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 elm 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.

 

In the Footsteps of Marie Hartley MBE

Back at the beginning of 2018 I was contacted by Fiona Rosher, Museum Manager at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes. The Museum was celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the book ‘Life and Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales’ which was written and illustrated by Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby who founded the Museum. Within their archives was a collection of 130 wood engraving blocks created by Marie Hartley MBE and Fiona wanted to know if I would be interested in printing them so that they could have a set of prints for use within the museum. This sounded intriguing and what followed was a series of meetings with Fiona where we discussed the possibilities of the project. It soon expanded and developed into one that would culminate in an exhibition of my own work in the summer of 2020. We agreed that I would begin the project by printing the blocks in the museum so that visitors could watch and I could talk to them about their memories of Marie, their experience of the Yorkshire Dales and about printmaking. I would then carry out research about Marie Hartley which would take the form of reading all of her books written in collaboration with Ella Pontefract and Joan Ingleby and I would be given access to the archive of sketchbooks, notebooks and diaries that the museum owned. This would help to form a picture of the woman herself and help me to find an angle for my own work. I would then go out ‘into the field’ to draw, print and develop ideas for a series of brand new works. In other words, a dream of a job!

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Anyone that knows me will know that I work very hard to make a full-time living as an artist and I am often so embroiled in various exhibitions, shows, teaching workshops, running art groups and the accompanying admin that’s involved in doing those things that I often feel that there is very little time and headspace for making new work. It is one of the reasons that I disappear off to Ålgården Studios for a few weeks every year so that I can have uninterrupted time to develop my printmaking. With that in mind, we realised that I’d need some funding to allow me to take a bit of a step back from other commitments for a while and really make the most of this opportunity. Fiona was brilliant in campaigning for the project and we are so fortunate that the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and the Friends of the Dales Countryside Museum have provided the necessary support needed. In return, I am printing the blocks within the museum to allow the public to see the process, will be giving a talk to the FoDCM and will be running a number of printmaking workshops at the museum in 2020. I’m also updating the archive records for the wood engravings as I progress through the printing, making notes of any damage and any links to preparatory drawings that I discover in Marie’s sketchbooks.

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Most of the wood engravings that have been published were created for three books that Marie wrote with Ella Pontefract: Wensleydale, Swaledale & Wharfedale. I’ve decided that I will concentrate my own research on those areas of the Yorkshire Dales. I’m a keen fellrunner and my plan is to run some of the routes described in these books, get to know the places and then I will identify particular points of interest that I would like to return to for sketching and printing. I’ve got a tentative plan to take my campervan on some of my excursions and set up my portable press so I can actually print directly in the landscape. I like to feel that it would be in keeping with Marie and Ella’s explorations of Wensleydale carried out in their little caravan that they christened ‘The Green Plover’ (see a sketch of Marie’s now held at the Leeds University Art Collections by clicking here)

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I shall be writing regularly about the project and sharing snippets of research, images printed, anecdotes from the people that I meet and anything else that I find interesting. In the mean time, if you would like to see me printing some of the wood engravings, I will be at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes from 12-4pm on consecutive Tuesdays up to and including the 7th May 2019 (excluding Tuesday 16th April when I’ll be there on the previous Sunday 14th April, 12-4pm). Do come and see how exquisite Marie’s work is and I’d love to hear anecdotes from those that knew her and stories from your experiences of the Yorkshire Dales (please note, museum admission charges apply).

Loose Ends and Exciting Beginnings!

So…I’m going to be regularly using my blog again for an exciting new project but before I start that, I just wanted to tie up a few loose ends regarding ‘Within These Walls’. Since I last wrote, I have been commissioned to recreate the central collagraph print for a hospital in Sweden. It is undergoing major building work and there is a pillar in the main reception area that they would like to hang my work from so I spent October/November of last year reprinting it! No small order as it required a few trips to Northern Print to use their lovely big electric intaglio press and then I had to line it and sew it.

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The pillar is grey so my contact, Torbjörn, suggested that it it might be better if the material was more opaque. Unfortunately, I used the transparency of the lovely cotton voile so that I could see through to register the plates each time so it looked like lining it would be the best option. That ended up being quite a mammoth task but I used an iron-on cotton interfacing which worked well as it provided a bit of stability too. It was a bit of a nightmare to attach but I was able to hire the village hall again and lay the work out. I was methodical and careful and I also put a few eyelets down the sides so that the work can be secured away from the wall with bolts if needed. Due to a scalpel disaster, I managed to bleed over the work at one point but luckily blood washes out with cold water…

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Then I enlisted the help of my lovely friends Sheila Smith and Lorraine Garlick and they hemmed the whole thing for me. They did the most amazing job including handstitching the pockets for the acrylic rods with invisible stitching. I have learned so much from them both and am forever grateful for their patience and enthusiasm.

Then it was a case of cutting the new acrylic rods to size, securing the screw-eyes in the ends and rolling the whole thing up in acid-free tissue ready for sending by courier to Sweden. It was a little pricey but Euro-Trans Despatch delivered it safely in less than 24 hours! As is the way of the world, building work has been delayed and the hospital isn’t finished yet so I don’t have any photos of it in situ but I promise to post some when I do.

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In summary, I was planning to develop this project but unfortunately, the next venue for it fell through, time has passed and I’ve got involved in other projects but I have been so lucky to have had two of the monotypes on paper purchased for public display in Sweden, the commission for the hospital and also my monotype, Meadowsweet, selected for the 2018/19 New Light Prize Exhibition. I’ve now just found out that the collagraph panel will be on display as part of PrintFest7Oaks in May 2019. I’m so pleased to be a part of this event. It is a print festival held in Sevenoaks founded and directed by Christina France. Christina is also a member of Ålgården Studios and this year she has planned two shows for PrintFest7Oaks. The first will be by members of Ålgården Studios and held at The Kaleidoscope Gallery and I have been invited to show the collagraph at that. I will also be giving a talk at the gallery in the evening of the 9th May to discuss my connection with Ålgården and how the installation came about. I will then have a piece of work as an invited artist for Printfest7 at Ålgården Studio Gallery in September. All exciting stuff and there will be lots of information and links on my website.

So for the next year I am going to be blogging far more regularly about a project that I’ve just begun with the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes. look out for the first post on that in the coming days…

Catching up on ‘Within These Walls’

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It’s a good seven months since I wrote following the installation of my large-scale print project, ‘Within These Walls’. I had hoped to have time to sit and write a poetical and reflective account and in hoping to do that, it never happened! 2017 was a year that was intensely busy, very rewarding but with not a lot of breathing space. Strangely, the one time I had some head space was during the Grassington Festival when I was at the installation for four hours every day and often had little gaps of time alone. During these pauses, I wrote haiku, printed, drew and generally had a very relaxing and fulfilling time. My friend, the photographer Paul Harris, visited the installation and very kindly created this rather lovely film of it. It can be viewed HERE

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The installation was a success in that I had over 335 visitors and all had positive things to say. I was humbled by just how many people reacted to the work within the space saying that it made them feel peaceful, calm & inspired. The word ‘ethereal’ was repeatedly used and many felt that the barn took on the aura of a sacred space such as a church or cathedral. One woman told me she had visited early on a few occasions so that she could have the space to herself and wander amongst the hangings. A few comments from my guestbook sum up nicely the general feeling amongst my visitors:

“really suits the space well and enjoyed the walking aspect to find the barn. Lovely combination of light and shade & movement of the wind on the hangings”

“…the soul of this wondrous dale, thank you…”

“beautiful work in a special ancient place. Hay meadows & swallows – perfect summer image”

“fab to enjoy the swallows, art and barn on the longest summer day, many thanks”

“beautiful work – perfect for this peaceful space. Images make sense of ambient sounds”

“didn’t expect this! beautiful work in a  special ancient place. Haymeadows and swallows in this wonderful old barn. Cheered up a dull day”

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I also hadn’t envisaged just how much I would enjoy being within the space. Everyday was different and the light changed throughout each afternoon. Sometimes I would watch a spot of sunlight travel across the barn floor and up the hangings, other times they would whip about in the wind and, on many occasions, the parents of a brood of swallow chicks would fly amongst them.

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Since the festival, I have had one of the paper monotypes from ‘Within These Walls’ accepted for the New Light Prize Exhibition and it is currently touring having just finished the opening show at the Bowes Museum. I’m at Ålgården in Sweden at the moment and my original plan was to work on some large-scale paper prints to act as an exhibition to show alongside the hangings but, as yet, I don’t have a definite date and space in which to show them and another deadline (my next Collections project show) is looming. Conscious of all the work I need to do over the next few months for the Hepworth Print Fair (with Printmakers Circle), Printfest, West Dean Design and Craft Fair and ‘Collections’ at Sunny Bank Mills (not to mention the fact that I’m part of a team of artists trying to get a Three Peaks Art Trail off the ground for July 2018), I’ve put the development of the work on hold….temporarily. This is a project that I feel that I could work on for quite a few years to come. I’d really like more concentrated time to forget everything else and focus purely on making a body of work related to the installation but as an artist who makes all of their living from their printmaking, that involves exhibitions, shows, art fairs, talks and workshops and so I’m constantly busy and switching between deadlines. I could either do with some development funding or I will just have to work in fits and starts – as and when I can. Either way, I know I have the determination to carry it forward so watch this space!

I also have a new website (which I built in January in between doing my tax return!) so do check it out, it has a gallery for ‘Within These Walls’: www.hestercox.com

My thanks must go to Kate Beard (director of the Grassington Festival) for making the leap of faith and including me in the festival programme; Ian Harland for letting me use his barn and for all his hard work, support and cups of coffee; Paul Harris for his lovely film; Jo Denison for her beautiful photographs; my husband Brian for his continued encouragement and support (especially at 4am when I was lying awake worrying); my mum and Ian for helping on installation day and Matt Light for doing the scary bit of climbing up a huge ladder to install the five 4 metre long hangings (whilst having a small child and large puppy to look after)!

The Installation of ‘Within These Walls’

So now I had five hangings printed, sewn and perspex rods ready to be inserted (thanks Ian Whyte for drilling the fittings!). Ian Harland, the owner of the barn, had worked really hard to clear it and get it ready for the installation. I’d been up there to sweep up, do a risk assessment and cover the shelving with hessian (I bought a 42 metre roll!). Now there was just the small matter of reaching the beams, which are 4 metres from the floor, to fit the screw eyes and tie the rods in. Ian managed to borrow a builder’s ladder and I was going to give it a go myself but I have to admit, despite being a fellrunner and (briefly) a potholer, I was feeling nervous. I really don’t like being up ladders. Its not a fear of heights because I love standing at the top of a mountain, I think its a fear of precariousness! I have been known to get cragfast on rocky ledges when the wind is up.

Fortunately, I got a text from my friend Matt, an arboriculturist and former tree climber extraordinaire, offering to give me a hand. This actually meant he came along and did the whole thing. My mum and her partner Ian were up for the week so they came up too and kept an eye on Matt’s little boy and wrangled his gangly pointer puppy. I was in charge of passing him the pristine white voile hangings and was responsible for making sure that nobody trod on them or got tangled up!

It was a bit fiddly and we’ve come up with all sorts of ideas to make it easier next time I hang them but essentially, the rods and line did the job and Matt made it look very easy. In the meantime, Ian Harland was mowing the grass and making everything look lovely. He has been cultivating two meadows close to the barn and they are glorious. Ian Whyte then pinned up the rest of the hessian which helped to minimise the distraction of the rack of shelving.

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After installing Within These Walls, I distributed the flyers I’d had printed and put direction signs up. I’d also had postcards of four of the plant monotypes printed. Selling them at 50p each not only gives people something to remind them of the installation but also helps recoup my petrol costs for being up at the barn each day. The Grassington Festival team made me a lovely A-board to direct people up the lane and I’m turning a blind-eye to the fact that I’ve been renamed ‘Heather Cox’ 😀

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So that’s the logistics and the installation has now been up for over a week and open for 6 days. I’ve had 138 human visitors so far and 14 dogs! In my next post I will talk more about my personal feelings about the installation now its finished and some of the visitors’ reactions to it but I think its fair to say that I’m not only relieved to have pulled this off, I’m totally delighted with just how well the prints work in the space.

NB thanks to Paula Cox and Ian Whyte for taking photos of the installing part!

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Two Flights of Swallows

So, now to the final hangings…

Having started the printing for the project in January in a world of snow and ice in Sweden, I had got hooked on the idea of doing a flock of crow silhouettes in flight. This is something I often see in the fields around where I live and would have fitted in with my original idea which included more work on the actual wall lines and the geography of the land. However, it didn’t seem very fitting when combined with the meadow imagery and was far too wintery. I briefly considered creating prints of various birds associated with meadows but was wary of it becoming an ‘I spy’ and looking a bit naff. It is quite easy to get hung up on the educational side of things and neglect the aesthetic and I definitely didn’t want to do that. So I decided upon two flights of swallows. This seemed pretty apt considering that I see them feeding over the meadows every day and they are associated with the arrival of summer in the same way that a field of meadow flowers can signal that summer days are here. IMG_1921 (1)

I have to say that these were the easiest hangings to print which was something of a relief (excuse the printmaker’s pun) after putting so much time and effort into the other ones. I started by ordering A3 sheets of 4mm EVA, 2mm perspex and a roll of double-sided adhesive paper. I then spent a day researching the flight patterns of swallows and drawing as many different shapes as I could come up with before tracing them all off and moving them about on long (to scale) strips of paper. When I’d got the designs how I wanted them, I glued each swallow in place and numbered it before scaling up each drawing to fit on an A4 sheet of paper. I then traced each one onto a piece of foam and cut it carefully out with a scalpel before cutting a piece of perspex as a mount and sticking it on to that with the sticky paper. Two days work as opposed to two weeks! 40E2268A-CE48-49C2-AEAF-DB520DD915FBI’d already hired the local village hall (very local, its down the lane that I live on) and I went in on Friday lunchtime armed with all the hangings, screen printing ink for fabrics, foam rollers, and lots of clean newsprint. I got three long tables out, covered them with clean paper, put radio 4 on and got to work. By the time The Archers came on, I’d printed the first hanging. I made sure to stay scrupulously clean, wash off each block after printing, so I didn’t have a massive load to do at the end, and print slowly and methodically to avoid silly mistakes. I used my long scale drawings as a map and I’d numbered each block so I knew which went where.

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After that all I needed to do was to iron all the hangings and roll them up. The next instalment will be the installation…