Larks sing on the Isle of Foula and over Fair Isle;
St Kilda’s desolation is echoed by the haunting call of oyster-catchers
and even a cuckoo calls on North Rona. These islands ‘at the edge
of the world’, off Scotland’s north-west coast, are remote
indeed and hard to reach but they speak a familiar language. To return
– as I did last week (28 May 2008) from a voyage among those islands,
some now deserted but which once were key sites in Iron Age kingdoms
or early Christian times, calls up rusty knowledge to link known places
with the newly-visited. And in some peculiar way this process diminishes
my artistic response.
In contrast, the impact of my first contact with the
Arctic was truly powerful. Totally inhospitable it mocks modern life’s
expectations. There is a compelling fierceness in the combination of
sea, mountain, ice and snow and the immensity of it all – stretching
away to infinity – which is overwhelming. Our little ship felt
as insignificant as Leif Ericsson’s longboat. First morning, first
voyage, at 6.30 a.m. a judder ran through the ship; it could only mean
one thing – ice! From the deck we marvelled at the surrounding
brash ice carpeting the sea with here and there vast bergs towering
above it. Colours within the ice are startling. There are vivid ultramarine
stripes, undercut slabs of deep, soft turquoise, areas with blue ‘combed’
markings and an underwater ‘skirt’ may be dark green or
cerulean depending on sky colour and the state of the sea. Pure white
snowfields cover the gentler slopes. As the ship passed, the viewpoint
changed very fast: a problem I had to solve by outline-only drawings
of the bergs, with quick notes of shadow and colour – one has
the caption ‘Sydney Opera House’.
‘Whale!’ a humpback was spotted and the
Zodiacs (inflatable boats) were launched and manned. The distant coastline
of grim mountains was backdrop to our drama; the whale sported, then
dived showing his tail flukes – we were within 20 feet of him,
so could even see the knobs on his head as well as his huge white flippers.
Yet I did not feel real fear, despite our flimsy craft; was this confidence
in our driver’s experience and skill or trust that the whale was
only curious about us, as we were about him? The drawings I made that
day are full of excitement and immediacy.
Fast-changing weather requires constant sketchbook
work in the comfort of the Bridge (relative, if the ship is pitching!)
or perilously perched on the rubbery flank of a Zodiac, where I can
just manage a pencil or pastel from my coat pocket, A5 notebook in the
other. A major problem is smudging; any drawing has to be tucked quickly
away from spray or wind. Occasionally there comes an opportunity to
use my mini water-colour box. Painting on the quayside in Qagortok brought
the local children round in swarms! And swarms of flies gathered round
the seal flensing at the market-place – how do you draw those?
These drawings – some 10 books full – provide me with a
vivid recall of the special moment and place when, some months later,
I begin a series of screenprints. It seems necessary to leave space
between the experience and the expression of it; as if a ruminative
or ‘digestive’ process must be completed.
the open sea, narrow fjords can have a brooding, oppressive presence.
Their deeply-scarred rock walls, divided by glaciers – striped
like pillow-ticking – knife down into dark water which perfectly
reflects them, if there is no funnelling wind raking the surface. Scarves
of thin mist often swathe the flanks of the mountains and their summits
disappear behind more threatening clouds. Some of Svalbard’s northern
inlets are more akin to Scottish sea-lochs, with low rolling hills which
may still be piebald with snow. Scree and beaches of shingle make them
greyer perhaps, but ashore the tiny polar willow, saxifrages or arctic
buttercup give welcome colour. These landings are when a ‘recce’
must be made by the Expedition Leader: no landings if polar bears are
sighted – they are not to be disturbed. One landing at Jacobsenbukta
was foiled by two large male bears on the shore, so we spent an hour
watching them from the Zodiacs. Our next animal encounter was a lot
closer! A big herd of walrus (80 – 100) was basking on a sunny
shingle ridge. Approaching gently we could soon SMELL the great sleeping,
snoring, belching beasts! They are huge with formidable tusks; some
took to the water where their clumsiness became agility and, ever curious,
one or two came to within arm’s reach of us humans. Amazing! What
a privilege to enjoy such a special hour so close to wild creatures.
My pencil was busy!
It is almost impossible to imagine 18th-century Russian
Pomor hunters surviving here in Svalbard; killing seals, whales and
doubtless walrus too. But then at least the contest between men and
animals was fairer than when the better-equipped Norwegian whalers staked
out their killing-grounds in the late 19th and early 20th century. Their
depredations decimated stocks, which are only now recovering with protection.
There are hunters’ shacks at many of the prime whaling sites;
some are unbelievably frail, seeming neither weather- nor bear-proof
– a few are still in use. At Gashamna, in Bell Sund, whale skulls
lie in the sand like ancient, bleached tree stumps; these are venerable
objects, whose pitted and patinated forms attract rather than repel.
Very different are the prodigal heaps of Beluga bones along the shore
at Kap Toscana – horribly reminiscent of Belsen or Dachau. These
white whales were caught by nets in the shallow bays and brought close
to extinction in the 1920s. Under drawings done here is noted ‘sleety,
grey, cold, flat light, low cloud’; indeed, the air temperature
was only 3° C, so I am impressed by my determination
to stand and sketch.
Gales are difficult to portray. Braced upright in a
corner of the Bridge as spray flings itself high over our bows and the
windscreen wipers can barely cope with the onslaught, I feel hugely
exhilarated by the white-crested waves tearing past, the wild skies
and the need to ‘cling on for dear life’! One Force 8 gale,
off Bear Island (74o 29’ N) reminded me of the utter concentration
of mind and body required on climbing trips with the mountaineering
club in British Columbia years ago. Perhaps my present passion for the
world of rock, ice and snow is a revival of that earlier enchantment?
But the storm drawings are mostly a mess.
a late, calm evening, warm light transforms ice and sea with an opalescent
satin finish: softer, subtler than the day’s brilliant white and
blue. In Scoresby Sund stranded ice forms a vast ‘Berg City’,
truly theatrical against the background of The Red Isle. These grounded
giants are, I suppose, eroded not only by melt but by wind, full of
gritty ice particles. Extraordinary arches – one as high as the
clerestory in Chichester Cathedral – grottoes and slabs like Dover
cliffs are there, static as our Zodiac glides quietly amongst them.
Hunkered down among the photographers whose clicking capture of the
scene was so much easier, I used blue and green pastel in my A5 Arboreta
notebook – eyes on the berg, not on my page, in the urgency to
savour and use a unique opportunity.
Starting to work on an ‘Arctic Series’
is both exciting and anxious. The waiting ream of pure white paper is
inhibiting… the inks too hard to mix… the weather’s
wrong… it is even tempting to weed the garden or clear out the
fridge in this state of mind. It really is difficult to ‘catch
the moment’. Forcing oneself to work often ends in disappointment.
What does constitute the ‘right moment’? I think it must
be a combination of mood, a surfacing of interior reflection and an
energy (or impetus) triggered by my sketchbooks, which can return me
in spirit to the original source of joy.
2000 Passage to Greenland: Reykjavik – Sondre Stromfjord
2003 Circumnavigation of Svalbard (Spitzbergen Archipelago)
2004 East Greenland: Keflavik – Scoresby Sunday
2007 Iceland – Jan Mayen – Bear Island – Spitzbergen
2008 Scotland: Islands on the Edge
2009 Possibly: NE Canada, Ellesmere and Baffin Islands
Following the award of my first class BA Hons degree
in English and Art (University of Chichester 1990) and MPhil (University
of Southampton 1994) I have been working as an artist for over a decade.
I give workshops and lectures for a range of groups including West Sussex
Art Societies, Dinton Summer School, Wiltshire and regular visits to
‘Conquest’ in Godalming (Art for the Disabled). I have provided
book illustrations and undertaken commissions for the Tourist Board
and Chichester Theatre.
Inspired by the Arctic, I am repeatedly drawn back
by the strange ice forms, the energy in the light and its reflections
and the vigour of the mountains, which have fired my printmaking. I
hope the prints created in my studio and on presses at Northbrook College,
Worthing, capture the atmosphere of the extraordinary places of the
Far North. Places that challenge the comforts of everyday life; places
most people will never have the privilege of experiencing.
In addition to printmaking, I enjoy the directness
of working in charcoal, linocut, collograph and dry-point. I move frequently
between these media, using that best suited to the feel of the subject
2008 July - Red Biddy Gallery, 7 King’s Road, Shalford, GU4 8JU
2008 August - Printmaker’s Cut, Oxmarket Galleries, Chichester,
2008 October - Stride Open Competition, Chichester
2008 November - The National Open Art Competition, Chichester
2009 Possibly Sussex Barn Gallery, West Dean College, Chichester
Exhibitions have included:
Solo shows: The Oates Museum, Selborne (2007)
Annual Open Doors (2001 –2008), The John Palmer Centre, Bramley
Group shows: Wine Street Gallery, Devizes
(2005), Red Biddy Gallery, Shalford (2004, 2005) and in Winchester,
Dorking, Amersham, Farnham, Southampton and as far afield as Suffolk
as well as in London.
© Julian Marshall 2008. Anyone wishing to
discuss Julian’s work or to arrange a visit to her studio are
invited to contact her at: Itchenor Gate House, Itchenor Green, Chichester,
West Sussex PO20 7DA. Tel: 01243 512815 E-mail: Brianmarshall4@tiscali.co.uk