Winter 2009 – 10
Bowes Moor to the west of Barnard Castle is a poisoned place, a no-go area. During and after WW2 the RAF used it to stockpile chemical weapons, mustard gas and lewisite and the terrible nerve agents sarin and tabun. Corrosion, leaks and fires led to severe contamination of the earth and seepage into the water system. Eventually the evil compounds were burned or dumped into the sea but the land has never properly recovered. It’s skin absorbed the deadly toxins and blistered and burst as a result. The scar tissue of MOD concrete and brick remain and heather and cotton grass have grown over the wounds. Hill sheep have returned to graze and curlews, lapwings and skylarks to nest.
I have been to the nearby Bowes Museum to have a closer look at Jan van Amstel’s (1500-42) “Flight into Egypt”, a painting that has always intrigued. They very kindly wheeled it out of storage and I spent an interesting couple of hours drawing it and scouring its surface for clues to its meaning. It is a presentiment of the brutal religious wars about to sweep the Lowlands. A blue-black storm cloud looms over Bethlehem as the Holy Family make their way towards the Red Sea.
The real subject is hidden, the clue to it’s meaning tied up in incidentals, events to be found, not in the Bible, but in the apocryphal Gospel of the Psudo-Matthew. Parts of this elaborated account of the life of Christ was reproduced in the Golden Legend, a Medieval book of hagiographies used extensively by artists of the period. In the foreground a beggar sees what is to come, he sits beneath a tree adorned with a wayside crucifix. In the sky is the thread-width vapour trail of a falling comet, the Star of Bethlehem crashes to Earth into a distant wood. This is Wormwood, the burning fireball which poisons the waters of the Earth and kills all life. This is the beginning of the End of the World.
I discovered that the object on the cloth spread out at the foot of the crippled beggar in the foreground of the painting is a set of manacles (not a pair of medieval spectacles as I have always thought!) I believe that they are further evidence pointing to the idea that the painting shows the beginning of the end, the Second Coming, when the oppressed will throw off their shackles and the meek will inherit the Earth.
On the bleak moor on the left hand side of the painting I have found a man broken on a wheel next to a man hung on the gallows. This was a very grizzly form of execution favoured in the Low Countries at this time and also features in the paintings of Bosch and Bruegel. These incidental details are tiny, the work of a miniaturist attempting to expand his vision on a larger scale. They only come into true focus in close-up photography, but they are of great significance when attempting to read the painting.
We have had many different types of snow recently. It has fallen layer upon layer, thawed, frozen, then fallen again. A thick carpet of snow thrown over the landscape. Dry soft snow from the Arctic, crumbling pellets like polystyrene balls, fine blizzard snow blown on strong winds, large wet flakes falling vertically, sleet and hail accompanied by thunder, all settling on the builder’s debris in the garden, clinging to the tree braches on the back fields, accumulating in thick drifts up on the hills. I have been living in a black and white world for weeks now, a two-tone paradise of white fields and black trees, white hills and black walls. The mono-tonality has become even more pronounced in recent days as freezing mists have descended and blurred divisions, blanked skies and limited horizons. It would be easy to become depressed by such conditions but I have found myself transfixed by the beauty of it all. I imagine the Moor under snow-white bandages, the poisoned earth temporarily cleansed by a virginal covering. My paintings are reduced to soot and ash.
Dirty Snow 2010 smoke and ashes on burned tinplate