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.

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.