waterfall

a natural image
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, pulled over, got out the car and walked back. Ducking under branches and clambering round rocks, I got closer. Furnace Falls is 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 buffeted branches, leaves 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. The empirical assumption is that you don't know what's there, and that painting it is an art 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 up all waterfalls are chaotic. This stable instability is part of their 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, along with digital analysis, creative distortion and mapping in the studio.

 

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furnace falls : amlder y dyfroedd

oil on canvas, 1830mm x 1190mm

TWO STUDIES

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click paintings for progress
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IMAGE HISTORY OF A WATERFALL

The oldest known image of Furnace Falls
is on the far left of a small drawing by Phillipe De Loutherbourg
in the National Library of Wales:

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By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / National Library of Wales
It's the first of a sequence of images of Furnace falls to the present day,
which you can see here:

IMAGE HISTORY OF A WATERFALL

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

This changed the way I saw my waterfalls. The paintings looked truthful, but like post cards they were pictures and messages from an imagined place. And like a post card, they also added a place to an imagined map of Wales and England. 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 in Eglwysfach, a village next to the fall where the sender, Jim, lived at Ty-mawr - literally 'big house'. It's addresed to The Liverpool Royal Infirmary and 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.   
                                                                          Jim.
 
So the waterfall 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. Many cards tell similar stories. They link people through places and can show how, like a mountain or tree, a waterfall can become 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. This card was produced by a company started 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 his 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.

WORK IN PROGRESS

SUN MIDSUMMER
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CLOUD MIDSUMMER
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WATER NIGHT
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click painting for progress

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. With religious or secular eyes, our desire to read the book of nature is once again very strong.
 
Dutch artists painted waterfalls a hundred years before we British, and Chinese artists a thousand years before them. But today differences between their ways of seeing can 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.

* 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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