Revenge of the Introverts

The Merlin and a Raven-Buzzard dogfight
(plus a sneaky look at a drab little bird with a remarkable sex life)

April, 2020:  Unless you are affected medically, or trapped in an impossible (or just very difficult) domestic situation, this is a unique time. Especially for naturalists and for all those who savour the spectacular sound of silence which now covers the countryside in a sublime shroud, although it is slowly being removed. For sound recordists of natural phenomena, it is an unparalleled opportunity: so little traffic and aircraft noise, and I’ve even noticed a quieter strimmer serenade – one of the more irritating sounds of summer – or maybe they just haven’t quite found their voice yet.

Unable to travel to nature reserves, beauty spots or just one’s favourite haunt, be it a gravel pit, reservoir, park or wood, we can stay at home with a chance to get to know better what used to be called Common or garden birds.  And we notice they are not so ‘common’, in fact they are rather rare and fascinating; and we realise how little we actually do know them. The humble Dunnock (Hedge sparrow, or even ‘Hedge accentor’ if you will) for example possesses a sex life to be marvelled at, and you may notice their polyandrous trios bumbling about hedgerow bottoms; Mrs Dunnock is very free with her favours. I haven’t myself counted but Dr Tim Birkhead has, and he advises that male Dunnocks can copulate 100 times a day.

Dunnock-minDunnock Prunella modularis

The intriguing sex life of Dunnocks apart, I was sitting in my North Devon garden in April with Mij (a non-polyandrous wife), enjoying the astonishing quietness all around and waiting impatiently for our first Swallow (my daughter, Josie, saw hers ages ago, but she always beats me to everything), a bird come fleeting up the valley over the woodland. “A Swallow,” I cried; Mij immediately, “No, it’s a bird of prey” (she always contradicts me and is frustratingly usually right), but I, quick as a flash, came back, “A Merlin then.”  And we watched in awe as this little falcon flew quietly over us, not hunting just waving. Only the third I’ve ever seen.

My son, Sam, phoned that night from his home in rural Hampshire. I told him about the Merlin, and he said he’d never seen one but thought he’d spotted a Hobby once. “Where could I see a Merlin?” he asked, I replied, “Well, you’ve just got to be lucky, like we were. I wouldn’t like to say ‘Hey, Sam, we’ll go up to Exmoor and I’ll show you a Merlin, it’s not like that.'”

So, what have I learned?  You can stay at home, save your petrol (and the environment), and have just as much chance of seeing something interesting and beautiful as if you trek off somewhere special in full birding gear. It might be a sexy female Dunnock or even a spectacular Will-o’-the-Wisp Merlin.

It could even be as exciting as the sequel to our Merlin adventure. For immediately after he had winnowed off, the stage was taken by a contest between a nesting Raven and loafing Buzzard. We watched these two sparring for twenty minutes before a second Buzzard arrived. I don’t think they were really interested in the Raven chicks (probably quite a size by early April) but gave the impression of just enjoying winding-up the parents. In effect we were greeted to a dogfight worthy of Manfred von Richthofen: the Raven swooping down from… out of the sun? I wouldn’t like to say… but it was pretty spectacular.  As the Buzzard turned over to meet it, the Raven would come within inches of its tormentor plummeting to the nadir of its descent, and from there, with the momentum gained, rapidly climb high for the next assault. The Buzzard appeared merely to flick the Raven aside and continue riding the thermals in carefree arabesques.

It is not always so charming. In a book I wrote under another name many years ago*, I included a photograph of a Raven with its top mandible ripped off by a Buzzard (it was then being cared for in a Wildlife Hospital, and survived by swallowing day-old chicks whole).

I so hope that whoever has a window on the world – preferably one which opens – can get a glimpse such as this. My daughter, Emma, who lives in a high flat in Ealing can see Sparrowhawks from her window, and I wouldn’t doubt Peregrines, and her partner, Raoul, a sound recordist, has sent me a recording of their dawn chorus. On it I can hear Nuthatches, tits, Blackbirds, sparrows, Wood pigeons, and ‘seagulls’ of course.

There is no need for isolation, birds and bees obey no human social distancing. I am sending Emma a window bird feeder and some seed. She claims they are too high up to attract small birds, but I challenge that. We will see who is right; if things run according to rule when it comes to women and me, I know the answer. Rosie Wood, a badger colleague, sent me an epithet which said, ‘If a man speaks in the forest, and there is no woman to hear him, is he still wrong?’ And I know the answer to that one too.

* As Richard Mark Martin, First Aid and Care of Wildlife, David & Charles, 1984.

RHS Exhibition and Christmas Greetings

Just a chance to wish everyone a happy time this Christmas season.

Apologies if you’ve already seen this but it’s been such a difficult year, what with losing £15,000 to a building company than went bust after agreeing to convert my studio into a small dwelling and build a new one, I’m not too sure what I have done and haven’t! But we carry on: little money but lots of rain and mud, and good spirits (most of the time).

Thankfully there is always Art and Poetry.

EXHIBITIONx2 RHS Rosemoor.jpg

Please contact me direct for more information and/or visit my website https://richardmeyer.co.uk/index.php/news.

Residency at the National Trust’s Bucks Mills Artists Cabin #2

Residency at the National Trust’s Bucks Mills Artists Cabin #2

BM05, Oil pastel on silk paper 13.5 x 8.2cm (2)

BM05, ‘The Cabin from the beach’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 13.5 x 8.2cm

After my last entry which was somewhat concerned with the Bucks Mills venue and its interior decay, I showed a few examples of the Pebbles. This series amounted to some 30 sketches and subsequently has developed work in the studio where I am able to work up the drawings both in technique and scale. Below are two examples:

Pebble series 30, Oil pastel on silk paper 32 x 45cm

Pebble series #30, Oil pastel on silk art paper 32 x 45cm

pebble-series-31-oil-pastel-on-silk-paper-32-x-45cm.jpg

Pebble series #31, Oil pastel on silk paper 32 x 45cm

But the coastline was compelling both on the small and large scale. So here is some of the other work done there. As mentioned before, I felt the urge to disappear into the woodland: 66 steps both east and west, up and down a steep climb. There were some overgrown steps on the western side; coming down first time I did an ungainly skidding swallow dive coming down painfully on my left wrist. Fortunately no lasting harm done and not my main drawing hand. It wasn’t this that deterred me from going back there time and again, it was realising that I can study woodland to my heart’s content at home and that it was the coastline which was the whole point of me being here.

BM06 Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

BM06, ‘Woodland’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 23 x 32cm

BM02, Oil pastel on silk paper 13.5 x 8.2cm

BM02, ‘Tree trunks’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 13.5 x 8.2cm

At first I was inspired by ‘Bideford Black’ (a pigment historically mined just up the coast http://bidefordblack.blogspot.co.uk/p/history.html) to work in monochrome and while this was satisfying I felt unable to get the quality of the limpid light. Though I did try and these are some B&W sketches.

BM15, Oil pastel on silk paper 8.2 x 13.5cm

BM15, Oil pastel on silk art paper 8.2 x 13.5cm

BM01, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

BM01, ‘Coast westward towards Clovelly’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 23 x 32cm

BM18, Oil pastel on silk paper 8.2 x 13.5cm

BM18, ‘Coast eastward to Hartland’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 8.2 x 13.5cm

After to some extent abandoning this rather artificial monochrome constraint, I did do more work in and around the woodlands in the company of my parasitic arachnid friends…

BM10, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

BM10, ‘Edge of woodland’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 23x32cm

… but concentrated thereafter on the cliffs and shoreline.

BM11, Oil pastel on silk paper 8.2 x 13.5cm (2)

BM11, ‘Cliffscape’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 8.2 x 13.5cm

BM04, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm (2)

BM04, ‘Coast east to Hartland’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 23 x 32cm

BM13, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

BM13, ‘The red cliff’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 23 x 32cm

BM08, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

BM12, ‘Vegetated cliffs’, Oil pastel on silk art paper 8.2 x 13.5cm

I have subsequently been developing the Pebble series because of its enormous possibilities. I’ll post some of this work later and hope also to show some paintings from these same sources before too long.

 

 

 

 

Residency at Bucks Mills Cabin

Residency at Bucks Mills Cabin

Two weeks of intensive focus on Art at this majestic venue has now finished leaving me tired but with a body of work which ultimately feels worthwhile. “Majestic”? This is the location, not the actual cabin, which is anything but majestic: dilapidated inside with very little of the spirit of those two lady artists, Mary Stella Edwards and Judith Ackland remaining despite their artefacts being everywhere. Nevertheless, I feel very privileged to have been given this chance of residency at what the National Trust calls an “Artists Retreat”. I should have liked it to have been both: a residency and a retreat. It was neither really: one couldn’t reside there (sleeping was not allowed) and the continual footfall of visitors past the door made “retreat” impossible, at least for me.

Let me hastily qualify the above criticism by acknowledging the difficult position NT must find itself in with regard to this unique place. Deciding how to preserve or conserve perishable textiles is very difficult but there is little inside the Cabin which could not be resolved by a good clean and refreshing of some of the furnishings: the carpet and curtains in particular. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a pernickety person (ask my wife) and well used to roughing it, but I was upset about the disonance between the spirit of Edwards and Ackland and the state of the cabin interior now. They were sophisticated, educated and well-to-do ladies who would not, I’m sure, have tolerated such decay.

There is a vast difference between that and a simple frugal lifestyle. I was told that the dirt was “original” and that the cabin was as it was left by the lady artists but a lot of the grot has been left by subsequent users – and not, I’m sure, by previous artists, who would have all treated the cabin with great respect. [I hear the cabin was used for parties etc between 1971 and ownership by the Trust in 2008.]

Fabrics decay. Should they be allowed to, in honour of their provenance – ultimately to disappear completely – or be replaced by facsimiles the better to convey the original style? Is it necessary, by virtue of dust, dirt and decay, to convey the impression of a ‘time capsule’? I think the Trust should address this question as a matter of urgency. The beauty of Bucks Mills is its inspiring location and the spirit of Ackland and Edwards. It is wonderful to have their belongings as left by them and there is enough documentary evidence to keep it very much the same. But it really does need some sensitive TLC. It was the spirit I tried to tap into.

Although a good part of my working life has been on western UK cliffs and coastlands, my natural inclination is always towards woodland, and there are superb tracts of ancient woodland east and west from Bucks Mills. It was here I first gravitated, spending time in the company of what appeared to be an epidemic of ticks before coming to my senses and realising that the main point about being at the Cabin was the coastline. And so thereafter it was here I mainly concentrated, becoming intrigued by the endless jumble of rocks and pebbles played upon by the light, weather and tides which made each day very different from the preceding one.

IMGP2542

The coastline looking west.

I hope to be posting some other examples of work here and the entire body on my website in the near future. Below are a few examples from the Pebble series. My main medium was oil pastels on high gloss silk art paper in self-made ‘sketchbooks’. I also use chinagraph pencils. These media allow a lot of flexibility. The more I worked, the more I became aware of the magnificence of Jackson Pollock’s intuition – instinctive painting and mark-making.

Some of the studies will lend themselves to larger oil paintings, and I’m looking forward to that. I will post more results soon. Please leave comments, I will greatly value them.

Pebble series 15, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

Pebble series #15, Oil pastel on silk paper 23 x 32cm

Pebble series 20, Oil pastel on silk paper 32X45cm (6)

Pebble series #20, Oil pastel on silk paper 32 x 45cm

Pebble series 13, Watercolour 23x33cm

Pebble series #13, Watercolour 23 x 33cm

Pebble series 06, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

Pebble series #6, Oil pastel on silk paper 23 x 32cm

Pebble series 01, Oil pastel on silk paper 11.5x16cm

Pebble series #1, Oil pastel on silk paper 11.5 x 16cm (the first small study).

Pebble series 04, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32.3cm

Pebble series #4, Oil pastel on silk paper 23 x 32.3cm