Ffiona Lewis – The Green Tapestry
Essay published in the catalogue accompanying the artist’s exhibition at The Redfern Gallery, London, 8 December 2020 – 29 January 2021
It is late morning, bright and sunny, and Ffiona Lewis is showing me around the garden on the Suffolk farm where she has lived and worked this past two and a half years. As we walk down a grassy path that runs alongside a flower meadow crowded with ox-eye daisies, she alights on a patch of ground at its edge. Less than a foot square, much of it is comprised of dead grass, matted and straw-coloured, and of bare compost still damp from last night’s rain. Here and there are clumps of new grass shoots, and there are tender young leaves from a couple of low-growing plants. A single daisy sways on its slender stalk in the light breeze, and as we lean to look more closely a metallic green insect lands suddenly on its sulphur yellow disc. There are a few other insects there too: tiny, iodine-coloured and shiny. Filaments of grass and the daisy’s stalk make shadows that move gently to and fro over the dark umber soil. By way of explanation for stopping here Lewis tells me that for her there is enough visual interest in this bit of ground to spark the beginnings of new work. Expanding further, she describes how she often forms an imaginary aperture through which to scrutinise her subject ‘on a cellular level’, going on to relate how she loved nature trails at school, when each child was given a small wooden frame to place on the ground, an aperture through which to study what could be seen in the space within. Such insights are indicative of Lewis’s particular sense of engagement with the world, a democracy of perception, in which everything in nature has its potential, both in its magnitude and its minutiae.
The artist’s studio is in a light-filled converted barn. Here lots of new paintings are underway, including large diptychs dense with the greens of lush foliage applied in broad brushstrokes, the oil paint dripping loosely downwards as though forming roots. There are also scores of works on paper, in books and on loose sheets, spread out on tabletops for ease of reference. Drawing is central to Lewis’s work, and whilst it informs her paintings – indeed, a return to drawing often serves to ‘unlock’ a painting that has reached impasse – she does not consider it subsidiary to her work in oils, as for her the whole body of work is equally important. This philosophy extends to the books in which she makes drawings; she does not refer to them as sketchbooks, but as notebooks or field books. It is in here that the work begins, in studies made outdoors, visual notes often no more than a couple of inches square. She refers to ‘the glimpse’, a sighting, often fleeting or transitory necessitating concentration and speed in rendering an image distilled in sheaves of line and tonal smudges, the white of the paper suggesting spatial depth. Back in the studio, these studies then form the starting point for a sequence of drawings, each made in response to its predecessor. These often increase in scale incrementally as the motif becomes gradually more abstract, edging nearer to what remains in the memory of that initial sighting. The artist stresses the importance of memory to her work. In this, a whole range of sensations come into play; not only what the eye can see, but perhaps also state of mind, birdsong, the wind in the trees, the feeling of the ground beneath the feet; all may prove equally potent. Written notes are vital too, for alongside her notebook drawings Lewis includes words and phrases listed in soft graphite pencil, aides-memoire, at once plainly descriptive and evocative. She is a lover of language, fascinated by the naming of things and their alternative appellations in colloquial, arcane and dialectical vocabularies. She finds inspiration in poetry, mentioning how she relates to Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, admiring their restrained and subjective precision in detailing a world of direct experience, and what the writer Colm Tóibín has called ‘a calm austerity’ in Bishop’s tone. [i]
During our studio discussion we talk of painters we mutually admire, amongst them the Scot Barbara Rae, and Americans Milton Avery, Fairfield Porter and Joan Mitchell. Of these the latter’s work is pertinent here, particularly when considering each artist’s drawings in pastel, and their shared subject matter, drawn from sources in nature. From 1967 Mitchell lived at the small French town of Vétheuil, in a house surrounded by gardens and trees, which was to inspire her work for the rest of her life. And it is Lewis’s garden that now forms her essential subject as she embarks on a new body of work. It has come into its own this year, its densely planted beds full of flowers, amongst them all shades of roses, vermillion poppies, lupins and aliums in mauves and pinks, purple salvia and nicotiana. There are spikes of lambs ear and verbena, and fennel and artichokes six feet high.
Lewis and her partner are involved in an ongoing project to re-wild the farm, encouraging nature back to what was when they first acquired it a badly dilapidated former pig farm. Wildlife has returned, its traces evident in the paths it makes through pasture and undergrowth. Hares are often seen in the field adjoining the flower meadow, and sometimes when Lewis wakes in the early morning she finds them in the garden below her bedroom window. With seasonal change come visitors from elsewhere. This year a pair of flycatchers arrived. One perches for stretches of time on a metal post in the yard outside Lewis’s studio, where it can be seen through the window in the door (another aperture). Now and then it flies off, seeking insects on which to feed, making its ascent and descent from the roof of a nearby barn where it nests with its mate. Whilst Lewis knows that the bird’s residence here is a temporary one, for flycatchers winter in coastal regions of western Africa, she thinks of it as a companionable presence as she works at her painting.
It has been a wet autumn so far, with day after day of rain. It remains quite temperate, and the surrounding fields are still verdant, as is the garden, where massed deep red dahlias are mostly intact, as are many of the white, pink and yellow roses. Amongst other flowers is a profusion of white Cosmos, long-stemmed in their row of big terracotta pots outside the studio. Elsewhere stand dead and blackened sunflowers and globe artichokes, and the trees are shedding leaves in appropriate seasonal fashion. Meanwhile the fecundity of both spring and summer finds its equivalent in the paintings in the studio, amongst them several recognisable from last year when they were in their early stages. Made on both canvas and board, the works are now in various states of completion, some resolved, others very nearly, whilst a minority still require hours of work, involving long days of painting in the weeks ahead. As ever, there are many works on paper, notably varied in style, scale and media. This year the artist for the first time used coloured wax crayons, sometimes combined with watercolour washes, the resultant pieces rather reminiscent of Patrick Heron’s late paintings based on his garden at Zennor. Looking at these drawings – their titles include Pods and Peas, Nosegay and Shell – and at mixed media drawings such as Feeling Green and Tickled Pink, one is again reminded of Lewis’s reference to observing things on a cellular level, for they suggest organic life viewed under a microscope. There is a continuation also of work in pastel that, like the wax crayon works, often incorporate washes of watercolour. The range and intensity of pure colour in pastel has had a pronounced impact on the oil paintings, noticeable in the intense hues of a group of smallish still life pictures of flowers, plants and fruit, all freely worked in animating impasto. These include the sumptuous Glut, with its smears of green, orange and magenta, and the lovely clotted concoctions of Snakes and Ladders. This liberation of colour is even more apparent in the hallucinatory impressionistic landscapes of Path and Pots, their intensified palette bringing to mind the Mediterranean light of Bonnard and Matisse. Different in mood and effect, each shows a vista of deep space enfolded in a circular movement of trees and shadows painted in broken swathes and slabs of pigment. Lewis talks of a blurriness in these two pictures, one that summons a sense of dappled light and shadow, and of changes in the eye’s focus under intense heat and brightness; this applies especially to Pots with its predominance of yellows. Paintings such as these, with their joyous inventions of pure colour, are a radical departure from the artist’s earlier work, which centred largely on earth tones: umbers and ochres, with blues, mossy greens, occasional cadmium yellows and oranges. It was characterised also by a controlled formal concision, and this too has changed as Lewis has developed a more expansive painterly application, the pigment given more licence, a freer rein. This has resulted principally from the increase in scale facilitated by the substantial physical space of the studio, far larger than her previous one in London. One notices too how the artist allows more of the underlying paint surface to remain, in fragments of oil and turpentine wash from the first of many subsequent layers. Protuberances and decals of dried pigment like snatches of torn petals are left in place rather than massaged into submission: ‘I’m not trying to conquer the whole canvas’ the artist says; it is not a total subsumption.
Whilst individual paintings such as Spring Landscape clearly relate to a specific month or season, others conflate time in overlays of foliage and flowers from different parts of the year. Some show long-stemmed flowers, groves of young trees, or thickets of shrubs in a multiplicity of greens, grouped frieze-like on backgrounds of pale grey-blue or something akin to dry plaster. Painted on gesso board, these are often sanded down at a point during their facture, an excavation that leaves behind ghosted shapes and scoured traces of what lies beneath. There is often a play with symmetry or asymmetry, in which for instance the interlaced branches of a group of saplings might be interrupted by a passage of quite different shapes in a wholly different register of colour or tone; see for example Cow Parsley; Parsley Cow, or Tinsel Town Tunnel. There are also canvases, such as Garden Panoramic and Garden, Umber, of near-oriental simplicity, their elegant shapes of branches and stems of leaves formed from calligraphic brush-strokes on subtly variegated pale backgrounds.
The largest and most ambitious of the recent works are a group of diptychs on canvas whose starting points can be found in gestural pastel drawings such as Cockieleekie and Potpourri. Lewis refers to the ‘transparent laminations’ of the diptychs, a layering of populous foliage and plant life, painted light over dark, dark over light. There is a sense of mystery in these canvases, their dense undergrowth and thickets harbouring hidden dark pockets of growth and decay, spatial complexity accentuated by traceries of dilute paint put down in whiplash skeins and tendrils. Their theatricality relies too on the stylised choreography of their idealised forms, and on areas of unnatural heightened colour. It is emphasised yet further by their frontal compositions, which call to mind stage backdrops. Works such as Whirlygig and Mulligatawny, and Puff Ball Potager, with its strangely amorphous fungal form, present the garden as a place of inherent drama, both Arcadian whilst at the same time untameable, beyond human reach. Throughout, the unifying factor is what the artist describes as ‘the weave’: that of patterns of positive and negative shapes that form the green tapestries of her exhibition title. It is taken from garden designer Beth Chatto’s book ‘The Green Tapestry’ (1989) in which she writes of meeting artist and plantsman Cedric Morris in the early 1950s, and seeing for the first time the garden at Benton End, his house in Suffolk, full of irises, poppies, verbascums, and other plants unusual in gardens at that time. For her it proved a profound inspiration. Like Lewis, Morris brought the garden into the studio, where he painted his renowned flower subjects. But in contrast, she does not paint as he did from direct observation. Instead, she works very consciously at several removes from it, for although her paintings and drawings stem initially from looking of nature, they are not mirrors to it, and the organic life they represent comes in no small part from the life of the material itself. They are works of artifice, in which structure and improvisation are effectively as one. Interwoven throughout is the artist’s deep connection to nature, her own interior landscape delineated invisibly as one thread amongst many.
[i] Colm Tóibín, On Elizabeth Bishop, Princeton University Press, 2015, p45.
Text © Ian Massey, November 2020 – Image © Ffiona Lewis/The Redfern Gallery