Exhibition: Paradise Found

I was recently invited to participate in a group show at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery, Devon;  Paradise Found: New Visions of the Blackdown Hills. A contemporary interpretation by 36 painters, printmakers and photographers walking in the footsteps of the Camden Town Group. Curated by Tim Craven, Sandra Higgins and Fiona McIntryre. It is on show at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery from 18 March to 03 June 2023.

Here is a little video showing the making of the work as I explored the area where Bevan had worked over a hundred years ago…

Here’s a little piece I wrote about the experience in the monthly column I write for Digital Camera magazine :

“Recently, a bunch of artists, myself included, were invited to journey to the Blackdown Hills, a quiet rural landscape on the Devon and Somerset border, designated an area of outstanding natural beauty. Despite the relatively close proximity to my home, I didn’t know the Blackdown Hills. However, it was well known among artists from the Camden Town Group, a group of post-Impressionist artists who came together in Camden Town in London in 1911. The group still exists today under the revised name of The London Group. Back then, in the early part of the 20th century, artists such as Spencer Gore, Charles Ginner and Robert Bevan spent time in the Blackdown Hills making work. As a creative springboard, I was given The Hay Harvest, Harts Farm by Robert Bevan to respond to. It proved an interesting foundation to engage with a location. It was a crisp, freezing cold winter day with a beautiful low-raking light that spilled into the lens when I happened to visit – a magnificent day. I found the right farm and, after a brief introduction, was given free rein to explore. Signs of hay were obviously not evident, but I think I found the right field and set about making work. Soon, I was seduced by the semi-industrial farm machinery parked at the bottom of the field. The monster-like shapes took on an imposing and sinister vibe.

In other parts of the area, old farm buildings that would have been there when Bevan was present also caught my eye. Together, these two images, presented as a diptych, seemed to work well together, and spoke to the spirit of the pace as I encountered it. I’ve talked about boundaries in this column before and how they can actually be a useful catalyst for the creative process. It feels kind of counterintuitive, but I believe it to be true. Even though the work I made could not be more di. erent for Robert Bevan’s painting of the hay harvest, using his painting and the location fuelled me in a way to make images that I wouldn’t have made had I just been wandering aimlessly with my camera. If you can think of a way to incorporate this way of working into your image-making then I’m certain you’ll benefit.

Here’s a little Q&A with co-curator and fellow exhibitor Fiona McIntyre 

Were you already acquainted with The Camden Town Group and Bevan’s work?
I was aware of some of the artists, including Bevan, but not really of the group as such.
How easily did you find the location?
With your excellent instructions, Fiona, it was pretty easy to find the location. The folk in the farm were also very helpful and knowledgeable about the Camden group. They were aware of the Paradise  Found project and were enthusiastic and willing to help which was great. They were able to point me in the right direction.
Which month and time of day did you take a photograph? What were your thoughts on arriving there and did you think the location had changed much from Bevan’s painting of 1916?
I spent a day exploring in and around Harts farm in mid-January. It was a blissful, crisp, cold, sunny winter day. The low-raking winter light was a delight to work with. I spent all day there. Naturally, this was a different experience from Bevan’s, who witnessed the hay harvest in late summer. There is a farm building in Bevan’s painting along with some farm machinery, albeit a horse-drawn cart. I’m not exactly sure what the machinery in my image is used for, but I was assuming it was a modern-day device for moving hay and so on. I liked the harsh, hard way the spike of the machine penetrates the composition quite aggressively. For me, this is nicely echoed by the shaft of light ‘piercing’ the composition of the other image. Together the relationship between these two images interests me.
What photographic technique, lens etc did you use and why did you choose the close-up composition of the building that you did rather than a distant view of the farm across the landscape?
I used a medium format digital camera with a wide (35mm equivalent) lens; in one of the images of machinery, I also used flash. I keep everything as technically simple as I can. I like to immerse myself photographically and often find closer views more engaging than wider ones. Especially when wider views drift towards the picturesque, in this instance, I liked how the close crop with no distance view focused attention on the harshness of the machinery and the delicate subtlety of the light in the barn, along with the draped fabric - which feels theatrical. I also work a lot with diptychs and like the playful way aligning two images can create new meanings and narratives.
What are your thoughts on environmental changes which might have occurred at this location?
While the area is undeniably beautiful, it is framed in a romantic ideal of the British rural landscape - which I have conflicted feelings about. Farming has changed a lot in the 100-plus years since this painting was made, and the brutal and barbaric farm practices used today are concerning and unsustainable.  Humanity’s relationship with nature is a theme that underpins much of my work. Romantic views of farming from a bygone era are interesting and pretty, but it is the practice today and our relationship with the land, animals and the climate that concern me more as an artist/photographer. This is why I like the quite hard, aggressive even vibe of the farm machinery in the second mage - a harsh contrast to the soft, gentle, subtle vibes of the barn image, which uses natural light.
Any other thoughts or influences?
As a creative challenge, the project was really interesting. I would have been unlikely to have discovered or explored this area had I not been invited to participate in the project. As a creative springboard reacting to a painting from one hundred (plus) years ago was a stimulating catalyst for doing new work. Boundaries can fuel the creative process.

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