Can’t get into this old building on this visit, as there is it closed off, so poked the camera through a space between the upper and lower door on the farmyard side, in order to take a picture of this big door on the far side of the barn. In the barn are thin eye-slits in the thick stone walls, so one can see out on to the Liddel Valley, where you can hear a sheep baa-ing from across the valley. In the past I knew someone who lived in a room above the main body of this barn. Last time I was in the barn itself I climbed the stairs to this room, and got deeper and deeper into barn owl droppings, and the owl itself came flying out of the rafters.
Last week, whilst walking in a little wood above River Tweed, just as I was emerging from the trees, I saw the unmistakeable shape of a barn owl wheeling away from me. It seemed to me a strange place to see this bird, but maybe that is because I became so used to them in the Liddel Valley, long ago, and have seen them nowhere else. There, they sometimes sat on the windowsill of the old house snoring, my mother thought a tramp was asleep in the yard. Or you would see their blanched heart-face looking in. I have seen little birds land on top of a barn owl, trying to drive it away. It wasn’t just at dusk that they emerged, but during the day – there always seemed to be a barn owl, either flying overhead, looking down with those black eyes like two holes in the white face, or balanced on top of a small fir, or flying low over the rough pasture, looking for voles, that were plentiful there, in those days. Voles would get into the house, and run around frantically, tryng to get away, but always following the path they had run over before, round and round the room.
The owl in the photograph is Marvin, whom I bought as an stuffed owl in an auction, I had decided to pay exactly £32 and that is what I got him for. There were hawks as well, I wish now I had bought one. In the Liddel valley we once found a dead owl, and my cousin said he knew someone in Edinburgh who stuffed birds, so we packed the dead owl up in a box and sent it off. We never heard if it had got to its destination, the address wasn’t all that clear, perhaps somebody had their breakfast a mite disturbed.
Marvin lives in my studio He is what Baudelaire called his cat, l’esprit familial du lieu. Last summer I left Marvin in the window, looking out over the veetable garden, which was a mistake, as now his feathers have got blanched down one side, giving him a touch of the snowy owl. There arepersonal literary reasons for him being called Marvin (I have only just realised that Marvin is almost an anagram of Minerva, which is appropriate).
The owls used to nest in the Spoot House, this was in the 70s, their chicks are grotesque and fascinating to look at. Then suddenly all the barn owls disappeared from that place in Liddesdale. Maybe the fields were cleared up – grants were given to put in drainage to get rid of the outcrops of rushes – anyway, something changed in the habitat, and the owls vanished. Land was sold, and now the Spoot House has been turned into a dwelling place, where the dogs bark when they hear anyone going down the road. The place is less isolated. I remember on a sunny day my son standing rapt, looking out over the Liddel Valley, and when I asked him what he was doing he said: “I am listening to the machinery of the world.” You could hear a sheep bleat on the other side of the valley, it was so quiet. At night, if you walked down the road, it was pitch dark, unless there was a moon. No houselights. Nothing.
When I went back, many years later, the fields had gone rough again (I have got used to the wheatfields of Berwickshire, so the wild habitat of hill farms struck me quite strongly); and the barn owls were back. I went into the old barn, and that familiar white shape flashed away in the corner of my vision, with that noise of wings. I walked up the steps to try and get into the small room at the top of the barn (which was locked up) and at each step my boots crunched into a deeper layer of dark owl pellets and feathery bony detritus.
I don’t know where the owl I saw down by the river is nesting, I haven’t seen any barns round there. In a tree is a big nesting box.
Would an owl live here. It doesn’t seem appropriate, somehow.
I put Marvin up in the winter hedge to take his portrait, then put him back in the studio.
This painting is an evocation of walks up above Coldstream, in the summer. Nothing up there but hares, and the hawks. In this picture at the moment there are three hares. At the left hand corner there was the head of a flautist, but I took him out: I wanted a picture without people; he was out propertion; and this is a deep edge canvas (I continue round the edges) and painting the arms of a flautist in the third dimension like this looked ridiculous. It works with houses going round a corner, but not with the human body.
I have another painting of a flautist on the edge a wheatfield, but this is on a narrow edge canvas, which contains the picture within the rectangle.
Today I have been working further on this painting seen above, overlaying colour . It is good to leave it and go back to it, as the acrylic dries properly, so a new colour laid over the surface looks fresh. This used to frustrate me with gouache, the way the underlying colours bleed into each other.
When this painting, and others, are finished, I will put them up on this website, before they are exhibited at Berwick Watchtower in January.
A did the ground for this painting a long time ago (one colour overlaid over a colour beneath, patterned with clingfilm, which is manipulated and left to dry, so that when it is lifted there are striations and whorls in the ground through which the underneath colour shows). The canvas has been sitting perched up again the wall. Nagging me. I always knew what the subject was, the high bank on the edge of the Lees fields, where a mass of wild flowers grow in the summer. This week I started to throw paint at the canvas. I picked some dried grasses to see if I could use them as a base for printing, but this didn’t work at all, so I have been using paint very freely, scattering, using the edge of a pallette knife, gestural single brushstrokes, spattering. Overlaying this will probably be some stencilled words, some colours/flowers, and some delicately-painted insects, which I will then overlay with more freshly applied paint. We shall see. So far I like the freedom of the shapes, this looseness is something new for me, after many years of illustration.
There were at one time gong to be mirrors, with reflections of things that wouldn’t be reflected, I had an idea for a rider on horseback in armour, probably memories of Lady of Shalott. Anyway, too complex an idea – it didn’t seem to gel. Still, I am working on this idea of layers that lower layers can be seen through, and also using lettering, though I don’t know whether this will work on this particular painting.
Something about this image reminds me of Liddesdale. It seems to take place in some kind of moorland, with water in the background, I think the hare must hare strayed out of its habitat, although I have seen hares not too far away. The colours have been made gentle with an overlay of oil pastel. The two figures will be more detailed, especially the boy playing the flute, but the overall colouring should remain misty and silver pink like this (in the sky, on the water and in some of the foliage I have used pearlised paint, which I got from a craft shop – very seductive it is too). To the left I shall paint some darkish moths. The feeling of the painting I have got already though, so I don’t want to work it too much more.
This was a rather dark painting, which has been hanging on a hook in the Tardis for some time. This week I added the table edge, the gold old-fashioned easel and the fabric anenomes, and suddenly the picture is a tad less sombre. The owl is Marvin, I bought him at auction, he is called after the magician in “Parchment House”, which I wrote years ago. There were always owls, for years, at Stonegarthside, they were part of the magic of the place. The perspective is odd, because everything is painted from a different angle, but I like this. Poor Marvin, I left him in the window in the summer and half his feathers have got bleached. I am thinking of doing a (vry delicate) paint job on him, but will finish the picture first.