Inspiration washes over obsession

Art teacher Stephen Bird finds pickled eggs, beer and the sodden Lake District fail to wipe away images of the Thames which are teeming in his fevered brain

When term ends and summer beckons it is a good time to disappear into the workshop to complete paintings and sculptures which have been kept ticking over during the school year. Practice has to inform my teaching and keep me sane.

Observational work from landscape and figure once played an important part in my own art but in recent years I have worked almost exclusively from memory and imagination. During the past few months I have worked on narrative paintings set by the Thames between Deptford and Vauxhall - old haunts from my student days - far from my North Yorkshire home. These images had become an obsession so I thought landscape drawing would loosen me up. I talked myself into a sketching tour with the college's artist-in-residence.

We headed for the Lake District, pitching camp on a small farm below Helvellyn on a glorious sunlit evening. My companion dutifully began sketching here while I raced on towards Red Tarn. When we came off the mountain the local pub had stopped serving food for the night. I settled for beer and pickled eggs.

Next morning I woke up to torrential rain. From my tent pitched on the hillside I could feel rivulets of water running under the groundsheet. Leg muscles I had forgotten were exacting a painful revenge. Pickled eggs and beer didn't seem such a good idea.

My mind turned to pictures as it so often does first thing, images surfacing from the night's dreams. Rain and running water conjured up the Thames. When I was younger I would draw from the reach below Vauxhall Bridge at low tide, fascinated by the flotsam and jetsam on the shore. Lying in my tent in sodden Cumbria I was possessed by an image of Jonah. The tent held me dry and warm like Jonah in the belly of the Leviathan. In my sketchbook I began composing a picture of Jonah in the waters beneath Vauxhall Bridge.

By mid morning the sun had broken through. The sky was dramatic and vast. This set a weather pattern for the rest of the week. Early in the morning I composed my Vauxhall Jonah pictures. By midday I was up in the mountains walking and sketching. A broken dam which formed part of an abandoned mine intrigued my companion. He worked on studies of this; I made off in the opposite direction to walk, and sketch. In the evenings we met up for plates of pub grub, beer and arguments about art.

We parted at the end of the week arranging to meet later in London at the Tate Modern's Matisse Picasso exhibition. In the meantime I toured Northumberland.

The Matisse Picasso exhibition was a visual feast. Afterwards, as we drove down to Brixton to have supper with two young artists I had taught some years ago, we passed Vauxhall Bridge. I thought of rain-washed Cumbrian mountains. The surging city traffic made me think of the sea tides around Holy Island. The pulsing lights of clubs and pubs reminded me of the intricate jewelled patterns created by a 7th-century Northumbrian monk scribe.

After supper we drove west out of London. I was invited to spend the night in a ramshackle wooden bungalow on the banks of the Thames. A skiff was moored by the front door. In the morning I rowed down to Cookham to visit the church where Stanley Spencer had painted his visionary resurrection pictures.

So ended my little adventure; a couple of weeks to myself, time to really work through a few pictorial ideas, plenty to nourish the imagination, gathering material for term-time projects. Back to my workshop - will Jonah be a painting or a woodcarving? Finally, the family holiday will be in a friend's remote cottage (no electricity) on the North Devon Coast, a magical place we all love - like entering a Samuel Palmer painting. From the cove below the cottage where the children crab and fish I will sketch the island of Lundy looming to the east like a great whale. Oh dear, Jonah again.

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