Ghost Trees

The small wood that has grown up on the back field includes a number of white-barked birch trees. I noticed them when the snow was here, sharp-bright negatives against dark conifer spikes and a leafless blacktwigged canopy. Vertical trunkpoles and near white bark, split and cracked like cold chapped fingers, more at home in the Siberian taiga then an English copse.

I spotted what I thought was a 1970’s mosaic of silver birches on the wall of the defunct Black and Dekker factory. I sneaked in to get a better view and found it to be the imprint of a climbing plant which had been ripped from the black-painted wall of the now derelict office block. The claws of the plant had torn away the paint revealing white stucco behind.

The Himalayan Birches which form a dell at the bottom of the Botanic Gardens are close cousins, albino trees, pale ghosts from Nepal and Tibet. A small patch of Asia transplanted in Northern England. I have had them in mind whilst planning a new body of work for an exhibition scheduled for 2012 at Durham University’s Oriental Museum. I have set out to produce 1000 drawings of the ghost trees in white ashes and Chinese ink on a delicate Wenzhou paper. Each measures 12x12cm and they will be mounted as a long swathe across one wall of the museum. 200 done…..


I have been back to the Bowes Museum to have a closer look at the Flight into Egypt. They very kindly wheeled it out of storage and I spent an interesting couple of hours drawing it and scouring its surface for clues to its meaning. I discovered that the object on the cloth spread out at the foot of the crippled beggar in the foreground of the painting is a set of manacles, not a pair of medieval spectacles as I have always thought. I believe that they are further evidence pointing to the idea that the painting shows the beginning of the end, the Second Coming, when the oppressed will throw off their shackles and the meek will inherit the Earth.

On the bleak moor on the left hand side of the painting I have found a man broken on a wheel next to a man hung on the gallows. This was a very grizzly form of execution favoured in the Low Countries at this time and also features in the paintings of Bosch and Bruegel. These incidental details are tiny, the work of a miniaturist attempting to expand his vision on a larger scale. They only come into true focus in close-up photography, but they are of great significance when attempting to read the painting.

I was also shown the museum’s new Research Centre housed at the top of one of the towers and commanding fantastic views of the surrounding landscape and roof construction. From the set of arched windows you could have been looking out across Parisien rooftops whilst the views framed by the circular windows looked unsettling like the panoramic landscape of the Flight.


Observation: I have been living in a black and white world for over a month now, a two-tone paradise of white fields and black trees, white hills and black walls. The mono-tonality has become even more pronounced in recent days as freezing mists have descended and blurred divisions, blanked skies and limited horizons. It would be easy to become depressed by such conditions but I have found myself transfixed by the beauty of it all. It has reduced my paintings to soot and ash.

“Settlement”   2010   smoke and ashes on burned tinplate

“Enclosures”   2010   smoke and ashes on burned tinplate

Black and white is a distinguishing feature of the region – Border plaid, Newcastle United, snow on coal. The black and white mix of the Northumbrian Tartan is a rare survival of a pre-historic cloth, the oldest of the Celtic tartans. Ancient fragments have turned up wrapped around a hoard of silver coins on the Antonine Wall near Falkirk. The woven check of un-dyed sheep’s wool has been worn by Border shepherds and clansmen for two thousand years or more, drab-dazzle camouflage, perfect for hiding in snow-streaked heather.

Aside: Dazzle camouflage was developed during WW1 by British designer Norman Wilkinson to break up the profile of ships at sea. Jazz-inspired patterns painted across the hulls and superstructures of battleships confused the rangefinding mechanisms of German U-boats. The Vortisist painter Edward Wadsworth supervised the painting of over two thousand vessels. One of the most famous designs protected the RMS Mauretania which was used to transport troops to Gallipoli in 1915. The Mauretania was built by Swan Hunters on the Tyne as a luxury ocean liner and at the time was the largest and fastest ship in the world.

Postscript: In the short time that it has taken me to draft this posting, snow turned to sleet, sleet turned to rain and a mild westerly blew in from the Atlantic. Consequently the landscape has come out from under it’s shroud revealing a shock of green and the heaps of snow piled up by the ploughs has turned a filthy grey.

Snow Carpet

Our collection of tribal carpets continues to provide me with ideas for  paintings. I have been looking at the Kurdish Gabbeh in front of the sitting room fire, watching the bands and spots flicker like a zoetrope as the coal roars and glows and the logs hiss and spit.

The rug is a landscape, a crows-eye view of the Zagros Mountians where it was made. The geology of a mountain, the snow covered terraces of a hillside, in broken stripes and smudges of brown with intermittent dot-dot-dashes of black, blue and orange wools on an un-dyed, stone-coloured background. Blue mountain goats trip around the perilous ledges of the ironstone rust-crimsoned border.

We have had many different types of snow recently. It has fallen layer upon layer, thawed, frozen, then fallen again. A thick carpet of snow thrown over the landscape. Dry soft snow from the Arctic, crumbling pellets like polystyrene balls, fine blizzard snow blown on strong winds, large wet flakes falling vertically, sleet and hail accompanied by thunder, all settling on the builder’s debris in the garden, clinging to the tree braches on the back fields, accumulating in thick drifts up on the hills.

I imagine the Moor under snow, the poisoned earth temporarily cleansed by a virginal covering, a white kilim.

“Whiteout”   2009   smoke and ashes on burned tinplate

“Drift”   2010   smoke and ashes on burned tinplate

The Moor

The first winter snows brought to mind Bruegel’s painting “The Massacre of the Innocents”. The original painting is in the Queen’s Collection and we saw it last year on show at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. It is a fantastic snowy painting, a village under a little ice age freeze, but the beauty masks the sinister subject. Soldiers of the Duke of Alba’s army slash and stab pigs, chickens and sacks of corn as distraught villagers plead for them to stop, to leave them something to feed their families through the bitter weather. Closer inspection reveals that the livestock and bags are later over-paintings. Time has brought back the tiny ghosts which haunt this painting, the indistict outlines of the village children, dragged from their homes and cruelly slaughtered. A bloody atrocity, retribution for some unrecorded assassination or act of sabotage, or the birth of a boy-king.

Jan Van Amstel’s “Landscape with the Flight into Egypt” in the Bowes Museum is an appropriate companion piece, painted some twenty years before, a presentiment of the brutal religious wars about to sweep the Lowlands. A blue-black storm cloud looms over Bethlehem as the Holy Family make their way towards the Red Sea. Again the real subject is hidden, the clue to it’s meaning tied up in incidentals. In the foreground a blind beggar sees what is to come, he sits beneath a tree adorned with a wayside crucifix. On a bleak moor a man hangs from a gibbet and in the sky is the thread-width vapour trail of a falling comet, the Star of Bethlehem crashes to Earth into a distant wood. This is Wormwood, the burning fireball which poisons the waters of the Earth and kills all life. This is the beginning of the End of the World.

Bowes Moor to the west of Barnard Castle is a poisoned place. During and after WW2 the RAF used it to stockpile chemical weapons, mustard gas and lewisite and the terrible nerve agents sarin and tabun. Corrosion, leaks and fires led to severe contamination of the earth and seepage into the water system. Eventually the evil compounds were burned or dumped into the sea but the land has never properly recovered. It’s skin absorbed the deadly toxins and blistered and burst as a result.

The scar tissue of MOD concrete and brick remain and heather and cotton grass have grown over the wounds. Hill sheep have returned to graze and curlews, lapwings and skylarks to nest. Under snow-white bandages the Moor is still beautiful.

I have been working on a series of paintings about the Moor, reinterpretations of the Van Amstel, a contaminated, brutalised land struggling to recover from evil abuse.

“Melting Snowfield”    ashes and smoke on burnt tinplate

“Hill Fog”   ashes and smoke on burnt tinplate