Artist Diana Heeks, based in Llanrhystud, West Wales, developed a project in the Black Mountains inspired by Raymond Williams’ unfinished novel People of the Black Mountains.
“Press your fingers close on this lichened sandstone. With this stone and this grass, with this red earth, this place was received and made and remade. Its generations are distinct, but all suddenly present.”
– Raymond Williams, People of the Black Mountains
The project comprised four week-long visits to the region and was funded by a ‘research and development’ grant from the Arts Council of Wales. Peak was a project partner and supported Diana through artist mentoring and promotion.
“Literature has influenced and engaged me since childhood, and this book evokes feelings which I have an almost visceral need to explore in paint. The Black Mountains is a cluster of steep-sided parallel ridges east of the Brecon Beacons, mainly in Wales but partly across the English border. In two volumes this book tells a series of linked stories about the history of the area, from Neolithic times until the Norman invasion, encompassing a grand sweep across thousands of years and tens of generations, offering both a bird’s-eye view and ground-level intimacy. For many years I have read and reread this novel. Its qualities of imagination and humanity, and its sense of the influence of place, attracted me as a painter from the outset, especially as the location has long been a favourite. The stories and evoked imagery have accompanied me whilst working plein air and on walks and explorations in the actual locations and landscapes of the book. I want to attempt an equivalent in oils on canvas.”
– Diana Heeks
First Visit – 16-23 March 2015
Quite a multi-faceted week. Intense pleasure of being alone in the landscape. Benign weather and drying ground. I had been apprehensive about my ability to reach the hill tops, because of illness in the last year which has left me with much less stamina and physical fitness. But by going steadily that has been overcome, and I’ve achieved two climbs to sites of Bronze Age burial that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to visit.
In preparation I’ve been re-reading four stories from the two People of the Black Mountains (PoBM) books: Marod, Gan and the Horse Hunt (circa 23,000BC); Incar’s Fire and Aron’s Pig (circa 5400BC); Seril and the New People (circa 1700BC); and Bibra in Magnis (circa 300AD).
The stories can be located in the actual landscape, with the help of the OS map and the list of place names and their current equivalents today, provided at the end of each volume of PoBM.
Things seem to have fallen into roughly three categories:
- A preoccupation with Bronze Age cist sites. Of the three I visited the best example, above Cwm Bwchel, has parallel side slabs still in place, maybe pointing at Bal Mawr. Then the L-shaped remnant of a cist on top of Hay Bluff, flush with the grassy surface. And the site of the 1932 discovery in the Olchon Valley, of which there is nothing to see because it and its contents have long ago been removed to Hereford Museum. That was the inspiration for the story “Seril and the New People”.
- Looking for and examining possible relationships between the present-day horses on the hills and the depictions of horses in prehistoric cave art, of which there are many dated to the time in which Raymond Williams set his story ”Marod, Gan and the Horse Hunt”, 23,000 years ago. Photographs from the Phaidon book “Cave Art” by Jean Clottes are a rich source of imagery for this era in Europe.
- Colours: manganese dioxide (purple, brown, black), iron oxide (red, russet, ochre) and charcoal were the materials used for making early cave images, and it is interesting to realise that these colours also predominate in the present-day landscape and also to note that without giving this much consideration I have already accumulated plenty of those colours in pastel and watercolour, because I’ve favoured them for use in previous work about the Black Mountains.
Tuesday 17th March
I’d hoped to find the L-shaped remnant of a cist on top of Hay Bluff, but on the climb up, given the large patches of unmelted snow still lying , I began to feel that it was unlikely. But then there it was, clear and easy to find, right on the brow. Such an elegant sign from so long ago, the top edges of two of the grave slabs showing flush with the level of the turf. What a place to be buried! Overlooking a huge swathe of Herefordshire and the Marches.
Blue-eyed ponies; one multi-coloured but with a white face, the other apricot. Both very shaggy and long-maned in their winter coats.
Walked south for a mile along the plateau , the area where the story “Seril and the New People” begins, aiming to reach a point where I could look down into the Olchon Valley, the setting for the story of the Horse Hunt and also the culmination of “Seril”. Unfortunately had to turn back, needing to reserve time and energy for the rather treacherous descent back to Gospel Pass .
Wednesday 18th March
Up early and drove round to the Olchon Valley. A milky, mysterious light … sun with mist. Been here a few times before but not armed with enough information to identify the field of the 1932 two-cist discovery, which the farmer, James Smith of nearby Olchon Court, uncovered whilst ploughing.
Found the burial field easily, but had imagined that I could lean on a gate and survey it by eye. Not so. It was head-height above the road with a hedge and no gate to the road, so it was impossible to see into. Walked uphill towards Olchon Court for a better view and was lucky enough to get talking to the farmer who currently works the surrounding fields, who had arrived from nearby Craswall with a large bale of hay on his tractor to feed his sheep. Was given permission to be in the field. This involved going through three other fields, getting across two streams and a lot of mud. Resolve to return with my wellies.
Monday 23rd March
Went back to Olchon Court to complete the gestalt. Paced out the approximate spot using the directions in the Woolhope Club (Herefordshire Natural Sciences Association) write-up from the time. Took photos to locate the “place” in the landscape, to compare with 1932 photographs and for me to “pin down” something ephemeral … disappeared.
Second Visit – 15-22 May 2015
(IMAGES: Rebecca Spooner, Arts Development Manager, at Diana’s studio in Llanrhystud, Sat 23rd May 2015)
The first two days of this second week were spent around the remains of Pentwyn hill fort, on which Raymond Williams based his fictional settlement of Bentelim/Banavint, at the “index” fingertip of the Black Mountains hand. I wanted to experience the place where several stories were set, from the chapter “The black stranger and the golden ram”, circa 1450 BC, telling of the effect of an anthrax plague on a long-settled community, through to “The wise one and the slave” twelve hundred years later. These are stories which chart and describe the societal changes of those times, including the gradual colonisation and exploitation of people, both through manipulation and through brute force. Early on we follow the eclipse into slavery of “the Old Ones”, the Neolithic shepherds and hunters who had for thousands of years been the sustaining keepers of the land.
Looking back from above as one climbs towards Hatteral Hill, the fort is in two sections, like a thick-waisted figure of eight. Its northern elevation has a mound and ditch, and to the east the land falls away steeply to the valley below. The stories tell of the relationship between the fort and the settlement of “Satelim/Masona” below (now Alltyrynys), with the people treading the steep path between, in times of peace and of danger.
Sitting on the scarp looking east over the hills and fields of England in this fair-weather May week, colour dominates. I see the succulent greens of Howard Hodgkin’s painting “Big Lawn”, the Indian Yellow of gorse, the soft grey-pink of dead bracken and the bluebells.
In the first chapter of People of the Black Mountains, RW lists the colours of the hills in different lights and seasons: blue, grey, purple, and also, in certain conditions, black. Also the colours of bracken: gold, russet and red. The soil of the place is sometimes an amazing blood-red , decreasing through hues to salmon pink, depending on the light. And although I am this week amongst the bright colours of May, my favourite description of colours in this chapter is: “Yet black, a cellular black, under storm cloud: a pitted honeycomb of darkness within darkness”.
Another place that has left a strong impression this week, although not linked to the stories directly, is the holly grove known as Hollywood belonging to Martin Jones, the great-great-grandson of Mr James Smith, the farmer who in 1932 discovered the Bronze Age cist in which I mentioned in my March notes. A magical place: bright grass studded with bluebells; dark, sombre, ancient trees, in different stages of youth and maturity, decay and regeneration, adorned with tiny, subtly-scented, pink-and-white blossoms. “For the sweetness of the place” (see “The wise one and the slave”).
Quite a variety of different things to examine about this visit; probably too much information for specific focus, best to stand back and let the subconscious take decisions.
The work, for now, seems to be withdrawing into a space away from words, a pre- or non-verbal place where colour and material predominate and ideas are articulated less through the mind than through hand and eye.
In a recent newspaper article, the writer John Berger discussed the processes involved in the work of translation. He describes what he considers to be necessary for the good literary translation of text. He sees this not as a one-to-one activity but a “triangular” one, the third position being a sort of pre-verbal place where the gestation of new expression takes place. The new words of the translation come from there.
In trying to translate my sense of the stories into the other language of paint, this would mean – if the two activities are analogous – that the third position has to be where I set up camp.
Third Visit – 4-11 September 2015
(IMAGES: Rebecca Spooner, Arts Development Manager, at Diana’s residency studio, Broadley Farm, Llanthony, 11th Sept 2015)
Clare Whitehead’s studio at Broadley Farm, where I am based for the visits, is set in the Ewyas Valley at the foot of Loxidge Tump and overlooking the ridge towards Bal Mawr. Contained within these hills, the studio itself contains the image-making of artists and art students who have been inspired by these hills.
In this long space I spread out all the material I’ve been working on since the last visit in May. The first few days of my week were spent appraising and categorising the work so far, with the length of the studio allowing for a different kind of viewing. Its length also allows for the separation of activities and more clarity than in the muddle of my studio at home.
Since the start of the project in March this year, I have painted large, expansive pieces, mainly oils on paper. I had bought this paper for drawing, but somehow paint demanded its use. I have also produced smaller pastel and collage work, explored 3-D ideas and generally followed my inclinations, all from a basis of response to the PoBM stories and the archeological material* researched by Joy Williams for her husband’s work, which is described in her notes at the end of the second volume of PoBM.
Time has flown, and there seem to be too many ideas which are not yet explored. In particular a passage from the story “Tami and the Devils” reminds me that I’ve not yet seen a distant view of the Black Mountains from the east, as Anail and his group did:
“They reached a high point and stopped and looked back west. They were amazed by the sight. The long black ridges of their mountains were spread out under the clouds, in shapes they had never before seen … Far to the south, in a succession of peaks and ridges beyond the peak of Broken Mountain, there was unknown country. They could see how they lived at an edge of it. Looking more closely they followed their own river back to where it turned from north to east. They stared at each other. It was a new power in the eyes to see these wide shapes of the land.” (PoBM1, Tami and the Devils, p264).
But the images the passage evokes are stored in my mind’s eye.
Thursday 10 September
Went into Hereford to research in the museum’s Woolhope Club room, to see the information which inspired the story “Bibra in Magnis”. I had found the story of Bibra very poignant and I wanted to look at the archeological material* that inspired it.
A 1912 excavation at Kenchester (the Roman Magnis) led to the discovery of the skeleton of an elderly woman buried inside a building. She was very small and arthritic, her bones displaying evidence of hard manual labour and a damaging disease to her face.
Archived in the Woolhope Transactions in Hereford Museum is the 1916 report on these bones by Professor Sir Arthur Keith of the Royal College of Surgeons, which says: “She was also the subject of an uncommon condition, a peculiar lack of growth to the right side of her face. Such a condition is very rare today, and I do not know of any ancient, prehistoric skeleton which has manifested this atrophic state. A state which must have been present in the childhood of the individual.” From this Raymond Williams built a moving story of a difficult life.
Last year in the glass case exhibiting Hereford Museum’s Neolithic and Bronze Age artefacts, the urn from the 1932 Olchon Valley cist discovery was in pride of place. Slender, with vertical cracks, its decoration is three repeated bands of marks, probably made by a thumb-nail or small tool. This year it is on a lower shelf, and in its place is now the burial urn from the 2010 Olchon Court excavation, a sturdy and confident object decorated with a single band of triangle design.
The experience of looking at these two vessels gives me a strong sense of closeness to their makers. They and we handle/d the clay in the same way: the same techniques, feelings and problems. With their handbuilt asymmetry they are both beauties, and it would be fascinating to know how much time elapsed between the making of them, 50 years or 500? Carbon-dating would be needed, but that doesn’t seem likely in the current climate of museum funding cuts.
Friday 11 September
On the last day of the week Rebecca Spooner and artists Penny Hallas, Morag Colquhoun and Catherine Baker visited, providing a welcome contrast to the solitariness of this project so far, and an invaluable opportunity for my work to be appraised by peers with painting, sculpture and printmaking experience. Feedback ensued – examining the basis of ideas, getting to see the work through the eyes of others, discussing the merits of related material – with five heads being better than one.
Fourth Visit – 16-23 October 2015
During this last week of the project there have been autumn colours and glorious sunshine, but the nights draw in and at early evening the view from my door at Broadley has darkened. The sweep of hillside opposite shows glimmering pinpoints as outlying farmsteads switch on. The ridge horizon line, along which Glyn searched in the link chapters “Glyn to Elis”, is black against a luminous sky, mauve, orange-pink and deep blue, with arching clouds in flow, until it quickly darkens. Next time I look there are stars.
This fourth and final week has been taken up with organising the Open Studio, which took place on 22 October. This event summarised and displayed my preoccupations and activities over this last year.
In his opening chapter of “The Beginning”, the first volume of People of the Black Mountains, Raymond Williams describes the colours he finds in the BM landscape: “From a distance, in good light, the long whaleback ridges are blue. Under cloud they are grey cloudbanks. But from within they are many colours: olive green under sunlight; darker green with the patches of summer bracken; green with a pink tinge when there are young leaves on the whinberries; dark with the heather out of flower, purple briefly in late summer; russet with autumn bracken, when at dawn after rain the eastern slopes can be red; pale gold in dead winter bracken, against the white of snow. Yet black, a cellular black, under storm cloud; a pitted honeycomb of darkness within darkness.”
I enjoyed this passage so much that I simply wanted to list his colours visually and associate them with colour situations in which I was already involved (eg the blacks of Malevich … difficulties around vermilion). They became contained within shapes which I find pleasure in as visual archetypes of landscape, for example a sharply defined cloud shape emerging over a sky line or a field against the plunge of a hillside. In the Open Studio these ideas crystallised into a floor piece which I titled “From a distance, in good light … ”. The work is essentially a piece of collage, with much of it derived from recycling old work, but there is interest and mystery when the cast-off becomes something else.
The pieces titled “Glyn to Elis/Cist” comprise a suite of medium-sized paintings, drawings and collage pieces which are my intuitive response to the book’s account of Glyn’s night-time journey along the ridges looking for his missing grandfather Elis. His search takes him through a landscape in darkness, sometimes moonlit, in which lie the cists and their contents: arrowheads, pottery and the bones of long-ago people which have lain in the dark for millennia. There is a sense of what some Celtic peoples call the “thin place”, where the separation of reality from other worlds is weak.
The larger pieces in the OS came about partly through my need to “brush broad” – maybe as a physical rebellion against my previous small work on Black Mountains themes, or maybe as a response to the broad sweep of RW’s subject matter. For many of the larger pieces I have researched particular elements of the stories, and this research has enriched my experience of them, particularly in the cases of “Bibra in Magnis” and “The Gift of Acha”, both of which I found especially moving. The materiality of paint, the combination of text and gesture, RW’s lyricism and other aspects were also building blocks.
The Open Studio, while an important opportunity to see the work through the eyes of others, could be seen as the culmination of a year focusing on one place and one book, both immeasurably rich worlds with much to teach us. But it is also a beginning, a laying out of a palette of possibilities, a chance to examine and evaluate. Some of the work produced can be seen as exploratory and some as development, but I am aware that only a few pieces have achieved resolution and therefore there is much more to do. The elements which have emerged from this exercise may converge, combine, burgeon or wither. We’ll have to see.
“I have witnessed Diana’s work developing over the past year and I am continually struck by the vitality of colour and form in her paintings. There is an innate confidence to Diana’s work and this is reflected in the way she writes about her experience with uncluttered, authentic language. The work she has produced while resident in the Black Mountains (and further developed in her studio in West Wales) stands alone as an artist’s abstract response to landscape. An understanding of Raymond Williams’ PotBM novels is certainly of interest but not essential in appreciating this new work. PEAK looks forward to continuing to support Diana and several other practitioners who are now discovering or revisiting Williams’ fiction and academic writing to produce contemporary, creative responses to his legacy.”
– Rebecca Spooner, Peak, November 2015
Images: Nathan Morgan & Laura Heeks
For more information about Diana’s work visit: www.axisweb.org