘What I took away from my time at university, was a determination that any art that I made would be art that could be touched,’ Wendy remarks. ‘And if it can’t be touched, I’ll think, how can I make it accessible?’
After university, Wendy took a part-time job in Francis Iles’ art shop in Rochester, Kent https://francis-iles.com/ where she got to meet other local artists.
Now sharing a studio with illustrator Mark Barnes, https://www.facebook.com/MarkBarnesIllustration/ Wendy returned to etching, replacing the expensive copper etching technique she had used previously, with a cheaper alternative, using photocopied images on acetate.
‘I really liked the acetate with the black line, and just holding it up to the light to see the shadows it created,’ Wendy remembers. ‘So I went through lots of family photos and traced the outlines and started doing this shadow work with laser-cut clear acrylic. I’d then sew those together, in grids, in the same way that you’d make Samurai armour, except mine had gaps.
‘You can’t see the shadow line until it is lit and then it is quite striking. The depth of it makes it look as if the photographic outlines have been drawn onto the wall with a pencil. And through studying the projected images, other people could discover stories of my family’s life.’
Wendy’s ‘memory blanket’ installation Memory was exhibited at Rochester Art Gallery, in 2008. This video combines time lapse and real time footage that documents the process. https://vimeo.com/15401562 The exhibition was a success but Wendy had begun to think about her future as an artist.
‘I was really nervous about describing the detail of my memory blankets in writing because it was so personal, but I was happy to talk to people about it,’ Wendy explains. ‘So I was in the gallery a lot talking to people about my work, and there was this realisation that I didn’t just want to sell my own art, I also wanted to help others to make art.’
KAB Medway Art Group It was about this time that Wendy started volunteering for Kent Association for the Blind and established the KAB Medway Art Group. The group, which meets regularly, attracts people with a range of visual impairments. They explore a variety of art forms – painting, sculpture, poetry, graffiti, print making – using different generic and specialist materials and techniques. They also visit exhibitions together, invite inspirational speakers and get involved in high-profile group art projects.
You don’t need to be ‘arty’ to join in. Wendy starts everyone off gently, providing a cup of tea and a biscuit, sitting new members next to a ‘buddy’, and selecting materials and tasks where they are likely to succeed. In this way, she gradually integrates them into the group and builds their confidence.
When someone joins the group with existing artistic skills or transferrable practical skills, Wendy is quick to build on them. She tells of how she encouraged one man, a former gas fitter, to use his welding skills to make copper pipe sculptures. A few years on, he is still a member of the art group, but he is also a successful sculptor, selling artwork created in his shed at home.
‘Over time I’ve seen everyone’s confidence grow,’ Wendy says. ‘Everyone is happy to pick up different materials and to try out different ways of using them – and to show me other ways of creating.’
‘[It has] opened the door to new ways of expressing ourselves – be it painting, poetry or music,’ says KAB Medway group member Brian. ‘Our first reactions have been “I can’t do that.” But thanks to the dedication of the artists involved we have found that we can do that… If you cannot paint small, paint large – use a 6” brush if need be!’
In 2010, keen to show off what the group could do, Wendy organised their first art exhibition Eyes Wide Open at Rochester Cathedral. They were given free rein to explore the cathedral in any way they chose. The artwork they created, inspired by their visit, was later displayed around the cathedral.
‘We ran workshops and studied the fresco to come up with ideas about what this tactile plate should look like,’ says Wendy. ‘Then I carved the fresco plate in clay, A2 size, and it was cast in bronze. And there it is, in front of the fresco, and it will be there forever more!’
By 2015, the KAB Medway Group had begun to get quite a name for themselves. They were invited to explore and respond artistically to the space at the Royal Engineers Museum in Gillingham https://www.re-museum.co.uk/ This too culminated with an exhibition at the museum called Through Our Eyes.
After a series of object handling sessions led by one of the museum’s Collections Officers, the group created new artworks inspired by those objects. These were then displayed alongside the original artefacts, with accompanying large print and Braille guides.
That exhibition received more than 400,000 visitors in person and online.
The unprecedented access to the museum exhibits had a profound effect on those involved in the project.
‘The whole project from the very beginning has been a wonderful discovery of the museum,’ one KAB Art Group member commented in the project report. ‘It’s been a privilege to have access to absolutely anything in the museum, we’ve only had to ask and we’ve been able to touch it, smell it, engage with all our senses, and this has led to such a rich exhibition for us.’
KAB Gravesend Art Group As news of KAB Medway Art Group’s success spread, it prompted interest from BPS people in other parts of the county.
‘Some people from Gravesend said, “Hey that’s not fair! We want an Art Group too,”’ Wendy laughs. ‘But I couldn’t afford to volunteer in two towns so, together with Gravesham Borough Council, I wrote an Arts Council bid and we got some funding to do Totally Touchable, and that was the start of the KAB Gravesend Art Group.’
Totally Touchable (2016) was an exhibition that gave the KAB Gravesend Art Group an opportunity to show the public their own ways of making art. The group offered guided tours to sighted visitors, who were invited to wear ‘simulated spectacles’ or ‘sim specs’ so that they could view and handle the exhibits through the eyes of the people who created them. You can hear from some of the artists and enjoy some of their artwork in this short video. https://vimeo.com/144599869
KAB Gravesend Art Group too has gone from strength to strength.
There is a statue of Pocahontas https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pocahontas in the grounds of St George’s Church in Gravesend. In 2016, one year before the 400th anniversary of her death, KAB Gravesend Art Group collaborated with professional opera singer Tania Holland Williams and the RiverVoice community choir to present Reaching Out, an art exhibition and musical performance inspired by Pocahontas. This short video captures the project and the performance. https://vimeo.com/175844855
In 2017, Wendy was commissioned to create two bronze tactile interpretation panels of the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee commemorative statue in Gravesend market. As usual, she used the expertise of the Gravesend art group to help come up with the design.
‘I always try to find a way to include those often unheard in voices in whatever I’m doing,’ Wendy explains. ‘We visited the market when it was quiet and took moulds from the statue. We cast them in plaster and then the group decided what should be included in the bronze plaque, including the Braille that is part of it.’
In 2018, Wendy applied for a commission to work with the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge in Canterbury, Kent https://canterburymuseums.co.uk/beaney/ as part of an HLF/RNIB funded project, Sensing Culture.
‘I was really keen to get involved with this project because it was everything my dissertation was about,’ Wendy enthuses.‘ It was about how to make the Beaney collections more accessible to BPS visitors, and by default, to all visitors.’
Out of that project, a third group, KAB Canterbury Art Group was born.
Highlights of the Sensing Culture project and information about how galleries and museums can be made more accessible to visitors with sight loss can be found on the website http://www.sensingculture.org.uk/.
‘Throughout my time working with blind and partially sighted people, I’ve always strived for us to have our own space, a studio where we can make a mess and leave our work here if we want to, instead of just being creative for two hours and then switching it off again,’ Wendy explains. ‘The MESS ROOM allows us to do just that.’
While Wendy’s experience is with the BPS community, Christopher, who is deaf himself, specialises in working people with hearing loss. Last year, both communities collaborated on an art project exploring their experiences and identities, called My Self . The project and the exhibition of artwork, held at Sun Pier House, is documented in this short video. https://vimeo.com/373089157
Having her own studio at Sun Pier House has provided the space and opportunity Wendy needs to concentrate once again on her own career as an artist.
‘I get so embedded in finding opportunities for the groups, that my own artwork gets put to one side, so the aim in the future is that I do make more artwork for myself,’ she says.
The MESS ROOM has also provided space for the group workshops to evolve. Wendy and Christopher have started a new inclusive open arts day, Peer Arts, which, before lockdown, met every Friday at the MESS ROOM.
‘Peer Arts is a model of how things could happen,’ Wendy explains. ‘The only qualifying factor for coming to Peer Arts, is that you are a human. We want it to be completely inclusive. Absolutely anyone can join in. It’s a very relaxed day, and I plan to include this group too in other art projects that I do.’
Creativity in a time of coronavirus The C-19 lockdown has brought a temporary end to Wendy’s group art activities, but not an end to her drive and creativity. She now has a new lockdown project Out of Sight Not Out of Mind, running in Gravesend, Medway and Canterbury. It is aimed at people with sight loss, and all generations will be invited to create artworks at home.
‘It’s a doorstep gallery,’ Wendy explains. ‘I’ll set up a Zoom account and contact everybody about making new artwork at home. If I need to take materials to them and give them a quick demo at the end of their path, I can do that. At the end of their making, I’ll take a picture of them on their doorstep or through their window, holding their artwork. And then, later in the year, when the lockdown is lifted, we’ll have local physical exhibitions of the artworks.’
Wendy is also involved in two other projects at the moment and, if you want, you can get involved too.
She is now running workshops for the Creative Estuary team, on a theme of The Water Replies. https://creativeestuary.com/the-water-replies/ In this project, everyone living along the Thames Estuary is invited to keep a creative journal about what, for them, life is like living beside the Thames. There is no set format – journals can be completed with words, photos, drawings, collage, poetry, prose, lyrics and thoughts. There is still time to join in. So, if you would like to create your own journal, email firstname.lastname@example.org and they will send you a blank journal, free of charge.
And Wendy is also part of the creative team for the Fat Lady Opera’s current project ‘Persephone’s Dream’, a digital/live hybrid opera that tells a story of withdrawal from the world. More details of how you can get involved in this project can be found on their website: https://www.fatladyopera.com/persephone-s-dream
You can follow Wendy her activities and her groups and projects on social media
Just a few days before the UK went into official lockdown, on 20th March 2020, Boris Johnson announced that pubs, bars and restaurants would close for the foreseeable future. Three months down the line, small venues like The Hot Tin are struggling to survive.
RouteStock The Hot Tin (or The Tin as it is known) is the brainchild of Romana Bellinger and Mike Eden.
Their company RouteStockhttps://www.routestock.org/ is a non-profit Community Interest Company (CIC) dedicated to bringing communities together through art and music. RouteStock specialises in creating audiovisual content for prestigious live arts events all over the country.
Their professional portfolio includes Lost Lectures https://lostlectures.com/ which Romana describes as ‘a bit like Ted talks but funkier’, the Breakin’ Convention hip hop fusion dance festival at Sadlers Wells https://www.breakinconvention.com/ and work with live orchestras. Three years ago, they worked with the late Roy Budd’s wife to produce a restored version of the 1925 film Phantom of the Opera, accompanied by a 74-piece orchestra, which premiered at the London Coliseum.
Finding a venue But the dream for Romana and Mike was always to create their own arts venue, to complement and extend their RouteStock projects. When they saw the Grade II listed, converted tin chapel online, they couldn’t resist.
‘The idea was always to have a place of our own, so that we could do what we love doing – connecting with people and bringing people together,’ Romana explains. ‘When this building came along it was a match made in heaven. The living accommodation was beautiful but when we saw the main hall, we just thought, wow, we can do so much with this!’
Tin chapels Originally, St Saviour’s Church (still the building’s official address) was a flat-pack church, built around 1885. It was probably made in the Old Kent Road in East London, and then brought down the river to Faversham on a Thames barge.
During the Victorian era, the rapid growth of urban populations , prompted the mass production of cheap, easily erected buildings to meet the needs of new communities. Pre-fabricated churches were relatively cheap. £150 would buy you a chapel seating 150 people. The size and other embellishments could be altered to meet different needs and budgets. If you are interested, you’ll find lots of technical information about these buildings here https://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/tin-tabernacles/tin-tabernacles.html
Before it’s recent transformation into an arts space, The Hot Tin building experienced many reincarnations. It remained in use as a church from 1885 until 1950, when it was deconsecrated. After that, for a while, it was used by a school for gym lessons and piano teaching, and then as a scout hut. Romana explains that the different glass in all the windows is probably down to the ball games played inside.
Over the years, the building has also been a camping shop, a printers and an antique furniture showroom, before being used as a joiners for 30 years. Romana and Mike bought the building from Nick Kenny, who had converted the back of the building to living accommodation and used the main hall to build bespoke kitchens and bathrooms.
Renovation Because The Hot Tin is a Grade II listed building, remodelling possibilities were limited but that suited Romana and Mike. ‘We didn’t want to dress it up and make it prettier than it was, because the building has its own beauty,’ Romana explains. ‘ We painted to some extent and opened up an area that had been blocked off.
The main thing was cleaning the ceiling. It was in a terrible state. So we had one of those telescopic cherry pickers and we were up there with Henry the Hoover, for about a week, cleaning off layers and layers of wood dust.’
Because it is a tin building with no insulation, The Hot Tin gets very hot in the summer – hence the name – and cold in the winter, so Romana and Mike researched a way of heating the big space that would be as efficient and sustainable as possible. Now infra red heaters keep The Tin hot all year round. Future plans are to restore the building, rather than to change it.
A new arts space and cafe For 18 months before the lockdown, The Hot Tin was thriving. The cafe, with its art exhibitions and workshops, locally sourced coffee and homemade vegan food attracted families, local businesses and other residents during the day. And in the evening, live music, DJ sets and films attracted a broad spectrum of people from around Faversham.
The cafe is now an important and integral part of the business but it wasn’t always in the business plan.
‘When we saw the building, we immediately thought arts space and we started to apply for our licences,’ explains Romana. ‘But because some people in the area just didn’t understand what we were doing, we got a lot of opposition. So we thought maybe we should have a cafe. That would support our events and allow people to get to know us and to understand who we are and what we are trying to do. ‘
Local resident Debbie Lowther was one of those who was sceptical at first. ‘When I first saw the planning permission for turning the Tin Chapel into an entertainment venue, I couldn’t see how it would work,’ she says. ‘ But work it does… for quiet coffee meetings or lunch during the day and for its music, great art and yummy cocktails, all unique in Faversham. I love it!’
Griselda Cann Mussett, who also lives in Faversham, agrees. ‘The Hot Tin has become something of a marvel with excellent food, art exhibitions and occasional music and all so well-run. It’s an imaginative use of an unusual and special building,’ she says.
‘Our main ambition is to provide a one-of-a kind venue for live music, performance, films and the arts,’ Mike says. ‘We want to promote musicians and artists from around the world and around the corner.’
‘What we strive for is to be a place that is inclusive and where people feel comfortable,’ Romana adds. ‘Everyone is welcome here. We want to bring these sorts of arts events to the people of Faversham in their own town, so they don’t have to go to London for them. We want to make The Hot Tin a resource for the community again, which is really what this church was built for.’
The last artist to play at The Hot Tin before lockdown was spoken word artist, writer, saxophonist and bandleader, Alabaster dePlume whose performances have received wide critical acclaim https://www.alabasterdeplume.com/
Lockdown and beyond The coronavirus emergency and the closure of entertainment spaces and venues has hit The Hot Tin hard. Because they have so little outside space, Romana concedes that they will be unlikely to reopen for quite some time.
RadioRouteStock https://www.routestock.org/radio is still broadcasting LockDown DJ sessions. Details of tonight’s session (14th June) are in the image on the right. And Romana and Mike are exploring a subscription-based, TV broadcast quality, live streaming service, whereby audiences could have access to live interactive shows without being present physically at the venue. Once The Hot Tin is up-and-running again, live streaming could continue to be used to increase access to events for those who are unable to attend in person.
Fundraising To help get them through this difficult period, The Hot Tin is trying to raise some money through two fundraising initiatives.
‘We are part of the Music Venue Trusthttp://www.musicvenuetrust.com/ and we’ve got a Crowdfunder campaign at the moment,’ Romana explains. ‘As a collective, we’re trying to raise money and awareness because grassroots venues are obviously going to be hit hardest by lockdown.’
So far The Hot Tin has raised nearly £2,500 towards its target of £10,000. Donations will help Romana and Mike keep some of their staff who ‘fall between the cracks’ of the government support schemes, cover some of the business’s ongoing overheads and losses, and help towards restructuring during lockdown and for when they are finally able to open again at full capacity.
The Crowdfunder campaign runs until 1st September 2020 at 8pm. Any money raised over the £10,000 target will be donated to the Music Venue Trust crisis fund to protect other small venues across the country.
Faversham-based artist and Hot Tin bartender, chef and cocktail supremo, William Ford, is also organising a silent auction to help keep the venue afloat.
There has been a callout to creatives to donate artworks, ceramics, merchandise and crafted goods. These will be displayed and described on an auction site, which goes live on 27th June. It will work a bit like ebay, with members of the public invited to bid on items until the auction closes on 19th July.
‘We have been overwhelmed with the support we have received ,’ says William, ‘Originally we asked for artworks, because that was the idea I had in mind, but we’ve had lots of makers offering to donate things – some beautiful jewellery and stained glass. We’ve had bands offering merchandise bundles and others offering online services, such as guitar lessons or a garden design consultation. So now the auction is a proper showcase of what The Hot Tin and RouteStock is.’
To maintain social distancing, artists will be responsible for getting items bid for to those who have won them, although The Hot Tin can help if this is not possible.
If you are keen to see The Hot Tin reopen when the time comes and would like to donate to the silent auction, please contact William. email@example.com
Officially the deadline for donations is today (June 14th) but William is happy to receive new offers over the next week or two.
Those who know me, and readers of this blog, will know that throughout the current pandemic, I’ve been shielding because my underlying health conditions put me in a vulnerable group. I find it hard to sit still at the best of times and so being locked-down has been very frustrating. I’ve been drawing (of course) and listening to podcasts and, my favourite occupation, drawing while listening to podcasts.
I’ve always been interested in the way that stories, and particularly words, are passed from place to place and down the generations through oral transmission.
Those of you that have been following me on Facebook for a while will know that I’m fascinated by how the names for ‘woodlouse’ vary from place to place, even within a few miles, so much so that what you call this prehistoric creature is a pretty good indicator of where you come from.
If you’re from a few miles down the road from me in Medway, you might call them ‘pea bugs’, or if you come from Canterbury, maybe, ‘monkey peas’. Other names are ‘slaters’ (Scotland, Australia and New Zealand), ‘chucky pigs’ (Dorset), ‘cheesy bobs’ (Guildford), ‘sandies’ (Portsmouth), ‘gramfers’ (Cornwall), ‘pill bugs’ (US) and so on…..
Now that language has become so much more standardised, this is one of the few words that has kept its regional identity. Also, I like it because it’s one of those childhood words – like ‘fay nights’ of ‘Fein Knights’ – that never really makes the dictionaries but is still in common use.
Legends, Myths and Folklore One of the podcasts I’ve been listening to is Tales of the British Isles https://soundcloud.com/talesofthebritishisles which ‘tells some of the famous and not-so-famous myths, legends and folklore from the British Isles in a haphazard order’. I knew some of the stories already through listening to the music of bands like Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, and I’ve included links to some of their musical retellings in the stories below.
So, just to explain a few things – what’s the difference between a legend, a myth and folklore? According to this education website http://myths.e2bn.org/
Legends are semi-true stories, passed from person-to-person, which have important meaning or symbolism for the culture in which they originate. A legend usually contains elements of the truth or is based in historical fact, but it has ‘mythical qualities’. Legends usually involve heroic characters or fantastic places and often encompass the spiritual beliefs of the culture in which they originate
A myth is a story based on tradition or legend, which has deep symbolic meaning. A myth conveys a truth rather than necessarily recording a true event. Myths are often used to explain universal and local beginnings and involve supernatural beings . The great power of the meaning of these stories to the culture in which they developed is the main reason that they survive as long as they do – sometimes for thousands of years
Folklore or folktales are popular stories passed on in spoken form from one generation to the next. Usually, the author is unknown and there are many different versions of the story. Folktales fit into many categories – fables, fairy tales, old legends and even urban legends.
So there is a lot of overlap, but the website offers this diagram to help clarify the relationship between the three:
The creation of a modern legend? It’s been interesting watching the news with all this stuff going on in my head. Following the politics (and the science) has become a bit of an obsession.
Of course, politicians have always spun stories and told tall tales, but the development of The Legend of Dominic Cummings has been fascinating. And it is indeed a legend. Based in historical fact, it contains elements of the truth but also elements of fantasy. There is a voyaging ‘hero’ – a concerned father, who is a genius and a prophet. There are fantastic places – a remote estate and a historic castle. And, the whole tale so clearly shining a light on the political culture in which the story originated.
But, I guess, there is a fundamental difference. Those communicating this particular modern legend are politicians, not storytellers.
Well before all this kicked off, Wayne Macauley wrote in the Guardian in 2014, reflecting on the difference between politicians and novelists – they both make things up, right?
In their desperation to control the narrative, politicians….may have stolen our [novelists’] kitbag of trickery and artifice but they left behind the fundamental principle: storytellers are the liars who admit they are – the rest are just, well, liars.
So perhaps we need to add a fourth bullet to the list above, or extend the fact to meaning continuum on the diagram above, to include barefaced lies.
Anyway, here are some of the traditional stories from around the British Isles, along with the drawings I made as I listened to them. I recommend it. Much better for the underlying health conditions than watching the news!
Great Britain Albina and her sisters According to a 14th century British medieval legend and myth, Great Britain was once known as Albion – it sometimes still is – after an exiled queen called Albina. She was the eldest of a family of sisters who had been exiled from their homeland in Greece. One version of the story tells how a king of Greece married his thirty daughters into royalty. But the brides colluded to murder their husbands because they didn’t want to be subservient to anyone. However, the youngest daughter wanted no part in this and revealed the plot. As a punishment, the murderous princesses were set adrift in a rudderless ship. After three days they reached land, in England. The eldest daughter Albina was the first to step ashore. She laid claim to the land, naming it after herself. At first, the sisters gathered acorns and fruits. Then they learnt to hunt. Having meat in their diet aroused their desires. As there were no other humans in England at that time, the sisters mated with evil spirits, which resulted in a race of giants. You can read the legend of Albion here: http://folklorethursday.com/legends/british-legends-origin-albion-bloodlust-albina-sisters/
John Barleycorn John Barleycorn features in a British folk song. But he is not a person, he is a personification of the important cereal crop barley, which is used in making beer. The song describes how John Barleycorn suffers indignities, attacks and death, corresponding to the various stages of cultivation and brewing. Here are folk rock band Steeleye Span singing the song.
The Green Man
The Green Man is a legendary being representing rebirth and the cycle of new growth that begins every spring. The Green Man is most commonly depicted in paintings, sculptures, or on pub signs as a face made of, or completely surrounded by, leaves.
Reynardine is a traditional English ballad. The subject, Reynardine, is a werefox who attracts beautiful women to him so that he can take them away to his castle. The fate that awaits them once they get there is usually left to the imagination.
Here a rendition of Reynardine by Fairport Convention. Any excuse to hear Sandy Denny. https://youtu.be/J25mmIKp1SM
The Witch and the Hare Many British folk tales feature witches that transform themselves into hares, usually to lure an unsuspecting huntsman into some sort of trouble.
England County Durham The Lambton Worm The story of the Lambton Worm tells of a rebellious lad called John Lambton who skips church to go fishing in the River Wear. The boy catches a small wormlike creature with nine holes on each side of its head and throws it down a well. Eventually the worm grows extremely large and the well becomes poisonous. The villagers start to notice that farm animals are going missing. They discover that the gigantic worm has emerged from the well and coiled itself around a local hill. The worm terrorises the nearby villages, eating sheep, preventing cows from producing milk and snatching small children. It then heads towards Lambton Castle. John Lambton’s father (Lord Lambton) manages to placate the worm by feeding it twenty gallons of milk a day. Eventually, Lord Lambton manages to kill the worm but since that day, the Lambton family were said to be cursed. Here is Bryan Ferry, who was born in County Durham, re-telling the tale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFQ3D6dGcik
Black Country, London and other places Spring-Heeled Jack In Victorian England, the scariest bogeyman was Spring Heeled Jack – a fire-breathing devil, with a goatee beard, pointed beard and fiery eyes, who could leap across rooftops. Sightings of Spring-Heeled Jack are recorded across England, but they were especially prevalent in the Black Country. His agility allowed him to terrify his victims and then escape his pursuers. Older Black Country residents still recall being threatened by their parents with an appearance by Jack if they failed to go to bed on time. My picture shows Jack against a collage of cut up maps of London. https://duncangrantartist.com/product/myths-and-legends-series-spring-heeled-jack-print/
East Anglia Black Shuck
Black Shuck is the name given to a ghostly black dog that is said to roam the coastline and countryside of East Anglia. It is one of many ghostly black dogs recorded in folklore across the British Isles. The appearance of Black Shuck is sometimes thought to be an omen of death. One of the most notable reports of Black Shuck occurred at Holy Trinity Church at Blythburgh in Suffolk. On 4th August 1577, during a storm, Black Shuck is said to have burst in through the doors of the church to a clap of thunder. He ran up the nave, past the congregation, killing two people and causing the church steeple to collapse through the roof. As the dog departed, he left scorch marks on the north door. These, it is said, can still be seen at the church to this day.
Kent The Ghost Ship of Goodwin Sands Goodwin Sands is a 10-mile long sandbank off the Deal coast in Kent. The Lady Lovibond was a schooner that is alleged to have been wrecked on Goodwin Sands on 13 February 1748. It is said that it reappears there, as a ghost ship, every fifty years. The first sighting of the phantom Lady Lovibond on 13 February 1798 was reported by at least two ships. Apparently, the ghostly ship’s appearance in 1848 was so convincing that lifeboats were sent out from Deal in the hope of rescuing survivors. The last report was filed in 1948 by Captain Bull Preswick, who was convinced he saw the Lady Lovibond surrounded by a green glow as she entered the Sands. The story of the ghost ship created so much attention that a crowd of curious onlookers made their way to the Sands on 13th February 1998, hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary ship. But they left disappointed, as no ship appeared.
Lincolnshire The Lincoln Imp If you visit Lincoln Cathedral, look up. Hidden between two arches on the north side of the Choir, sitting cross-legged, is a small, grotesque carved figure – half human and half animal. Legend has it that one day the devil let two of his naughty young demons out to play. After stopping at Chesterfield, where they twisted the spire of St Mary and All Saints Church, they went to Lincoln and began wrecking the cathedral. They knocked over the Dean, smashed the stained glass windows and destroyed the lights. To put a stop to any further chaos, an angel appeared from the bible on the altar. One imp ran away but the other carried on hurling insults and stones at the angel. So the angel turned the imp to stone where it sat and where it can still be seen today.
Robin Hood and his Merry Men
Stealing from the rich to give to the poor, Robin Hood and his Merry Men are now an established part of popular culture. The story is set in Sherwood Forest in Nottingham, during the reign of Richard the Lionheart. The adventures follow the principled thief as he woos the beautiful Maid Marian and thwarts the evil Sheriff of Nottingham.
Yorkshire The Wantley Dragon The Wantley dragon is a legend about a knight who slew a terrifying dragon that lived on Wharncliffe Crags in South Yorkshire. The story is recounted in a comic ballad of 1685 which, although not well-known today, was quite popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. https://allpoetry.com/The-Dragon-of-Wantley The dragon, which was as big as a Trojan Horse, devoured everything in its path, even trees and houses until the knight, More of More Hall, suitably fortified with strong ale and dressed in a suit of extremely spiky Sheffield steel armour, landed a fatal kick to the dragon’s ‘arse-gut’ its only weak spot, as the dragon explains with its dying breath.
Ireland Finn MacCool and the Salmon of Knowledge
When Finn MacCool was a boy he went to live with his tutor, an old man named Finegas, who had lived by the River Boyne. Finegas had fished in the river for many years because it was rumoured that a fish called ‘The Salmon of Knowledge’ swam in the nearby river. And it was said that the first person to taste this salmon would become the wisest person in all Ireland. Fineagas went fishing every day, hoping that one day he would catch the Salmon of Knowledge. One day, as Fineagas was teaching Finn by the river bank, he noticed a huge, pink salmon swimming towards them and he rushed to get his net. Once Finegas eventually caught the enormous salmon, he was exhausted and needed to sleep. So he asked Finn to cook the salmon for him but he warned the boy not to taste even the smallest bite of it. But while the fish was cooking, a small drop of hot fish oil splashed onto Finn’s thumb. Finn put his thumb in his mouth to stop it burning but it was too late. Even though Finn had not eaten the salmon, the special knowledge had been given to him and he grew up to become the most able and celebrated of the Fianna warriors.
The Giant’s Causeway
The story of the Giant’s Causeway is another chapter from the legend of FinnMcCool. Finn McCool was the biggest and strongest giant in Ireland – 54 foot tall and with the strength of 500 men. At the same time there was another giant called Benandonner who lived on the Scottish coast. Benandonner believed that he was the strongest of all the giants and this made Finn McCool mad. So he picked up a huge lump of earth and threw it at Benandonner. It missed but it landed in the middle of the Irish Sea making the Isle of Man. The hole left by Finn became Lough Neagh. Eventually Finn Mc Cool got so fed up of being taunted by Benandonner that he decided to fight him to decide, once and for all, who was the strongest. Finn started to build a path to Scotland, laying down thousands of rocks with his bare hands. When Benandonner heard what Finn was doing he decided to build his own path from Scotland to meet up with Finn’s path. But when Finn saw Benandonner he was shocked – Benandonner was twice his size and looked twice as strong! He ran back to his house, with Benandonner hot on his heels, and asked his wife, Oonagh, to hide him. She came up with a cunning plan. She disguised Finn as a baby.
When Benandonner knocked on the door Finn, dressed up as a baby, pretended to cry. When Benandonner saw the size of the baby he was terrified. If the baby was that big, his father must be enormous! Benandonner turned as fast as he could and ran, ripping up the causeway behind him so that Finn could not follow him. You can take a virtual tour of the Giant’s Causeway here http://panoramas.nationaltrust.org.uk/giants-causeway/1/
Borders The Ballad of Tam Lin Tam Lin is a pre- sixteenth century ballad that has inspired many stories and novels. http://www.kitsuneyama.com/Mountain/Bardic/Songs/tamlin.htm
You might be more familiar with Fairport Convention’s 1969 cover version https://youtu.be/4FuaSdOdpzw The story of Tam Lin tells how he was kidnapped or ‘taken’ by the queen of the fairies when he fell off a horse while hunting. He is destined to be sacrificed by the fairies on Hallowe’en but he is rescued, at midnight, by his pregnant lover, Janet.
Galloway The Mermaid of Galloway There are many tales of encounters between humans and mermaids and none of them ends well. The Mermaid of Galloway is a famous Scottish tale of a man who captures a mermaid and makes her his wife. But, of course, the ending is far from happy for the young crofter. In another variation, the mermaid of Galloway lived in a beautiful burn and every evening she would perch on a seat-shaped rock and give medical advice to the people who gathered to ask for her help. But a local religious woman thought that this was the devil’s work, and, clutching her bible for protection, pushed the mermaid’s seat into the pond. The next evening when the mermaid appeared, she was upset to find that her seat had been destroyed, and cried out, “You may look to your empty cradle’. The next morning the religious woman’s baby was found dead.
Shetland The Story of Da Kunal Trow King I can’t tell this story of about a union between a witch and one of Shetland’s most famous, magical creatures, a trow, any better than this version by Shetland comedian, Marjolein Robertson! https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p088w3tb
Y Tylwyth Teg Y Tylwyth Teg, which means ‘fair family’, is the name for the ‘fairy folk’ who live underground or near water. They are said to have fair hair, to dance and to make fairy rings. But there is a more sinister side. Y Tywylth Teg kidnap golden-haired human children and leaving changelings in their place. They give gifts to those they like, but take these gifts away if the recipient tells anyone about them. Fairy maidens can marry human men but they must be careful never to touch iron or they will vanish back to fairyland never to be seen by their husbands again.
Iron Pier Brewery I’ve been drinking at the Iron Pier since it opened in 2018 and they’ve hosted a couple of exhibitions of my art. Tucked behind Perry Street on a small industrial estate, it’s a fantastic place with a great community atmosphere – and the beer is even better!
At Iron Pier they produce a range of cask , keg and barrel-aged beer to their exacting standards – as they say on their website, it is ‘lovingly crafted, full-flavoured and perfectly conditioned’.https://www.ironpier.beer/beers
The brewery is named after the Gravesend town pier, which is the oldest surviving cast iron pier in the world. And many of the beers brewed there, such as Rosherville Red and Perry Street Pale, have names drawn from the local area.
‘We always knew that we wanted to be part of the community in Gravesend,’ says James. ‘So having the taproom on the same site as the brewery gives us a real link to that community. But we also wanted to be a brewery that went beyond the local market. We supply pubs locally and in East London, and we do brewery swaps, where we’ll send our beer up to Yorkshire or Manchester and they’ll send theirs down to Kent. Last year , we took our beer out to a beer festival in Germany. And it’s really nice, being in Germany as a brewery from Gravesend.’
Brewing in Gravesend Iron Pier is the first brewery in Gravesend for nearly 90 years. In 1932, Russell’s brewery, in West Street – famous for their Shrimp Brand beers – was acquired by the London brewing giants, Truman. By 1935, brewing had stopped on the site, although it was used as bottling plant for about 50 years after that.
If you’re familiar with Gravesend, you can still see evidence of the Russell brewery down by the River, near Asda. Most of the old brewery buildings were demolished, but the original maltings – the building where grain is converted into malt for brewing – still survives, although it has been converted intoflats now. The big square section of The Maltings with its triangular roof was part of the kiln used to heat the barley.
Hops Hops are a key ingredient of traditional brewing, and hop-growing has always been an important agricultural activity in Kent, which is still the biggest hop-growing county in the country. At the end of the 19th century there were about 200,000 acres of hop fields in the UK, now there are only about 6,000 acres.
‘It has shrunk pretty much every year from 1897 to 2017 because of lack of demand,’ explains James Hayward. ‘Beer styles change. Most people now drink so-called continental lagers and those don’t use many hops really, so the hop market completely crashed. But it is coming back a bit now because small brewers like us tend to use a lot of local hops.’
There are many different hop varieties and new hop strains are being bred all the time, in England and in other hop-growing countries like USA and Slovenia. Every month Iron Pier brew a different Joined at the Hop beer, where an English hop is partnered with a hop from somewhere else.
‘It’s a form or research and development for us, ‘James explains. ‘It gives us a chance to see what works well, and we’ve found a few that we really, really like. There’s a Slovenian hop, Styrian Cardinal, which we used in a Joined at the Hop beer and that is now in our Session IPA.’
Although much farm work is now mechanised, in the UK hops are still mostly picked by hand as they always have been. I was talking to my mum, who is ninety in a couple of months, about when, as a child, she used to go hop-picking with her family. The Kidd family lived locally to the hop fields so, for them, hopping was a series of day trips over the two or three week harvesting period. But some large hop fields had accommodation on site and families, particularly from East London, used to stay on site to pick.
Anyway, here is my mum, Kathleen Grant (nee Kidd) reminiscing.
Thinking outside the taproom
Before the coronavirus emergency, Iron Pier were planning for a busy summer – full tap rooms, more community events, beer tents at local festivals, as well as providing beer for pubs and festivals across the country. So when lockdown started, pubs closed overnight and summer events were cancelled, James and Charlie had to come up with a Plan B to keep their business afloat.
Plan B (part 1) was a socially distanced, takeaway service. If locals weren’t able to pop out to the taproom or a local pub for a few drinks with friends, at least they could enjoy a pint or two of Iron Pier beer in the comfort of their own home. And, as James explains, it is all going very well.
‘When the virus first struck and the pubs were closed we were terrified, because selling our beer to other pubs was such a big part of our business. But our take-away 4-pint and 2-pint carry-kegs are going insanely well – even better than when we had the bar open. We started with two hours on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, but we’ve had to extend Fridays to three hours now because the queues were just getting too big.’
It’s in the can Plan B (part 2) swung into operation last Tuesday, as Iron Pier started canning four of its beers – Keller Queen, Session IPA, Rosherville Red and Breezy Day IPA – to sell through the takeaway service and its new online shop. https://www.ironpier.beer/cans.
‘We always had this idea in our heads that we were going to put our beer into cans,’ James explains. ‘It was originally part of our third year plan, but when this all kicked off it was like, well we’re not making beer for pubs any more so let’s do this canning thing now.’
James and Charlie and I had already discussed the possibility of putting my artwork on the cans about a year ago, so they were able to move from idea to product really quickly. ‘Yes,’ James laughs. ‘We didn’t need to find a designer, so for us it was just finding somewhere on the can to put our logo so it didn’t get in the way of the artwork and we were done!’
While the beer is brewed on site, Iron Pier brought an external contractor into the brewery to can the beer. In the future, if the new cans prove popular, the brewery might consider purchasing its own packaging line.
By the end of Tuesday, the brewery had three out of the four beers ‘in the can’. But there was a small technical hitch with the fourth.
‘A new process in the brewery always involves a bit of a learning curve, and something usually goes wrong,’ James explains. ‘We brewed all four beers for the canning day but when we began filling the Breezy Day we noticed that we were still pulling through hops from the fermenter, so we decided not to can it that day.’
The team is going to polish up the Breezy Day ready for when the canners return in a week or so. In the meantime, the other three canned beers are for sale. You can buy them in cases, or individually, through the take-away service or via the online shop.
‘We were really happy to see some great dissolved oxygen numbers in the can,’ James says, ‘so the beer should have a decent shelf life, which was the main thing I was worried about.’
In normal times, Iron Pier would have held a big knees up to launch their new cans, but since these are not normal times, you are invited to a Virtual Launch/Meet the Brewer/ Beer Tasting event, this evening (17th May 2020, @ 7.30 – 8.30pm) hosted by the Admiral’s Arm micropub http://www.admiralsarm.co.uk/ Follow this link for more information: https://www.facebook.com/events/241388767208060/
Visit Duncan Grant’s gallery
An unnaturally silent and deserted London in lockdown has been captured in a series of beautiful images, by Gravesend-based photographer, Wayne Howes.
Before the coronavirus lockdown, London was buzzing with tourists and locals going about their daily business. I work on the roads at night and, although some parts of London are quieter then, city life never stops.
A third of everyone that works in London works at night so there is always traffic. All-night restaurants and cafes are busy and, just before dawn, clubbers spill out onto the streets and start making their way home, past the increasing number of rough sleepers in shop doorways.
And that’s what makes Wayne’s photographs extraordinary. They show London as it has never been seen before. With most workers staying at home, the streets are quiet, free of cars and with barely a soul to be seen.
Wayne has taken photographs for as long as he can remember. He exhibits his work regularly at Gravesham Arts Images exhibition, which is where I first met him. And his pictures of Kent wildlife and the night sky have appeared on book and CD covers, as well as in national publications.
Wayne’s day job, as an engineer for a security systems company works perfectly with his freelance photography business. He spends a lot of his day walking between iconic buildings in central London. And wherever Wayne goes, his camera goes too.
One of his specialities is film and TV shots.
‘I don’t like the word paparazzi,’ he says. ‘But, over the last ten years I’ve photographed everything from Hollywood blockbusters like Mission Impossible and James Bond to Sherlock and Eastenders. If something is being shot on the streets of London, I’m not far behind with my camera.’
You may have seen Wayne’s shots in the national newspapers, capturing the moment Tom Cruise broke his ankle, when he misjudged a leap between two buildings, during a stunt for the Hollywood movie Mission Impossible 6′.
With lockdown underway, nothing is being filmed in London at the moment, so Wayne, who is a key worker and still travelling to London every day for work, is capturing London in Lockdown through his photography.
‘I think it is important to document what is going on in the current climate and to preserve the images I’m seeing every day for the future,’ he says. ‘We’ll never see London like this again, after this madness is over. In rush hour on a Monday morning, it can take you half an hour to drive down Regent Street, so to see it with no cars and no people at that time is really unusual.’
Over the past few weeks, Wayne’s pictures of empty streets, eerily quiet parks, deserted markets and a Stock Exchange devoid of traders have captured the essence of London in lockdown and hinted at the impact of coronavirus on the social, cultural and economic life of the capital.
Later this year, Wayne is planning to self-publish a hardback book featuring twenty-five of his lockdown photographs. He hopes to raise £3,000 to fund the project via Kickstarter.
As is usual with Kickstarter projects there are incentives to encourage you to give. Here is what Wayne is offering if you donate.
For a £10 donation, you’ll receive a thank-you postcard of one of the images through the post.
A donation of £30 gets you a signed copy of the book
If you can afford to donate £45, you’ll receive a signed copy of the book and a mounted print of your choice from the book.
And for anyone able to donate £100, there is a signed copy of the book and the opportunity to take part in a photography workshop in London, with Wayne, where you can take your own images at the locations featured in the book – but this time with added people.
If Wayne’s London in Lockdown project does not meet it’s target, you will pay nothing. If he exceeds his target, he will publish a bigger book, featuring more of the hundreds of lockdown pictures he has taken.