Friday, 17 August 2012

To Begin with . .

2003 was an important year.

Early that year, at a seminar and workshop for development in visual arts practice, artist Joanne Tatham leafed through my portfolio. Joanne was my mentor. A month or so later I began what was to become an on-going collaboration with Joanne and her partner Tom O'Sullivan. The first piece we collaborated on was entitled No, this is the thing that has reached the limit conditions of its own rhetoric.

No, this is the thing that has reached the limit conditions of its own rhetoric,  2003
Pen and ink drawing in a hand-made frame constructed from plywood and covered in artex, hay and black gloss paint
30cm x 56cm x 8cm.
The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

©Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan

Work shown as part of the Edinburgh Printmakers exhibition The Writing on your Wall in 2011.

An Indirect Exchange of Uncertain Value - I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so, so, so sorry! 2011
Etching, screenprint and monoprint
57cm x 63.5.

©Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan

Simon Manfield in Conversation with Joanne Tatham and Tom O'Sullivan, Mackintosh Library, Glasgow School of Art, 2010. How does an illustrator collaborate with contemporary artists? 

To listen, click on the link below:

Simon Manfield in conversation with Joanne Tatham and Tom O'Sullivan
listen to audio recording

On the 8th of March I read an article written by Giles Tremlett entitled Spanish civil war comes back to life in the Saturday edition of the UK Guardian. This chance reading changed everything.

Photograph © Angel de la Rubia Barbon 2003

Memoria Histórica in Valdediós

The following piece written for a book that never quite happened explains my introduction, involvement and reaction to a project that remains historically pertinent, and will ever be of great importance to me:

For decades many families in Spain have been clinging to the hope that, one day, the communal grave containing their relatives would be excavated. This would allow them the opportunity to reclaim their family member's remains and to give them the burial they deserve. Generally, the problem has not been the location of the grave, as this has usually been known. The problem has been that, for many in Spain since the end of the civil war (1936-39), it was, and often still is, easier to forget what occurred than to accept the truth. This denial of historical fact is not the product of ignorance, but the consequence of many decades of fear perpetuated by General Francisco Franco's long and oppressive regime. Suspicion and the threat of reprisal still exist in Spain, and it is often thought better to look to the future than to accept the past. This way of thinking is slowly changing.

The Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (The Association for the Recovery of Historic Memory – ARMH), founded in 2000 by Emilio Silva Barrera and Santiago Macías Perez, has devoted itself to the recovery of ‘the disappeared’. By enlisting the help of volunteers, the association has organised the excavation of many communal graves throughout Spain.

One such excavation was reported by the Guardian’s Giles Tremlett (8/3/03) in an article entitled ‘Spanish Civil War comes back to life’. It described the exhumation of three women who had been assassinated by Franco’s Nationalist troops and the struggle with local authorities to gain permission to rebury them in the local cemetery.

The piece was a revelation. It surprised me that the political divide between left and right, so prevalent during the civil war, was so tangible even today. The division that exists today is fundamental. Not only is it polemic but also demonstrably calculated and aggressive. It was only after vigilant campaigning and considerable press coverage that permission was granted for the reburial.

One of the photographs accompanying the article was of a shattered skull, still half buried, its jaw fixed open with the hands of an archaeologist gently sweeping away the surrounding soil. It was a dark and menacing image, but strangely alluring. At the article’s conclusion a call was made for volunteers to take part in further excavations in the summer of 2003.

My reaction was immediate. I felt a profound need to become involved in some way. Spain has, for many years, held a huge fascination for me. I am drawn to the landscape for its diversity and admire the people for their unswerving pride and fortitude. I was willing to volunteer any skills that would be relevant. The most obvious skill I possessed was that of an illustrator.

I submitted my proposal to the International Voluntary Services (IVS) in Leeds who then passed it on to the ARMH. If I were accepted, the project could offer me the opportunity to use illustration as a recording device much as artists and writers had done during the years of the civil war. Most importantly however, perhaps this would enable me to produce a powerful collection of drawings as testament to a significant historical event.

The ARMH accepted my proposal in June 2003.

The excavation took place in Valdediós in the northern province of Asturias and commenced on the 15th July, running for approximately three weeks. The aim was to excavate a communal grave containing the bodies of twenty-nine employees of La Cadellada psychiatric hospital, victims of a mass killing perpetrated by the Navarrese Nationalist regiment, IVth Arapiles Battalion no.7, on the 25th October 1937.

Personnel. August 1937. (Photograph by Constantino Suárez)

Historical Outline

In January 1937, driven from Oviedo by Franco’s rebel attack, the personnel of La Cadellada psychiatric hospital fled the Asturian capital making their way to the abandoned monastery of Santa María de Valdediós, a distance of some thirty kilometres. Under the administration of the Republican health service a temporary hospital was to be established in the monastery to treat the shell-shocked and battle-fatigued from the front.

Valdediós is not so much a village as a collection of small hamlets and was, at this point of the civil war, in the Republican zone. It is situated in a beautiful verdant valley, the landscape of which has changed very little since the war: farmlands of grazing milk cows, fields of maize and apple orchards for cider. Idyllic, and for the most part, in early 1937, it was a tranquil and safe setting in spite of the surrounding conflict.

What actually occurred in the days immediately preceding the assassination is unclear. As there is very little written documentation extant, we must look to contradictory testimonies, speculation and rumours as explanation.

The following is the most likely version of events that led to the assassination of personnel in Valdediós.

On the 20th October 1937, the IVth Arapiles Battalion no.7 entered the grounds of the hospital. They immediately singled out five individuals on account of their trade union affiliations, and took them for trial to Gijón. It was later disclosed that two of the individuals were executed.

Five days later, on the evening of the 25th October, the nurses were forced to prepare a celebration with food and dancing for the battalion. According to different testimonies, the soldiers, fuelled by alcohol, raped a number of the female personnel. Later, perhaps to cover up the violation, the soldiers decided to eliminate the victims and any who had witnessed the crime.

Alerted by the din of shouts and screams emanating from the hospital enclosure, a military chaplain appeared. The chaplain would undoubtedly have appeared to the terrified personnel as the possible agent of their salvation but this was not to be the case. He absolved the soldiers of their actions and has alleged to comment, “Do what you must do.”

Lane, Valdediós. (Ink drawing by © Simon Manfield)

The personnel were then taken from the hospital grounds and marched 200 metres along an adjacent lane to what was then a chestnut wood, now known locally as the Prado de Don Jaime. After being ordered to dig their own graves, the personnel were executed.

The event was recalled by Bernardo García at the time of the excavation. At the end of that October in 1937 the young García heard shots and screams coming from the Prado de Don Jaime. Days after, he discovered the grave on the hillside meadow: “I only saw the grave for a very short time. After that I ran away as fast as I could. Times were very dangerous”.

Bernardo García. (Ink drawing by © Simon Manfield)

It has been claimed that the killings were carried out as an act of retribution. On the morning of the second day of the excavation a large piece of card, tied to the gate at the entrance to the site, bore an anonymous handwritten message. It read: “Cuando termineis aquí buscais las tumbas de las victimas de estos asesinos” (When you have finished here, look for the tombs of the victims of these assassins). At the bottom right hand corner of the placard a syringe was drawn. It is said that the nurses had been gradually killing the patients, who, it has been argued, were not psychiatric patients but wealthy landowners and members of the clergy, with injections of aguarrás (turpentine). Pilar, the monastery guide, confirmed the allegation: “That’s why they were executed! Take a look at the cemetery in the village. The place is littered with their victims!”

Of course the theorising that surrounds the Valdediós killings is not peculiar to that incident. The thousands of mass assassinations carried out during the civil war were performed without trial and those who took part in or witnessed them kept quiet, mostly from fear of reprisal. It is clear that, without official or historical investigation, there will be no definitive explanation for the killings, and now, after many decades, it is unlikely that one will come to light.

The ARMH has estimated that the thirty thousand Spaniards who disappeared or were executed during the years of the civil war and the repression which followed, lie buried somewhere, in mass graves along local roads and lanes, on unused pieces of land or on beaches. Some five thousand bodies are interred in mass graves in the northern province of Asturias, another five thousand surround the city of Granada and almost a thousand lie near Seville, as well as thousands just outside Córdoba.

To date, the remains of more than five thousand have been located at the request of the surviving relatives, and many identified with DNA tests and taken to cemeteries for reburial.

The Excavation

I arrived in Valdediós in the afternoon of the 14th July in the middle of a heavy summer downpour.

The monastery of San Salvador de Valdediós looks across a wide sweep of farmland and is surrounded by hills of towering eucalyptus. In 1992 it became a working Cistercian monastery. Through two black iron gates a footpath passes across an expansive cobbled quadrangle, leading to what would be the volunteers’ makeshift dormitory.

Initially I was to be one of eight volunteers taking part in the excavation. As time passed more arrived, a steady influx of national and international volunteers, then archaeologists, photographers and documentary film crews. It wasn’t until the twenty-eighth volunteer appeared that I realised the importance of this project.

Volunteers working. (Ink drawing by © Simon Manfield)

We commenced work on the following day. An area of approximately thirty square metres was staked out in the meadow of Don Jaime. The digging began at the bottom of a steep slope. First cuts into the turf revealed heavy red clay which, with the summer heat, made labour arduous. As the day progressed and the temperature rose, a seemingly endless stream of visitors approached the site. “Visiting this site always makes me shudder,” explained Josefina Nieto, who was only three years old when her mother, one of the nurses, was assassinated. Her father had died shortly before, in 1936, as a Republican soldier at the front. “For a very long time, I thought it would be better not to touch my mother’s grave, with all these other people buried in it. But now, I consider this to be an unworthy resting place for my mother”. Speaking in a low and gentle voice she added: “It would have been so much better if they had started searching for the corpses many, many years ago”.

Antonio Piedrafita. (Ink and gouache drawing by © Simon Manfield)

Each visitor offered advice as to the whereabouts of the grave. Some shared their recollections of Valdediós at the time of the killings and many attacked the clay with a pick or shovel. It appeared to me that, after nearly seven difficult decades, the spirit that had been restrained by an oppressive and authoritarian dictatorship had resurfaced in these people as they broke into the upper crust of the earth.

Volunteers working. (Ink drawing by © Simon Manfield)

For the first few days I worked on site sketching from life. I made quick sketches in ink or graphite pencil. The shapes and gestures created by figures bending, digging or resting was striking. However, as the day wore on I became aware of missing opportunities elsewhere on site.

The speed in which people worked made drawing from life cumbersome. All manner of reactions and movements occurred at once. Frustratingly, due to this rapidity of action I was unable to capture the various scenes on paper. I began to use my camera, using up roll after roll of film.

At the beginning of the second week, with no sign of the grave and tempers flaring, the excavation was temporarily halted. An uncomfortable atmosphere of conflict hung palpably in the air. Clandestine meetings were held. Irritation and anger were clearly visible on the faces of the organisers. It all came to a head one evening in the local bar, when it was disclosed that political, and it appears personal, differences within the local branch of the ARMH threatened to end the excavation. The volunteers’ response to this was passionate. The following morning six international volunteers and two team leaders departed.

Later that day, after being alerted to the on-going discord within the camp, Emilio Silva, president of the ARMH, arrived to find a way to continue the excavation. He was well aware that the dig was under close scrutiny by the local media and as Valdediós had turned into something of a cause celebre for the association it put immense pressure on its reputation. Emilio Silva is an imposing figure, possessing a calming and cogent demeanour. Along with Silva, and arriving like a whirlwind, Professor of Forensic Medicine Francisco Etxeberria from the University of País Vasco was appointed as leader. An intensely focused professional, Etxeberria, with anthropologist Lourdes Herrasti and the remaining archaeological team recommenced work on site. With the additional help of a mechanical digger, the first of the remains were located on the 24th July.

Esther Montoto. (Ink drawing by © Simon Manfield)

As the digger gouged into the earth, uncovering the first of the victims’ bones I witnessed scenes of extraordinary emotion. Towards the end of the second week the extent of the carnage was exposed in the form of a shallow L-shaped grave. The most shocking aspect was not the elongated form of the grave itself – the realisation that the victims were forced to contrive the awkward shape due to its position in the chestnut wood at the time of the killing was poignant – or the victims’ tangled remains lying as they had fallen, but the emergence of personal effects by their sides. These gave the unrecognisable bodies identity.

Volunteer working. (Coloured pencil drawing by © Simon Manfield)

Archaeologists Javier Ortiz and Francisco Etxeberria. (Coloured pencil drawing by © Simon Manfield)

Everyone worked or watched in a manner that was focused and respectful. I was surprised by my feelings of impassivity. I did however feel a great sadness for the relatives who witnessed the exhumation. One such relative, Antonio Piedrafita, was called by one of the archaeologists. The shattered skull of his father displayed what would identify him: a row of gold teeth.

Marta Capin and Antonio Piedrafita look on as his father's remains are uncovered.
(Pencil drawing by © Simon Manfield)

Skull of Antonio Piedrafita’s father. (Ink drawing by © Simon Manfield)

Eighteen of a possible twenty-nine bodies were recovered and taken away for DNA testing at the beginning of August.

Grave. (Ink drawing by © Simon Manfield)

The Prado de Don Jaime (Ink drawing by © Simon Manfield)

On a personal level I have difficulty expressing how my involvement in this project has affected me. My participation has enabled me to produce a series of drawings of which I am immensely proud. However, that pride is shallow compared with the emotional effects of a nation coming to terms with a debilitating past. Spain has changed. Decades of latent grief are now unfurling. Beneath the grief lies a new determination.

The Memoria Histórica series of drawings were completed towards the end of 2006, three years after the excavation in Valdediós. The collection comprises sixty A4 drawings in various media on 150 gsm acid free cartridge paper, including pencil, 01 Pilot drawing pen, Berol Karismacolor coloured pencil, Winsor and Newton Designers gouache and Winsor and Newton ink.

In August 2004 twenty drawings from the collection were exhibited at Imperial War Museum North in Salford as part of their Reactions series. Since then Memoria Histórica has been shown at Casa de Cultura, Villiviciosa and Librería Cervantes, Oviedo, Asturias (January – March 2005); an expanded version at ArtsMill, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire (August 2005); Gallery II, University of Bradford (January 2006); the Eden Project (September 2007) and under the exhibition title Lines of Memory at Glasgow School of Art (October 2010). In March 2014, for the first time, all 60 drawings were exhibited at ArtsMill in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. This show included an edited version of documentary film-maker Rafael del Vigo's film The Valley of God

Articles pertaining to my drawings and experiences in Valdediós have been published in various periodicals including Kommune (German arts/political periodical, December 2003); Association of Illustrators Journal (December/January 2004) and The Drouth (Scottish arts periodical, November 2007).

Drawings from Memoria Histórica have appeared in the 2008 publication Memoria y reconstrucción de la paz – Enfoques Multidisciplinares en Contextos Mundiales, published by the University of Granada and Professor Paul Preston’s The Spanish Holocaust – Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain in March 2012 (HarperCollins).

The Memoria Histórica series of drawings is available to exhibit. If interested in seeing more of the work or would like further information regarding the collection I can be contacted at or

And then . . .

After working solidly on Memoria Histórica for three or so years I felt its narrative was complete. It had left me spent but I also believed it had reached its natural end. I now had the chance to re-examine an idea that had lain dormant for almost two decades. 

In the late 1980s while working as a bookseller in Edinburgh I was introduced to the work of Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown. His writing has intrigued me since then.

The first volume of his poetry I read was the first of his published collections: The Storm from 1954. In the opening line from Prologue, ‘For the islands I sing . . .’ I smelt the salt sea and heard the cry of gulls. And when I read on, I felt his love and pride for the islands. In other poems from The Storm - or later volumes of poetry - and in his short stories and novels I saw in them a wonderful buoyant and, at the same time, dark imagery.  For one reason or another I did not take the idea of illustrating the work further, and, looking back, I am pleased that I had waited. I read books such as the novel Greenvoe (1972) or the poetry collection The Year of the Whale (1965) but, although the visualisation of passages - or even just lines of text - came readily, I felt unable to delineate what was in my mind's eye. The writing needed not only a confident illustrator, which I was not, but one who could execute drawings that were fully-formed or realised - I was not ready.
In 2005 John Murray published the magnificent Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown, edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray.

After more than two decades of life’s experience - personal and creative - re-reading the verse bolstered my lapsed interest in the poet's writing and impelled me to re-examine the idea of illustrating the work - I was ready.

To choose one poem from a total of 421 was daunting. But starting with The Storm, my introduction to the poet’s work, I fell upon the last poem in the collection: Orcadians: Seven Impromptus. This sprawling, humorous, dark poem is a portrait of Orkney life and death, delving into the characters that inhabit the landscape. Dedicated to his mentor and champion Edwin Muir, the poem was clearly one he considered worthy of dedication. However, my reason for choosing Orcadians to illustrate was a purely visual one. Each impromptu offered countless pictorial opportunities; I saw the attitudes of the characters and the treeless landscape, backgrounds and foregrounds, the light and the dark; I heard the lifeboatman ‘laughing at danger . . .’ and ‘the yelp of a tinker’s dog’; I felt the farmers’ mistrust of the doctor ‘scattering barren wit’. It all lay out before me and I was more than ready.

I am immensely grateful to the late Archie Bevan (1925 - 2015), who in the early days of my work on the project was George Mackay Brown's literary executor, and whose kind permission allowed me the opportunity to illustrate the poem. 

At the beginning of 2015 I made the last marks on the last illustration for the project, a companion piece for the Chicken impromptu. By this time author, publisher and friend James Robertson had come up with the idea to publish the collection of work alongside the poem as a limited edition hardbound book under the Kettillonia imprint, and with the kind permission of the Estate of George Mackay Brown it was made possible. On June the 10th, 2016, along with the first showing of the completed series of large format paintings and drawings, the beautifully bound and printed edition of Orcadians: Seven Impromptus was launched at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. The evening was a great success. I felt overwhelmed and thrilled to see the project come to fruition but the greatest emotion I felt was one of gratitude, to all who gave me encouragement and ideas and helped me form what was a long fermenting concept into a solid and beautiful object. If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the book please go to the Kettillonia website:

Since the launch and first exhibition Orcadians: Seven Impromptus has been exhibited as part of the StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews in March 2017 and will be shown at ArtsMill in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire from 13th September until 1st October 2017.

If you are interested in reading a much broader selection of the poet's verse you could do no better than find a copy of The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown, edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray, published in 2005 by John Murray. 

Cloud over Orphir (Gouache drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

Orcadians: Seven Impromptus

Lifeboatman (Ink drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

Lifeboatman (Ink and gouache drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

Fisherman (Ink and gouache drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

Fisherman (Ink drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

Chicken (Gouache drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

Chicken (Gouache drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

Crofter (Ink drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

Doctor (Gouache drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

Doctor (Gouache drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

Saint (Ink drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

Saint (Ink drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

Them at Isbister (Ink and gouache drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

Them at Isbister (Ink and gouache drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

Them at Isbister (Pencil drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

A small selection of the drawings from Orcadians: Seven Impromptus were exhibited, as a taster, in my show Lines of Memory at the Atrium Gallery, Glasgow School of Art in 2010 and in a group show at ArtsMill, Linden Mill, Hebden Bridge in 2012.

As mentioned earlier the complete series of original paintings and drawings of Orcadians were exhibited at the Scottish Storytelling Centre from June 8th until July 2nd, 2016 on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. 

Examples of the drawings from Memoria Histórica and Orcadians: Seven Impromptus can also be seen on these noteworthy sites:

One-off pieces and small number series

The following selection of work consists of one-off pieces, that is, work not belonging to a series and a sequence of work that is experimental in nature. Although the manner in which these drawings are executed is traditional and the subjects are recognisably depictive, I hope for the viewer to be left questioning whether all is right with the image before them. Some play with and twist our conceptions of conventional art practice: is the proportion of that group of figures correct? Does that composition work? Is something amiss with that landscape? Others are more direct but present an unsettling narrative.

Ferry Inn, Stromness (Ink and gouache drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

The Italians (Ink and gouache drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

Flight over the Pyrenees (Gouache drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

Rust red car (Gouache drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

Boris Vian (Ink and Gouache drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

Canal in winter (Charcoal drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

A Long view (Gouache drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

The Long journey (Gouache drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

White Drawings

White Drawing No.1 (Ink and acrylic primer drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

White Drawing No. 2 (Ink and acrylic primer drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

White Drawing No. 3 (Ink and acrylic primer drawing by  © Simon Manfield)

White Drawing No. 4 (Ink and acrylic primer drawing by  © Simon Manfield)