'Artists are gnostics, and practise what the priests think is long forgotten.' - Hugo Ball

Thursday, 17 April 2008

The Redesdale Hall, Moreton-in-Marsh
© Sue Wookey

Castles in the Mist Exhibition, Moreton in Marsh

I recently travelled with a friend to the lovely, yellow-stoned Cotswold town of Moreton in Marsh – just north of Oxford – to visit the Castles in the Mist JRR Tolkien and Fantasy Exhibition. This is held every year at the Redesdale Hall, a wonderful mid-nineteenth century building that dominates the market town. The exhibition is organised by ADC Books owner Andrew Compton. This year, as well as art by Ted Nasmith and Ruth Lacon, there were paintings from Jef Murray (familiar to many Tolkien fans for his many vibrant covers for The Tolkien Society’s Amon Hen and Mallorn) and Roger Garland.

We both decided to take the train rather than face a long drive. The Cotswold line is lovely, taking you through everything that Tolkien loved about the English countryside: gentle hills, winding rivers with overhanging willows, old villages built in the distinctive warm, yellow stone of the Cotswolds, little country stations which still had their old black and white station signs, lambs running around the fields on black knobbly legs. It was a great way to arrive in Moreton in Marsh – almost like journeying back in time.

We had no trouble finding the Redesdale Hall which dominates the centre of the town and as soon as we arrived outside we bumped into someone I’d met at Oxonmoot so we got a very friendly welcome. The exhibition is free and there is a sort of genuine fellowship at Tolkien events that springs from the Fellowship and Tolkien himself. I’ve felt it at everything I’ve gone to and it really is remarkable. We went in as soon as we learned that Jef Murray had already started talking about his art. The whole hall was full of colour with Gondorian and Rohan banners hanging everywhere and had a magnificent high pitched wooden roof.

Jef Murray is from Georgia and his work is very vivid, textured and glowing. He has his own website at Mystical Realms. In his talk he explained how he uses oils because he can keep manipulating and blending the paint on the canvas. This is every different from Ted Nasmith and Ruth Lacon who use faster drying acrylic and gouache. There was some chat between Ted and Jef about this technique which was very funny with Jef acting out the panic of trying to get something right before the paint dries. Everyone has a medium that they are personally comfortable with and one they hate. Ted gets round fast-drying acrylic by meticulous planning, Jef goes more with the flow by using oils and seeing where the paint takes him as he moves it about. He described how paintings often go in unexpected directions, becoming things the artist never expects them to be. To Jef, painting is very mystical. He prepares with carefully selected music, candles to create atmosphere and readies himself for the muse to take him – being open to inspiration which may come or not come. But there is a discipline in being ready, giving painting a regular allotted time, so you don’t miss the moment because you’re not attentive or because you’re off doing something else. He likened paintings to a window to another mystical or mythical world, and the act of painting like being in a sacred space which is out of time with our busy lives. He made a comparison with Icon painting (which is done under specific, prayerful conditions with the part of Orthodox Church where Icons are displayed being regarded as a sacred realm beyond our own). To Jef, painting is a spiritual pleasure and you can see from his site that he does, indeed, do some paintings that are in the Icon tradition.

His talk was very inspirational and also funny, describing the moment when you are so absorbed in a painting you completely lose track of time and get brought back to earth with a bump, and the moment when you are so into a painting that you fail to notice some mammothly big error until someone says – ‘hey, is her arm really supposed to be as long as that?’. Ted Nasmith recommended holding your painting up to a mirror to get a different view – which I know can give you the most horrible shocks – and Jef described turning one of his paintings upside down because he thought something was wrong with it only to discover that all the towers where leaning sideways.


View of the Exhibition
© Sue Wookey


After the talk we went around the actual exhibition, heading first for Jef’s stuff as we were so interested in what he’d been saying. He’d completely emptied his studio (his wife had said it was like losing a lot of old friends) and there were a huge number of his paintings on display. They are all quite small in scale and like bright jewels. From a distance they made an impact like a huge stained glass window. I loved his painting of Smaug looking both smug and evil in one go. He does terrific dragons!

We then had a look at prints of Roger Garland’s paintings and it finally gave me a chance to see his fabulous panorama of Middle-earth on a large scale. There was also a wonderful painting of Tom Bombadil leaning over a stream looking at a dragonfly. It was exquisite and detailed, and was one of the many paintings there that I really wanted to own.

Then it was on to Ted Nasmith’s paintings which were a mixture of prints and originals. Most of his newer originals are sold almost as soon as they come out. There were lots of his smaller gouache studies for sale (done as prep for his bigger paintings). His set of new paintings of fantasy castles are just amazing. I was fascinated by them. Ted’s paintings, especially his extraordinary landscapes, are whole worlds I could lose myself in and his technique is simply stunning.

The final artist was Ruth Lacon, who is inspired by medieval art (like Tolkien’s favourite artist Pauline Baynes) and Persian miniatures and carpets. Her view of Tolkien’s world is filtered as though the stories have travelled to far away parts and been retold through Eastern eyes. It’s a very distinctive vision and very, very beautiful. I could look at them for hours and if we hadn’t been fainting from lack of nourishment I probably would have. Her newest painting is a large scale one of ‘Niggle’s first sight of the Tree’. It’s wonderful – even overpowering – with birds of all colours and squirrels in the tree and with every leaf painted in. I think we were both transfixed and it’s just as well the original was already sold otherwise I might have gone completely mad and reached for my cheque book. She left the border at the top left unfinished in the same way that Niggle’s Tree could never be finished. I also fell completely in love with her Mumak of Harad.

It was a fascinating exhibition with a wonderful opportunity to talk to the artists involved. Boy, have I got a lot of work to do and a long way to go!

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