a natural image
I took a break in Wales, driving West from Essex, through the English Midlands and over the mountains to the sea. As on childhood holidays, I saw woods, streams and waterfalls that I'd never seen before. Waterfall is about one of these falls, and how it has been seen, remembered and imagined.

The road between Aberystwyth and Machynellyth goes past an eighteenth century blast furnace. Set back on a bend it's easy to drive past, and easy to miss the fall tucked away in the trees. I glimpsed it as I drove past, pulled over and got out the car and walked back. Ducking under branches and clambering around some rocks, I got closer. Furnace Falls is part of an industrial site, but I barely noticed this on my first encounter.

I had found a nature condenser: a stone and water chamber saturated with noise, plants and animals. Updraughts buffeted insects, leaves and branches. Protean, the water changed colour, speed and texture. And when the sun came out the scene fragmented in ways that defied imagination.

I made an oil study, and later began a big canvas only to put it aside to work in a field in Essex. But I didn't forget this fall:  its distinctive shape fused with a memory of that first impression of natural richness into a kind of emblem.
Years later, I went back to make a fresh start:

Painting is a way of making first hand contact with nature - think of Cézanne or Constable. In this tradition there is an assumption that we don't know what things look like and that painting offers a unique way of finding out.

Compared to an object on a table, a waterfall is almost impossible to see. At a distance they often have distinctive shapes, but close up they look chaotic. This combination of stability and instability is part of their facination. It's as though they are telling you that you can and can't see them, that their permanence is true and not true.

The images in Waterfall show how one spot gives many different visions of water. You don't have to travel to see variety. The paintings exploit different sources -  oil studies, drawings, notes and photos, with digital analysis and re-organisation in the studio.



click images

click image





furnace falls : amlder y dyfroedd

oil on canvas, 183cms x 119cms


I moved to Ely, a cathederal town surrounded by huge, flat fields. Painting waterfalls here felt slightly crazy and made me think about what the paintings meant, so far from their mountain home. 
Friends sent me a post card from Niagra Falls, and I picked up an idea from the coconut mat. Since post cards were introduced, huge numbers of waterfall pictures have been sent and displayed on mantle pieces, pin boards and fridges. I saw that what's just suggested by a painting is unmistakable on a hand written card - stamped, franked and sent from one place to another: That no matter how real a landscape image looks, it's always distant from the real thing - so it is both real and imagined.

This shifted the way I saw my paintings. They still looked truthful but, like cards  through the post, I could see them more easily as an imagined place. I also saw that, as with a post card, a painting could bring to mind an imagined map - in my case a mental map of England and Wales. So, with a sense of sharing something with thousands of senders and receivers of post cards, past and present, I began to collect cards of Furnace falls.
These cards are part of Waterfall:


This is one posted in 1906 in Eglwysfach, the village by the fall where the sender lived, at Ty-mawr - literally 'big house'. It was addresed to The Liverpool Royal Infirmary with a message in Welsh* which reads 
Dear Nephew,
It was good to hear from you and to know you are improving and have got through the operation very sucessfully. You will be as strong as a horse again, like before. After sending this I'm going to Festiniog today or tomorrow.   
So the falls became part of a small act of family kindness. An uncle felt that a picture of a waterfall was a good choice for a convalecent, perhaps because water in springs and pools is associated with healing (there is such a spring nearby), but also because his nephew probably knew the fall. Postcards link people through places, and the cards I've collected show that a waterfall can act as a reference point in people's lives.
Sixty years later the fall looks very different, not just because it's in low spate, but also because photography, printing and colour fashion have moved on; and all these things have changed the image of the fall :
This card was produced by a company started just after World War II by two ex Royal Airforce reconnaissance officers. In the 1980's it was sold in a shop opposite the fall, and the director of a nearby outward bound school, John Roberts, bought them in batches for students to send home to London's East End. So there may still be pictures of Furnace Falls in the drawers of urban Stepney.
By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / National Library of Wales
The oldest known picture of the falls is on the far left of this drawing in The National Library of Wales - first in a series of images to the present day that you can see here:


Each picture in Waterfall shows the same place through time. The waterfall is picked out of the landscape as something worth attending to, treating it as a natural image, a thing unbidden, there to facinate and instruct. Medieval Christians saw nature as God's created book, to read and interpret and full of natural images. And we are still trying to read the book of nature.
Dutch artists painted waterfalls a hundred years before the British, and Chinese artists a thousand years before them. But differences between their ways of seeing now seem less important than similarites - because each tradition  invites us  to consider permanence and change in nature, and what it means for us.

How we imagine waterfalls concerns us all.



The Welsh titles for these paintings come from conversations with Gerald Morgan. I often heard Welsh as I grew up but have no Welsh myself; however Gerald is a Welsh speaker and scholar.
Our method was to discuss photos of the site with me trying to say something about my experience at the time. Then, without further interference from me, Gerald found Welsh words for what he saw.
Welsh evolved in contact with a particular landscape, creating a huge store of description and reaction to the envronment.* Our hope is that Welsh titles will give Welsh speakers a more intimate way into the paintings, and draw attention to the uniqueness of each language in relation to nature.
For non Welsh speakers our hope is that by knowing just a little Welsh you can enjoy the interaction beween landscape, painting and language a little more. To help, there's a gloss for each title.

* Souvenir spoon cameo designed for Sampson Souvenirs, now Judge Sampson Ltd. With thanks to Non and John Griffiths of Eglwysfach, who commissioned and sold this souvenir.

* Post card translation by William Troughton, Visual Images Librarian, National Library of Wales.
* For a contemporary discussion of local language and nature, see Robert MacFarlane's book Landmarks.

Special thanks to Elfed Wyn Jones and Anwyn for sound recordings of Welsh picture titles.
Photo by Alison Swanson, Eglwysfach

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