Hugging the Elements

Sheila Fell.

Another late-twentieth century woman artist who more than merits greater acclaim (see recent posts entitled Passionate Rendering and A Knocking in the Cupboard for Joan Eardley and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham respectively).

Sheila Fell

I first came across Sheila Fell’s paintings in the excellent Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal. Her work is to landscape painting what Beethoven’s Late Quartets are to classical music, or prime period Dylan is to the song lyric, or Becket is to drama. Her Cumbrian landscapes are intense, profound and full of elemental energy.

There is also a swirling, breathing beauty that makes them accessible and aesthetically glorious in their voluptuous deployment of natural colours and shapes.

The screen and the printed page are poor substitutes for the real thing, so please do seek out the originals where possible.

Fell, Sheila Mary, 1931-1979; Village beneath Lake District Fells

Village Beneath the Lake District Fells

Sheila Fell was born into a poverty-ridden mining community in Cumbria in 1931 and she died at the age of 48, from alcoholic poisoning. Her artistic talent took her to St. Martin’s College in London and a degree of minor fame. She was championed by L.S. Lowry (see my post of 4th June 2014 Lowry Cowrie Dowry).

Recognition of her work has steadily grown over the last 10 years, partly via the efforts of Cumbrians like Melvyn Bragg, Margaret Forster and Hunter Davies. She mainly lived and worked in London but returned to her family in Aspatria regularly.

The land and sea between the northern hills of the Lake District and the Solway Firth are her constant subject matter, an obsessive quest to communicate an essence of place that, counter-intuitively, makes her work universal.


Large Wave at Allonby

Fell’s paintings deal in nuances of light, and the resulting transformation of land and sea. Turbulence and tranquillity often co-exist within the same canvas. Nothing is picturesque; instead there is an emotional, passionate understanding of the precarious relationship between humanity and all four elements. She made her own supreme atheistic poetry of vision.

The texture of the paint is rich and sensuously tough.

She paints a natural world that is not inhospitable, just indifferent…a complexity of forces that simply get on with their motion and their being. People and their works are a temporary, patient feature: a relationship that will not always be there is presented and honoured.


Woman in Snow

At St. Martins, and afterwards, Fell had links with Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach. There are similarities in the use of thick, impasto oils applied sumptuously with fingers and spatulas as well as brushes. What Auerbach was to Camden, Fell was to Cumbria. Perhaps there is London-bias as well as gender-bias in their relative fame? The excellence of another Cumbrian artist, Percy Kelly, has also taken a long time to percolate through the world of curators and critics.

Sheila Fell was teaching at Chelsea Art College at the time of her tragically early death. She is described as “a vivid, charismatic presence…a dramatic vision in black…long hair, huge dark eyes, a flash of bright red lipstick” (Cate Haste). She was a single parent with one daughter, who was aged 21 when Fell died.

Fell rarely agreed to be interviewed, but shortly before her death she gave an interview to The Times. Her parting words were: “I want to live to be 104, it’s the only way I can possibly complete all the paintings I have in my head”.

There are Sheila Fell paintings in many UK galleries from the Tate collection onwards. The ones most displayed are in the Abbot Hall, Kendal, in the Catlegate Gallery in Cockermouth, and in Tullie House, Carlisle. A full retrospective exhibition is planned for Tate Britain in 2019.

Sheila Fell.

Ted x

Big Headland of the Great Seas

Ardnamurchan is a peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. The modern English translation of the name is the title of this post. I have recently spent some time at the western tip of Ardnamurchan, where there is a lighthouse and a couple of very tiny communities.

Ardnamurchan has the remote feel of an island. It has nothing by way of tourist attractions, and the ferry-accessed road into its best parts is long and narrow. The interior is hilly and partially covered in ancient oak forests, lovely and lonely woodlands that peter out into peaty moorlands. However, it is the coast line that is most strikingly to-die-for beautiful.

This is not a piece of travelogue writing and I am not going to paste in any of the photos I took (have no fear). Instead of a conventional map of the area I just want to include a geological map.

Ardnamurchan geological

Even without knowing any of the technicalities, there are few images as gorgeous as a geological map…and Ardnamurchan makes for an especially fine example.

This was one of the planet’s most powerful volcanos.

The Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) consists of eight categories, with 1 the lowest and 8 the highest in terms of the volume and spread of pyroclastic material. The most powerful eruption in modern history was Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, which is rated at 6.5 on the VEI. The most recent example of an 8 was the Yellowstone eruption 600,000 years ago. Every so often a supervolcano is formed and its power has a huge impact on life on the planet for centuries afterwards.

Six million years ago, Ardnamurchan was a supervolcano, and the evidence suggests that today it would be rated at 8 on the VEI. Its last eruption, a mere 6, was around one million years ago.

To arrive at the wonderfully isolated and stunning western fringe that runs from Fascadale on the northern rim, round through Sanna Bay and on to Corrachadh Mor (the most westerly tip of the UK mainland) the traveller has to cross the vast plug of rock, earth and sediment that now fills the extinct caldera of the supervolcano.

You traverse this fascinating landscape for some 4 hours on foot, describing a diameter line across the tussocky skin of this fossilised cauldron, surrounded by a low 360° sill of volcanic rock, a gap-toothed rim of cold magma and lava.

The rock is gabbro. Gabbro makes up much of the ocean floor across the Earth and is formed when volcanic magma meets water. The Big Headland of the Great Seas is one of the few places in the UK where it intrudes above the surface. Nearby Skye is another place.

Gabbro is great to clamber and scramble around on. Its coarse-grain and its generously curved formations make it sheer pleasure to hold, hug and heave around on.

Gabbro also has a neat trick up its bouldery sleeves: its magnetic attractions completely mess up the workings of a compass. Compasses are over-rated anyway.

I spent a ‘day in the life’ following the crest of the gabbro cliff sill that overlooks both the volcanic caldera and the turquoise sea above Sanna. On the one side I could see as far as Ben Nevis and the Mamores. On the other side I could see the Outer Hebrides, the coast of Labrador and right across the Plains to the Rockies (ok, scrub out the words after ‘Outer Hebrides’ but that’s what it felt like…).

The highest point on Ardnamurchan is Ben Hiant. It is not a Munro (3000ft+) or even a Corbett (2500ft+) and all the better for it in that many list-inclined walkers don’t bother with it. It is, however, thought that ‘Hiant’ is a corruption of ‘Giant’. All things are relative. The Gaelic name is Beinn Sheunta, which means the Enchanted Mountain.

I spent a waking night on the top of the Enchanted Mountain, moonbathing in the dark silence with the only sign of humanity the pinprick lights of Tobermory on Mull, some fifteen miles away at sea level.

Of course there is also human history in every hidden corner. A deserted, mouldered croft in a trackless cleft between gabbro outcrops prompted the poem below.

Rules For Exploring an Abandoned Croft

Bow down, just enough, as you cross the doorless threshold.

Do not remove your shoes.

If there is anything yet unbroken, do not break it.

Allow your eyes to adjust to the thick-wall small-window light.

You may touch the rich layer of powdery dirt on the mantelpiece.

Picture the ghost-images in pale ovals and rectangles on the walls.

Trust the base of the fireplace, but not the floorboards.

Do not tousle the moss in the leaked-on kitchen sink.

Tack carefully around the Haversham cobwebs.

Test each stair-tread as you ascend: go by the feel not the creaking.

Do not look for symmetry in the daylight patches in the roof.

Do marvel at the presence of what remains of a single bed.

Gaze for a lengthy moment at the survival of a dank pillow.

Sense the weight of the head that left such heft-shape.

Hurry away. Seek company.

For at least one hour, leave your life unexamined.


Ted x

Upcoming exhibition: Collage Now

This month’s post is a plug for Collage Now, an exciting exhibition opportunity that will include several pieces of my work.

If you can’t see the poster image, click on to the blog site ( and you should see it. The poster is the work of Emily Wilkinson, one of the featured artists.


All readers of my blog are invited to the private view, which is Saturday 17th June from 5 – 7 at the VAN gallery (18-19 Shoplatch, Shrewsbury).

The exhibition opens on 13th June and runs until 8th July. If anyone is planning a visit please note that I will be away from 24th June to 1st July.

Opening times at the gallery are 10 – 4.


Ted x

Lose a Mind Gain a Mind

I’ve always liked Samuel Beckett’s line in Waiting For Godot: “We are all born mad. Some of us remain so”.

If you have not remained so, don’t despair. You can regain that lost grace.

Cue a pair of poems that link to this. They relate to the experience of spending waking nights in wild places where humans and human traces were very far away indeed.

The German language is renowned for its compound words, and these twinned poems refer to waldeinsamkeit and bergeinsamkeit: ‘the experience of being alone in the woods’ and ‘the experience of being alone on a mountain’ respectively.

The reference to Rilke in the forest poem is to his lines: “Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are still just able to endure, and it amazes us so, because it serenely disdains to destroy us”.

I have waited a while to distill heart and soul into this twin-set…hope they work for you.


The Mountain Top: Evening and Morning

Dry-grain rock springs the feet like cropped grass

until, with long final strides across bare boiler-plate slabs,

I am dipping my head

in the high mountain sky,

with fifty miles of elbow room

on either side to spare.

Darkness sumps horizon’s light

and invites me

to stay the night,

to drench my scalp

in small hours indigo,

cryptic counter-code

for day’s blazing blue.


Only silver meteor slashes remind me that things move:

constellations, galaxies and lone stars lure my sanity

to ecstatic edge.


Hold on, for morning.

Yet something was there,

heard in slithering scree,

seen in dark shadow-bulks,

scent of pine revealing

a scent not-of-pine,

animal fear on my tongue,

a sense of tense, stealthy touch

deep within, a pulse to each nerve-end

until silent atoms of light cluster,

then thicken into myriad layers,

reclaiming distance and detail.


Azure day’s dip

was potent, heady.

Violet night’s

was one rational gulp

from drowning.


The Forest: Evening and Morning

With dusk and with dawn the eye awakens

in moments about to come

or in moments just passed;

I was blind from the glare of the day

blind from the black of night.

Now, in both dwindling light and in coalescing light,

for the very first time,

treetops, underbrush brashings,

mosses and moulds and lichen hagbeards,

the hidden webmesh of tender roots,

light-seekers and shade-lovers, all twine

here, where no stories can be untold,

where a live presence alerts sense number six.

This Pollock-wired maze is not a place to go

because I have always been here

in the hour each day fades or comes,

when each heightened sense stirs

a simmered gut-cauldron of adrenalin:

Rilke’s beauty meets terror words

conjure an act of recognition –

once I too was without fear.


Even death may be allowed to live here,

where I return

this time to stay until it becomes fully dark

and fully light;

in twilight slight but carried sounds take over,

in daylight definition becomes too precise.

This is where dream and nightmare

can both be true, be simultaneous,

stand back to back against the unknown.


The mountain one is a re-working of a poem in Between Me and You (see posts from a couple of years ago).

Having begun with a Beckett quotation I will do the symmetry thing and end with one (from Malone Dies): “I pause to record that I feel in extraordinary form. Delirium perhaps”.

Ted x


Hug That Tree


Following on from my previous post (Wild Horses Couldn’t Drag Me Away, see below) I wanted to tell another brief story featured in Guy Maddin’s brilliant documentary My Winnipeg (2007).

The formidable circle of overcoated ladies in the picture was formed in the Spring of 1957 to prevent the Winnipeg council from felling a magnificent elm tree. The elm was deemed to be an obstacle to a planned road-building scheme.

The tree had been planted in 1860 and was known as the Wolseley Elm, after the original pioneer family who had farmed the land.

The campaign to save the tree in 1957 was led by a group of feisty women…the photograph below shows that ‘feisty’ is not just a cliché on this occasion.


Direct action like this worked initially, but it had to be backed up by human ingenuity.

The campaign to save the elm was successful when one of the women came up with a brilliant idea. She  led a move to persuade the Canadian government to designate the tiny circle of kerbed earth surrounding the tree as a National Park. Tree felling is prohibited within National Park boundaries.

A tale with a happy ending. Errrr…not quite.

As per Leonard Cohen’s great song Tonight Will Be Fine, some things are only fine “for a while”.

In 1958 the head of the private company who held the contract for the road-building project was elected leader of the council. On 31st October of that year the residents of Wolseley Avenue were woken in the night by two loud explosions. The tree had been dynamited and effectively killed. No-one was ever charged let alone convicted.

Feel free to extract and run with any symbolism you may perceive in this story.

Ted x

Wild Horses Couldn’t Drag Me Away

Horses frozen           winnipeg-frozen-horses

Fire in the barns.

The Red River refuge.

Winter is locking blockings of icebergs.

Horse power drives the urgent swim

too late in the frozen night.

Utter chill of glacial concrete

seizes, holds, traps beyond last stirrings,

beyond final pleading.

With dawn

warm fur headwear and ruggy coats appear.

Checkmate verified

for these knights of the deep snow.


(near Winnipeg, 1926).

Ted x

Let’s Play Marlies


“Zero Self-Knowledge”, or “Delusion Gets You Through the Night”, or “Fictions of the Self”

Seventy years ago this week the first post-WWII Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Hermann Hesse. The award was in recognition of a lifetime’s work, but was also specifically linked to the 1943 publication of his final novel, The Glass Bead Game.

The Glass Bead Game had a huge influence on me when I first read it, and I still go back to certain passages for the quiet nourishment of all sorts of thoughts and feelings. It’s not an easy read but it more than repays the effort. The ‘Game’ referred to in the title is a complex, multi-dimensional construct that seeks to establish connections between every aspect of art, music, poetry, nature, philosophy, economics, human psychology, and all branches of science and mathematics.

Ambitious, eh? Not surprisingly Hesse gives many examples and details of the game, but never spells out all the rules.

I want to highlight just one theme of the book here.

In some respects it is an example of Utopian literature. It purports to have been written around the year 2400. The historians of that time describe the 20th and 21st centuries as “The Age of the Feuilleton”. ‘Feuilleton’ in French means literally ‘small leaf or page’. Hesse gives a brilliant, and far-sighted, account of what might broadly be called ‘dumbing down’: the transition from full length, carefully argued books to soundbites; the transition from Bach and Beethoven to jingles; the transition from Reason and independent, informed thought to manipulated spin, media politicisation and hysterical ignorance.


Seventy years on, more and more evidence has accumulated around Hesse’s vision, a vision that included the development of the internet and social media. One crystal-pure example embodies the truth of Hesse’s analysis: the power of Donald Trump.

Many eloquent pages have been written about Donald Trump and what he represents. Tempting as it is, I’ll leave aside the content of his communications. But consider the means of those communications. The most powerful nation on Earth has a President, a team of co-thinkers, and a subservient media, all of whom rule by Twitter and by the headline soundbite.

From 140 libraries to 140 volumes to 140 chapters to 140 pages to 140 lines to 140 words to 140 characters.

Can the Nobel Prize for Tweeting be far behind?

Of course, I am not oblivious to the notion that Hesse would have regarded blogging as part of the Age of the Feuilleton too…! So, here are two pictures of the great writer (try Steppenwolf, Fictions of the Self and pretty much anything else) smiling at things above his head.



The Glass Bead Game also encompasses the knowledge that all utopias contain the seed of dystopia. And all dystopias contain the seed of utopia. That latter seed is Hope.

Ted x