Studio by the River, 1991 - 48 x 60 inches. Oil, graphite and oil pastel on board
Studio by the River, Summer, 1990 - 48 x 60 inches. Oil on canvas
Studio in Winter, 1991 - 56 x 80 inches. Oil on canvas
The Sluice from Falcon Meadow, 1991 - 56 x 78 ins. Oil and oil pastel on canvas
First Spring in Bungay, 1991 - 56 x 80 inches. Oil on canvas
Bungay - 1990 to 2005
Below is an extract from the book Sargy Mann: Probably the Best Blind Painter in Peckham, where he describes making some of these paintings.
We moved to Bungay in Suffolk on May 13th 1990. I was a fortnight from my fifty third birthday, Frances was forty one, Charlotte was twelve, Peter ten, Susanna seven and Michael seven months. We had sold our house in Lyndhurst Grove to British Rail who were thinking of running the channel tunnel rail link through our back garden. They bought our house for miles over the market price – I had a fine agent called Mr Bignold to thank for this.
Our new garden went down to the river Waveney which is the county boundary with Norfolk and there was a large lap board and pantiled barn-like building at right angles to the house whose gable end was about fifteen feet from the water’s edge – rather like a boat house – one end of which was a car port and the rest was the studio of the sculptor from whom we had bought the house. As we had money left over from our sale to British Rail, my plan was to take down this barn and build in its place but even nearer the river, a studio I was beginning to design, with a balcony over the water. We engaged a local architect but had to abandon the idea as it was going to cost too much. As it turned out this was a very good thing as although what I had designed would have been beautiful, I had imagined it in relation to my being able to see far better than I could and there were other drawbacks to do with my not having understood things about orientation, walls, trees and other stuff. In fact it took me a long time to begin to understand, to see my new environment. It was trying to learn it which made me fully realise how much seeing and understanding were almost indistinguishable for me in my nearly blind state and it was years before I completely understood the way our house, the big house next door, the road and the river all fitted together.
Just about the best thing that happened early on was that a builder, Vic Beales and his son, Johnathan, were recomended to us. By the time they had done a few essential things to the house, we were so impressed and liked and trusted them so completely that I got them to customise the existing studio for me, making the car port into a very light painting area and insulating and double glazing the whole building and then later, extending it slightly with a pitched, lower roof which gave storage racks and a garden shed for Frances and hugely improved the look of the building.
From the river bank, at the end of the studio, grows a very large Suffolk willow with two huge stems and next to it two weeping willows, and I quickly identified this corner of our property as the place I would most like to paint. I have always loved rivers and it had been a dream of mine, which I never expected to realise, to live on one.
By this time I was making tape recordings to do with my paintings. I had made three large paintings in London from short term memory aided by recordings made at the motif on little dictaphone that a Camberwell colleague called my audio sketchbook.
Listening to the earliest Bungay tapes I find that I started painting my first Bungay picture on June 17th, my sister’s birthday, and the painting was a four foot by five foot on board, about standing on the river’s edge, looking past the large willow to the river on its right and the end of my studio and a shed which had become Peter’s camp, on its left (Studio by the River Summer). It was a wonderful subject and I struggled with it for some months. The painting Studio by the River which I started on January 3rd 1991 was of almost the same subject but I took up a position even nearer the tree, about five feet away. Now, there were no leaves on the trees which made a massive difference. In the summer it had been like being in a tent with the huge canopy enclosing everything, in winter, the subject was mostly blue sky and its reflection in the river. Against this the sun blasted stem of the willow swept upwards with its equally blond branches contrasting in colour but hardly at all in tone with the overall blueness. Across the river just to the right of the willow was a blindingly white house and right round to the left was the side of my tall studio going back to where the house, in shadow, cut across the end of it. The low winter sun was behind and to my left so that almost everything was in sun other than the gable end of my studio and the shadow it cast across the wall going down to the water’s edge – by this time Peter’s camp had been dismantled as we had imagined that this magic area would be a favourite place to sit and occasionally eat. In fact it was too dark and cold, and years later we built a woodshed where Peter’s camp had been and quite a large wooden jetty to the left of the willow on which we do eat on hot summer days.
Listening to the tapes about this painting, makes me realise what a lot of slow learning and delightful visual discovery fed into it. When you look at a finished painting or, in my case, think about one, you tend to take its finished state for granted and see or remember earlier states as heading towards the final state but listening to these tapes reminds me that I had no idea where I was going other than that I wanted to discover the fullest, most exciting and rewarding experience of being there and the best way of recording and communicating this – the best, the most expressive coloured design or painting. The tapes record or indicate that journey and all the observations that were part of it and which led to the final solution. I love re-living my delight at discovering when I looked through my telescope, (by this time all paintings were an amalgum of looking both with my unaided eye and with the monocular) Vic’s wheelbarrow, up-ended against the studio wall, just taking some raking sun so that it looked a ghostly grey like bleached bones, and being that strange shape of a builder’s barrow seen from the side. I can’t remember whether that shape is in the finished painting but in some sense it is a part of the total experience. At one stage I know that I did have Vic and Johnathan in the painting when they were working on the end of the studio but they finished and I didn’t, so sadly they didn’t make the cut, I wish that they had. At a fairly advanced stage of the painting, Frances came down to give some stale bread to the swans and she looked so marvellous, standing just to the left of the tree and very close, that I knew that I would have to paint her in and that this would change the whole dynamic of the painting; she would be another central vertical very near, much smaller than the stem of the willow but full of the magnetism of human life and not just any old human, so the central focus would have to shift.
It felt, as it so often does at such times, as if the painting, had been waiting for Frances to come along and complete it or, complete the subject more like. The spatial tensions, the rhythms, driving back from the tree in all directions, all round this huge field of view so that the tree was like the hub of a wheel with the shafts of space being like spokes, seemed more vital somehow, more precise when seen from Frances and the fact that the space, the painting, now had a split or double centre seemed to energise what had been, or now seemed to have been a more static and boring and obvious experience and design. And now my wife was in the picture.
The Sluice from Falcon Meadow.
I started thinking about this subject early in March 1991. Across the river from us is Falcon Meadow, a beautiful water meadow which used to have black, brown, yellow, and white cows grazing in it and across which is a public footpath. At the far end just before where a side stream joins the river is a sluice which the footpath used to cross on a narrow walkway with steps at either end. There was also a small brick hut with a nearly flat roof but a year or so ago the sluice was rebuilt, the hut was removed, the walkway closed off and a wooden bridge wide enough and flat enough for wheelchairs was built on the down river side. This was and is the nearest nice walk from our house and I made it often and after a while would go there on my own.
If you are a landscape painter, a painter of direct visual experience, you are always on the lookout for new subjects and somewhere seen a hundred times can this time, because you have never seen it in quite this light or at exactly this time of day or season or for some other reason, suddenly stop you in your tracks such that you wonder whether this might be a subject for a painting. Often you think, yes, maybe, but not today, I’ll have another look at it next year. On this occasion as I turned right to mount the steps onto the sluice with the brick hut on my left excitingly dark against the sun and the noticably lower downstream river visible to its left, I stopped and thought, I want to paint this. I spent about half an hour talking into my little tape recorder as the subject and how I might paint it began to take shape.
I didn’t start the painting until April 10th and the biggest change from the first idea was that I wanted the sun to be coming straight towards me across the walkway but there were two problems with this. One was that the design I had arrived at would mean that the sun was very near the top edge of the painting and I was frightened of looking straight at it through my telescope, and the other was that now that the clocks had gone forward, this time would be lunch time. For these reasons and others I eventually fixed on about four in the afternoon when the sun was still coming towards me but from well to the right. At this time it lit the side of the hut just to my left on which were a bright red notice and a white notice which looked wonderful and which became very important in the painting. As we moved into summer, more people came across the walkway while I was standing there recording and I realised that the painting wanted to be peopled. It was a very wide angle subject as by now almost all my paintings were, but an important reason in this case was the extraordinary sight of the river being noticeably lower on the left of the shed than to the right of the sluice. The narrow walkway went straight up the middle of the painting. I have always liked horizontals going straight away from me, as making a narrow vertical shape read as a receding horizontal is at the heart of what makes figurative drawing exciting. When I counted my paces across the walkway and found it to be twenty two yards, the length of a cricket pitch, that pleased me greatly.
I have said before that for me drawing is essentially to do with turning an experience of three dimensional forms in space into a two dimensional pattern capable of recreating the three dimensional experience. For this reason my way of drawing has always been fairly close to the pattern of appearance, to perspective, although this is also the reason why I abandoned a very close adherance to that convention as to me it never seemed to give the truest result. In a good figurative painting, the abstract pattern, the impression it makes on you as a design, must be in total accord with the subject, must become the realisation of the subject. It is not enough for the pattern to read such that the elements of the subject can be named; that would be illustration, would be painting as simile as distinct from metaphor which is our goal. A wide angle experience which feels very compact and concentrated, can often give rise to very large, empty shapes near to and particularly at the bottom if the eye level is high and this gives rise to inexpressive abstract design. I had a lot of this sort of trouble in this painting and the foreground figures are to do with this, as well as who they are. The nearest figure, in front of the shed coming towards me and starting to turn behind the shed, is my wife, the two figures on the right by the water’s edge are my wife’s brother Charles and my daughter Susanna. Half on the right hand edge is a girl in a very short skirt whom I was glad to catch sight of on one occasion and half on the left hand edge is a black cow whom I felt nudging me and turned to see in astonishment. I always wanted a figure or figures on the walkway but the trouble was that the narrow shaft of sunlit space through the middle was a vital part of the subject and design, and I couldn’t let figures block this. One day a spry old lady with grey hair and wearing a straight white summer dress stood for a moment on one side of the walkway with the way clearly visible and unbroken beside her all the way across, this was it, the moment I had been waiting for and the very curious thing was that later, when she was successfuly present in the painting, I had the unnerving experience of it being my mother, long dead, standing there on the walkway. This happened, so I mention it. What I did say on my tape recording when I saw the woman was how exquisitely beautiful her white dress in shadow was and how local colour white in sunny shadow was probably my favourite colour sensation.
During the winter and spring I had been making my second large imaginary painting. I chose as the subject, The Road to Emmaus and like Diana and Acteon I set it in Italy though this time the sight was just down the track from Palaggio. I had been painting a gouache at the spot in 1988 when I suddenly thought, I wouldn’t be that surprised if a couple of Roman legionaries came walking up the track. The place had a timeless quality which made me feel quite close to very distant times in a way which I had never felt in England. The Road to Emmaus went pretty well and on a few exciting occasions I discovered that the perceptual fact that I was painting was a perfect metaphor for the subject; the way the figures were in the foreground shadow with Christ as yet unseen by them in the sun up ahead, a branch over their heads catching the sun and other things. When I thought that I had finished it I then felt the need to lower the distant skyline above the blue hills. Every time I tried, I made a mess of it and eventually, knowing exactly what I wanted to do, I made the alteration by looking at the end of my brush through my telescope. Although I had been regularly using the telescope to look at my subjects for some time, and my whole painting from a distance, I had never before used it to see where I was putting my brush and when I did it was a revelation. The coloured surface looked fascinating, clear and coloured in a new way and I couldn’t resist putting down a few more touches in other parts of the painting. I made myself stop as I knew that if I didn’t, I would repaint the whole picture.
The next painting was The Sluice from Falcon Meadow and almost at once I started mixing and putting on paint using the telescope. It was literally a pain in the neck as to get the telescope aligned with the little bit at the edge of my eye that still saw, I had to tilt my head back, and I hated it, but it was so exciting to see colour and mark, so much more clearly that I couldn’t resist it. The trouble was that when I looked through the telescope, I couldn’t see where I was on the canvas, which, looking this way, became as big as a football pitch, so I had to devise a new way of drawing. Actually, in a sense it was an old way as I started marking key proportions and positions with measuring marks made with oil pastel in a somewhat Euston Roadish manner. As a result these new paintings had a more static, less rhythmical drawing and looked more clearcut, both in shape and position and colour. I worried about all of this a lot and even more so with the next picture, First Spring in Bungay, which I was painting at the same time but which I was painting much more nearly from direct observation. The whole of this new process felt like a retrograde step in my development, away from an experience of the whole subject and the whole canvas, to a slow building up of the two wholes from isolated observations, it really didn’t feel right, it didn’t feel like me, but I couldn’t help myself.
Sargy Mann, 2007