waterfall

a natural image
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I took a break in Wales, a place of childhood holidays. I drove from Essex, through the English Midlands and the Shropshire hills, over the mountains to the sea. As on a childhood holiday, I saw woods, streams and waterfalls I'd never seen before. Waterfall is about one of these falls, and how it has been seen, remembered and imagined.

The road between Aberystwyth and Machynellyth runs past an eighteenth century blast furnace. Set back on a bend, it's easy to drive past the building, and very easy to miss the waterfall in the trees. I glimpsed it as I drove past; pulled over, got out the car and walked back. Ducking under branches and clambering round rocks, I got closer. Furnace Falls is part of an industrial site, but I barely noticed it on my first encounter.

I had found a nature condenser: a water and stone chamber, saturated with noise and alive with plants and animals. Updraughts buffeted insects, leaves and branches. Protean, the water changed colour, speed and texture. And when the sun came out the scene fragmented in ways that defied imagination.

I made a study, and later began a big canvas only to put it aside to work in a field in Essex. But I did not forget this waterfall. The richness of that first impression fused with the fall's distinctive shape into a kind of emblem.
 
Years later, I went back to make a fresh start:

Painting can be a way of making first hand contact with nature. Think of Cézanne or Constable. There is an assumption that you don't know what nature looks like, and that painting is a way of finding out.

Compared to an object on a table, a waterfall is almost impossible to see. At a distance they may have a distinctive shape, but close to all waterfalls look chaotic. Stable instability is part of the facination: they almost tell you that you can and can't see them.

The paintings in Waterfall show different visions of water in one place. They use oil studies, notes and photos taken on the spot, with digital analysis, creative distortion and mapping in the studio.

WORK IN PROGRESS

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IMAGE HISTORY OF A WATERFALL

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By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / National Library of Wales
The oldest known picture of the falls is on the far left of this little drawing in The National Library of Wales - first in a series of images to the present day that you can see here:
 
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furnace falls : amlder y dyfroedd

oil on canvas, 183cms x 119cms

WATERFALLS ON THE FENS

I moved to Ely, a cathederal town surrounded by huge, flat fields at sea level. Painting waterfalls in this landscape made me think about what the paintings meant so far from their mountain source. 
 
Friends sent me a post card from Niagra Falls and I picked up an idea from my coconut mat. Since post cards were introduced, huge numbers of waterfall pictures had been sent and displayed on mantle pieces, pin boards and fridges. I saw that what is only suggested in a painting is obvious on a hand written card; stamped, franked and sent from one place to another - that no matter how real a picture looks, it's always distant from the real thing. It reminded me that even realistic images are products of imagination. 

This changed the way I saw my paintings. They looked truthful, but like post cards they were also pictures of an imagined place; and they added that place to an imagined map of England and Wales. So, with a sense of sharing something with senders and receivers past and present, I began to collect post cards of Furnace falls. These cards are part of Waterfall:

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This card was posted in 1906 at Eglwysfach, the village next to the fall where its sender, Jim, lived at Ty-mawr - literally 'big house'. It's addresed to The Liverpool Royal Infirmary and the message in Welsh translates ** as
 
Dear Nephew,
It was good to hear from you and to know you are improving and have got through the operation very sucessfully. You will be as strong as a horse again, like before. After sending this I'm going to Festiniog today or tomorrow.   
                                                                          Jim.
 
So Furnace Falls became part of a small act of family kindness. An uncle felt that a picture of a waterfall was a good choice for a convalecent nephew, perhaps because water in springs and pools is associated with healing (there is such a spring nearby), but also because his nephew probably knew the fall.

Postcards link people through places, and can show how a waterfall can be a reference point in peoples lives.
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Sixty years later the fall looks very different, not just because it's in low spate, but also because photography, printing and colour fashions have moved on - and all this has changed how the waterfall is seen through the image.
 
The card above was produced by a company started just after World War II by two ex Royal Airforce reconnaissance officers. In the 1980's it was sold in a shop opposite the fall, and the director of a nearby outward bound school, John Roberts, bought them in batches for students to send home to London's East End. So there may still be pictures of Furnace Falls tucked away in the drawers of urban Stepney. 

Post cards survive because they are saved: a group is like a collection of paintings, each with a personal message.

WORK IN PROGRESS

MIDSUMMER POSTCARD 1
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MIDSUMMER POSTCARD 2
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WATER NIGHT
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NATURAL IMAGES

Each picture in Waterfall shows the same patch of nature over time. The waterfall is like a natural image, a thing unbidden in the world, there to facinate and instruct. Medieval Christians saw nature as God's created book, something to read and interpret, and full of natural images. Today, with religious or secular eyes, our desire to read the book of nature is again very strong.
 
Dutch artists painted waterfalls a hundred years before we British, and Chinese artists a thousand years before them. But differences between their ways of seeing now seem less important than the similarites, because all these traditions invite us to consider permanence and change in nature, and what it may mean for us. How we imagine waterfalls concerns everyone.

 
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The Welsh titles
 for these paintings come from conversations with Gerald Morgan. I often heard Welsh as I grew up but have no Welsh myself; however Gerald is a Welsh speaker and scholar.
Our method was to discuss photos of the site with me trying to say something about my experience at the time. Then, without further interference from me, Gerald found Welsh words for what he saw.
Welsh evolved in contact with a particular landscape, creating a huge store of description and reaction to the envronment. Our hope is that Welsh titles will give Welsh speakers a more intimate way into the paintings, and draw attention to the uniqueness of each language in relation to nature.
For non Welsh speakers our hope is that by knowing just a little Welsh you can enjoy the interaction beween landscape, painting and language a little more. To help, there's a gloss for each title.

* Souvenir spoon cameo designed for Sampson Souvenirs, now Judge Sampson Ltd.

** Translation by William Troughton, Visual Images Librarian, National Library of Wales.
 


For an eye opening discussion of local language and nature, see Robert MacFarlane's book Landmarks.

Paintings and prints available. For information, images and all other enquiries please contact

Email: st@stephentaylorpaintings.com

Phone: +44 (0)1353 667014

Letter: Coach House, 7 Douglas Court, Ely, Cambs, CB7 4SE, UK

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