‘The horizon should be hills, not water…’ Painter Mary Stella Edwards writing in 1935, while seeking to persuade her fellow artist and life’s companion Judith Ackland to make the North Devon coast their setting that spring for plein air painting instead of Wales. I write now, over eighty years later, at the small table of the tiny cliff-edge cabin at Bucks Mills (Grade II-listed and now managed by the National Trust) that would be their summer-time quarters from then until Judith’s death in 1971.
This definite formal idea of Mary’s – to stand with one’s back to the very sea which other artists came to paint – has changed mine, what I came here to do I mean. She has taken me by surprise, like a tide that comes in fast. I arrived here yesterday with the folding album I’m writing in now, which expands to the span of ocean I can see between Clovelly to the left and Bideford to the right (Lundy is in the middle, and so close and clear today that I can see, without binoculars even, the houses there). I would, I decided before arriving, write the water line.
But now I feel unsure. Have waited a day before beginning in here, to let the left-behind life of these two remarkable women change mine a little.
Artists and writers are habitual creatures. Upstairs there is a box of porcupine quills Judith used always when making her miniature, eerily life-like models of people for the diaramas she and Mary did on commission (she patented the process, which involved cotton wool, as ‘Jackanda’). Their two painting smocks hang neatly one inside the other, and every item in this tiny two-room interior has its place. I have my talismanic apron, worn on every residency, and a particular brand of pen which I used for my Wild Patience mile of writing the previous two years. I couldn’t, I felt, turn my back on my childhood sea, which I am so often away from now, but I might try a pencil…
…I find one, never used, in the box of them I’ve brought for visitors to use. Its faded grey suits the palette of the Cabin, and it feels as soft on the paper as the worn-smooth objects around me; makes, too, a sound on the page like the wind under the door today.
This small change releases play in me. A new idea whispers in my ear: Why not take a rest from writing and knit the horizon line? Sit on a stool at the open back door and offer quiet invitation all week to whoever passes by? I stand at the precipitous drop by the low brick wall and stretch a piece of wool from the jumper I’m making, as I’ve seen painters do with their brushes when scaling perspective. Yes, I will sit and knit a scarf the breadth and depth of this ocean view; make a tactile artefact from my time here. Pass it on one day to another artist-in-residence here. Add to the Cabin in a material way, without dislodging anything of those who were here before me.
extract from Seven Days in Bucks Mills Artists’ Cabin
(August 2018. Pencil in japanese folding album)
The Burton at Bideford holds works by the two artists, including dioramas made using Judith Ackland’s patented ‘Jackanda’ process. Information on how to apply for a residency at the Cabin is on the National Trust website.