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Art world rocked as COVID-19 hits Small Town

Duncan Grant: Coronavirus
Coronavirus

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Residents of Small Town are being advised to adhere to strict social distancing measures after the world-famous region registered its first cases of deadly COVID-19. It is thought that several people, who have tested positive for coronavirus, are are now being treated in intensive care, stretching the towns already scarce resources.

COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by the coronavirus. The disease first broke out in 2019 in Wuhan, Central China, and has since spread rapidly across the world. In March, the World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic. Common symptoms include fever, cough, and shortness of breath and, in severe cases, pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.

Duncan Grant: Small Town #155
Duncan Grant:Small Town #155

Small Town rose to fame a few years ago when prolific Gravesend-based artist, Duncan Grant began depicting its dramatic, pollution-filled skies and the way its industrial landscapes appeared to change colour from day to day. Grant’s designs were popularised by Liberty London on limited edition fabrics and, since then, have been reproduced across the world on clothing, pencil cases and even beer cans.

Duncan Grant: Small Town in Lockdown
Small Town is now in lockdown

Although coronavirus was late arriving in Small Town its effects have been felt swiftly.  By the end of March, with just a few cases confirmed, local businesses were closed and hundreds had lost their jobs, contributing to record unemployment figures. Now, much of Small Town has ground to a halt, with restaurants, bars and leisure facilities among the first to close. Supermarkets have seen an increase in demand, with many reporting empty shelves as shoppers stockpile essential items.

Duncan Grant - Small Town: International Cheese Festival
Last year tourists flocked to the Small Town International Cheese Festival

Many of the events that kept Small Town connected to the outside world have been cancelled. Even the town’s celebrated International Cheese Festival has been postponed until further notice. There are rumours that dairy farmers are dumping tankerloads of milk down drains as demand for cheesemaking ingredients dries up, and that thousands of wheels of Gouda, Stilton, Brie and Camembert are destined for landfill.

There is an eerie atmosphere now in the once bustling docklands area, as deserted fishing boats bob in their moorings and the shipyards have fallen silent.

Since Grant drew the world’s attention to Small Town, an increasing proportion of its income has come from tourism. But fears for the future of Small Town have sparked paranoia. Residents report spotting sightseers wandering around the streets taking photographs, with little regard for social distancing.

‘A few weeks ago the virus felt far away from Small Town but this is no longer the case,’ a local explained. ‘Now we have all had our eyes opened to just how quickly this can spread.’

Duncan Grant: The Great Plague of Small Town
The Great Plague of Small Town in 1665 

Small Town has seen nothing like the current crisis since the days of the Great Plague of Small Town in 1665, which wiped out nearly half of the population and devastated the economy.

‘If this goes on too long, we won’t survive,’ a council official said. ‘This is virus is going to kill Small Town.’

Duncan Grant: Pandemic series - Masks
Outside the house, everyone must wear a mask

Recent quarantine regulations mean that most residents are staying at home. Leaving the house is permitted only for shopping or for one outing each day for exercise. It is advised that face masks should be worn at all times.

People are allowed out for one period of exercise daily

‘It is difficult having to stay inside, especially if you have children,’ one mother said. ‘We’re lucky to live in the countryside so we can go for long walks. It’s a very weird time. We’re focusing on getting through it and being as upbeat as we can.’

Duncan Grant: Inside Small Town - Dockers 2
There have been reports of groups gathering near the docks

With many public parks and spaces closed to encourage people to remain indoors and to deter gatherings of more than two people, residents in urban areas of Small Town have limited opportunities to exercise. The recent warm weather, has tempted people outside, and police report breaking up public gatherings, especially in the town’s dockside region.

Duncan Grant: Three Blind Mice
There are concerna about the impact of the virus on mental health

Duncan Grant’s drawings have often alluded the dark side of Small Town. His pictures hint at a brooding disquiet within the brightly coloured houses. Small Town Social Services have expressed concern about the impact of quarantine on a community where many people were already thought to be at risk. ‘We were experiencing elevated levels of stress and anxiety before we had any cases here’ the Chief Medical Officer stated. ‘Our resources are already stretched to the limit and it is difficult to see how we will cope with a deterioration in mental health if quarantine is extended.’

During this difficult period however, there have been many examples of the community coming together to support each other. ‘We know that there are elderly people in Small Town who are lonely or who can’t get out,’ a resident commented. ‘We in small Town have a long history of working together to help overcome adversity.’

The response to a volunteer scheme set up by Small Town Council (STC) to support the vulnerable has been overwhelming.

Duncan Grant - Pandemic Series: Stay at Home
Volunteers support those in need in the Small Town community

An army of volunteers is standing by to support neighbours in ways ranging from telephone chats to relieve loneliness, to more practical help with shopping,  dog walking or putting out the bins.

Holed up in his home studio, in self- isolation for health reasons since the coronavrus crisis started, Duncan Grant is unable to visit Small Town. He sends good wishes for a speedy recovery to the community he has come to know so well but says that, until the crisis is over, he will continue to draw Small Town from memory. ‘I just can’t stop myself,’ he says. ‘It’s a compulsion.’

Duncan Grant: Self-Portrait: Man on ventilator
Duncan Grant was in ICU at St Thomas’ Hospital in 2015 after contracting sepsis

 

Duncan Grant’s Small Town drawings and his Pandemic series can be found, along with other artwork, in the Gallery on his website.
Small Towns: https://duncangrantartist.com/?s=small+town&post_type=product
Pandemic Series: https://duncangrantartist.com/?s=pandemic&post_type=product

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Heart of Darkness revisited: Some lino prints

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While I was adding some more pictures to my gallery a couple of weeks ago, I came across a series of lino prints that I did for a local art project in 2017, based around Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/526

Heart of Darkness begins aboard the British ship, Nellie, which is anchored in the Thames, near Gravesend. As the crew wait for the weather to clear, one of the sailors, Marlow, tells the story of the time that he travelled in a steamboat up the River Congo. He describes his shock at the European traders’ treatment of the natives and how the experience of trading in Africa changes people. He relates what he has learnt about the darkness of the human heart, and the things of which that darkness is capable.

In Chapter One, Conrad describes the scene from the ship, Nellie, looking up the river towards London.

Chapman Light on the Thames features in Chapter 1 of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Chapman Light – limited edition lino print

The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore. The Chapman light-house, a three-legged thing erect on a mud-flat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway—a great stir of lights going up and going down. And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.

I’ve done a lino print of the Chapman Lighthouse, separately from the Heart of Darkness project. https://duncangrantartist.com/product/chapman-light/

The 2017 Heart of Darkness art project, hosted by St Andrews Arts Centre in Gravesend, was organised by Terry Lane, who I used to work with back in the day.  It featured excerpts read from the book, accompanied by projected images and live music composed specially for the event . The bands involved were The Closer We are to Dying (Terry’s band) https://www.facebook.com/thecloserwearetodying/ Whthppnsfpshthtbttn?, The Bleak Industrialists and The Science Department, and the projections were produced by Mike and Romana from The Hot Tin www.the-hot-tin.co.uk through their company Routestock https://www.routestock.org/about?fbclid=IwAR3AQlfQ_wjB4IzGoxS2dLPqbWpEOEAAfR0_2GSOaJuRqSMiw7xaFjkVn6o

The boat anchored on the Thames at the start of Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Boat – limited edition lino print

Several local artists, including me, provided artwork, inspired by scenes from the book. Others involved were Matt Kilda, Jane Prangnell, Mark Wrangham and Nikki Price.

Mental health is a key theme in Heat of Darkness and the show was produced in association with North Kent MIND http://northkentmind.co.uk/, with all ticket money donated to them.

If you missed it, these You Tube clips give a flavour of the event.



If you’ve read the book you’ll know that, as well as being an adventure story, Heart of Darkness is bleak. It explores thenes of greed, cruelty and humanity, and raises troubling questions about imperialism. It is said that Conrad made the book deliberately hard to read. He wanted the reader to feel as though they were fighting through the jungle, just like Marlow did in search of the desperate and deranged ivory trader Kurtz.

My pictures, all lino cuts for the project, focused mainly on the weird and the macabre in the book, plus a couple of others on a maritime theme.

Maps and charts use for navigation up the Congo in Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Chart table – limited edition lino print

As a boy, Marlow, the storyteller in Heart of Darkness, was fascinated by maps and longed to be an explorer. After several years sailing in the Pacific he returns to London, and inspired by a map of Africa and the Congo River that he sees in a shop window, he takes a job as a steamboat pilot and sets off into Africa dreaming of adventure.

River Congo described as a snake in Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Snake – limited edition lino print

But Marlow’s comparison of the river to a coiled snake is a portent of the evil he would later encounter.

But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. And as I looked at the map of it in a shop-window, it fascinated me as a snake would a bird – a silly little bird.

Marlow soon realises that his employer, ‘the company’, is in the Congo for gain and to spread European ideals. ‘The company’ say they are ’emissaries of light’, but what Marlow sees are ‘groves of death’.

Images - Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Heads – Limited edition lino print
Death and decay in Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Skeletons – limited edition lino print

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heads on sicks at the climax of Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Heads on sticks – limited edition lino print

 

The heads on sticks appear at the end of the book and symbolise Kurtz, the ivory trader’s, excessive brutality and madness.

Now I had suddenly a nearer view, and its first result was to make me throw my head back as if before a blow. Then I went carefully from post to post with my glass, and I saw my mistake. These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing—food for thought and also for vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole. They would have been even more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house. Only one, the first I had made out, was facing my way. I was not so shocked as you may think. The start back I had given was really nothing but a movement of surprise. I had expected to see a knob of wood there, you know. I returned deliberately to the first I had seen—and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids—a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling, too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.

I was interested to find out that the film Apocalypse Now  was based on the Heart of Darkness, but set in the jungles of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It explores the ways in which the ‘darkness’ of Vietnam caused an apocalypse in the hearts of those sent there to fight, just as the ‘darkness’ of the Congo revealed the darkness in the hearts of the European traders.

My Heart of Darkness  limited edition lino prints are available to buy in my gallery https://www.duncangrantartist.com/shop/

Boat – https://duncangrantartist.com/product/heart-of-darkness-series-boat/
Chart table – https://duncangrantartist.com/product/heart-of-darkness-series-chart-table/
Heads – https://duncangrantartist.com/product/heart-of-darkness-series-heads/
Skeletons – https://duncangrantartist.com/product/heart-of-darkness-series-skeletons/
Heads on sticks – https://duncangrantartist.com/product/heart-of-darkness-series-heads-on-sticks/