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  • James Stewart

Art and Poetry

Poetry has influenced art, and vice versa for hundreds of years and before that biblical texts were the main subject in art: Think about Dante's Divine Comedy, Ovid's Metamorphosis or J W Waterhouse's painting of The Lady of Shallotby Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The latter is also the influence in a 2014 painting by Gillian Ayres that has also been fabricated as a hand woven tapestry by Caron Penney, as a commission for The Campaign for Wool (of which more below).

Another favourite is Millais' 1852 depiction of Shakespeare's Ophelia. Queen Gertrude, in her monologue ("There is a willow grows aslant the brook"), reports that Ophelia had climbed into a willow tree, and then a branch broke and dropped Ophelia into the brook, where she drowned. Gertrude says that Ophelia appeared "incapable of her own distress". Gertrude's announcement of Ophelia's death has been praised as one of the most poetic death announcements in literature. [JW Waterhouse's Ophelia was painted in 1894.

The Victorians adored these painted versions of gothic poetry inspired paintings, and it fitted well with the Arts and Crafts movement. After this the narrative genre went out of fashion in art, although it could be said that a lot of surrealist art was inspired by poetry and vice versa, think of Kurt Schwitters "sound poems" and Tristan Tzara's Cabaret Voltaire amongst others.

Also, we should mention Larkin's great 1964 love poem "The Arundel Tomb", possible the best know post-war poem to have been inspired by a work of art: The carved tomb of Richard Fitzalan, the 10th Earl of Arundel and his second wife Eleanor of Lancaster in Chichester Cathedral. The two are shown holding hands.

It begins thus:-

Side by side, their faces blurred

The earl and countess lie in stone,

and concludes

Our almost-instinct almost true:

What will survive of us is love.

David Hockney

David Hockney is an avid reader of everything from "Biggles to the Brontes". Grimms Fairytales were part of his childhood and later he illustrated these in a series of etchings, but the first writer whose words would influence his work was the poet Walt Whitman and this resulted in the 1961 etching "Myself and My Hereos" where Whitman is shown as one of the haloed figures, the other is Ghandi - see left (copyright David Hockney)

The etching includes the words "For the dear love of comrades" from Whitman's poem "I Hear It Was Charged Against Me". Another Whitman line is daubed across his oil painting We Two Boys Together Clinging, with the next line of the poem "One the other never leaving" reduced to the word "never".

Felix Anaut

Spanish abstract artist, Felix Anaut, is well known for his series of paintings inspired by music, these he calls "Visual Music".

He has also drawn from poetry, and in 2005 created a series of works, "No Hay Camino, Se Hace Camino Al Andar" (There are no paths, one makes a path by walking) after Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875 - 1939).

In 2015 Felix Anaut met and collaborated in his studio woth British poet, Lemn Sissay. The resultant works are a synaethesia, with a selection of Lemn Sissay's poems and daily poetry Tweets are included directly on the paintings.

These were exhibited by Zimmer Stewart Gallery at Menier Gallery, London SE1 in September 2016, alongside other paintings and ceramics by Felix Anaut under the title "Visual Music and Poetry". Image shows "Inspiration" by Felix Anaut and Lemn Sissay.

At the start of the exhibition a video, titled "Synaethesia", featuring Felix Anaut and Lemn Sissay in the studio and selected works, will be released. On the film Lemn Sissay's poetry is read by Dame Diana Rigg:

Synaesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. In this case visual and aural, images and words, painting and music.

The original music, Zaragoza Symphony, was composed in response to Felix Anaut's paintings by Gonzalo Alonso in 2011, with an aria, words written by Felix, and sung by international soprano, Marta Almajano.

Sir, Terry Frost, RA

Sir Terry Frost, RA, was a major figure in the second generation of St Ives artists. Although he is primarily known as an abstract painter, printmaking was a major part of his artistic output throughout his career. The prints in the series Eleven Poems by Federico Garcia Lorca were produced to accompany a suite of poems by Spanish poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) printed in the original Spanish and in English translation. The poems and prints were published by Austin/Desmond Contemporary Books, London in 1989 in a solander box designed by the artist. In the box each print rests inside a paper folder on which the respective poem is printed. In addition Frost decorated the exterior of the box and designed a title page for the portfolio. The suite was produced in an edition of seventy-five plus fifteen artist’s copies.

Image shows "Black for Lorca" etching and lithograph (1991) by Terry Frost. 

Widely regarded as one of Spain’s greatest writers, Lorca was killed by pro-Franco forces in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. Along with his literary achievements his early death sealed his posthumous reputation as a political martyr. Terry Frost began reading Lorca’s poetry in depth in the 1970's and was inspired by the poet’s visual imagery, particularly his emotive descriptions of colour. The artist’s first print made in response to a Lorca poem was a 1974 screen-print entitled Variations. In the late 1980s Frost obtained copyright to English translations of several of Lorca’s poems and began work on the images in this portfolio.

Recalling this period of his life, Frost proclaimed his admiration for the poet, saying, ‘Lorca is so simple, and so direct, and so full of colour and ideas. I was so much in love with the poetry at that time’ (from Terry Frost: Six Decades).

[Terry Frost source Tate]

Tom Hammick

Leaping Down to Earth (from permanent press in 2008) is a response in poetry to twelve pictures, six each by the British artists Stephen Chambers and Tom Hammick all of which are reproduced in colour. The poems are not about art and do not aim to describe the images, but, as Vas Dias writes in the Preface, “convey what’s on my mind after I’ve lived with the images a while.”

The design, in which each poem is printed on a semi-transparent sheet over its accompanying image, displays the integral connection between poem and image and yet allows each work to stand on its own. Leaping Down to Earth, writes Lee Harwood, “is a collection of poems that are some of the best Vas Dias has ever written. There’s a wit and liveliness to them that often makes me laugh out loud. But also more serious and moving threads weave through these poems. They can be sexy and funny and also include a subtle understanding of the complexities and struggles in human relationships.”

Nicholas Usherwood writes in Galleries: “The call and response between the three of them is edgy, witty and often extremely touching, making this one of the most genuinely satisfying collaborations of its kind I’ve come across.”

Ferry by Robert Vas Dias After Tom Hammick, Ferry, 2007, edition variable soft ground etching

Which is moving, the quayside  or the ferry as it slips  into night taking him  to the other side, another island  dimly seen, the familiar outlines  of where he’s been with her   always in his mind, senses awakened  by obscure scents eddying  between drift and direction  lassitude and necessity always  aboard or ashore, the nearer   to one the further from the other  but never far from either.  What is moving is his heart  his head in that other place  over the water, demarcation  between the solitary and conjoined,  view of misty shapes of the unreal  city arising at water’s edge  slowly approaching vita nuova   city of shameless desires  anticipated and enacted   for a time, and then the return  across the water to that other   world of works and days.

A special edition of just 25 of the Leaping Down to Earth is available is a cloth case containing a print by each of Tom Hammick and Stephen Chambers - find it in our online shop.

In 2019 Tom Hammick created 35 original woodcuts too illustrate Adam Nicolson's book 'The Making of Poetry.

2020 is the 250th anniversary of William Wordsworth's birth and this book by Bestselling and award-winning writer, Adam Nicolson tells the story, almost day by day, of the year in the late 1790s that Coleridge, Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy and an ever-shifting cast of friends, dependants and acolytes spent together in the Quantock Hills in Somerset.

Brimming with poetry, art and nature writing, this is Wordsworth and Coleridge as you’ve never seen them before: Proof that poetry can change the world.

It is the most famous year in English poetry. Out of it came "The Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan", as well as Coleridge’s unmatched hymns to friendship and fatherhood, Wordsworth’s revolutionary verses in Lyrical Ballads and the greatness of "Tintern Abbey", his paean to the unity of soul and cosmos, love and understanding.

"Blessings in the Air" comes from Wordworth's 1798 poem "To My Sister":

There is a blessing in the air, Which seems a sense of joy to yield To the bare trees, and mountains bare, And grass in the green field.

Gillian Ayres

Gillian Ayres cites the rhythms of lyric poetry as a major influence. They are, as Ayres says of the work of Miró, the modernist who is her greatest influence, “an internal vision of eternity”.

Despite her insistence on abstraction, recurrent shapes in her recent work remind us of natural phenomena, such as, petals, wings, fans, leaves and stars, and the titles of works draw on place names, names of flowers and famous gardens, or most recently the verses of poets such as Tennyson, Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas and William Butler Yeats. The Financial Times review of the exhibition said "The artist’s old-age compositions are magnificently simplified and more gorgeously opulent than ever".

Ayres' 2014 painting "Tirra Lirra" has two poetic sources:

The lark, that tirra-lirra chants, With,heigh!with,heigh! 

the thrush and the jay,  

Are summer songs for me and my aunts, 

While we lie tumbling in the hay

from The Winters Tale by Shakespeare, Act IV, scene II, Autolycus sings

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow'd;   On burnished hooves his war-horse trode;   From underneath his helmet flowed   His coal-black curls as on he rode,              As he rode down to Camelot.   From the bank and from the river   He flashed into the crystal mirror,   "Tirra lira," by the river 

Sang Sir Lancelot, from the Lady of Shallot by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The image shows the hand woven tapestry Tirra Lirra, by Gillian Ayres, woven by master weaver Caron Penney. 

The tapestry was exhibited at Zimmer Stewart Gallery in 2015, alongside Penney's exhibition with fellow master weaver, Katharine Swailes: Manhattan. 


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