ART: The Lyrics of the Landscape

For generations Oxford’s honeyed streets and Oxfordshire’s rolling green landscapes have inspired artists and writers – from JW Turner to Philip Pullman – and the Ridgeway and the Thames, the Clumps and the Cotswolds continue to inspire creatives to put pen to parchment and paint to paper, and there’s a chance to see hundreds of paintings and other art pieces inspired by the county during Oxfordshire Artweeks (4th-27th May).

In Cumnor three Artweeks artists together traced the footsteps of Oxford poet Matthew Arnold as he wrote The Scholar Gipsy, scouting for the mossy, joyous ‘Signal Elm’ that he immortalised in his poem ‘Thyrsis’ (1865). Absorbing the natural beauty found in his favourite haunts they documented their journey through field and below sky to produce drawings, sculpture and textile designs.

‘Matthew Arnold’s “Scholar Gipsy” was written in 1852 and tells the story of an impoverished Oxford student who turned his back on his demanding studies to join a band of gypsies for want of a simpler life,’ explains Sue Side. ‘The need to exchange the constant churn and toil of life for the beauty and peace of nature is a narrative that many of us can relate to. The Scholar Gipsy, and Arnold, found tranquillity in the wonder of Cumnor and its environs which he describes perfectly with “Mid wide grass meadows which the sunshine fills” and “the warm, green-muffed Cumner [sic] hills”.’

They share this peace and joy in an uplifting exhibition for Oxfordshire Artweeks in May when hundreds of artists and designer-makers open their studios and present pop-up exhibitions, inviting you in, for free. And in Cumnor (venue 176) celebrating the unchanged beauty of the west of Oxford, its habitat for flora, fauna and Scholar Gipsies alike, you can explore Sue Side’s drawings, etchings and paintings of wide vistas of tree and copse and stories of natural life in branches and land. David Williams’ earthy, tactile stonework represent the hypnotic movement of grasses and water whilst Stephanie Monteath’s glorious textiles and hangings rejoice in the rich tree canopy, the gentle breezes and glimmers of light, all reminding you to ‘Roam on! The light is shining still!’

The Ridgeway too is a place for reflection on new life and the passing of time, as you survey today’s Oxfordshire from the county’s highest point, standing on an ancient path where people and progress have stridden for millennia.

Jill Smith from East Hanney loves to paint the Ridgeway, across the seasons, enjoying the challenge of catching the light, from the sparkling frost in winter as shadows fall or snow dusting the grass to the greens and purple shadows of the trees and hedgerows. ‘The almost acid greens of spring lift your spirit after the dark days of winter,’ she says. ‘The colour comes back into the countryside and the hedgerows and fields are busy with new life. I love the brightness of the summer and then later in the year you can see an amazing array of autumnal leaves reflected in the puddles. It’s a place to take a moment and contemplate.’

Jill has taken different elements and well-recognised spots and presented them in a carefully-structured collage of locations – a gentle montage of Uffington Castle with the manger in the background, Waylands Smithy, and other places you’ll see on a walk along the Ridgeway to the Avebuy stone circle. Jill’s art also includes a number of works that include textual art and uses the wording from poems ‘Take Time’ by an unknown author and ‘Time Is’ by Henry Van Dyke.

In the shadow of Uffington’s White Horse in Uffington Village Hall, over the weekend 27th and 28th April, discover art inspired by the spirit of The Ridgeway celebrating its role as an artistic inspiration, a place that’s both dynamic and tranquil in the same moment. The exhibition shows this ancient path, its history and environs, in all their aspects. And as paintings boast the colours and magic of its wind-swept panoramas, pottery and carved stone record the textures of the earth and the wildlife that roams upon it, prose and creative writing bring to life the layers of time and life lived on this the age-old landscape.

Meanwhile in Oxford, the Literarties, a multi-talented group who are all published authors and exhibiting artists capturing their creativity in many modes and mediums, are influenced by people and landscapes both near and far, drawing on the artists’ very  different backgrounds, cultures and experiences.

‘Paintings are like stories: it takes time, patience, practice and experience to bring out an emotional response in another,’ explains Witney artist Kamal Lathar. ‘Paintings can move you, reveal things to you, invite you to come and observe, be a symbol for your feelings and vehicle for your expression.

Maeve Baynton’s artwork, for example, is bold and vibrant, often using simplified areas of flat colour and evokes the pared down graphic design of the 1930s/1940s for book covers and railway posters whilst fellow exhibitor Kamal Lathar was born in India, and the land, its spices, its colours and vibrancy of life are all evident in the way Kamal paints.

“Draw a story in lines, plot its progress in oils, and bring the conflict to a head with brush strokes.” – Kamal Lathar

Fellow creative Alan Kestner tells stories in his each of his detailed paintings that appear like theatre productions pinned in a moment of time, the scenes laid out across the paper. Rich with imagination, narrative and humour, each picture tells a thousand words, an often anarchic tale that appears only once he has put paintbrush to palette. ‘I start off with a great big sheet of paper, and add blobs of colour and indistinct lines at the beginning,’ he explains, ‘and then it’s almost as if I look into it like a crystal ball, and piece by piece the picture appears, grabbing my imagination and taking it further, and over the few months it take to complete the painting, the story emerges. I am fascinated by nature and have lived close to the Thames all my life so its fauna and flora feature prominently.’

As an author, Wantage’s Debrah Martin writes psychological thrillers and literary fiction – centred around her love of people-watching and the observation of how action creates reaction. In her art, however, she is inspired by what that which exists already: the richness of the landscape all around us as it grows and declines through the seasons, the sensuality that is all around us in the sounds, sensations and sights that we daily experience yet often fail to notice, and in the beauty of colour and light that transforms both us and the simplest scene that we see. Her paintings reflect the richness, luminosity and drama of what we so often take for granted, from the humblest tree to the stormiest sky above.

You can enjoy the LiterArties art and more at Arts at the Old Fire Station until 11th May and in Summertwon during the Artweeks festival (The Spice of Life; venue 29). For more on these artists and the hundreds of events taking place as part of the Oxfordshire Artweeks festival visit

First published in OX Magazine April 2019

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