To Begin with . .

This site is a chronology. Its beginning is where I feel my drawing practice reached a turning point. New text and imagery will be added as they are conceived and produced. For the latest news please scroll down or click on the page title.

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. 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
©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

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 © 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 on paper © 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 on paper © 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 on paper © 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 begain at the bottom of the 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 on paper © 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 on paper © 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 on paper 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 on paper © Simon Manfield

Archaeologists Javier Ortiz and Francisco Etxeberria. Coloured pencil on paper © 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 on paper © Simon Manfield

Skull of Antonio Piedrafita’s father. Ink on paper © Simon Manfield
Eighteen of a possible twenty-nine bodies were recovered and taken away for DNA testing at the beginning of August.

Grave. Ink on paper by  © Simon Manfield

The Prado de Don Jaime. Ink on paper © 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. I was proud to be awarded funds from both Arts Council England and the British Council to assist in completing and touring Memoria Histórica. 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 at ArtsMill in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire between September and 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 on paper  © Simon Manfield

Orcadians: Seven Impromptus

Lifeboatman. Ink don paper © Simon Manfield

Lifeboatman. Ink and gouache on paper © Simon Manfield

Fisherman. Ink and gouache on paper  © Simon Manfield

Fisherman. Ink on paper  © Simon Manfield

Chicken. Gouache on paper  © Simon Manfield

Chicken. Gouache on paper  © Simon Manfield

Crofter. Ink on paper © Simon Manfield

Doctor. Gouache on paper © Simon Manfield

Doctor. Gouache on paper © Simon Manfield

Saint. Ink on paper © Simon Manfield

Saint. Ink on paper  © Simon Manfield

Them at Isbister. Ink and gouache on paper © Simon Manfield

Them at Isbister. Ink and gouache on paper  © Simon Manfield

Them at Isbister. Pencil on paper  © 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 on paper © Simon Manfield

The Italians (after Paul Strand). Ink and gouache on paper © Simon Manfield

Flight over the Pyrenees. Gouache on paper  © Simon Manfield

Rust red car. Gouache on paper  © Simon Manfield

Boris Vian. Ink and Gouache on paper © Simon Manfield

Canal in winter. Charcoal on paper  © Simon Manfield

A Long view (after Richard Long). Gouache on paper © Simon Manfield

The Long journey. Gouache on paper © Simon Manfield

White Drawing No.1. Ink and acrylic primer on paper  © Simon Manfield

White Drawing No. 2. Ink and acrylic primer on paper  © Simon Manfield

White Drawing No. 3. Ink and acrylic primer on paper  © Simon Manfield

White Drawing No. 4. Ink and acrylic primer on paper  © Simon Manfield

Fields of Vision - Tour de France

In 2014 along with eleven other artists I was commissioned to produce a large scale artwork for Fields of Vision, a 105 kilometre art trail to appear along the route of the Grand Depart for that year's Tour de France. The twelve land art installations would be created in collaboration with members of the Young Farmers and coordinated by rural regeneration company Pennine Prospects. The commissioned artists including myself were Imran Qureshi, Catherine Bertola, Trudi Entwistle, Jo Gorner, Louise Lockhart, Steve Messam, Robert Montgomery, Jane Revitt and Raz Ul Haq. My installation, a 137 metre shepherd and his dog, was 'drawn' with white line-marker paint onto an expanse of grazing land with the help of a team of workers. As the 'eyes' I directed the operation, working from a distance with the aid of binoculars and a walkie-talkie.

Proposal artwork. Ink on paper © Simon Manfield

On site. Photographer unknown
Stanbury. Photograph © Daniel Weaver

Working towards a new body of work: Landscape, humanity and a journey to and about the archipelago of St Kilda

Memoria Histórica and Orcadians: Seven Impromptus chart well the manner in which I expressed myself pictorially at the time and  are bodies of work of which I am extremely proud. Their shared theme is place and the human intervention of it, narrative, time and memory. In terms of the character of my drawing what both do as well, when viewed alongside each other, is represent a journey of progression, exhibiting the development of my visual language. I learned a great deal during each project, not only in terms of the technical process of drawing but also on an emotional level; to be happy, and confident with the way I work. This was not a signal that allowed me to be complacent with my working processes but one that gave me the confidence to accept a point from whence I could expand and move forward creatively.

Memoria Histórica was my first series of drawings to use narrative and the themes of memory, time and place. Although the drawings are tight with detail, all A4 in size, the drawn lines show signs of growing expressiveness and are more confident than in earlier work. The drawings also present a more thoughtful spatial awareness; a steady minimising of contextual surroundings.

Orcadians: Seven Impromptus carried the same themes forward. My growing confidence showed itself in various ways: the dimensions of the picture plane were larger, A1 and A2; the media more varied, with their application more adventurous - ink line and layered wash, painted colour in gouache; graphite pencil and ink pen. The level of detail seen in Memoria Histórica remained but the manner in which it was visualised was more assured. I felt more in command of tools and media. The change of scale encouraged greater freedom, more room to move, especially in terms of the potentials with mark-making. Looking back on the work however, it appears to be a series searching for its place, for a cohesive visual language.

Slate Mound - Isle of Seil. Black chalk on paper  © Simon Manfield

Towards completion of Orcadians: Seven Impromptus thoughts of how to help evolve my practice became more pressing. Scale seemed an important development to follow. To the viewer - and to me - Memoria Histórica was moving; the intensity of the subject constricted within its frame seemed to heighten its emotive qualities. I now wanted to break away from that dimensional confinement, to approach the physical act of drawing in a more vigorous way and to be more confronting with the sentiments I wanted to portray. Scale and the bolder marks that would invigorate the way I built up a drawing; drawing from the shoulder not from the wrist. I wanted to shift from small physical movements, away from manipulating the pencil or brush with little more than the bending of the fingers.

Various trips to the Western Isles both near and far opened my eyes to dramatic landscapes, to rock and sea: slate quarries on the Isle of Seil, barren moorland on Lewis, the moonscape panoramas of Harris. These vistas were all too big, too large and wild an expanse to squeeze into a constricting frame. They, like me and my practice, needed space to live and to breathe. Like landscape that engulfs the visitor making them appear alone and minuscule, I wanted, through the depiction of scale, for drawing to likewise diminish the viewer, to become monumental.

Slate Quarry - Isle of Seil. Ink on paper  © Simon Manfield

I was also keen to make the viewing of this work be more physical than we are usually presented with in gallery spaces. I wanted the viewer to be confronted by the work, requiring them to look 'up' rather than 'at' the artwork.

St Kilda - a new body of work

Many years ago I read a book entitled The Life and Death of St Kilda by Tom Steel. I already knew a little of the story of St Kilda's evacuation in August 1930 but Steel's book firmly implanted an itch of interest that every so often would need scratching. In 2015 when teaching at the University of Bradford my friend and colleague Talya Baldwin and I waited in a cafe in Leeds for our students to arrive for a session of drawing in the taxidermy department of Leeds City Museum. We knew our tenure at the university would shortly be coming to an end. We discussed various ideas for our escape and came upon the mutual itch of interest in St Kilda. The story leading up to and including the evacuation, the landscape, seabirds and how the fragility of their existence mirrored the human lives of those who for millennia had inhabited that sea-bound North Atlantic archipelago captivated both of us.

Mary Gillies née MacQueen. Ink on paper © Simon Manfield
In August 2017 Talya and I, along with nine other passengers waited on the pier at Leverburgh, Harris for the two man crew of the fifty-five feet long vessel, The Enchanted Isle. The weather over the two previous days was stormy and at the time was not looking hopeful for the crossing. A text however at about 7.30 pm the evening before gave us the thumbs up. The crew arrived, "We have some good news and some bad. The good news is we are making the crossing, the bad news is that it will be rough: around an eight metre swell. For those who wish to make the crossing you can get on board."

Photograph © Simon Manfield

The crossing was indeed rough as many felt in their gut. After two and a half hours of being buffeted from port to starboard and back again we moored in the sheltered Village Bay, a dinghy ride off shore from the main island of Hirta (Hiort, in the Gaelic), flooded in warmth and sunlight.

Four and a half hours on shore went frustratingly quickly; hardly long enough to absorb the poignancy of the place. The main street empty but full of memories of photos seen in books, faces recalled from the travelogue St Kilda: Britain's loneliest island (1928); the school; hundreds of cleits (stone storage huts) dotted around the landscape; up through the curve of the glen between Mullach Mòr and Conachair, towards the great sea cliffs with clusters of fulmars at the tail end of their breeding season; around the coast of high cliffs; further up and along; swooped on by bonxies (the Great Skua); and then back down again towards the pier and departure. On our return journey we skirted between the island Boreray and the sea stacks of Stac Lì and Stac an Àrmainn. It is here that ideas on how the portrayal of the monumental could be visualised became clearer: emerging out of nowhere an isolated dark monolith.

Stac Li - St Kilda. Ink on paper © Simon Manfield

Stac an Àrmainn - St Kilda. Ink on paper © Simon Manfield

Drawings done on my return were the first inkling of new visual explorations to come. The heavy blacks of the vast sea stacks reminded me of Henry Moore's lithographs of Stonehenge. The dark, tightly described drawings suggested solidity and volume, and alluded to their enormity even though restrained within the small perimeter of their frame.

Seeing Moore's lithographs at The Hepworth in Wakefield shook me out of the doldrums. I explored more intuitive ways of drawing. I completed two drawings of Stac Lì in quick succession and it felt liberating. This was an 'active' way of drawing and would undoubtedly be a more practicable translation of my subject to a larger scale, especially in terms of timings and practical application. 

Stac Li - St Kilda. Charcoal, coloured pencil and black chalk on paper © Simon Manfield

Stac Li - St Kilda. Gouache on paper © Simon Manfield

What I also saw in Moore's lithographs was his concentration on the monolith, his fixation on the individual stone structure. It became the be all and end all of focus. Nothing else was of as great importance as the structure itself. When I looked at the work the little context I recognised appeared inconsequential. All that mattered to me was the giant standing stones and the artist's tightly honed geometric compositions. I could see the sea stacks being presented in as bold a manner as Moore's Stonehenge, their positive shape firmly implanted in a sea of negative space. I could also see the islands themselves, or at least sections of the islands, sliced from their neighbouring land masses, jutting out from the edge of the frame, solid and steady, and sure to the eye in a surrounding fog of white space. The St Kildans too, drawn from contemporary film and historical photos, like the sea stacks are still and resolute monoliths surrounded by the same opaque mist that can sometimes envelope the islands.

Dun - St Kilda. Ink on paper © Simon Manfield

Dun - St Kilda. Ink on paper © Simon Manfield

Oiseval - St Kilda. Black chalk on paper © Simon Manfield

Mistress Stone, Ruaival - St Kilda. Ink on paper © Simon Manfield

St Kildan. Ink on paper © Simon Manfield

St Kildan. Ink on paper © Simon Manfield

St Kildan. Ink on paper © Simon Manfield

St Kildan. Ink on paper © Simon Manfield

In the summer of 2019 Talya and I made our second trip to St Kilda, this time accompanied by photographer Sandy Watt. Unlike our first jaunt this time gave us just under a week on Hirta, or at least for however long the weather would hold, to explore the extraordinary landscape and to absorb a better sense of the presence of its past. Having only four and a half hours last time and knowing that the big glen, Gleann Mòr, lay unseen was a frustration for us. This time though, with still, hot and shimmering weather, time seemed plentiful. 

Walks to the edge of Hirta, facing the island of Dun; the Mistress Stone at Ruaival, sketching en plein air; climbing the steep road, passing the Taigh an Truir, up to Am Blaid, and across Claigeann Mòr to stop and take in the magnificent view down to Gleann Mòr; the Lover's Stone and traversing Mullach Bì towards the Cambir with breath-taking views across the strait of Sòthaigh Stac and Stac Bìorach to the island of Soay.

Sketch. Graphite pencil on paper © Simon Manfield

Sketch. Graphite pencil on paper © Simon Manfield

Sketch. Graphite pencil on paper © Simon Manfield

Sketch. Graphite pencil on paper © Simon Manfield

The sky then filled with fast-moving rain clouds.

Cleits. Graphite pencil and acrylic primer on paper © Simon Manfield

Gleann Mor. Gouache on paper © Simon Manfield

Stac Biorach and Sothaigh Stac. Gouache on paper © Simon Manfield

This gradually, and sadly, spelled the beginning of a change of weather; weather that would over the next couple of days deteriorate, keeping us from further exploration and eventually drive us from the island, as news of approaching storm force gales would accelerate our departure.

Leaving Hiort. Gouache on paper © Simon Manfield

On the boat back to Leverburgh I was already planning, dreaming of the next visit; under sail, a long, slow approach, the islands' gradual appearance from below the horizon.

Photograph © Simon Manfield

On a Raised Beach

Hugh MacDiarmid - On a Raised Beach. Ink on paper © Simon Manfield

Running parallel to my new work will be a commission from friend and collaborator James Robertson to make visual representations of the poem On a Raised Beach by Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid (born Christopher Murray Grieve 1892, died 1978). The poem was written in 1934 while MacDiarmid lived with his wife and son on the island of Whalsay, Shetland and is heavy with geological references; it is however much more than just a treatise on the Earth's structural characteristics. The poem weaves between geology and religion, science and love, exploring and musing with MacDiarmid's love of language. I am drawn to the poem for many reasons: the first, as it has thematic unity with my preoccupations of place and humanity's intervention with it, and allusions to rock and sea. Perhaps most importantly it is its fundamental complexity that will motivate and test me. It has no narrative to follow; that in itself will challenge me, but what I find most exciting is that it will coax me towards a different way of visualising text, perhaps looking at it as a more abstract project to what I'm used to.

As the new work progresses I will no doubt come across obstacles that will frustrate me and surprises that will provoke and spur me on. Nothing will be 'expected'. I will welcome that.  




  1. Like it lots Simon. Especially the background tale to the inspiration.

    1. Thanks James, I'm still building it up, slowly but surely. And you're my first comment!

  2. White drawings are fantastic. It's interesting to see some drawings in colour as well.
    Always a fan. Hope you're okay.

  3. Thank you Justyna, great to hear from you! Hope you are still drawing & are well . . .


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