The Charleston Attic

Category: Landscape

Local Landscapes of Firle

Amongst a box filled with stretched canvas and paintings on wood, we re-discovered these fantastic landscapes of the local area.

Both painted by Vanessa Bell, the first is of the old Coach Road looking towards Firle Tower on the right. The leaves on the trees appear to be blowing in the wind, the farmland and coach road painted lightly in pinks and purples to represent the human touch on the landscape.

VB, Landscape view of the coach road and Firle Tower

CHA/P/5118, Vanessa Bell, painting, view of the Coach Road and Firle Tower, oil on board, © Charleston Trust

The second painting is darker, with a heavier stroke to set the trees and skyline apart. As seen from Vanessa Bell’s studio at the top of Charleston, the Sussex Weald is captured as a mass expanse of agricultural land with nature neatly lining up.

Vanessa Bell, painting, view of Sussex Weald from VB's studio, oil on wood, © Charleston Trust

CHA/P/5124, Vanessa Bell, painting, Sussex Weald painted from Vanessa Bell’s studio, oil on wood, © Charleston Trust

View from Vanessa Bell's studio

Current view from Vanessa Bell’s studio showing how the landscape has dramatically changed, with the house in the far background.

If you are familiar with the Sussex Downs, you will notice that the landscape depicted here has changed little; the rolling hill tops, with pathways to match, and the farmers’ fields the most obvious sign of human intervention. But perhaps the way we see and experience the countryside has changed. Looking at these landscape paintings with Vanessa Bell in mind reminds us of just how isolating and all-consuming it might have been to permanently live at Charleston; far away from the hustle and bustle of a town. But, these beautiful paintings remind us of just how inspiring these surroundings were to Bell and how they continue to remain an inspiration for a new generation of artists.

Europa and the Bull in ‘The Arts’


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Duncan Grant, illustration for ‘Europa and the Bull’ poem by W Rodgers, ‘The Arts’ journal, 1946.

This week in the Gift, we look at a series of objects that reveal a more commercial side to Duncan Grant’s work. In 1946 a commission by ‘The Arts’ a modern art journal, under the editorial supervision of Herbert Read, Edward Sackville-West, and Desmond Shawe-Taylor, provided a public platform for a new artistic collaboration. Grant’s contribution to the magazine was a painting and illustrated poem of ‘Europa and the Bull’ by W. R. Rodgers.

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‘The Arts’ Issues One and Two, Lund Humphries & Co Ltd; London.

‘The Arts’ was interdisciplinary in nature, covering a range of artistic forms and practices within each issue. The first two issues feature in detail painting, sculpture, architecture, theatre, film, music, poetry and philosophy. The journals were designed to be aesthetically stimulating, presenting cover work and illustrative interpretations of poems and prose by contemporary artists alongside high quality colour lithograph plate representations of more prominent works.

The utilization of a variety of paper and print techniques emphasize the depth and detail in the featured images; the subsequent quality of the images were evidently realized by the editorial board. Content was also held in high regard as the journal features many esteemed writers such as Clive Bell (this was most likely the connection that secured Grant his commission), Edward Sackville-West, Robert Medley, Sir Kenneth Clark, Benedict Nicolson and Raymond Mortimer amongst others. At ten shillings a book the high quality was quite matched by the price, and readership would have most probably been limited to the educated middle classes. With only two issues published, Issue One in 1946 and Two in 1947, information regarding the journal is unfortunately limited.


 CHA/P/2705 Recto. Duncan Grant, design for ‘Europa and the Bull’ poem by W Rodgers, pen on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Duncan Grant’s works in the gift includes studies for the illustrated poem as well as the final piece used. Gaining inspiration from ‘Europa and the Bull’, Grant’s form emulates classical mythology as well as the natural world. The cross-hatching of black penned lines against the text blurs the poem into the piece, mirroring the imperfect lines of language. Impressionistic in line, the inscribed pen strokes add texture and tone to the image.

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‘The Arts’ Issue One, Lund Humphries & Co Ltd; London.

The opening page of the poem and thus Grants illustrated segment (this original was not found in the AG gift), is strikingly juxtaposed with a large photograph. An abstracted female form seated pronounces a smooth modernist sculpture by Henry Moore, which sits opposite the contrasting classical design. A black pen illustration envelopes the poems text, showing seated female nudes frolicking in the textured grass. This work somewhat mirrors the panels Grant produced for the Cunnard Commission, a design for interior decorative panels to be exhibited on RMS Queen Mary (although these were later rejected).

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‘The Arts’ Issue One, Lund Humphries & Co Ltd; London.

 The feature comes to a close with a lucid and bright painting by Grant. A matte paper displays the colours in block form and in an array of fresh pastels we are finally introduced to Europa. She lays nude on the back of the Bull, one arm above her head gesturing playfully with a red scarf, the bull moves steadily through the water, expressive of a unity between them.

Two images within the gift show studies for this final print, evidencing differing concepts for the composition of the piece. Grants inspiration from the myth of Europa is clear; where Zeus captures her in the form of white bull and their sexual relationship legitimises Europa’s powerful son, King Minos of Crete.

CHA/P/2626 & CHA/P/2627 Recto. Duncan Grant, designs for ‘Europa and the Bull’ poem by W Rodgers, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

The piece below is a design that did not make the final print, though it could have been inspiration for the final image used as the same colour palette is evident.

CHA/P/2704 Recto & Verso. Duncan Grant, design for ‘Europa and the Bull’ poem by W Rodgers, inscription “Design for ‘Europa and the Bull’ poem by W Rogers, (sic) c1945”, pencil and gouache on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

This set of images were not Grants only work produced for the journal; also linked is a study for a front cover of ‘the Arts’ in his usual bold style full of form and movement. Figures appear to be dancing across the pages, acrobatics with circular instruments create motifs repeated throughout the piece displayed in the curves of the male physique and reflected in the text form. We do not know if this was an early study for one of the initial two journals or a suggestion for the next, nevertheless production for ‘the Arts’ was unfortunately discontinued in 1948.


CHA/P/1803 Recto. Duncan Grant, cover design of ‘The Arts’ journal, never produced, watercolour on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust



Angelica Garnett: A Legacy at Charleston

Of the last descendant of Bloomsbury’s ‘inner-circle’, an impressive obituary of 4th May 2012 remarks that Angelica’s parentage gave her a ‘double share of Bloomsbury inheritance.’  The only child of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Angelica Vanessa Garnett was a talented woman. Undoubtedly affected by her parents’ artistic talents and her unconventional upbringing at Charleston, Angelica’s vast resume encompassed writer, painter, performer, ceramicist and sculptor.

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CHA/P/1643 Angelica Garnett. Two children sat at table. Painting. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Born at Charleston on Christmas Day of 1918 Angelica’s arrival marked the end of the war as well as the end of her parent’s sexual relationship; however, her birth tied them together in a significant way, perhaps a reason for living and working together for the remainder of their lives.

Angelica grew up being doted on by her mother, though her paternal relationships were a little more complicated; growing up believing that her father, like her brothers, was Clive Bell. Angelica was informed of her true parentage at the age of 18, upon sternly being advised not to mention the subject again. Where Vanessa perhaps believed that her child had the love of two fathers, Angelica wrote that ‘in reality,’ she ‘had none’. Her widely acclaimed memoir of this period Deceived with Kindness, the experience of growing up at the centre of the Bloomsbury Group, is considered an important part of the set’s social literature.

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CHA/P/1642 Angelica Garnett. Woodland animals by stream. Watercolour and Pencil on Paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Angelica’s legacy does not end with literature. Many of her early art works (often produced in collaboration with Vanessa) can still be viewed at Charleston, a special example displayed in the spare bedroom. Her sketchbooks also form part of Charleston’s archive, containing fashion design, pattern design and still lives. Recognising and promoting Charleston as a place of significant artistic heritage, Angelica and her brother Quentin’s gift of the house to the Trust along with their tireless work during its period of restoration in the 1980s was instrumental in securing a future for Charleston post-Bloomsbury.


 CHA/P/2437 /21 Angelica Garnett. Waistcoat design. Pencil on Paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Aside from the estate, perhaps Angelica’s biggest legacy is the Angelica Garnett Gift, a collection of over 8000 works on paper and canvas. The pieces, mainly works by her parents, had previously filled the drawers, cupboards and studios at Charleston. After Duncan Grant’s death they were held in London at an art storage facility and were largely unseen for nearly 30 years. In 2008 these works were gifted to The Trust, and the exciting work of discovery began. Previously unpublished, this inspiring collection teaches us about the artistic practices and evolution of two internationally acclaimed artists.


CHA/P/2437/5 Angelica Garnett. Domestic pattern, red and blue crown with green leaves. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

The Gift continues to encourage new insights into Bloomsbury’s creative processes and engages us (the attic interns) in the museum documentation processes of cataloguing, digitalizing, conservation and research. Angelica’s gift to Charleston was generous and significant; with it she leaves an important legacy, one that celebrates her family, their work and more intimately, their lives.

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CHA/P/2436/17 Angelica Garnett. Moored boats by trees and houses. Watercolour on Paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.


Highlights from the Gift

As we come to end of our six months together in the Charleston Attic we look back over pieces we have found in the Gift, but have not had the chance to write about.


CHA/P/2523 Recto. Duncan Grant, Tangiers Landscape, pastel and pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

We have found another example of Grant’s sketches from El Farah, the house where he stayed in Tangiers, an unexpectedly extended vacation we discussed a few weeks ago. This sketch is annotated as “from El Farah” suggesting this is the view from Duncan Grant and Paul Roche’s ground floor bedroom-come-studio.


CHA/P/2552 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, Alfred Hitchcock, pen on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

Later in life Duncan Grant sketched from his television. Here we see a quick sketch of Alfred Hitchcock which Grant has signed, noting too that he completed the study from film. As Frances Spalding notes in her biography, in 1957 Grant saw television for the first time and wrote to Vanessa Bell “I really think it is the end of civilisation as we know it… but of course one can’t help glancing in its direction from time to time”.


CHA/P/2472 Recto. Duncan Grant, study of a horn for poster “Musical Instruments for the Front”, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

This is a study for the poster that Duncan Grant designed in c.1918 which read “Wanted! Wanted Musical Instruments for the Front… If you have any musical instruments to give the soldiers at the front write at once”. The posters were printed by David Allen & Sons Ltd. Charleston has recently acquired one of the few remaining posters known to survive which alongside this preliminary study provides insights into his design practice.


CHA/P/2443 Vanessa Bell, Lithograph, London Children in the Country. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

One box that we have worked through during our time here contained various examples of woodcut prints and lithographs executed by both Bell and Grant. Read more about these prints and the significance of print making in both artists’ works in our previous blog here. This lithograph is by Vanessa Bell and is believed to illustrate the experience of evacuated children from the capital city in the countryside around the beginning of the Second World War. The print design dates from 1939.


CHA/P/2413 Recto. Vanessa Bell, painting, Berwick Church study, paint on canvas. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

This is a study of a lamb by Vanessa Bell which would go on to make part of her final mural design for The Nativity at Berwick Church executed in 1942. Berwick Church commissioned these murals by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell in the early 1940s and they can still be seen today. You can walk from Charleston to Berwick Church; find the route on our walking maps available in Charleston’s shop.


CHA/P/2253 Recto. Duncan Grant, figure study, pen on newspaper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

This piece illustrates the inter-textuality of many of the works found in The Angelica Garnett Gift. Here Duncan Grant has penned a nude figure study on a page from The Nation, signing this sketch in a different pen at a later date, and adding the note “can’t make out/ don’t remember the sitter”.

As our season here comes to an end we welcome and wish good luck to the new Attic interns Emily Hill and Philippa Bougeard.


Zoe Wolstenholme and Rebecca Birrell


Lyric Charm and Quiet Wit

The Angelica Garnett Gift never fails to surprise with its traces of Charlestonian foreign travel. Amongst a scattered geography of postcards, sketchbooks and letter paper, we have followed Bell and Grant from the winding backstreets of St. Tropez to sites of classical antiquity in Greece. This week the tokens of travel are a pair of vibrant landscapes from Duncan Grant’s 1975 visit to Tangier.


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CHA/P/2594. Duncan Grant, Recto. Tangier Landscape. Oil pastel on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

At 91 Grant remained a keen traveller, so on 17th October 1975 he took a late flight from Heathrow to Tangier with companion Paul Roche. Grant planned on passing a tranquil few weeks painting at El Farah, the home of friend Rex Nan Kivell, a former hotel three miles outside of Tangier with which Grant was by now familiar, having stayed twice before in the late sixties. Due to Grant’s reduced mobility, the pair slept downstairs in a room with magnificent views of the town, surrounding countryside, and distant glimpses of the sea. Yet Grant delighted most in his immediate environs, as Paul Roche recalls:

‘He was enchanted by the cacti, the hibiscus, the bananas and the heavily scented long ivory funnels of datura.’

However, disaster soon struck: as a result of damp and cold evenings in El Farah, Grant soon contracted pneumonia. A brief and pleasant holiday became a lengthy mission to stabilise Grant’s health, with he and Roche finally leaving on his full recovery seven months later.

Once the worst of Grant’s illness had passed, Roche recalls idyllic days of drawing and dining, paying visits to the local artistic elite (such as Paul Bowles and Marguerite McBey) alongside hours devoted to their creative projects. Remembering Grant’s aesthetic during this period, Roche remarks:

‘Unable to command the solidarity of a portrait or a still-life anymore, Duncan had let loose his lyric charm and quiet wit.’

These Tangier landscapes are certainly instances of such ‘lyric charm’, rendering local flora and fauna in astonishingly bright blues and purples, executed with an abstraction closer to the experiments of his youth. Like many of the pieces from his time in Tangier, one can imagine these works completed at the large circular table of Grant’s make-shift studio, with Roche reading on an adjacent divan, or cycling into town to purchase their lunch.

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CHA/P/2595. Duncan Grant, Recto. Tangier Landscape. Oil pastel on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Their preservation in the gift is itself a stroke of luck. Thanks to months of roaring hot fires (in a desperate attempt to buoy Grant’s strength) El Farah’s sumptuous interiors were almost entirely ruined by smoke, soot and ash. This is not to mention Grant’s rather puckish approach to the villa’s soft furnishing. While a  tablecloth cut into fanciful patterns could be easily concealed, Grant’s other transgressions were more obvious: the grey velvet upholstery of an armchair was refashioned into a  dashing Post-Impressionist design, if somewhat frustratingly for Kivell with the use of a black permanent marker. As a result, Roche was eager to offer Grant’s works as recompense; yet Kivell was sympathetic to the pair’s plight, gratefully receiving only a small watercolour of an orange.

The remaining pieces we can only assume returned home with Grant and Roche, after a long internment in the ad-hoc home they created out in Morocco.

“a charming garden, run rather wild”

Monty Don will this week be exploring the garden at Charleston, situating its unkempt allure – as Woolf would have it – within broader 20th Century shifts in garden design. The rich history of the Charleston Garden was explored on the blog earlier this year, and we urge those eager to tune into Monty Don’s ‘The Secret History of the British Garden’ to take a look.

From the attic we have become accustomed to a bird’s eye view: hedgerows, roses and gravel paths unfurl behind glass, framed by large North-facing windows. Even the thickest condensation (and inevitable wintery transformations) cannot conceal the colourful imagination and flair for flora and fauna. Our panoramic perspective has provoked an even keener excitement for Monty Don’s programme: he promises rather a digging deep, an up-close look at the culture and conditions producing the garden so central to the artistic lifestyle at Charleston.

Charlestonians not only relished the garden as a space of languor and pleasure, but also as a space of industry, education and creative inspiration. Indeed, away from regulated interior spaces – where eating, sleeping, reading and painting generally occurred in separate, dedicated spheres – the walled garden offered unique freedom of activity, an intermingling of generations, passions and goings-on. Props for still-life studies were sourced as readily as cooking produce for Grace Higgins; lawns set up for lessons – as in Grant’s 1917 ‘Lessons in the Orchard’ – shook off their stuffiness to stage amateur theatrical productions. Although delightfully amorphous in purpose, the garden had a distinct style, in accordance with the home’s ad-hoc Post-Impressionist style. As Virginia Nicholson recalls:

“like the house was not intended to be tasteful or restrained. It is as though the exuberant décor of the interior has spilled through the doors”

In 1986, with this vigorous and improvised spirit in mind, Sir Peter Shepheard set about restoring the garden, by then so densely overgrown that even Woolf would have struggled to see its idiosyncratic beauty. Shepheard, hoping to reinstate Charleston’s greenery as ‘an apotheosis of the traditional English cottage garden’, was broadly guided by Roger Fry’s 1917 designs, supplemented by a heady mix of paintings, photographs, correspondence, and memory.

Amidst sketches of centaurs, sleeping children and Sussex landscapes – an interweaving of fantasy and reality commensurate with the role of the garden itself – we recently discovered this litany of floral possibility.
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CHA/P/2438/10. Recto. List of seed varieties. Pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Purchased, planted or simply desired, this faintly pencilled list of flowers gestures to the central role occupied by the garden in daily artistic inspiration. Practical notes on seed variety and quantity rest comfortably against figure studies and frivolous doodles. Certainly more verbal than visual, the list nevertheless possesses a peculiarly aesthetic quality: an indecipherable code of circles, stars and full stops attend ‘Candytuft’, ‘Sweet William’, ‘Tobacco Plant’ and ‘Forget-Me-Nots’. Whether or not sown in soil, these imagined flowers blossom throughout Bell and Grant’s sketchbooks.

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CHA/P/2404. Recto. Study of poppies. Paint on paper. CHA/P/2403. Recto. Study of roses. Paint on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

 One hopes that Monty Don will find the Charleston Garden as bewitching as its inhabitants, as Vanessa Bell wrote to Roger Fry in 1926:

 “It’s so divine here now one can’t bear leaving… The garden is full of dahlias and red admirals and one can sit out all day if one likes”

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CHA/P/2406. Recto. Study of flowers. Paint on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

“Singularly Happy Autumn”

Vulnerable to England’s varying climes, life at Charleston is undoubtedly one of contrasts: endless, balmy summer afternoons have recently yielded to brief and blustery days. Seasonal shifts are felt all the more keenly in the countryside. Unlit by streetlamps, landscapes plunge into thick darkness by teatime. Thin sheets of rain illuminate windblown trees; downpours decorate the pond with circular patterns reminiscent of those favoured by Bell. Smells linger in the air as drizzle slowly churns the ground to mud. Our coats must be heavier, our shoes sturdier. Optimistically picturesque interpretations of the changing landscape can be glimpsed in Angelica Garnett’s sketch books. Akin to the practice of flower-pressing, Garnett’s vibrant watercolours capture with an enduring beauty the ephemeral quality of Autumnal hues.

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 CHA/P/2436/21  Angelica Garnett, Sketchbook. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Unlike a painting – where the vista is apprehended all at once – a sketchbook implicitly places its images as part of a process; each page thus offers a snapshot of greenery in the midst of mellowing. Driven by spontaneity, sketching itself seems perfectly suited to the mercurial quality of the English climate: a sky quickly outlined in pencil can capture its particularly contingent geometry. Garnett’s vivid depiction of Autumn’s maturing landscape sets ripened foliage swiftly upon the page, capturing the essence of the season’s evanescent splendour before its inevitable loss. Garnett’s scene swims with a radiance and energy – salmon pink, periwinkle blue and a seemingly sunlit green intermix – commensurate with the transformations of Autumnal flora and fauna.

Garnett’s technique may appear informal, but is undoubtedly influenced by the revolutionary compositions of late 19th Century French landscape painters. The Impressionists stood before astonishing variations of colour and light and responded with fluid, imperfect brushstrokes not dissimilar to the visual vocabulary of the sketch. Pared down detail gestures to Garnett’s desired Impressionist perspective, but also to the shedding of leaves looming within the rusty orange trees. Yet colour is applied not only as a nod to naturalism, but as a means of infusing feeling into the scene. Spots of purple and smudges of pink suffuse the landscape with a happiness idiosyncratic to Garnett’s experience. Garnett was not alone in her delighted response to the season: in October 1927, Virginia Woolf likewise rejoiced in the ‘bright October days’ and her ‘singularly happy autumn’.

While Garnett sketches plants at their fiery height, Vanessa Bell’s 1950 painting of Charleston occurs after their fall, depicting a tree completely denuded of leaves.

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Charleston, East Sussex by Vanessa Bell, circa 1950-1955, The Charleston Trust. Photograph © BBC Your Paintings.

Bell may have taken inspiration from both Charleston’s summer abundance and its more desolate variations, but sketches in The Angelica Garnett Gift are somewhat less vocal on wintry matters. Bell and Grant’s sketchbooks are bursting with portraits, pattern designs, figure studies and playful sketches, but landscapes – especially those expressive of more bracing weather –are conspicuously absent. Of course, dates here are crucial, a detail frequently elided in sketchbook composition. Bell and Grant only resided permanently at Charleston during the First World War and after 1939; decades passed where they saw Charleston bathed solely by the brilliance of midsummer.

However, when Bell and Grant weathered their first winters at Charleston, as Frances Spalding observes, life was indelibly marked by intemperate climes:

Exuberant decorations belie the harsh conditions in which they were produced. They had neither piped water nor electricity (…) The house was difficult to heat and often freezing; in winter it was sometimes necessary to break the ice on the basin before washing.

Just as the fanciful paintwork of their interiors evoked an eternal summer – concealing, crucially, the hardships of later months – their sketches construct a fantasy space where weather holds no dominion. Thinking less whimsically, sketching may simply have been an impossible project, or at least less of a priority. Practicalities, as Spalding details, pressed upon the inhabitants constantly, inevitably interfering with artistic imperatives: ‘water had to be pumped, earth closets emptied, wood chopped before fires could be lit’.

Thankfully, by the time of Garnett’s sketches and Bell’s commanding image of Charleston, central heating had long been warming the studio. With the complications and chores of simply surviving set aside, winter could be afforded equal artistic attention as more comfortable climes.

And yet, there are moments in the Gift where subtle atmospheric imagery intermingles with the environment, creating work strikingly articulate of its meteorological mood.

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 CHA-P-2270 Recto. Duncan Grant, landscape study, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

The harsh, colourless countryside on display could not be further from Garnett’s jubilant watercolour. Once again, an Impressionist attention to emotion conditions the palette. As Woolf writes of a similarly monochromatic meadow in her diary – modulated, perhaps, by a general feeling of gloom – in December 1931:

‘it is a bitter windy morning, & Caburn, when I came in was white with snow. Now it is black.’

Here, unwanted (if inevitable) wear and tear serves to reinforce a moody and murky atmosphere. Hastily set down, but long interned in the attic, the resulting patches of damp mottling this sketched pasture perfectly capture the clotting of clouds over a deserted landscape. Material traces of moisture unwittingly gesture too to the threat of rain. The furrowed corner energises the loose scribbles billowing across the top of the page, suggesting a tempestuousness that appears to leap from the figurative to the real. The sketch thus becomes an intertexture of imagination and lived environment, both a depiction and material deposit of wet weather.

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