paintings 200 – 2011 by David Page
about Claypit Hill, Dicky Hill and Low Meadow at Hallwong,
Starston, Norfolk, with excursions to some other places
Harleston Gallery 23 July – 27 August, Tues-Sat 10 – 3.30
When I worked in London I came up often to a cottage in Syleham, just south of the Waveney, and eventually ended up living there, so I have been painting in this area since the mid-‘seventies. My wife Jane (Jane German) and I bought Redenhall Cottage a mile or two north of the river, in 1991.
Once settled in I started painting pictures of this patch of land – round the house and further afield. A large number of my paintings are about Low Meadow, Claypit Hill and Dicky Hill. There have been changes here since that time: one of the adjacent Dutch barns collapsed, skewing its neighbours. One barn was rebuilt, but the others have gone, so that we now look west to an uninterrupted view of Low Meadow and the skyline punctuated by Wellingtonias which makes Starston a unique place. Previously that the view was dominated by the great inverted W of the roofs. One consequence of the barns’ collapse was that our boundary clay-lump wall began to decay, now that the rain could get into it, leading to Jane’s paintings of cows looking through holes they had licked into shape.
The most recent change is that Low Meadow sways and tosses with mature grasses, like shot silk, because the cows which have grazed it for our last twenty years have gone – and with them some of Jane’s subject matter. Nothing stays quite the same.
A painter tries to find images which say more than simply what they are, and much of the meaning is in the telling. Patrick Heron said “Form is content now,” which made life difficult for those of us obsessed with figurative images but who still want to benefit from gains made through Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, and so on.
So far as content is more than form, I have been concerned with the way that the land is carved up by heavy machinery (burning oil which is going to run out), and regenerates itself. The carving up of the land is sometimes irresistibly reminiscent of images of the 14 -18 trenches, and though I don’t go as far as Richard Mabey , who thinks (if I have understood him correctly) that those who broke the soil broke the pact with nature, nonetheless I can’t help seeing it as some sort of wounding. The fields themselves are empty in our time: even quite recently, in the time of our parents, they were full of people working. You only have to look at the paintings of Harry Becker, Constable, Breughel, Hokusai. Now, occasionally, there is a man encased in a tractor, probably with earphones on, who moves around the space like a spaceman, without ever being quite part of it. Only the annual pheasant shoot fills the fields with people.
Those who live in towns see the countryside as parkland, gracefully or scruffily surrounding them: they see it as Pope or Capability Brown did, as a backdrop to the refined life. I see it as an industrial site organised by farmers who struggle, sometimes to restructure nature, sometimes to collaborate with her, but at all costs to produce. For restructuring you have only to look at our field-pattern: even in 1940 there were twice, maybe three times as many fields round here: miles of hedgerow have gone to create the prairie fields of today. The big woods went aeons ago. Farmers and farm labourers are a small and shrinking minority of the population, though they determine the shape of the bulk of the land. Urban myopia is the root of an old antagonism: the fields are really there to feed the city, but the city does not seem to care. The old Marxist objective of equality between city and country is as far off as ever.
Maybe some of these preoccupations are there in my paintings, or perhaps I would like them to be more eloquent than they are. At all events I am showing as many as I can at the Harleston Gallery, so if you care to come and look you can make your own minds up.
27 06 2011