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.

 

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).