Painting on Exmoor in the hot sun for once, shades of 1976

17 Jul 2013

We have just got back into dusty Shepherds Bush after 4 days of Exmoor at its very best. I have been painting by the river where I was working 2 summers ago, but this time I was seriously overheating and being attacked by particularly vicious and persistent horseflies!

4 Ducks and drakes II oil on canvas 24 by 30 ins - Copy

Exmoor, or rather Withypool, was on superb form. Jake’s bar at the Royal Oak always offers a warm welcome, and in conjunction with barbecues and daily swimming in the river this was a special, stand-out visit. I have come back with ideas and good starts, but also with (as always, if truth be told) memories of bygone holidays. It’s inevitable, when it’s hot on Exmoor I remember 1976- and in fact, having leafed through the copy of this year’s Exmoor Review in the cottage, there is no better way to put these thoughts than to post what I wrote there…here:

It’s the summer of ’77, and The Queen’s Silver Jubilee. I am 7 years old, and the talk has been of staying up to watch the fire being lit on Withypool Hill. As it turns out, I fall asleep long before midnight, and when my mother dutifully wakes me for the big moment, I come down and stand with the grownups on the terrace outside our cottage and stare expectantly up at the top of the dark mass of the hill. Of course, you can’t actually see the top of Withypool Hill from the village, and if the image of that orangey glow against the night sky is rather muted in my memory it’s probably because there was in reality not that much to see; particularly so, since it was raining. But to a little boy it was exciting nonetheless to feel part of something big, and the idea of lighting hilltop beacons definitely seemed to draw upon a sense of something ancient, a romantic history which Exmoor embodies, the landscape of smugglers and Lorna Doone.

I have been coming on holiday to Exmoor since I was born. 42 years sounds a long time until you ask my father how long he has been coming- his first visit was in 1951, 61 years ago. He remembers the Lynmouth floods and seeing the Barle in Withypool up to the top of the Post Office door. My grandfather bought our cottage in Withypool because he liked hunting and fishing. Little did he suspect his great grandchildren would be splashing around in the river sixty summers later, enjoying the simple pleasures of walking on the moor, buying ice creams and nets from the village shop and trying to catch ‘taddlers’(our word for minnows) all afternoon.  Withypool  village fete and flower show, with its bunting, tea and cakes, ‘bash the rat’ and running races, is almost completely unchanged in my lifetime, soldiering on as it did through the foot and mouth crisis, but it clearly hasn’t seen any need to adapt its format  for a good deal longer than that: my father has never failed to miss an opportunity to tell us all how he won the 100 yards at Exford in 1952 but was that year pipped in the same event at Withypool.

All this is of course the whole point: it is because Exmoor does not change, or at least because our experiences on Exmoor do not, that we keep coming back. After the hubbub of London, to sit in our garden and hear nothing but the chorus of sheep and birds, accompanied by the soft rush of the river running through the arches of the bridge, is a truly special thing. Thinking about Withypool keeps me going whilst sitting in traffic and deafened by sirens in Shepherds Bush- where it will come as no surprise to learn there is no longer so much as a single sheep in sight. The continuity of our collective family memories are important, too: ‘Baker’s pool’, the deep, swimmable section of water just upstream from the stepping stones at West Hill farm, is not on any map, as far as I know, it is just how my grandparents referred to it, and so now we and our friends do the same.

Exmoor has the added advantage of being exceptionally paintable. For a landscape artist it offers a rich and varied supply of subject matter. I first got my paints out by the riverside as a teenager, and over the years I have painted dozens of views, sometimes concentrating on water, sometimes getting up onto the top of the moor and painting long thin landscapes to try to catch that extraordinary sense of distance.  The Punchbowl is a favourite destination. It is a dramatic bit of terrain, and like many parts of the moor it is layered with memories for me from the dozens of times I have walked around its perimeter. On walks to Winsford as children we even launched fierce assaults on it, descending directly down through the head-height bracken and ending up with wortleberry stains on our jeans.

Painting on Exmoor has its difficulties, to be sure. You can’t rely on the weather, unless you need to be assured of constantly changing skies. I have become reasonably adept at gauging whether the approaching clouds are anything to be concerned about, or whether I need to start packing away my things straight away. From a painting point of view, the changing cloud cover is a challenge but also useful, because it offers the chance to see different sections of the receding landscape become the focus of the composition, as the sun breaks through in different places.

And speaking of rain, here it comes again: in London as I write, but coming down I suspect even more heavily on that Jubilee bunting in Withypool today, just as it did 35 years ago.

From The Exmoor Review, Spring 2013

To which I can only add…Rain? What is that, exactly?!