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

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

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.  


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