My first wood engraving, made to accompany a poem I wrote about pheasants
At the end of January I took part in a creative writing and wood engraving course at the National Gallery of Scotland. It is so informative as a teacher to experience being a student again and it is always inspiring being taught by people who are experts in their field.
In this instance I was in the very capable hands of Edinburgh writer, Mary Paulson Ellis and Jonathan Gibbs, head of Illustration at Edinburgh College of Art.
I’m very interested in the way in which images and words are put together. In one way or another much of my work begins with words. Reading poetry or prose can kick an idea off in my head and is always in the background when I am out and about making drawings and thinking about new work.
When I was at a low point during art college, having lost all focus and motivation, I read Nature Cure by Richard Mabey and realised that what I was missing was the natural world. I starting going up Salisbury Crags each morning, five minutes walk from where I live in Edinburgh, and slowly began to find my way again, finding comfort in the changing moods of the natural world.
Creative writing is not something I have done much of since school, so it was interesting to be having a go. For one of the exercises I wrote a piece about my memories of the place in Yorkshire where my gran had lived. A big farmhouse surrounded by fields, I tried to recall the memories which involved creatures: the call of a cuckoo each summer; hares resting and playing in the fields; and a flock of pheasants in the nearby wood. Spotting the white pheasant among the group always held a bit of a thrill, straining into the depths of the trees in the hope of seeing a pale shape moving through the gloom.
I ended up writing a short poem about pheasants in response to this memory. I have depicted pheasants in my work a few times. I made a series of moonlit pheasant monotypes which I really enjoyed.
These were all inspired by a characterful male pheasant who spent a lot of time underneath the bird feeder outside the kitchen window at the Watermill, frequently getting showered by stray peanuts and looking a bit chilly most of the time. He also inspired this painting:
And this print, part of my British Birds screen print series:
I’m not going to put my poem up here as I think I am still a bit ‘green’ as a writer. I will, however, recommend the words of Sylvia Plath, and her beautifully constructed poem, Pheasant, written out at the bottom of this post.
Now back to the course. At the end of the first day, my head was full of the idea of pheasants, what they mean to us, what place they have in our landscape and memories, and what the future holds for them.
I read with fascination the Birds Britannica entry about the pheasant, it was full of statistics, all of which are pretty evocative, here are a handful (some have been updated):
- 1000 years approximately – since they arrived in the UK from the Middle East as an edible delicacy
- £1000 + – roughly the amount paid by an individual for a day of pheasant shooting
- 20 – 30 million birds are released in the UK each year with about 15 million of them getting shot dead
- £27 is roughly how much it costs per pheasant to rear them and ready them for being hunted
To spend any time thinking about pheasants is to realise that there presence in the UK is a complex issue.
Like many species we now cherish in this country, the hare for example, pheasants are an introduced species which has survived in the UK for many hundreds of years. And in fact, as suggested in Birds Britannica, some argue that they have shaped the landscape and helped to ‘maintain the fabric of the British countryside’.
I personally believe there is no perfect list of species that are ‘native’ to the UK and so if pheasants can fit into the ecosystem here without doing major damage that is fine. As an artist I would be happy to continue seeing their beautiful profile and rich colouring punctuating the landscape.
However, I cannot condone the way in which millions of pheasants are bred in captivity, only to be released for a brief period. Apparently half of the birds that are released don’t live long enough to be shot, instead they die from ‘exposure, starvation, disease, predation or under the wheels of motor vehicles’.
The knock on effects of this are an unnatural balance in our fragile ecosystem affecting a wide range of other species – from the newts and slow worms that provide food for the pheasants, to the variety of creatures that compete with them for food to big predators who benefit from pheasant carrion.
Hopefully that has got you thinking about the lives of these beautiful birds, now for some artistic responses to them in the form of prints, paintings and poetry, enjoy!
Two Pheasants. Early 17th century. Mughal dynasty. Northern India.
Image: Moonlit Pheasant lino cut
Pheasant by Sylvia Plath
You said you would kill it this morning.
Do not kill it. It startles me still,
The jut of that odd, dark head, pacing
Through the uncut grass on the elm’s hill.
It is something to own a pheasant,
Or just to be visited at all.
I am not mystical: it isn’t
As if I thought it had a spirit.
It is simply in its element.
That gives it a kingliness, a right.
The print of its big foot last winter,
The trail-track, on the snow in our court
The wonder of it, in that pallor,
Through crosshatch of sparrow and starling.
Is it its rareness, then? It is rare.
But a dozen would be worth having,
A hundred, on that hill-green and red,
Crossing and recrossing: a fine thing!
It is such a good shape, so vivid.
It’s a little cornucopia.
It unclaps, brown as a leaf, and loud,
Settles in the elm, and is easy.
It was sunning in the narcissi.
I trespass stupidly. Let be, let be.
Online source: http://worlds-poetry.com/sylvia_plath/pheasant
I particularly like the line:
‘Through crosshatch of sparrow and starling’ with its oblique reference to drawing/printmaking.
One day perhaps I will make a visual response to these lines:
‘A hundred, on that hill-green and red,
Crossing and recrossing: a fine thing!’