Notes on Lorna Graves

A Guided Walk in the Footsteps of Lorna Graves – Landscape and Art in the Eden Valley

Notes from the Brampton Walkers are Welcome Guided Walk from Daleraven Bridge to Lacy’s Caves, Little Salkeld, Long Meg & Addingham Church on 10th June 2018

Daleraven Bridge NY 565395

In May 1981 Lorna Graves held her first exhibition at the Theatre in the Forest at Grizedale. Northern Arts had awarded her £500 to support this venture. A small piece in The Westmorland Gazette began ‘Hunsonby Potter wins £500 Grant!’ For Gazette readers it was a trivial news item. For Lorna Graves it must have felt like a momentous occasion.

Lorna’s search for artistic direction had been difficult, she described it as ‘an unveiling and the veils were made of iron’. Born in Kendal in 1947 she lived most of her life in close communion with agricultural Cumbria. Lorna’s mother, Kathleen Hardisty, worked as a hired hand on a number of north Cumbrian farms. Lorna’s childhood was nomadic, moving from farm to farm, but it also gave her a unique reference with the landscape and the animals around her.

The local farmers could tell that Lorna had a strange affinity with the landscape. “Thoo’s touched” they used to say about her:

When I was a child they’d say ‘Thoos touched, thoo is’. Although it was a taunt I didn’t mind, it was a recognition. It felt like the truth. They meant I was mad of course, but to me it said that I was unlike them …. being touched was like being chosen, being linked to other worlds with different ways of being and understanding. When we worked in the fields, the barns and byres I loved every stalk and stook and bale of straw, every cow & every calf, the trees, the sky, the earth itself. It was a golden time. This was the whole universe. I saw and liked eternity. I tasted paradise.

So Lorna had tasted the paradise all around us and in return it had revealed her artistic direction which lead to her first exhibition and beyond. Today our journey will be to walk through this paradise and find out why it inspired the art of Lorna Graves.

Kirk Bank looking across to St. Michael’s Well

In 1350 the River Eden changed its course and washed away Addingham Village, including its church. Burials continued at the site of the original church for some time until floods once again swept away the new graves. A new church, The Church of St. Michael’s, Addingham was built in the early C16 on higher ground.

In times of drought, stone artifacts from the old church were retrieved from the river bed and carried up to the new church including, during a drought in 1812, the base of an 8C stone cross similar to the Bewcastle and Ruthwell crosses.

Left: West Face of Ruthwell Cross – ‘Christ standing on the heads of beasts’.

Encouraged by an inspirational geography teacher at White House Grammar School in Brampton, Lorna continued her fascination with the landscape and studied Earth Sciences at London University and art at Cambridge before returning to Cumbria College of Art and Design in 1981.

Her first breakthrough in artistic direction came from an Art College project to study the Ruthwell Cross. The west-face of the Ruthwell Cross depicts ‘Christ over the Beasts’, the beasts crossing their paws in recognition of Christ’s divinity. The Latin inscription reads ‘Beasts and dragons recognised in the desert the saviour of the world’. In their blindness and clean outlines, these ‘beasts’ took on a monumental quality for Lorna:

I recently began to draw an animal that figured in my dreams many years ago. It stood passively while people removed a lump of clay from the cut in its side. The large passive prehistoric animal standing in the city square is representative of the old primitive instinctive links with the earth that are separated from the culture we have now. I have followed the animal. It is like the land, like a huge gateway with legs and body across the top. The stillness is important. It is standing there wise. It has wisdom. It also has vulnerability.

And so Lorna’s iconic beast was born. Alert, nosing the air. Her animal sculptures were titled plainly as “Beast”. Conveying a powerful stillness, these non-specific creatures were neither calf nor deer, sheep nor bear, but the essence of the animal. An essence she had observed at close quarters when young.

Lacy’s Caves

Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Lacy, bought Salkeld Hall in 1790. His workmen carved five chambers out of the sandstone cliffs sometime in the 18th C. Possibly he was emulating the caves at Wetherall further up the River Eden but at the time it was fashionable to have romantic ruins or they may have been built as a wine store. Colonel Lacy used to entertain guests here, and the area was planted with gardens. He even employed a man to ‘live’ in the caves giving the impression of a hermit like existence.

Lorna was now using the landscape around her as inspiration for her sculpture and paintings. She wanted to be more intuitive and began walking and using the landscape as an inspiration. She built stone circles in Hunsonby Beck and a number of stone shrines along the riverside. She began to photograph the landscape and observe the shape of stones. Her drawings became windows, doors, archways and confined spaces. Her early works were shrines to be approached, passed through, an initiation from light to dark, birth to death.

These caves created the sort of environment Lorna loved. The red rocks, surging rivers and gushing streams. In this environment she was finding her stride. A diary entry reads:

I sleep in the valley by the river. I work with clay, sitting with my feet in the water. I wonder in the hills above the Eden Valley and rest in a sheepfold sheltered from the wind. The only way to get here is to wade the stream and climb the anvil shaped rock where water drips down through a layer of mosses and grasses into the pool. The water is clear and deep; I swim where the fish swim.

She also began to write poetry to. ‘Nunnery’ inspired by the landscape down-river:

Wild wind rain leaves
And deafening water falls
Swift stained with earth
They’re in the dark leaf mould
Black red rock
In midst of spray
That waves my hair
Bathes my skin
Moistens wings
And thirsty soul
The nuns walked here
In ecstasy I’m sure
Filled as I am filled
With life and wonder
Long before the wooden walks
And bridges fell
Rotten down the chasm
Swept away to Eden

Long Meg Mine
Surface quarrying for gypsum in the Eden Valley was first recorded in 1870 in what is known as Cave Wood valley. Most active in 1902 when the workforce numbered twenty-six but by 1914 this figure had dropped to six and the mine was abandoned. It re-opened in 1922 and purchased in 1939 by the British Plaster Board Ltd ( British Gypsum). It closed in 1976.

The gypsum (hydrated calcium sulphate) is ground to a powder and heated to evaporate water. Heating to approximately 160ºC drives off a limited amount of water and Plaster of Paris is produced for plaster & plasterboard. Heating to above 200ºC drives off all the water to produce anhydrite which is used in the production of Cement.

The mine was named after the stone circle above us. As we will see, Long Meg & her Daughters became a major inspiration for Lorna. Another inspiration while studying Art in Cambridge was Cecil Collins. Collins was a highly idiosyncratic artist, whose work was full of personal symbolism. He believed that we are all pilgrims on a journey back to the Paradise that we once knew, and that one of the functions of art was to help us on this journey. In The Divine Land’, Collins’ angels would fly over the mountains and cause the curtain to blow aside revealing the passage to paradise.

The Watermill Cafe – Little Salkeld

Graves used the Japanese Raku firing process for all her ceramics. Raku dates back to 1550 and was used for creating ceremonial tea ware for the Zen Buddhist masters. Raku touched on many of the things that Zen philosophy embodies i.e. simplicity and naturalness. The Japanese Raku ceramic technique enabled Lorna to take her themes of transition and passage further, physically incorporating relics and artifacts within her work. The sculpted clay is biscuit (bisque) fired and then set among leaves and wood shavings. As these catch fire and are consumed by the flames the smoke and charred remnants become embedded within the piece. Her own father’s ashes were apparently given this treatment so that they became integral to a ceramic urn. Raku literally translates as ‘happiness in the accident’.

This leads us onto Lorna’s second major theme of wings and the winged figure. By 1982 a second major theme became apparent to Laura, wings. Lorna had seen the Pennines as sleeping winged people and noted in early 1980’s:

Winged figures had first emerged in her drawings and paintings, for some time puzzled as to how these ‘insubstantial’ images could be translated in solid sculptural work. From stone-like sleeping geese to clay tablets with low relief winged figures, finally her long series, begun in the late 1980’s, of a female form sheltering under the curve of a tree-lined hill, a bird-pierced sky, a hogs-back tomb or a protective wing.

Lorna had followed her winged motif to such a spiritual conclusion that at later exhibitions, people would be found meditating close to her work. Here are two extracts from notebooks describing Lorna’s early encounter with ‘protective wings’ and how it links to consciousness:

My first memories of protective wings are from infancy when I lived in a wooden hut with my parents. The hut was raised above the ground. Underneath, in dust bowls I sat with the hens and gathered under their wings for warmth and protection. My consciousnesses was not separate from theirs. I sat in their nest boxes. Ducks and geese were my equal in height; their wings would brush against me … in the sound and feel of the sweeping feathers there lay strength …

… At present for me the most important aspect of wings is a metaphor for consciousness in that it lifts us from our narrow earth bound existence. Properly used our wings (consciousness) enable us to be both protective and creative; to be the best of body and the best of spirit. By becoming aware of wings and winged creatures we become aware of and are linked with the air and sky. We have more space than we realise – the space above us.

Long Meg and her Daughters

The antiquarian William Camden first wrote about Long Meg in 1586. Long Meg is the third largest stone circle in England and the fifth-largest in the British Isles. It is also thought to be one of the earliest. It was constructed in the megalithic period between 3,300 to 900 BC, during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.

The circle consists of 68 surviving granite glacial erratics, (26 standing plus Long Meg) arranged in an oval flattened to the north. The use of different coloured stones also seems to be significant – red, white and blue/gray predominate. There might also be a red ‘equinox stone’ on the east side of the Long Meg circle (as at Swinside and Castlerigg), involved in the Autumn and Vernal equinox sunrises and sunsets.

Rock Art on Long Meg
Long Meg herself is a 3.8 metre weighs about 9 tones. The name itself is said to come from a local witch, Meg of Meldon, who lived in the early 17th century. ‘Mad Meg of Meldon’ a miserly old witch, now haunts the Meldon Parish near Morpeth.

Rock Art on Long Meg - A large concentric ring motif, centre, a large spiral motif, lower right, and a faint double ring concentric, lower left.
Rock Art on Long Meg – A large concentric ring motif, centre, a large spiral motif, lower right, and a faint double ring concentric, lower left.

The three spirals recorded on Long Meg are all anti-clockwise; in Ireland it has been suggested anti-clockwise spirals at Neolithic sites were linked to the winter solstice. In recent years a massive ditched enclosure has been discovered to the north of the circle and this seems to explain the slightly flattened northern section, namely that the circle builders were respecting an earlier earth monument. The Shadow of Long Meg was used to set some of the other stones as its shadow touches the stone N & E of Meg at Winter Solstice and the shadow path of Meg at Imbolc (1 Feb) and Samhain (Halloween) crosses the 2 SE portal stones. The word Solstice literally means ‘sun standing still.’

Living in Hunsonby, just 1 mile from the stone circle, Long Meg was a constant source of inspiration, empowerment and fertile creativity throughout her life. In her notebooks she writes powerfully about her own physical connection to the ancient landscape:

I am lying face down in the grass with my arms out-stretched and my palms and face against the cool earth. I can feel perfection seeping upwards out of the earth and into my body; into my limbs and chest and abdomen, into my cheeks and forehead. The beauty of the earth is absorbed into me like wine into blood. To stand and look is not enough; the sense then is all mind. The body must be pressed to the earth so that the mind and body are one.

I feel the past pushing up against me from below; the herds of animals, the vegetation, the people and their dwelling places, he winds and floods, the times of peace and the times of war, the chanting in temples and every moment of times past pushing up against me from the earth. The sound of the past like a thundering waterfall pours into me and I am absorbed; I am a libation. Slowly the past recedes and I am reformed on the surface of the earth.

Addingham St. Michaels Church

In the churchyard stands the head of an ancient cross, recovered from the bed of the river about 1820. In 1913 various remains from the old churchyard of St. Michael were recovered from the Eden; a hogback stone, a flat tombstone, on which is carved a cross and a sword.

Lorna always felt her painting and drawing were linked with the air and the spirit. The ceramics & sculpture with the body and the earth. She was on a journey to bring these two very different things closer together. Literary & philosophical on one side, the land and its people on the other. They complimented each other. Amid the impermanence of life she saw a comforting continuity, often expressed by archetypal forms of animal, woman, fish, boat, angel and standing stones.

If we cease to think of the land as environment and instead begin to think of ourselves as inseparable from all creation – breathing the same breath as the plants and animals – we will realise that the dust under our feet once breathed as we do; the moisture in the rivers once flowed in someone’s veins – there is no separation or boundary. There is no beginning and no end

Looking east, sunset on snow Cross Fell
Where body & spirit pass over through one another
They form a cross; bringing together
Of opposites – to belong to both at once.
Here there is unity and where there is unity
There is freedom.

Lorna Graves - Animal with Moon in a Moonlit Landscape - Oil on Board - Tullie House Museum
Lorna Graves – Animal with Moon in a Moonlit Landscape – Oil on Board – Tullie House Museum

Winter Flowers, The Life and Work of Lorna Graves 1947-2006 – A Memoir of Lorna Graves by Clare Crossman

Penrith & Eden Museum – Lorna Graves ‘Memories of Belonging’ open until 1st July. The Cumbria Crack article is here.

Images used by permission of the Estate of Lorna Graves.