Here’s a little taster from the graphic novel I am working on, ‘The Ghost Carp’. It’s a re-telling of Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, but set on the river Wandle, south west London, in the present day. I’ve had a lot of fun writing the text, working in references and quotes from Moby Dick and also things that I have seen, experienced and heard about during 12 years volunteering at Wandle Trust river cleanups. More on this soon…
I spent yesterday afternoon up to my chest in the river Wandle in the glorious October sunshine, using crowbar and steel toecaps to loosen up mystery objects and remove rubbish from the riverbed. The Wandle Trust holds river cleanups once a month, and I’ve been a regular volunteer for over 12 years (you can see my Wandle Alphabet here).
Casting about for a subject to try making a graphic short (or even long) story about, I decided something set in the river would be perfect. I know every bit of the river so well, and just how it feels to be working in the water, how it smells and sounds. I started thinking about some characters who work in the river, but was lacking a story – until Polly, who works for the WT, told me about The Ghost Carp back in August. Apparently it’s a giant white fish, rarely seen, and it causes a frisson of interest among anglers.
Inspiration struck when I remembered Herman Melville’s epic, Moby Dick – the ghost carp can stand in for the great white whale, transposing the setting from Cape Cod and the wild Atlantic to an urban river (and trout stream no less).
Now the story is coming together, and I’m planning the pages. I took a bit of time out from being in the water yesterday to sketch my fellow cleaner-uppers, to use for reference later. Watch this space!
On the second Sunday of every month the Wandle Trust holds a river cleanup – I’ve been going along regularly for over ten years and there’s nothing I like better than standing in the river in waders, watching the damselflies flit past and feeling in the gravelly bottom with my toes for old trolleys, mattresses, car doors, kettles – there’s not much we haven’t pulled out of the river over the years and yes, there have been a number of kitchen sinks. (you can see the alphabet I made from things found in the river here)
For all the time I’ve been involved Erica has organised the cleanups – taking all the waders, wheelbarrows, crowbars, gloves and all the other things we need from the storage unit down to the various spots along the river, contacting the volunteers and liaising with each of the different councils for the rubbish pick-up. She has been the cheerful, smiling heart and soul of the operation and now she is moving to Norfolk, where I am sure some lucky river will be the beneficiary. We’re all going to miss her enormously, and for her last cleanup I made a special version of the Wandle woodcut and collage print from my recent exhibition, Skim Sky Blue. It features eels in a tyre (there are many of both in the river) and, specially for Erica, a coconut as her catch phrase is “there’s always a coconut” – and indeed there always is. I even found an old map of Earlsfield showing the river, and used that in the collage too.
Coincidentally shortly afterwards I was invited by my friend Nick to an ecumenical service at Merton Abbey Mills celebrating the 900th anniversary of Merton Priory – sadly very little remains of it, but we did get to see what’s left of the chapter house, hidden away under a road next to the giant Sainsburys. The service ended with a blessing for the river Wandle, and rose petals were cast on the water.
My exhibition of woodcuts and collage inspired by the river Thames, Skim Sky Blue, closes tomorrow, Sunday 18th May. Above is a selection of the framed prints on show – each one consists of a block-printed woodcut augmented with hand-cut and torn collage,using a variety of media ranging from watercolour to oil – and even a few washes of mud from the Thames itself. As they are too large to scan it’s difficult to capture them it’s difficult to capture the whiteness of the paper or the gloss of the oil-based inks – but here is an impression at least. It’s been very enjoyable creating an exhibition entirely to my own brief – and I feel as if it’s something I’d like to expand, as there are so many more aspects of the river still to explore through this medium. (see the previous post for all sorts of info about why I love the river so much). One day I plan to collect mud samples from the whole river and create a colour chart…
The show is on at The Art Cabin, 11 Brookwood Road, Southfields, London SW18 5BL, 10am – 6pm.
My exhibition about the river Thames, Skim Sky Blue, is now open at The Art Cabin and runs until May 18th. Details on how to visit are here (it’s all part of Wandsworth Arts Festival Fringe). I’ve been asked by a couple of people who live too far away to come and see it if I’ll post pictures, so here is selection of some of them. The works are mostly woodcuts with chine collé, and some with additional collage added after printing. I used all sorts of materials for this, from old maps to prepared sheets using both oil and watercolour paint. I had a lovely discussion with Japanese visitor who came into the gallery about the particular shade of deep, clotted blood-red that you can see in the circle on the ‘eels in a tyre’ picture – apparently this is a colour of deep significance in Japan.
Here’s my exhibition statement: read to the bottom to find out how it got its name…
“Skim Sky Blue is inspired in part by woodcut artist Robert Gibbings’ 1940 book ‘Sweet Thames Run Softly’, in which the author built his own boat then paddled down the river Thames from Lechlade in Gloucestershire all the way into central London, sketching and observing along the way. The beautiful woodcuts in the book celebrate the small details of river life, from the curl of a leaf to the dart of a dragonfly.
“Building on a lifetime’s connection with the river Thames, illustrator Jane Porter has explored every mile of the river, from walking to its source under a pile of stones in a buttercup-filled Gloucestershire meadow to the silvery sculpture of the Thames Barrier and the tidal mudflats to its east. She has swum some sections, and has rowed in a traditional Thames skiff from Lechlade 120 miles back to Teddington, as well as skiffing past central London’s landmarks in the Great River Race. She has even built her own coracle and paddled it on the Wandle and a quiet backwater of the Thames.
“The woodcuts in this exhibition tell stories about different sections of the river – the quirky Easter Island-inspired topiary patrolled by hens at Radcot Lock, the cormorants proudly occupying their tree at Stephens Eyot near Kingston, the abandoned structure out past the oystercatchers near Erith, scented by the sewage works.
As a volunteer for both Thames 21 and the Wandle Trust, Jane is involved in monitoring the health of the Thames and has been hauling tyres and other rubbish out of the river Wandle for ten years – eels are a regular sight in this Thames tributary and have an astonishingly tight grip as you pick them up to return them to the water.
The woodcut medium gives the work a very tactile quality: the gloss of the oil-based inks and the slight embossing from the force of the press – even the slight flaws where the wood has splintered – are a refreshing antidote to digitally created or printed pieces. Jane has used chine collé to give graphic highlights and splashes of colour or texture to the prints – using for collage pre-prepared watercolour washes, some even created with mud from the Thames itself.
The exhibition’s title, ‘Skim Sky Blue’ is taken from Charles Dickens – it’s how he described a glass of Thames water when offered one in 1850 on a visit to the Kew Bridge Pumping Station.”
I’ve just spent another couple of days at the London Print Studio finalising prints for my exhibition next week, Skim Sky Blue – part of Wandsworth Arts Festival Fringe: there’s a bit of a preview of some of the images shown above. Over the weekend I’ll be doing a little bit of extra collage work and starting on the framing. The big parcel with a blue ribbon is all my used printing plates, ready to take home – I didn’t count them but they were very numerous and carving them has left me with a worn patch on the side of my little finger. That aside it’s been very enjoyable working completely non-digitally for a change…
Having explored all of the Thames from source to Barrier, I thought I would take a look at what lies further east. Beginning at the Thames Barrier Park (just by Pontoon Dock DLR station), I was impressed with the wonderful undulations of the ‘green dock’ and the diagonal planting of hornbeams and rare oaks, all designed by French landscape architect Allain Provost. The park is a tranquil space with nicely maturing planting, superb views and a good cafe – well worth a visit. Crossrail works made the walk to the Woolwich Ferry a bit of a weary trudge, but the ferry itself (amazingly still free) was a good ride, manoevring between orange tugs hauling heavy loads. Heading east, the river gets impressively wide, and the ships get larger.
Oystercatchers, grey wagtails and even rabbits are mixed in with industry such as waste processing sites, aggregate businesses and sewage works, making this a very interesting and varied stretch of water. It was also a day of slightly overwhelming smells – from the treacle of the sugar works, to the hawthorn blossom and hint of seasalt in the air to the knockout punch of the sewage works.
My prints are gradually taking shape for the Thames-themed exhibition I’m holding next month, Skim Sky Blue. I had an experimental day at London Print Studio last week, printing some woodcuts I’d made on a variety of different collaged backgrounds, and trying them out in different combinations and on different types of paper. It was a useful day, and it’s given me lots of ideas on how to progress. One problem I have is that (through spending too much time on the river hauling oars in a skiff) my arms are a bit too strong and I can’t seem to help putting a bit too much pressure on as I tighten the handle on the Beever Press – with the result that everything comes out heavily embossed (you can see what I mean in the picture below, at the right, which shows the back of the paper). I do quite like this effect, but I’m not sure it’s right for what I’m trying to do so for the next session I’ll need to ease off a bit.
As an admirer of classic woodcut artists like Thomas Bewick and Robert Gibbings, I have wanted to try my hand at the medium for a while – and I got the chance on Saturday at a workshop at the London Print Studio run by printmaker Jonathan Ashworth.
I made two blocks, based on photos of reeds and marginals I took last summer on the upper Thames, intending to layer them – though when it came to printing they seemed to work better separately. I tried all sorts of colour combinations and paper types, printing a dark background with a stencil moon for some and for others cutting a fluorescent circle and sticking it to the paper as a background. I’ve done lino-printing before at home, using the back of a spoon to apply the pressure for the print, but using a proper press is so much better – I tightened up the handle quite hard on a few and ended up with a bit of embossing which I like.
My original plan was to use the prints as collage materials for my upcoming exhibition, Skim Sky Blue, but I’m now planning to make a lot more blocks (using lino this time), book some studio time at the LPS, and produce some Thames-inspired slightly abstract prints that way.
Jonathan showed us a DVD during the lunch break about contemporary woodcut print-makers, and I particularly liked the collage-y abstract approach of Peter Lawrence. An inspiring day all round – thanks Jonathan and LPS.
From 2 – 18th May I’m going to be holding an exhibition at The Art Cabin gallery in Southfields, London, inspired by the river Thames. I’m still at the planning and researching stage, but you could say I have been researching it all my life as I’ve always loved the river and spend as much time as possible on it, in it or beside it. Last summer I sculled from Lechlade to Teddington in a traditional Thames skiff (about 120 miles), and also walked the upper, non-navigable parts from the source back through Cricklade. As well as soaking in the sounds and smells of the river I took dozens of photos, and have been using these for reference to draw lots of thumbnails of different aspects of the river. I’ve been preparing surfaces with oil paint and other media for making some collaged work. (I’ve got an excellent colour a friend gave me – it’s Gamblin Torrit Grey, the colour they create when they mix together all the leftover bits of paint in the factory. And it’s exactly the colour the Thames is in winter – perfect!)
Tate Britain has also been a good source of inspiration – I’ve been looking at Thames scenes by Turner, Whistler and Walter Greaves. Very interesting to see all Turner’s sketchbooks and colour trials too. I’ve also been looking at John Piper’s collages from the 1930s.
The exhibition will be called Skim Sky Blue, which is actually a quote from Charles Dickens that I came across while researching a family trail for Kew Bridge Steam Museum. Dickens visited the pumping station in 1850 to write an article in his magazine, Household Words, and when offered a glass of untreated Thames water he said it looked like “a dose of weak magnesia, or that peculiar London liquid known as ‘skim-sky-blue’ but deceitfully sold under the name of milk”. Although he didn’t mean it as a compliment, to me it sounds just right – a little bit ethereal and rather poetic.