Tar and Lead
The River Tyne is now one of the cleanest rivers in the country. Hard to believe when only a few decades ago raw sewage was being pumped directly into it and heavy industries discharged chemical effluent and waste along its banks. These industries, coal mining and export, ship building, heavy engineering and chemical processing are mostly gone, victims of a whole series of economic downturns and disasters, but their interred remains linger on and continue to impact upon the shaping of landscapes and the health of habitats.
I recently visited two sites on the north bank of the Tyne accompanying a team of environmental scientists from Durham University and Newcastle City Council. I have been asked to act as associate artist to a research project called ROBUST, standing for the Regeneration of Brownfield Using Sustainable Technologies, based at the Institute of Hazard and Risk Research at Durham and headed by Dr. Karen Johnson. My role is to provide a creative response to the development of the project.
One aim is to develop an effective method of cleansing contaminated soils so that they can be brought back into agricultural/community use. The site of the old St. Anthony’s Lead Works in Walker is providing samples of soils polluted with dangerous amounts of lead and arsenic which will be treated with the addition of manganese oxide to hopefully bring the soil back to good health.
Today there is no sign on the ground that St. Anthony’s was once one of the largest lead processing factory in the world. Lead ore was brought in from the North Pennine mines and imported from Spain to be made into lead sheets, pipes and paints. The toxic effects of lead were not understood and the effect upon the health of the workforce must have been appalling. When the works closed in 1932 the buildings were demolished and buried under a thin layer of topsoil. The area was landscaped and planted in the 1960’s but no attempt has been made to clear the contamination, despite the fact that it is now public parkland, an area of riverbank woodland and wilderness.
A little way downstream is the site of an old tar works where the waste products of coke and gas manufacture were processed for use as soaps, dyes and paints. Apart from an open concreted area and some old walls nothing remains of this once dark and filthy place. However the earth is still impregnated with foul black tar which continues to seep into the river.
The Tar Works in 1980
I have no firm idea as to how my work will respond to such subject matter although I do have ideas for some large drawings. The project is set to run for the next four years and if lab and field trials are successful it will go on to regenerate a complete site, returning an area of contaminated land to community use.
Basket, Stone, Wood, Honey
We revisited the Early Peoples floor of the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, an inspiring mix of installation and display with sculpture by Eduardo Paolozzi and environments by Andy Goldsworthy. Paolozzi’s sentinel figures have built-in boxes which contain pre-historic jewellery whilst Goldsworthy’s mud and slate walls provide a backdrop for cases arranged by material and process – wood, stone, ceramic, textile, metal, building, hunting, fishing, cooking etc.
The arrangements speak of continuity, unchanging human needs over huge periods of time, a concept emphasised by showing recently made and used objects alongside the remains of ancient equivalents. I spent quite a bit of time looking at the basket work, a technology older than the moulding and firing of clay, complex, beautiful and versatile, and was reminded of the work of Chris Drury and Swedish storage baskets recently bought from IKEA!
Just outside of Edinburgh (just past IKEA) are Rosslyn Chapel and a bit further down the road, Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton-Finlay’s house and garden. Rosslyn is famous for it’s 15c. stone carving and its connections with Freemasons, Knights Templar and Holy Grail myths. There were two apiarists on the scaffolding which still surrounds the chapel after years of conservation work, trying to net honey bees which have their hive in the hollow top of a rooftop pinnacle.
They access the hive through a small hole in a carved flower form. It is believed that the Medieval masons deliberately encouraged bees to use the hive, probably for symbolic reasons as there is no access to collect honey. At the time hives were woven baskets of grass or straw called a skep. The Rosslyn stone hive is unique.
Ian Hamilton-Finlay raised his family and refined his art and poetry at Little Sparta, a small holding in the Pentland Hills. Over a period of almost forty years he developed his garden, gradually cultivating the surrounding rough ground and moorland, intelligently inserting sculptures and inscriptions which reference his diverse obsessions.
270 works in all, including a set of three beehives inscribed Bountiful, Sweet Promise and Golden Gain, the names of Cornish and Scottish fishing boats. Wooden hives like these have been in use since the 17th c. and Hamilton-Finlay used them again as working hives in his second and much less well known garden design called Fleur de l’Air in Provence.