Meadow Collection

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One of the pieces that I’ve made for my exhibition, ‘The View From the Fells: In the Footsteps of Marie Hartley’, is a continuation of a passion of mine that began a few years ago. Upland meadows are a wonderful feature of the Yorkshire Dales and people travel miles to see them during the months of late May and June and haymaking (or ‘haytime’ as it is known around here) is something that Ella Pontefract and Marie Hartley talked about a lot in their books. I have written a post all about the meadows at Muker HERE Unfortunately, across the country we have lost the majority of our haymeadows due to changes and intensification in agriculture but many landowners, farmers and conservationists are now working together to try to protect and conserve those that remain having recognised the ecological, cultural, agricultural and aesthetic value of them. I’ve been fortunate to live close to a pair of meadows that I have been observing for six years now and the incredible diversity of plant species, and the insects and birds that feed on them, continues to surprise and delight me.

In 2017 I created a large-scale print installation in a field barn which celebrated our upland hay meadows (see my blog post HERE). For my exhibition at the Dales Countryside Museum, I have gone to the other extreme and created a series of 95 miniature printing plates that form one larger piece. I wanted to reflect the colours and the myriad of plants and insects that can be found in just a small area of a traditional hay meadow. I have also been fascinated by the fact that Marie Hartley worked on such a small scale to create the wood engravings that illustrated the three Dales books and I wanted to try working on a similar scale myself. Going from 4 metre long printed hangings to tiny plates of often no more than 2.4 x 4cm was a challenge but also really enjoyable.

IMG_5825My meadow collection has been a long time in the making. I began the work last year when the hay meadows were in full flower. I spent time sketching the different grasses and flowers in preparation for making the plates. It became obvious that the piece would be something of a labour of love and I was tied up with other work last year so I put it to one side until January when I knew I’d have six months to work almost exclusively on the final work for the exhibition. The finished piece is created within an old print type drawer of the kind that you often see in junk and second hand shops. I’ve used smaller ones before in my Collections project and I like the way they give the pieces a museum quality with each print becoming an artefact within each space. I also thought that each individual print shown in a section of the tray would give the whole piece a feeling of a cross section of a meadow and there was a connection with Marie Hartley and her wood engraving blocks and the original books being created using letterpress.

I coded all the sections of the tray and then drew out rectangles in my sketchbook that related to each section. My aim was to try to depict all the plants that are typical of a healthy upland meadow and I also included a number of invertebrate species such as bees, moths, butterflies and beetles. These are attracted to the different species and in turn become food for birds and animals and so the whole habitat becomes a vital ecosystem. I set about making every drawing into a small cardboard collagraph plate using cutting and painting techniques. It was very fiddly and has made me realise how much my eyesight has deteriorated in my forties. Fortunately, I found that without my contact lenses I could see really well close up so I worked like that most of the time and then blundered round my studio looking for my glasses whenever I needed to see beyond my nose!

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At the end of February I went to Ålgården Studios in Sweden for a fortnight of intensive work and I made sure that I finished making all of the meadow plates before I left. It had turned into almost a month’s work and I was paranoid about the plates getting damaged or lost so I stored them all in a wooden box in our house. I returned on 12th March just as COVID-19 was getting serious and printing the plates was the first thing that I did as we went into lock down. This situation has tested everyone and everyone’s experience of it will be different but I know I’m not alone in having gone through a period of anxiety, lack of motivation and difficulty in concentrating. Creativity is a strange beast and I find that I need very specific circumstances for me to feel inspired and motivated to make things and so I was very happy to have a box of 95 small plates to print. It was something that needed doing in order to complete the piece but all of the thinking and creative part had pretty much been done and now I just had to go through the time consuming practical part of inking, wiping and printing each one. I spent the next week and half doing just that whilst listening to audio books (thank you Ann Cleeves!) and podcasts. Do listen to ‘The Poet Laureate has gone to his Shed’ if you want to hear some excellent conversations between Simon Armitage and various creative people. (NB. I was once part of a group of fellrunners who helped Simon find his way off of Cross Fell and arranged for him to give a poetry reading in Dufton. He gave me his Mars bar…I’ve eaten it!).

Each printing plate is inked and wiped à la poupée which meant that I first inked them in sepia and then I wiped back the plant part of the plate with cotton buds and carefully applied the colours before then very carefully wiping again so that the colour was just a hint. The paper I printed onto was dampened and blotted so it was nice and soft and I printed groups up together with plenty of space for cutting to size. I used my etching press in order to get enough pressure to push the paper into all the details of each plate.

The prints were then left to dry. Using my dad’s old workmate and a table saw, I measured and cut a small block of MDF to fit each section of the tray. I’m notoriously accident prone and so it was slightly scary cutting with a spinning blade but I soon got the hang of it (with safety glasses and big gloves) and when all the blocks were cut, I painted the surface with gesso and then glued the prints in place using bookbinders glue so that they would be archival and last for many years. I then waxed the surface of each print with an acrylic wax to protect them before fitting them into place. The finished result was exactly what I was hoping for and I am pretty happy with it. Due to the huge amount of work involved, I’ve decided that I need to make it a small edition of ten in order to make it cost effective and so that I can keep one for future shows. I will make up two trays and then the others will be made to order. I’m now back to making more conventional collagraph prints for the exhibition and will talk more about some of those in a future post.

Meadow Collection

Carrying on!

Well, so much has changed since I last posted and the world feels like a very different place. I’ve decided not to write too much about the current situation with COVID-19 because I think we all need a bit of escape from the constant bombardment and I doubt that my ‘two penneth’ will help. There’s some wonderful writers and philosophers out there that will have plenty to say and do it in a far more profound way so I’ll just say that  I hope that people stay safe, well and can remain positive.

I’m currently in the ‘making’ stage of my project with the Dales Countryside Museum and I’m working on a series of prints which have been inspired by areas of the Dales that Marie Hartley and Ella Pontefract wrote about in their three books: ‘Swaledale’, ‘Wensleydale’ & ‘Wharfedale’. Fortunately, I have already spent over a year visiting a few areas repeatedly and have collected plenty of reference material so, despite being confined to my immediate area (no hardship, it is a beautiful part of the Yorkshire Dales), I am able to continue to work on the show. My husband is also working from home and our dogs are delighted to have us around all day! It isn’t always easy to concentrate, stay motivated and get into the right headspace when there is something so much bigger than all of us happening and we are preoccupied by thoughts of our family and friends. For my own sanity and the benefit of my work, I’m avoiding the radio, spending much less time on social media and am immersing myself in audio books (I am currently working through Ann Cleeves’ ‘Inspector Vera Stanhope’ series).

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What has struck me the most about my immediate environment is the change in the countryside. The landscape is normally full of walkers, cyclists and runners tackling one or all three of the Yorkshire Three Peaks and now the hills are virtually empty of people. Brian and I are both fellrunners and our daily exercise takes the form of a run with the dogs and we can go for miles without seeing a single person except perhaps a farmer on a quad bike. It would be tempting to wax lyrical about the peace and quiet except that the hills are ringing with the bleating of lambs and the most exceptional bird song. There are pairs of curlews poking about in the earth, hares running around and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many meadow pipits, skylarks and wheatears. I’ve even seen ring ouzels on Penyghent a few times. I was talking to a neighbour who has farmed here for many years and he said that this is how it used to be when he was young which makes me wonder if this is what it was also like when Marie and Ella were researching their books (minus the quad bikes!).

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Before everywhere went into ‘lock down’, I went to Ålgården studios in Sweden to spend a couple weeks working intensively on the project. I took large pieces of card to Sweden thinking that I’d create some big collagraph prints and what I ended up making were four panoramic pieces each formed from seven smaller images that illustrate ‘journeys’ that I’ve taken. In fact, at the end of the fortnight, all of the printing plates could be wrapped up carefully and put in my pocket!

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I’m working on various scales for the exhibition but I really like this link with Marie Hartley’s illustrations. Her wood engravings were small, intricate little blocks and appeared throughout the books illustrating the places, people and wildlife that Ella wrote about. Each of my ‘Waymark’ prints tells the story of a particular time that I ran a route inspired by their writing. Two of the pieces actually include quotes from the relevant books. Here is ‘Waymarks: Kisdon’:

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and ‘Waymarks: Birkdale’:

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The images are inspired by things that I’ve seen along the routes and that help to tell the story and indicate the seasons. There are currently two more in the series and I’m now working on a fifth that is specifically about the stretch of the river Swale from Muker to Keld.

I travelled back on my birthday, 12th March, after which we quickly went into a very different existence. Before I went away, I’d spent weeks working on another piece which consists of 95 tiny prints collected together to form a larger work. The plates were sat in a box in my studio waiting to be printed and that proved to be the perfect project to tackle whilst coming to terms with our new circumstances. My next post will be all about that piece. Thanks for reading and I hope everyone can find some positives to keep them going.

Crackpot Hall

Happy new year! In 2020 I am spending the next six months holed up in my studio making the final prints for my solo show at the Dales Countryside Museum in July. ‘The View from the Fells: In the Footsteps of Marie Hartley’ will be on from 10th July – 4th November 2020 and will feature a new body of work inspired by Marie Hartley’s and Ella Pontefract’s work on the three books ‘Swaledale’, ‘Wensleydale’ & ‘Wharfedale’. I’ve spent a year reprinting Marie’s wood engravings, researching her work and visiting some of the places written about in the books. I’ve got a long list of ideas, some of which probably won’t see the light of day, and I’m now creating new prints that have been inspired by some of the things that I’ve seen. It has been really wonderful to spend time in areas of the Yorkshire Dales that I’ve never visited before and to discover some of the places that Marie loved. The things that I’ve found inspiring have been the chance encounters with wildlife, the way that the land has been shaped by human intervention (meadows, buildings, sheepfolds, drystone walls) and the way the land changes in different weathers and times of day/year. I have also visited specific places referred to in the books with a view to discovering for myself why they stood out for Marie and Ella and to see how much they’ve changed. One of these places is Crackpot Hall which is on the path between Muker and Keld.

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A page from Marie’s sketchbook.

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These pages from Marie’s sketchbook also show the wood engraving that was used as an illustration in ‘Swaledale’

Crackpot Hall gets its name from the Viking word ‘pot’ meaning a deep hole and ‘crack’ the old english word for crow. There is a good online article with photos that can be viewed HERE. It is an eighteenth century hunting lodge which became a farmhouse and was occupied by the Harker family during the 1930s at the time that Ella and Marie were writing ‘Swaledale’.

“The farm-house of Crackpot Hall, gazing defiantly across at Kisdon from its lofty site, arouses one’s curiosity and imagination the moment it is seen from the village of Keld, from East Gill, or from Muker and the hills beyond”

It is indeed a very special place and I first discovered it for myself just before I began research for this project. My husband and I were running a circular route from Muker (along the right hand side of the Swale to Swinner Gill and back via the Kisdon Force and the Pennine way on Kisdon). We came upon the ruins sitting high above the Swale and I was really taken with both its position in the landscape and the fact that so much evidence of the lives of the previous inhabitants remained. There was an old tin bath, the range still has bits of ornate grate lying next to it and shards of patterned pottery unearthed by rabbits lay on the hillside below it.

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When I began the project and discovered Marie’s beautiful wood engraving of it before its dereliction, I knew I’d end up making work about it. I’ve been back repeatedly to Swaledale and the whole area from Muker to Birkdale has become a focus for a large proportion of the work that I’m making. One of the reasons that we have decided to call the exhibition ‘View from the Fells’ is that I am a fellrunner and I often run the routes to gain inspiration. This enables me to cover ground quickly and to get to places that I wouldn’t normally get to when walking. I sometimes take small ‘trods’ as opposed to obvious footpaths which also means that I encounter wildlife that perhaps I would have missed on the main thoroughfares. The beauty of running is that I can work on ideas or solve printmaking conundrums whilst my body is engaged in a physical activity but my mind is able to run free. There is a particular clarity of thought that I get which I don’t have at any other time.

Marie and Ella wrote about how the foundations of the farmhouse had slipped over the years, probably due to the mining in the area, and that “the tops of the doors and windows are all at angles, and the bedroom floors tilt like the rolling deck of a ship”. They focussed much of the chapter on the children of Crackpot Hall and most notably Alice, the youngest child of the Harker family. They wrote about her as the spirit of the moor, mischievous and wild. Years later, David Almond (a children’s book illustrator) went in search of Alice and there is a wonderful Radio 3 programme about her and Crackpot Hall  as well as Marie and Ella’s encounter with her. You can listen to it HERE.

Before Christmas I created a collagraph print inspired by Crackpot Hall. There are 15 separate elements that are printed in layers to create the whole image and I have used drawings of some of the pottery shards and a piece of the range to draw focus to the fact that it was once a home for a succession of farmers and lead miners:

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The printing plates: they are made from cardboard and textured using cutting techniques, polyfilla, gesso and carborundum paste. The small plastic ones are drypoint that I’ve scratched the decorative elements of the pottery into.

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The finished collagraph print.

I have also taken photographs from the spot at which Marie created her sketch for the wood engraving featured in the book. I have the glimmer of an idea of how I might use them to draw from and create a layered image showing the decline of the house into ruins.

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(NB: As a sidenote, this particular visit was particularly memorable as it resulted in me being in hospital for two days after pushing my way through overgrown bracken and ending up with a 2cm piece of woody stem embedded deep in my leg. The surgeon tried to remove it but couldn’t see it without an ultrasound machine and so it is still in there! Fortunately, it is gradually causing less bother and I think I will just live with it until it either dissolves (if that’s possible) or works its way out. I feel I ought to make this mishap worth the pain by at least creating one bit of work from that view point!)

Bird Life in the Dales

I’ve just been to the Dales Countryside Museum for the ‘big handover’ of all of the prints that I’ve taken from Marie Hartley’s wood engraving blocks. There are two sets of 129 prints made from 127 blocks (2 were double-sided!). I had to leave the linocuts unprinted because they’d degraded over time and become hard, cracked and warped. I didn’t want to damage them further and, although I tentatively tried to print one block, I wouldn’t have been able to get a decent print from them. I’m really happy to have played a part in this important archive and to help realise one of Fiona Rosher’s dreams for the museum. I then spent a couple hours reading some of Marie’s diaries that she wrote when she was working and living with Ella Pontefract and then Joan Ingilby.

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The diaries often contain illustrations, poetry, natural objects, christmas cards & other ephemera.

I have just read the heart-breaking entries from the time of Ella’s death and the year anniversary of it. I will write a little more about the women’s lives and the important part that Joan’s friendship played in helping Marie to recover in another post. The diaries that I have just been reading were written before, during and after the second world war and provide a fascinating insight into how it affected the people living in the Dales.

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An entry from 1950 which included petrol rationing tokens.

I’m currently visiting different areas of the Dales (written about in Marie’s books) with a view to collecting ideas for new work and I’m taking photos and making notes of what I see. I’ve got various lists of all the wildlife that I’ve been seeing and I was delighted to find numerous entries in Marie’s diaries that record the birds that she saw each year.

IMG_6152IMG_6153IMG_6158IMG_6154I think that one of the most poignant things is the fact that she refers to seeing corncrakes near Askrigg and these have now vanished from the Yorkshire Dales. I’ve been out and about and seen some really amazing wildlife. Here are some collages of photos taken on my visits to Muker, Keld, Penyghent, Plover Hill and Semerwater.

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Top L-R: lamb on Kisdon, eggshell at Snaizeholme, Lapwing above Stalling Busk. Middle L-R: Red squirrel at Snaizeholme, Curlew, fox cub. Bottom L-R: pied wagtail at Malham, me on Kisdon!, sheep on Kisdon.

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Top L-R: primroses on Kisdon, cloudberry on Plover Hill, Birds Eye Primrose near Yockenthwaite. Middle L-R: Saxifrage on Plover Hill, Bluebells on Kisdon, Mountain primrose on Penyghent. Bottom L-R: cotton grass on Plover Hill, Purple Saxifrage on Penyghent, meadows at Muker

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Top L-R: Oyster catcher at Keld, Wheatear at Muker, Ring Ouzel near Plover Hill. Middle L-R: Sandpiper at Kisdon Force, Lapwing above Stalling Busk, sported flycatcher at Muker. Bottom L-R: Meadow Pipit on Penyghent, canada geese with goslings on Semerwater, grey wagtail at Kisdon Force.

I often run my routes because it means that I can go further and to places that I wouldn’t get to when walking. I don’t mind getting wet in bogs or scrambling through heather when I’m in my running shoes and I also find that I see far more wildlife and the animals and birds seem less bothered by me. I often spot things and hide out of sight so I can watch without disturbing. For me, these times are some of the most joyful in life. I gain a clarity of thought and I often solve solutions to my printmaking conundrums as I’m running up a hill or across an open moor. Running can be meditative and it is the perfect counterpoint to my sedentary days in the studio.

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A golden plover seen near the cairn at the summit of Kisdon yesterday.

I carry a small Canon Powershot camera that fits in my hand or a bumbag and I chose one with a powerful zoom lens. I’m really enjoying sketching from life for this project and am looking forward to doing more landscape studies ‘in the field’ but it is virtually impossible for me to draw fleeting encounters with birds and animals and so I have always spent time watching to get to know them and then used my huge reference library of photos to help me get accurate details in my prints. The rest is then left to my imagination, my memory of landscape and artistic licence! I have enormous respect for the likes of Robert Gillmor who has spent a lifetime studying and drawing birds from life in order to make his exquisite prints.

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Top: Studies from life of grasses and meadow plants which were made to understand the structure for when I am cutting my collagraph prints. Below: lapwing studies made from my photographs to help me understand how they fly so that I can make prints that capture the essence of their behaviour.

Marie, Ella and Joan spent their lifetimes getting to know the Yorkshire Dales and their books are as much about the people living there as of the land itself. Marie’s diaries have many entries about time spent with fascinating people learning about life and traditions in the Yorkshire Dales. Whilst I’m not aiming to write a book about the people of the Dales, I do hope that the artwork I make will show how the landscape has been shaped and moulded by the farming, mining and other human interactions with the land and how, in many cases, that has made incredible habitats for wildlife to thrive. As a result of this project, I’ve already met some really interesting farmers and landowners who have made conservation a priority in their work and I hope that will be reflected in some of my prints.

Meadows at Muker

For anyone that is new to my blog, I’m currently working on a project with the Dales Countryside Museum. I’ve been printing up their archive of Marie Hartley MBE’s wood engraving blocks that were used to illustrate her books about Swaledale, Wensleydale and Wharfedale written with Ella Pontefract. I’m now in the next phase of the project which is to carry out research in the form of looking at the archive of her notebooks, diaries and sketchbooks and going out ‘into the field’ to get inspiration for a new body of my own work to be exhibited at the museum gallery in 2020.

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Today I’ve been sketching meadow grasses and flowers for reference for new prints inspired by the glorious upland meadows (of which the Yorkshire Dales National Park has a few). In the 1930s, Marie and Ella wrote about ‘haytime’ in the dales, of a time when whole communities were involved in the cutting and collecting of the hay, machinery was pulled by horses and the hay was then stored in the famous stone barns (often known as cow’us or laithe) ready for feeding the overwintering cattle and sheep.

(A selection of Marie Hartley’s wood engravings depicting aspects of hay making)

“When hay-time comes, generally towards the middle of July, everything else is put aside. All the women help, extra daughters appear miraculously from service. Irishmen are sometimes employed by farmers with small families. In a very wet summer much of the hay has to be left to rot in the fields, and some of the grass is never cut. When hay-time is well and safely over, a wave of relief goes through the upper dale”. (from Swaledale, 1934)

The meadows were not only fragrant, extremely beautiful and a rich source of food they were also very important ecosystems supporting a wide variety of invertebrates which were then fed on by numerous birds and animals. Unfortunately, as agricultural practises have changed and intensified, over the last fifty years 98% of meadows in the UK have been destroyed.

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The Yorkshire Dales have also lost a proportion of their traditional meadows but, fortunately, due to the work of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA), Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust (YDMT) and Natural England alongside committed farmers and landowners, the last twenty or so years has seen the conservation and restoration of species-rich meadows. This is a subject that I’ve been interested in since moving to the Yorkshire Dales and further information can be found at the websites of the YDMT & YDNPA. Times are very different now and ecology and economics mean that we’re unlikely to go back to the days of meadow-strewn Dales but what is being created is a network of species-rich meadows that everyone can benefit from and that are being managed with the help of modern machinery alleviating some of the hardships that the farming community of Marie’s time would have suffered. They are not only useful as a fodder crop of animals but attractive to wildlife, the local community and a visitor attraction which helps the local economy.

Due to Ella and Marie’s obvious love of the area, I’ve been visiting and revisiting locations around Kisdon fell (I am a fellrunner after all)  which include Muker, Thwaite, Angram and Keld. The meadows at Muker, which have been given Coronation status, are currently at their most stunning.

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This is the perfect time to visit. They are colourful and smell amazing, swallows and swifts swoop over them to feed on the many insects that they attract and there are so many different plant species. You can see yellow rattle, pignut, red clover, wood crane’s bill, eyebright, rough hawkbit, cat’s ear, meadow buttercups, lady’s mantle, crosswort, speedwell and melancholy thistle to name but a few!

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“In this grave sweet valley of the Swale meadows like the flowery meads of medieval paintings burgeon in early summer. Perhaps nowhere else in the dale does the yellow of buttercups splash the fields more boldly, or the pink of crane’s-bill tinge them more deeply, or wayside bushes shower sprays of pink and white roses more freely than here round Gunnerside and Muker” so says Joan Ingilby and Marie Hartley in their book, The Yorkshire Dales, 1956.

Sketchbooks and Wood Blocks

At the time that I’m writing this, I’ve just printed the last of the Dales Countryside Museum’s collection of wood engraving blocks created by Marie Hartley MBE. I’ve completed ten public sessions at the museum and met some very interesting people connected by a shared love of the legacy created by Marie, Ella and Joan. Artists, farmers, writers, photographers, people that knew her and people that didn’t (but wish they had). Many had stories to share, brought their own prints by Marie to show me and were pleased to have the opportunity to see her exquisite wood engravings close up. I’m now entering the next phase of the project and I will be continuing my research on her life and work by reading her notebooks and looking at her sketchbooks. I’ve read the three ‘Dales books’: Swaledale, Wensleydale and Wharfedale and have also read her beautiful memoire to Ella Pontefract, ‘Yorkshire Heritage’. Other works that I’m finding particularly useful are ‘Forms and Colours’ (about her artwork); ‘A Favoured Land’ (an appreciation of all of the books with essays); Yorkshire Cottage & The Yorkshire Dales. I’ve also started exploring certain areas which I intend to make my own work about.

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I love this image from Marie’s Swaledale sketchbook. It features a sketch of Crackpot Hall before it became a deserted ruin and the resulting wood engraving. Those combined with the notes, boot and ghostly birds are the distilled essence of the project for me.

I have a full calendar year in which to create my new prints and I intend to make use of that by visiting specific places regularly throughout the year, observing the changes in the landscape and the different flora and fauna. Narrowing down my subject has been extremely difficult and I’m hoping that my research will help with that. I have started by deciding to concentrate on places written about in the three Dales books as these are illustrated by the wood engravings. I’ve then used my research so far to work out places that Marie and Ella repeatedly visited or had a particular love for and I would like to include some locations from each book. As a fellrunner, I am particularly keen for each place to centre around at least one prominent fell. I’m currently visiting:

In Swaledale: Kisdon with the surrounding areas of Muker, Keld, Angram, Thwaite and most probably heading up into Birkdale which was a firm favourite for Marie and Ella. There are some fascinating manmade structures within this area that tell the story of its past mining and farming practises and combined with the rich ecological habitats, it really is a gem of a place that I’ve totally fallen in love with.

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Overlooking Crackpot Hall towards Muker with Kisdon on the right (Oct’18)

In Wensleydale:  Addlebrough from Semerwater with Raydale, Cragdale and Bardale and the moors above Stalling Busk. As the second largest natural lake in North Yorkshire (the first being Malham Tarn) being concealed from the main road it is almost a hidden wonder. It is also the source of the river Bain which, at only 2 miles long, is the UK’s shortest river.

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Overlooking the old ruined 18th Century church at Stalling Busk towards Semerwater.

In Wharfedale: Penyghent from Littondale including Foxup. I am delighted that it is included in ‘Wharfedale’ because I have always loved Littondale and Penyghent is my favourite hill which I have explored extensively in all weathers and at all times of day (and night). I can see it from my studio!

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Penyghent viewed on the ascent of Fountains Fell (Nov’18)

I’m also exploring Wether Fell, Dodd Fell & Snaizeholme and I will be settling on more locations as I do more research.

I’m looking for places that have their own special character making them distinctly different from other areas. The fells within each area often rise as singular hills which are easily recognisable from all directions. I also want to look at areas that are noted for their special scientific interest in terms of their flora and fauna. It seems apparent to me that the Yorkshire Dales has changed dramatically since the time that Ella and Marie wrote the books. They captured and recorded a way of life that was on the cusp of changing forever being affected by the technological advances in agriculture, the increased use of cars and tourism. However, what hasn’t changed is the geography of the area and combined with natural processes and human influences, the Yorkshire Dales National Park is home to some of the most diverse wildlife habitats in the UK. I want to explore those and to see how their history is written on the landscape.

In future posts I will be writing about these places and my experiences when working in them, more about Marie and her life and the things that I discover as I continue my research.

 

Printing Marie’s Wood Engravings

I’ll be writing a bit more about Marie Hartley MBE, her life and work in a future post but in the meantime, I’ve been busily making prints from her exquisite wood engraving blocks to create an archive for the Dales Countryside Museum. For those that are not familiar with wood engraving, it is a form of relief printing in the same family as linocut and woodcut. The principle is pretty simple, parts of the surface of the block are removed with special tools and what is left behind (the raised or relief surface) has ink applied to it and that ink is transferred to paper using pressure which can be from a press or from a hand tool such as a wooden spoon or print baren.  Wood engraving differs from wood cut in that the endgrain of slow growing wood is used instead of the longitudinal plank of the wood. The wood is highly polished to create a very smooth surface and fine metal tools, with wonderful names such as ‘spitsticker’, ‘scorper’ & ‘tint tool’, are used to scrape away tiny amounts of the wood surface to create the design. The surface area that is scraped/cut away won’t print and will form the white parts of the design. The design also prints as a mirror-image so it is important to reverse sketches on the block first to avoid a ‘back-to-front’ print. Wood engravers often use a leather sand bag for resting the wood on as this enables them to tilt and turn the block whilst cutting. I think Marie Hartley must have used a magnifier for at least some of her designs as one block that I printed had the word ‘Ingleton’ written in reverse on a finger post and the letters could not have been more than 2mm high!! She created the wood engravings for the three Dales books in the 1930s when she herself would have been in her late twenties and early thirties. I don’t know what her eyesight was like but mine certainly wouldn’t be good enough to do that kind of work without help from a magnifier!

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The best wood for this kind of printmaking is generally regarded to be Box wood, Buxus Sempervirens, but there are other woods in frequent use such as cherry, apple, holly & Lemonwood (which is not actually from the lemon tree but gets its name from the citrus smell that emanates from it when it is first cut). Larger blocks are often created by bonding smaller pieces of wood together. Care should be taken of the blocks so that they don’t get damp or too hot as this can warp them and bonded blocks can part company with each other. I’ve printed a few of Marie’s blocks which have acquired damage over the years and a few need a bit of restoration in order to get a flawless print but the Dales Countryside Museum have done a good job of storing them on their sides and keeping them in good condition. To think that some of them are almost 90 years old and yet still producing perfect prints is amazing. Each of Marie’s blocks has been given an accession number and has been catalogued to include any extra information such as if/where/when it was published.

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I had always believed that the wooden blocks were used for printing the books and would have been clamped in with the letterpress type but on reading ‘Yorkshire Heritage’ (Marie’s memoir to Ella Pontefract) she talks about ‘electros’ being made of the blocks for printing purposes. Electrotyping is a process invented in the mid-1800s and there is a good description of it here. This process was developed to protect the master blocks as publishers would require literally thousands of prints to be made and the wood was vulnerable to damage. A metal printing block is made from a mould of the original wood engraving and it has all of the fine detail and is a perfect replica of the artist’s work. In this way, the original blocks could be retained as ‘masters’ and protected for future use.

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To print the blocks, I have been using a lightweight and very smooth paper called Zerkall Extra Smooth which I have bought from John Purcell Paper. I tested lots of papers before selecting this one. There are so many different papers suitable for hand printing, including some beautiful lightweight Japanese ones, but I was looking for something that would be relatively robust for use in the museum and that would give the crispest details in case the museum decide to reproduce the prints at any stage. I am printing all of the blocks by hand and not on a press. This allows me to do the printing in the museum so that people can watch the process and it also allows me more flexibility because I can alter the pressure across the block to compensate for any small dents that have occurred over the years. I use a carbon black letterpress ink from Lawrence Art Supplies. It is a linseed-oil based ink and I am cleaning with a soft rag and Zest-It so that the blocks are ink-free after use but there are also no harmful fumes in the museum. You could use vegetable oil but it can leave a sticky residue. White spirit is awful stuff!

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To apply pressure I am using two beautiful tools. The first is a burnisher made by Chris Daunt, a supplier of materials for wood engraving and a wood engraver himself, it is made from yew and has a piece of horn on the end. It is perfect for the tiny blocks. The second is a baren made by my step-dad who is a wood turner. I was bemoaning the fact that despite all the barens available, I find a wooden spoon to be the best tool for printing linocuts and he said he’d have a go at making me a wooden baren. Not only is it a beautiful object in its own right but it sits perfectly in the palm of your hand and is comfortable to use. Mine is made from laburnum wood which came from my sister’s garden. The prints have been perfect. He is now selling them via his etsy shop! Here are a couple photos of him making a baren for a customer.

 

Using the burnisher and baren, I carefully rub over the back of the paper in a circular motion taking care to cover the entire block. It is a bit of an art in itself and takes lots of practise to get just the right amount of ink and even pressure so that all of the detail prints perfectly. I’m using a cutting board as a registration board so that I can position the blocks centrally on the paper. They all vary in size and this way I can avoid making lots and lots of registration papers. I just count the squares, simple! I also use some uncut blocks placed around the inked block and these help when I lower the paper onto the wood engraving. They prevent the paper flopping about and the image smudging. It has been a steep learning curve but I now have a good rhythm going and not many ‘rejects’. I’ve also learned the hard way that I need to write the accession number of the block on the back of the paper before printing so that when I come to file the prints the following week, I know which blocks they come from! It is amazing how a small pack horse bridge can look very similar to ten other bridges when you are trying to identify it. Fortunately I also have all of Marie’s books so I can cross-reference them too!

 

So that is the process and I have four more public printing sessions to do. They are from 12-4pm on Sunday 14th April, Tuesdays 23rd & 30th April and, finally, Tuesday 7th May. Museum admission charges apply but you can come and see me print as part of that. The museum is a gem and well worth the entry fee. If I don’t get all of the blocks printed in the remaining sessions, I may well add an extra date and I’ll be sure to publicise it if I do.