Divine and Devilish Inspiration
PUBLISHED: 17:09 19 October 2010 | UPDATED: 18:02 20 February 2013
Richard Pikesley embarks on a journey from Somerset to Dorset, inspired by Christian and pagan landscapes
The idea started in the Mendip Hills. Id heard the story of Augustus Montague Toplady, who was inspired to write the words to the hymn Rock of Ages whilst sheltering under a rock in Burrington Combe. When I went there to paint I found goats scrambling up and down the cliffs and spent a day clambering around the gorge with my paints. The scene reminded me of Holman Hunts picture The Scapegoat and it got me thinking.
So Ive taken a two-year-long journey from the top of the Mendips, broadly south through Wells, Glastonbury and the Levels, on to Sherborne and the ring of Iron Age hillforts of West Dorset, and on down to my home patch of the Dorset coast. People have probably always interpreted the landscape in ways that make sense of their beliefs. Westcountry folklore is full of stories which re-imagine the craggy bones of the hills and coast with a divine or devilish origin. Some of the places Ive drawn and painted have a direct link to an ancient and continuing Christian tradition, whilst others have more pagan connections, but each of them has a particular sense of place.
Many of these special places gained their association with God or the Devil because they are visually extraordinary, often thrilling places. Of course, I work with a painters eye and at each of the sites I visited Ive made drawings, watercolours and oil paintings. From all of this material an exhibition has gradually emerged.
Marked on the Ordnance Survey map as Old Nicks Ground, is the strip of land above the Pinnacles and Old Harry Rock. As with so many prominent rocks around Dorset, the names evoke the Devil but hes far from my thoughts as I take a breezy walk up from Studland rather than the longer hike over Ballard Down to the cliff top. Making a watercolour here is going to be tricky as the wind does its best to take my paper and brushes into the sea below, but I persevere, lying in the grass and weighting the board down with my elbow. There were smugglers caves below here, some known as the Devils Den, but perhaps the name was just to discourage the curious from looking too closely.
Abbotsbury has such riches. The Iron Age hillfort site of Abbotsbury Castle is somewhere I often paint. Its very exposed, with wonderful views across Lyme Bay and inland into the Bride valley. Id just set up to start painting when the rain started lashing down. So back into the Land Rover and a quick drive down the road to one of the lay-bys that give a view over St Catherines Chapel and beyond to Chesil Beach and Portland. From here I could stay dry and paint out of the back door. As I worked the rain passed and I could see the storm moving east along the coast. As it did so, a fragment of rainbow appeared below me and just had to be painted. This is why I paint every day. If I hadnt been there, painting in the rain, I wouldnt have seen it.
I wanted to make a painting of a view across the River Stour with the mighty profile of Hambledon Hill in the background. I had spent an hour or two working on little oil studies before the light changed too much. I decided to take my painting gear upstream to another spot which might yield a painting.
By August the banks of the Stour are like a jungle, the river snakes its way through a deep bed with tall banks neck-high in Himalayan balsam and nettles. This makes finding a viewpoint tricky, but after much wandering up and down I found a spot and dumped my gear.
As the bags and easel fell from my shoulders I became aware of a faint buzzing and realised that I was surrounded by perhaps not hundreds, but certainly dozens of wasps. I seemed to have dropped my box easel right on top of their nest. They werent pleased. As it was a hot summers day I was wearing a loose t-shirt and a well-worn pair of jeans with large holes at both knees. The swarm set about registering their disapproval. Several flew in under my t-shirt and stung me around my torso whilst the rest made for my trousers, flying in through the holes at the knees or by the more conventional access at ankle level.
Being repeatedly stung is not a pleasant experience, though the sight of me ripping off all my clothes and dancing about waving my arms seemed to brighten the day of several passing motorists. Replacing my clothes with care, t-shirt tucked in and jean bottoms in socks, I set about retrieving my gear, getting stung once more, before legging it back to the car and an hours drive home. Painkillers, anti-histamine, a bath and later a large scotch gradually helped me feel better.
The exhibition is from 1-17 November, Mon-Sat 9.30am-5pm, at the Jerram Gallery, Half Moon Street, Sherborne, DT9 3LN. 01935 815261 or visit jerramgallery.com