a place in the imagination
I took a break in Wales, a place of childhood holidays. I drove West from Essex through the Midlands and the Shropshire hills, over the mountains to the sea. As on a childhood hoilday, 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 and pulled over, got out the car and walked back. Ducking under the trees and clambering round some rocks, I got closer. The fall is called Furnace Falls and it's integral to the industrial site, but I hardly noticed this on my first encounter.

I had found a nature condenser. A wet stone chamber with a white wall and green floor of water, saturated with noise and alive with plants. Updraughts animated leaves, branches and insects. 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, putting it aside to paint a field in Essex. But I did not forget this fall, and years later returned to make a fresh start:

I work in a tradition that treats painting as a way of making contact with nature. Think of Constable or Cézanne. There's an empirical assumption that you don't know what's there, and that painting is a direct way of finding out for yourself.

Compared to an object on a table, a waterfall is almost impossible to see. Often with distinctive shapes at a distance, close to all waterfalls are 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 are made from oil studies, notes and photos taken on the spot, and digital analysis, creative distortion and mapping in the studio.



furnace falls : almder y dyfroedd

oil on canvas, 1830mm x 1190mm.   private collection




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 the coconut mat. Since post cards were introduced, huge numbers of waterfall images  must have been sent, ending up on mantle pieces, pin boards and fridges. I saw that what is only implied in a painting is very obvious on a hand written card, stamped, addressed, franked and delivered from one place to another: that no matter how real a picture looks, it is always distant from the real thing. It was a simple reminder that even the most realistic image is a product of imagination. 

The idea changed the way I saw my waterfalls. The paintings looked truthful, but they were also like post cards, pictures and messages from an imagined place. And like post cards, they were also part of an imagined map of Wales and England. So with a sense of sharing something with thousands of senders and receivers past and present, I began to collect post cards of Furnace falls. These cards are part of Waterfall:


This one was was posted in 1906 in Eglwysfach, the village next to the fall where the sender, Jim, lived at Ty-mawr - 'big house'. Addresed to The Liverpool Royal Infirmary, its 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.   
So the waterfall becomes part of a small act of family kindness. An uncle felt that a picture of the waterfall near his house was a good choice for a convalecent nephew; perhaps because water in natural springs and pools is traditionally associated with healing, and probably because his nephew knew the fall and would have associated it with his uncle. Many of the cards have similar stories. They link people by linking places and show ways in which, like a mountain or a tree, a waterfall can become a reference point in our lives.

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 all moved on. This card was produced by a company started after World War II by two ex Royal Airforce reconnaissance officers (experts in pinpointing significant places). In the 1980's it was sold by a shop then opposite the fall, and the headmaster of a nearby outward bound school 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.
The oldest known image of Furnace Falls is on the far left of a small pen and wash drawing in the National Library of Wales:
By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / National Library of Wales

It was made in 1789 by a cosmopolitain Royal Academician, Phillipe de Loutherbourg, who travelled from London to record modern industrial wonders for a set of then fashionable prints. The distinctive 'T' top of the fall dates from this period, a man made extension of boulders, packed in to enlarge the upper pool to feed the waterwheel which powered the furnace bellows. The study is from a time when British artistic interest in waterfalls was only just beginning. It's a picture of a blast furnace with a waterfall, not of the fall itself.


Each picture in Waterfall shows the same patch of nature over time. The variety of images contrasts with the permanence of the fall, which in turn looks like a natural image, a thing unbidden in the landscape, there to facinate and instruct.
Reading creation as the work of God, medieval Christians saw nature as a book to read, full of natural images. Today, with religious or secular eyes, our desire to read the book of nature is again very strong.
The Dutch painted waterfalls a hundred years before the British, Chinese artists a thousand years before them. But differences between their ways of seeing now seem less important than their similarites: since all these traditions invite us to consider permanence and change in nature, and what that means for our future. 

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.

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

For a 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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