Christmas card reflection

The Wilton Diptych, c.1395-9; The Gift, 2007

This year once again I’m delighted that one of my Advent images, Joseph’s Angel, is being used by Bishop Martin as a Christmas card for the Chichester Diocese. It was originally produced as part of several annual designs, which were initially for personal use, but subsequently became prompts for mini-research projects. Here I reproduce the ideas I explored for another card, The Gift, in 2007. In this card, the opportunity to plumb deeper pictorial traditions comes to the surface, as it was explicitly modelled on the medieval Wilton Diptych, held in the National Gallery’s collection. What follows is a mini-essay I wrote and produced as a miniature booklet at the time, one of my earliest ventures in self-publishing.

A Visual Analysis

John Drury in his analysis draws out the physicality of the Wilton Diptych in terms of ‘treasure’ (in Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and their Meanings, 2002).  My Christmas card is designed in terms of the ‘gift’.  ‘Treasure’, in the meaning of the Greek gospels (the Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure), comes from the Greek thesaurus.  It specifies a casket or strong-box for valuables – so suggests a container for other riches.  ‘Gift’ in our understanding of Christmas presents, also suggests a wrapped container with a present inside.  The connotations of both are of something intimately received and delighted in.  

At the time it was made, the diptych would have been exclusively enjoyed by one person, King Richard II.  He would have held it as a precious object, opening the box on its middle hinge to reveal the glowing gold and blue interior.  Essentially, it functioned as ‘a portable altarpiece which could be closed like a book and set up on the altars of different churches and chapels – it was intended for private religious devotion’ (Dillian Gordon, writing for the National Gallery).  Gifts at Christmas, if given in the spirit of the wise men, are similarly devotional offerings – they don’t simply meet a need, or fulfill obligation, rather they remind us of another way of living, of another way of loving.

The subject of the painting is designed to encourage such spiritual attentiveness, being as it is a very picture of devotion on the part of the king himself.  The picture shows earth and heaven facing each other – on the left hand side, Richard kneels, attended by Saint Edmund, Saint Edward the Confessor and Saint John the Baptist; and on the right the Virgin Mary holds the infant Christ attended by a host of angels.  There is a very definite separation of space, whose formality acts on our interpretation of what is going on.  It is just such a language of precise arrangement and correlation that I have tried to impose on my Christmas card. 

Within the ‘frame’ of the Christmas present depicted, my image is split into four, each part hosting various figures.  Drury makes the observation that in the diptych, all eyes on the left look to the right, whereas in heaven, there is a greater containment in some mutual gazes as well as others directed towards earth.  My card creates a criss-crossing of gazes, an interaction between angels and humans that is altogether more involved.  Mary acknowledges the kings, who both present their gifts and acknowledge the angels, who in turn look down on events and capture the gaze of a shepherd.  Joseph by his expression could also be acknowledging everyone.

The exchanges are further added to by a consideration of boundaries.  In the diptych, the figures on the left are contained within the frame, and on the right are crowded into it, some not quite making it.  In my card, those figures who have appeared on the scene, as it were, stepping in from the outside are the kings and the angels, whose outlines overlap the notional division suggested by the ribbon.  They are larger than the other figures, and bring either gifts or a fanfare of announcement.  They break into the world of the other pairing, the holy family and the shepherd, whose figures are smaller, more self-contained and stationary.

In terms of background, pattern plays an important part in the diptych, showing a ‘quiet pattern of buds’ on the left, against a ‘bolder and more vibrant pattern, like open leaves or petals’ on the right (Drury).  Similarly, flowers on the ground make a fuller, more decorative setting on the right than the bare earth on the left.  Whilst I have not exaggerated the use of pattern to distinguish between worlds, the markings of the wrapping paper are stronger on the lower panels of my depicted Christmas present than on those above.  This is a simple denotation for ‘groundedness’ which then finds something of a release in the placing of the shepherd on the spiral of ribbon.  Here is an abstracted means of lifting a figure both physically and as a reflection of the character’s worship upon the appearance of the angels (at a slight remove from the events below).  

The echo of this dimension is also found in the lighter colouring of both angels and sheep.  As with the diptych, the angels’ realm is one of concord where similarity of uniform and face (in the medieval tradition of portrait by type rather than studies from life) present overwhelming harmony and affirmation of their thrice-repeated proclamation.  Their white robes dominate the image, and as I’ve always thought the animals to be significant witnesses of the Christmas story too, they also pick up this reflection.  In the diptych, the prominent animal in the arms of John the Baptist, a lamb, serves a symbolic function in reminding the viewer that Christ was also referred to as the Lamb of God, whose white purity is celebrated in the book of Revelation.

The heart of the diptych links this picture of Christ as a lamb with Christ as triumphant Son of God, since the gesture of the infant is to direct the flag with the red cross to be passed over to the lamb.  Here another symbol predominant in painting at the time signifies Christ’s resurrection after death which performed a reconciliation between earth and heaven on account of his perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world.  As Drury observes of the diptych, ‘his crossings-over had joined the worlds together’.  In my image, there is also a red cross which acts in the same manner to both symbolise and effect a joining of worlds.  The message is made clearer in the writing on the gift tag which quotes John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son.’

In the case of the diptych, it is likely that the flag carries multiple meanings as well as that highlighted by Drury, referring to the banner of Saint George, patron saint of England, and also to the kingdom of England as represented in the tiny depiction of an island within the flag’s orb.  The presentation of the flag might well refer to the blessing and/or devotion of Richard’s kingdom from/to the Virgin Mary.  As also noted by the presence of the king’s personal emblem on the robes of the angels (the white hart brooch), there is a very definite affinity between heaven and earth, sacred and secular.  In my card, there is this sense of intermingling since the characters of the nativity are photos of plastic models – mass-produced slightly kitsch figurines employed in the depiction of that most holy night.

Finally, it is the action of the king in the diptych which leads Drury to reaffirming its purpose as an object of devotion – his hands remain open, and he kneels.  In ownership of the object itself, Richard is to practice that same reverence and simplicity, so that without grasping or being acquisitive he enters into ‘a moment of happy seeing when the overwhelming beauty of the world beyond breaks into the present’.  It is the same with receiving God’s gift of his son, receiving the nativity story again and appreciating the ‘good news of great joy’.

Picturing the Peacock Arts Trail

Art work by Sheona Beaumont, painter Victoria Cleverly, and Lacock Primary School; St Cyriac’s Lacock.

From the 5th to the 13th October, I’ve been busy exhibiting and curating an exhibition in St Cyriac’s Church, Lacock, as part of the Peacock Arts Trail 2019. We’ve had a wonderful 10 days, with over 1,000 visitors to the building, and plenty of inspiring chats over a cuppa and cake. Joining me in exhibiting were local painter Victoria Cleverly, and the pupils of Lacock Primary School.

At our preview event, I unveiled my community project Wall of Remembrance. This is an 8-panel, 35-aperture photographic installation, displayed in the south transept at St Cyriac’s. Featuring lenticular photography (where the images appear to change as you walk past them), Wall of Remembrance commemorates the service and commitment shown by local servicemen and women during the First World War, as well as the love of the families who supported them. The piece is the culmination of a community project in Lacock that began in 2018, having been commissioned by the Green Café at St Cyriac’s Church, and supported by Wiltshire Scrapstore, initially as part of Lacock Remembers 2018. Local families were invited to contribute to the project by sharing their photographs, medals, clippings and other objects connected to war time.

These objects appear in the lenticular panels and include portraits of Major Charles Selwyn Awdry and Major Allen Llewellen Palmer, as well as of Matilda Talbot serving at the Red Cross Hospital in Corsham, and Ivy Gladstone at the Chippenham and Bowood Red Cross Hospitals. Other images include a Soldier’s Penny given to Ernest Leonard Stevens, an engraved communion cup presented to St Cyriac’s in memory of Basil William Ramsbottom, and a shell casing. The poppies in the images were made out of clay by the 1st Lacock Scout Group in 2018. 

My work also included the display of Scriptorium (first displayed in 2018). The complete text of the King James Bible text, with the exception of the Psalms, is transcribed onto Fabriano drawing paper with light, with one book per page. Cyanotypes are photographic prints produced without a camera, in this case with the superimposition of an acetate layer and a single peacock feather, over the sensitised paper. The vivid blue pigment forms as a result of iron compounds reacting to light – the process was originally adopted in the copying of architectural designs known as blueprints. I’m playing with ideas here of old and new copying of sacred texts – the scriptorium was where medieval manuscripts were copied onto parchment, and ‘script’ is also a programme in computer code for running or executing the display of public domain text.

Victoria’s thoughtful paintings with geometry, layers, and textures of natural form and detail (seen together with the artist above) were found in all corners of the church. It was wonderful to create spaces of accented contemplation, where a kind of slow looking worked between painting and architectural setting, and also brought organic shapes and subjects into view. The Lady Chapel at St Cyriac’s worked particularly well for this relationship with its wall and ceiling paintings featuring natural world designs in abundance. Other parts of the church such as the pulpit and the font received specific artistic interventions from the school pupils, who I’d invited to respond with ideas around the theme of unity. With Victoria’s help in class, the results are joyous and colourful, expressing hope and beauty through a world recycled and held together (with plastic and palm-prints), and a rainbow-like church seen in the pulpit above. Other paintings were displayed hanging between the pillars and also share exuberant multimedia designs from children aged between 6 and 9.

It’s been a privilege to share this space and its time with so many interested and enthusiastic people. To the parents and church members who helped with stewarding and cake – you’ve been amazing, and we couldn’t have done it without your help! It’s made the event feel special and connected to the community in new and exciting ways, so thank you. To the church PCC and the team at the Peacock Arts Trail, thank you too. I’ve really appreciated your professional support, with dedicated helpers and layers of expertise all working to make something magical happen – not just here but across the other trail venues. What a rich creative field in this corner of Wiltshire! Here’s to the next one in two years’ time…

St Cyriac’s Day and the tale of the Lacock Cup

The replica Lacock Cup, made for St Cyriac’s Church, Lacock in 2019

Today, 16th June, is St Cyriac’s feast day in the church calendar. It hasn’t been particularly noted at St Cyriac’s Lacock in the recent past, but this year we had something to celebrate. In 2013, the Lacock Cup, the church’s medieval masterpiece, was sold to the British Museum and the Wiltshire Museum for £1.3m. Agreed as part of the sale was the commissioning of two replica cups to be made, one for Wiltshire Museum, and one for St Cyriac’s Church. Thanks to the expert craftsmanship of Mike Neilson at the British Museum, we received the replica about a month ago. Today it was used for the first time at our communion service.

Mike Neilson’s worktop, 2017; the replica Cup at St Cyriac’s, 2019

Standing at 35cm tall (with lid), the replica shares with the original its construction in two parts from 1kg of hammered silver, with gilt details. The original, an extremely rare piece of medieval silverware, was made in the fifteenth century initially for secular use as a communal drinking goblet at feasts. It was at some point given to St Cyriac’s, where it was used as a chalice for centuries, though no-one knows its original owner or donor – it has no markings or inscriptions. Its sale was a sensitive issue amongst the local community, with some opposition from those who strongly felt it should remain. It was sensitive enough to percolate through church discussions about how to celebrate the replica without causing further offence. For me, working on incorporating the Lacock Cup into a new church logo (as part of my recent project at the church working on design and interpretation) caused consternation for some, enthusiasm from others. Which gave a lot of pause for thought about the meaning of the Cup, and why we would want to celebrate it. I found myself wanting to champion what is its key, central, visual theology – the thing which centres not so much on its history, nor its design, but on its use.

The communion cup, this communion cup, stands for the truth of what Christ has done for his followers and for Lacock’s joining in with this truth. As a material object it is undeniably a unique and beautiful artefact, which yet becomes something relational and communicative at holy communion.  It is fundamentally not just a dead object solely of museum interest (though that is cultural capital that a church with high tourist footfall would be foolish to downplay), it is representative of life-giving sustenance through the gospel, through the commemorative words of Jesus at the Last Supper, and his death remembered in drinking wine from the chalice at communion.  St Cyriac’s has that living tradition, and is deeply centred on the purpose and the life that it represents.  In the middle of the National Trust village that is Lacock, the church community are in a perfect position to declare this USP in a world where history or heritage forgets the reasons why people worshipped, indeed who they worshipped and why they still do. There is something of a breaking frame mentality needed to identify this as a USP in connection with the Lacock Cup. It is, and should be, a positive reason for celebrating the replica. The fact that it hasn’t been for some has served to show me how deeply and how ingrained we can become stuck on particular interpretations about objects of visual art or literature (leading from particular feelings) because of past associations. But I’m passionate that this can change, that St Cyriac’s can remember its first love, that we found (almost literally) the pearl of great price – the great thing about that parable being how it transformed the person who found it with a contagious, fizzing excitement. Again and again, in my interpretation project, I find myself buzzing with that excitement. Not just about the Cup, but about all of our heritage as as worshipping community – more about that later this year. For now, I end with the manifesto I wrote for the church’s PCC report about my design work with the logo:

  • The Cup serves our community’s church by reminding us of sharing in the blood of Jesus.
  • The Cup serves our community’s village residents by owning our own history positively.
  • The Cup serves our community’s village businesses (NT, school, etc) by championing what we stand for amongst Lacock’s other ‘trades’.
  • The Cup serves our community’s worldwide visitors by sharing our beliefs regarding our heritage.

Lent and soul patience

South windows at St Anne’s Bowden Hill, Wiltshire (1856)

Lent started on the 6th March. I went to an Ash Wednesday service at St Anne’s Bowden Hill (Wilts), got the cross marked on my head and remembered that I am dust. This Lent, I’m putting my foreground research in the background, and committing my time to a church project for Lacock and Bowden Hill. At St. Cyriac’s, Lacock, we’ve taken down all the signs and most of the devotional material – a version of the Lenten practice to cover up all the visual prompts for worship. It’s a way of doing visual theology ‘aniconically’. It’s not that there’s no visual stuff, it’s that the visuality of emptiness or absence is part of the symbolic prompt to self-reflection and penitence. In these windows at St Anne’s, there’s no dominant iconographic programme, and the effect is of slow luminescence, meandering looking, piecemeal symbolic identification, and also reading (above the windows are engraved inscriptions, here ‘Let us not be weary in well doing, for in due season we shall reap if we faint not’). I see it as an invitation to slow down.

The giving of yourself to a new project, to people, to an idea, to a place – is a commitment, a yes to something you have chosen, over other no’s. That involves the path of fidelity, the dying to other options – and it’s a VERY different posture of the heart to the yes-to-everything distracted/rebounding focus of our culture’s invitations to connect and invest. We don’t really move forward by saying yes to everything because we have endless options – we move forward because we said yes to something more singular, and because we said no to other things. The saying no, the stalling/stepping sideways into life’s viscosity looks like hanging backwards, feels like hanging backwards, but it isn’t. In the grace of what time is and of who we are, there is space to recognise that fullness doesn’t need to be hinged to fixation or frenetic activity. The story of history, of wisdom, is always the story of a couple of steps forward, a couple of steps back; it’s always the story of a glimpse of what you could be, and then you head off in that direction, and there are setbacks and you have dark nights of the soul and you wander around the woods and you get lost and then friends become enemies and enemies become friends, because that’s how it works (with thanks to Rob Bell…).

In a previous post, I identified constellations in/with which I work, rather than programmes. Which has the similar sense of allowable ‘drift’ in practice and attention. D’you know what though? It’s really hard. It’s hard in the pressure of our world’s emphasis on efficiency. It’s hard in the self-doubt about wasted time, about ‘indulgence’ when there are ‘better’ things to do, about who cares anyway. If it were a flight from the real, then perhaps these pressures would stick, but actually the point is to distill to a deeper reality. Lent affords the explicit naming of something we instinctively resist: namely that our natural end-point is dust. We don’t ultimately achieve things in our own self-effort, except in Christ’s promise of new life, except in love from without, except in flinging ourselves on God’s meaning and mercy beyond death. Everything we do can become a patient weaving of our heart, body, mind, and soul into this pattern we don’t yet fully see. We don’t see, that’s the point – and we can re-situate our ‘not seeing’ in the promises of Easter’s ‘being seen’. I hope what I’m doing gives itself to that possibility, to a direction of being seen by God, in amidst all the looking and reading that our parish churches (not to mention research in the humanities) invite.

A Financial Picture of Self-employment

The recently published report (Dec 2018) from the Arts Council, Livelihoods of Visual Artists: 2016 Data Report, found that 90% of visual artists in the UK don’t make enough money to live on. Across the 2,000 artists surveyed, the average income from art practice was £6,000. This is further skewed by a small number of higher income artists raising this representative average, where in fact two-thirds of artists earn less than £5,000 (see p.9 of the report).

I’m taking the opportunity to review and present my own self-employment practice in the interests of transparency here. I’ve worked part-time in art practice for nearly twenty years now, at first in an ad hoc way during and after graduating, then registering as self-employed in 2007. The bar chart above summarises my Shospace business for the 10-year period since then, with income and expenditure shown side-by-side for each year. It’s probably safe to say I’m reaching mid-career stage now, but one of the consistently hard issues to deal with is that my practice income is not remotely self-sustaining (the greyed-out income shows earnings from additional employment after tax: firstly in libraries, then as a grant during PhD studies, more on supplementary income below). Of the 10 years represented in my chart above, for 6 of them I declared a loss with regard to Shospace, since direct costs for making the work exceeded the income. Even in 2011, when I sold nearly every print and numerous catalogues from a solo exhibition of 25 works (making Bristol Through the Lens my most ‘successful’ exhibition), the costs of printing and gallery hire just overtook the sales.

In individual art-making, this is an emphatically different situation regarding the administration of one’s job – employment in other sectors rarely costs the worker this kind of expenditure. And further, it’s often a vicious circle: you need money to make the work, and to get money you need to sell things you’ve made. Further still, according the to survey, mid-career female artists are the group facing the biggest expenses (p.31, below, with childcare unsurprisingly being a feature). In my case, despite the support of generous tax credits for childcare, and despite the low overheads caused by working from home in church-managed properties, it is the inflexibly-coupled linking of work and expense that has most specifically inhibited my business’s growth, which I’m sure is the story behind many unmade, unrealised, artist projects universally. Even where a full-time artist would probably show greater progression or expansion over 10 years, I don’t believe there is gradation or drop-off in this linking of income with expense – a friend of mine whose photographic career you would describe as ‘taking off’ says the achievements are illusory, because she’s spent more than she’s ever spent on prints, books, exhibitions etc. Unless your work reaches the world of the super-rich in the upper inflations of the art market, there is no stable business model here.

From Livelihoods of Visual Artists, published by Arts Council, 2018, p.31.

Now why am I highlighting this? I’m not getting the violins out, this isn’t a woe-is-me lament, nor a presumption of money growing on trees. I’ve been self-righteously sad and angry in turn with previous projects, and in trying to get that element out of the way, I’ve learnt that one’s perception of ‘earning’ has to reckon with a personal burying of entitlement. It’s a familiar enough life lesson that one has to learn to deal impersonally with rejection, or unrealised potential. But the modelling of artistic practice as a livelihood (if not necessarily a career, as we note the careful choice of the report’s title) does have to reckon with this mode of production (if not necessarily profit) and its viability. The pursuit of art practice is one choice amidst a wealth of choice in our Western educationally privileged society, and it is almost inevitable that we are schooled into comparative career assessments, charting what we do against what we can get out of it, often through the aspirational language of business development and the capitalist dream – but such assessments misrepresent the kind of delimited, grass-roots existence that such de-institutionalised practice is. Supporting structures for other livelihoods involving practice, such as medical practice, or agricultural practice, tend to offset the costs or the direct carrying of costs by the practitioner: there are centralised pay structures (such as the NHS), or governmentally-ratified policies and investments (such as farm tenancies and quotas) and such large-world structures contribute to (and legitimise) less direct mediation of and accounting for ‘craft’. But artistic practice is very much up against its small-world individual binding of cost-to-production, which while it assumes the same vocational circuitry as some of these other practicing professions, is far less equipped, mediated, or measured through societal or institutional organisation. Or even talked about in these terms.

So what are the options? The most obvious is seeking supplementary income, as recognised in the report (p.81ff, 7 out of 10 artists have other jobs, nearly half of these having 2 or 3), and in my own experience. The effect is often double-sided, however, the report acknowledging that time and energy spent elsewhere necessarily diminishes time and energy for art practice – I well relate to the feeling of living two lives with my earlier jobs in administration, or in council and university libraries. Over time this is a false economy, and the splitting of self can become detrimental to mental and physical health, though I don’t doubt that for some there is little choice in the need to earn. More recently for me, a change in the nature of my business, stepping sideways into research rather than practice, and finding thereby a contract for services (rather than raising money through sales of art work) has taken my income over the £5,000 mark for the first time. Coming from the church (specifically the Bishop Otter Trust), it’s not that far from an old-fashioned model of patronage, which would have been an option in earlier times of societal/institutional organisation for artists. It certainly reflects my inclination of wanting to find work in related forms, and in my case this is a move towards the top type of secondary-income job held by artists according to the report – that of lecturer/academic (closely followed by teacher, see p.84).

The troubling extended consequence of seeking income elsewhere is the likelihood of artistic practice diminishing and even ceasing. Indeed, stopping is another option; the report’s data depressingly suggests that of those considering stopping, mid-career women married-with-kids are pretty much at the top (p.66ff). Further, by art form, photographers experience lack of financial return as the greatest barrier to developing practice (p.106), despite being at the top of the list for total income (which includes non-art-practice income. At the top of the charts for average practice income alone are craft, sculpture, ceramics, illustration, and community projects, p.13). This wouldn’t be the first time I have considered stopping, and in fact I think I did once decide to leave it behind, only to find I couldn’t not do it – I couldn’t stop dreaming up and tinkering with visual ideas.

So I think I’ve accepted the impulse, but I’m seriously questioning the model, and in particular the viability of material production. It’s one thing to say I have a body of new work on the theme of motherhood ‘on the go’, it’s quite another to pursue its realisation in print or on the wall. The reality is that I need more than £20,000 to produce it, and that I’ve sought funding since 2014 on 3 separate occasions which has been unsuccessful, despite committed institutional support for its display and promotion. There is potential to crowdfund or patron it, or even to commercialise a lenticular process that I’m exploring with it, but even then its reach wouldn’t extend to income. It’s also possibly publishable as digital content, minimising production costs significantly, but again, income and impact would be correspondingly small – a reflection of the ‘shallow’ online market, with its fast and devaluing dissemination of digital visual culture. It doesn’t seem like a winning situation. In truth, the cold reality of costs here pushes me to scope and think and pray for a return on my effort in different ways: the waiting for a ‘right’ fit with an as-yet unimagined context for the work, expecting/seeking relationship out of it instead of money, shifting the value of productivity to something seasonal and organic (rather than black or red columns), and as a Christian choosing to trust God’s model for growth through kingdom and character rather than through economy and numbers. I don’t find it easy to accept, but then it’s a good reminder that we’re all ultimately works-in-progress aren’t we?