The Writers Series

On Saturday, the husband and I went to Roche Court for the opening of an exhibition by Sarah Pickstone.

Once we had at last arrived (Roche Court is wonderfully hidden away), and pulled up on the gravel outside a pretty nineteenth-century house, we were told to slip around a tall hedge to get to the lawn. A feeling of secrets, special private nooks and crannies, things hidden away to be chanced upon or else unwittingly missed pervades the place.

The parkland around the house is dotted with sculptures, which sparkled in the light. Everything was dripping with bright yellow sunshine; it was the first day I’ve felt hot all year.

We all thronged on the lawn, feeling the sun on us and feeling utterly peculiar. It was as though we’d simultaneously jumped back a hundred years to a time when people did hang around on the lawn, talking amiably, drink in hand; and jumped forwards several months to an inconceivable summer where we weren’t all cold all the time.

Attached to the lovely old house is a beautiful modern gallery, in which Sarah Pickstone’s The Writers Series is displayed.

Sylvia by Sarah PickstonePickstone has thought about how Regent’s Park influenced various women writers, and captured that feeling in her paintings of these writers. Amongst those she’s painted are Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sylvia Plath, George Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. What a feast!

I was standing around, dazzled by the sunshine and the ethereal yet striking paintings, in this strange park in the middle of nowhere – seemingly in a different time, a different world altogether to the manic rush of London life, which I’d left just a couple of hours ago – when Marina Warner gave a talk to open the exhibition.

She spoke, as you’d expect, very well. She talked about how Pickstone’s paintings echoed sepals, petals and butterfly wings, delicate and feminine parts of nature. She also talked about the etymological roots of ‘time’ and ‘temple’ being one and the same: tempus. She said that when experiencing brilliant art, it’s akin to being in a temple where time slows down. Here she is in the London Review of Books saying something similar:

The words tempus and temple share the same root; the connection suggests that the function of a sacred space is to make time stop or stretch, or render its passage palpable to the worshipper/visitor. Galleries and museums explicitly recall temples in their architecture, and they can also double as national mausoleums: they function socially in comparable ways (‘temples for atheists’), providing an occasion for assembly, for communal experiences, for finding meanings. Above all, it’s striking how crucial the idea of developing our sensitivity to time has become in contemporary artists’ work. ‘I do not think I am slowing down time,’ Tacita Dean, one of the most delicate time machinists of all, said recently, ‘but I am demanding people’s time. In a busy world, that is a big demand, but one of the many reasons why art matters is its ability to stop the rush.’

Certainly, on Saturday, Sarah Pickstone’s art in the setting of Roche Court stopped the rush.

Woolf by Sarah PickstoneI particularly loved her painting of Virginia Woolf, not least because I’ve read more by Virginia Woolf and thought more about her over the years than any of the other writers depicted. It struck me that this idea of painting slowing down time is the sort of thing Woolf would have said herself. It reminded me of a moment in Between the Acts, Woolf’s last novel, when she writes about two paintings in the dining room of Pointz Hall, either side of a window. One is of a male ancestor; the other is of a lady, bought just because ‘he liked the picture’:

He was a talk producer, that ancestor. But the lady was a picture. In her yellow robe, leaning, with a pillar to support her, a silver arrow in her hand, and a feather in her hair, she led the eye up, down, from the curve to the straight, through glades of greenery and shades of silver, dun and rose into silence. The room was empty.

Empty, empty, empty; silent, silent, silent. The room was a shell, singing of what was before time was.

Through looking at this painting, a true work of art, letting one’s eye go ‘up, down, from the curve to the straight…’ one reaches silence. Woolf wrote an essay on Walter Sickert in which she wrote ‘there is a zone of silence in the middle of every art’. This shape of a silent centre, an empty middle is echoed in her depiction of a moment as:

a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us.

This seems very relevant to Sarah Pickstone’s work, which is at once ‘luminous’ with the bright streaks of colour and ‘semi-transparent’ with so much of the surrounding canvas so pale. Around Woolf’s head is a shape that could almost be an envelope, and her face is unexpectedly blank – emptiness and silence at the heart of this envelope, as opposed to the luminous patterns on her dress.

Between the ActsIn Woolf’s writing about painting, she echoes Marina Warner’s observation about tempus. The painting in Pointz Hall leaves the room ‘singing of what was before time was’. Silence becomes singing, and time is transcended; the experience is strangely time-less, or perhaps prehistoric – an idea which comes up again and again in Between the Acts (more about this in this post about Dungeness). Roche Hall isn’t so far from Stonehenge.

I love this passage about the painting. I thought perhaps I’d better see what Virginia Woolf wrote about Regent’s Park.

The Diary of Virginia Woolf Volume IVShe wrote about Regent’s Park in Mrs Dalloway and also in Flush, but I wondered if she’d written about it less formally anywhere else. I browsed through the index of her diaries and found a few mentions. Regent’s Park seems to be a place where she went to try and walk off her black moods. I was drawn to this unusually joyful entry from 6th June 1935:

There is no doubt that the greatest happiness in the world is walking through Regents Park on a green, but wet – green but red pink & blue evening – the flower beds I mean emerging from the general misty rain – & making up phrases…

How appropriate that her experience of the park is so visual – ‘green but red pink & blue’ – a palate of colours blurred by the rain. It reminds me of her description of the painting in Between the Acts:

glades of greenery and shades of silver, dun and rose into silence.

And it seems perfect for Sarah Pickstone’s painting, with its ‘misty’ background coupled with the pinks, greens, blues, yellows and silvers of the figure. Her painting of Woolf in Regent’s Park is a beautiful rendering of how Woolf experienced both painting and Regent’s Park.

I don’t really know what happened on Saturday. Just a couple of hours outside London and I was in a different world altogether, doused in sunshine, silence, space, and beautiful paintings to reflect upon. It felt very Woolfian, to be flooded with so much colour and light and beauty in such a strange moment that seemed to bend time.

I shall leave you with Pickstone’s painting, Orlando. This hero/heroine of Virginia Woolf was perhaps the greatest time-bender (as well as gender-bender) of them all.

Orlando by Sarah Pickstone

Images © The artist and New Art Centre, Roche Court Sculpture Park

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2 Responses to “The Writers Series”

  1. writerann Says:

    What a lovely descriptive piece.

  2. Laurie Mills Says:

    This is a wonderfully descriptive piece on an artist whose art I very much admire, as I shared the same experience at Roche just last week…

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