Seeing everything but knowing nothing

ROTFLOLEB, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

During an A-level Art trip to London to view the main art galleries back in the early 1980’s, I learnt two fundamental things. Firstly that art is just as much about mental as much as visual stimulation. The second, and to my mind, more profound thing I learnt, was that I was allowed to appreciate a work of art without having the first clue as to whose work it was or why I liked it so much. At the gift shop of the Tate Gallery, London, I found a single postcard of an abstract work that immediately caught my eye. The work was absolutely mesmerising and uplifting, however the logical and reasoning side of my brain was cast adrift, shrugging its shoulders, practically at a loss to contribute anything to this moment of pure enlightenment.

Now, in 2022, the book ‘The unknown craftsman’ by Japanese philosopher Soetsu Yanagi, is providing me with an endorsement of this experience some forty years earlier. Soetsu is famous for his involvement with Potters Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada in raising the profile of the ancient craft of eastern ceramics back in the 1920’s. Soetsu argues:

‘In understanding beauty, intuition is more of the essence than intellectual perception. The reverse of these two faculties stultifies vision. To ‘see’ is to go directly to the core; to know the facts about an object of beauty is to go around the periphery. Intellectual discrimination is less essential to an understanding of beauty than the power of intuition that precedes it’

Armed with my experience of that one postcard, Soetsu’s argument definitely strikes a chord. Whereas knowledge through research of course rewards us by explaining a lot about the work including the techniques used to create it, and the thoughts and beliefs inspiring the maker at the time, no amount of knowledge can alter an honest personal visual liking of the work in question. In today’s world where monetary value and a makers celebrity status tells us that we really should like the work of artist X or Y, in order to be artistically enlightened or because it could be ‘worth a bit’, I think these are wise words indeed.

The beauty of the beast

It was during a recent regular stroll along the banks of the River Frome, just outside of Bristol, that I first encountered this very eye-catching plant. I couldn’t exactly miss it, as it had managed to completely colonise the banks between the road on which I was standing, and the river beyond. With its deep-reddish stems, leaves with heavily serrated edges and the most stunning orchid-like fuscia pink slipper-shaped flowers, I had to stop and give it a much closer look.

‘I think they call it Himalayan balsam’ came a voice from a walker with his wife standing behind me. We agreed that this species didn’t exactly look native, so out came the camera before leaving this colony to some very appreciative bees.

This plant otherwise known as Impatiens glandulifera or ‘kiss-me-on-the-mountain’ does indeed originate from the Himalayan mountains from where it was found and introduced into Great Britain in 1839 by one of many botanical explorers of the time. It was subsequently eagerly adopted by Victorian gardeners keen to own the latest exotic species.

However, just like other non-natives such as gardener’s enemy number one, Field Bindweed Convolvulus arvensis and the never-to-be-touched Giant Hogweed Heracleum mantegazzianum introduced by well-meaning Victorian botanist explorers, this plant has proved less than welcome, after rapidly escaping from garden confines into the surrounding countryside.

Colonies of this plant once established along the wet habitats of river banks, rapidly out-compete native species before dying off in the autumn to reveal bare ground which is then more susceptible to erosion. Before this occurs however, Impatiens glandulifera uses its explosive seed pods to send hundreds of seeds several metres away from the parent plant. This party trick is especially effective where these seeds are then carried downstream where they then germinate and colonise a new area of river bank, and so the life-cycle repeats as its invasion continues.

So, despite recent trends to allow wild flower species to flourish, often at the expense of grassland to support native bee populations, this is one very attractive species that is actively targeted for removal in line with local council environmental policies.

So if you do get to find a colony of these plants on a riverside walk, enjoy the flowers while you can, as they may not be there for much longer.

Shakespeare sonnet project

In a cycle of 154 short, 14-line poems first published in 1609, William Shakespeare meditated on themes of love, death, and desire. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, Oxford University’s Bodleian Libraries asked for contributions from hand-press printers across the world to pick and print one of Shakespeare’s sonnets for selection to be exhibited and added to their collection.

I selected sonnet number 4, and designed a print incorporating arabesque borders based upon the Fell types collection of the Oxford university. The text is 18pt Caslon Roman with a 60pt illustrated capital. The sonnet was printed onto 210GSM French BFK Rives printmakers paper on the Albion handpress.

An unexpected bonus of my involvement in this exhibition, was an invitation to join other participating letterpress printers, at the Oxford University Bodleian Library to review other submitted works, and then work alongside New York type designer and printer Russell Maret at the Old Bodleian Library print workshop.