When the sun goes missing

Norham Castle, Sunrise c.1845 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Norham Castle, Sunrise by J.M.W Turner.  Tate Gallery

The sun has been missing from this part of Northern England for many weeks now.  On the 21st August it also went missing from the skies of America, but only for a few minutes when the moon got in the way.  During this total solar eclipse the sun was completely covered over for 2 minutes and 40 seconds, if you were standing in the right place.  This seems a short time to do without the sun in comparison with its longer absence in my small part of the world.  People, though, travel long distances to experience this very brief blotting out, just as those living through its longer absence in the summer months often travel to places where the sun fills the skies with its powerful presence, without any bothersome clouds.  Two kinds of contemporary sun worship, perhaps?

There is not usually much media talk devoted to the absence of the summer sun in Northern places.  It is not considered to be ‘news’.  Total solar eclipses are a different matter.

total eclipse 2017 Getty Images

The moment of totality on 21st August: Getty Images.


During all the talk of the eclipse on BBC radio 4, I was struck by the number of scientists  who said that the minutes of ‘totality’ were a very special experience – an experience they could not put into words.  One even agreed that it was ‘mystical’, which surprised me.  So what do writers – whose business is words – have to tell me about this sudden vanishing of the sun that I have not yet been fortunate enough to see myself?  Two accounts of total eclipses have been brought to my attention in the run up to the eclipse; Annie Dillard’s description of the total eclipse over America in 1979, and Virginia Woolf’s diary notes on the one over the UK  in 1927.

These are different types of account.  Dillard’s is written a couple of years after the February event and is a long, carefully crafted piece of work.  Woolf’s is a diary entry a day after her night journey up to Richmond, Yorkshire to see an eclipse in June, where the total covering of the sun was only 24 seconds. Her account is much shorter and presumably just one draft.  As she says at the start of the entry, her attention is to ‘sketch out’ the experience, while Dillard’s essay has more complex aims that include critique of the culture she  was living in.   The winter morning sky was clear for Dillard, but Woolf’s early Northern British summer one was full of predictable cloud.

Despite these differences both these writers drew on similar images to try to convey the impact this event had on them.  Both included their journey to the place as part of the experience, and remarked on how standing on hilltops in the early morning, staring at the sun, made them feel connected to our early ancestors:

Woolf –   ‘I thought how we were like very old people, in the birth of the world – druids on Stonehenge;’

Dillard –‘It looked as though we were scattered on hilltops at dawn to sacrifice virgins, make rain, set stone stelae in a ring.’


Nasa satellite image of eclipse

NASA satellite image of the start of the eclipse


Both writers equated the sudden darkness with death :

Woolf- ‘We had fallen.  It was extinct.  There was no colour.  The earth was dead.

Dillard – ‘There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the Earth rolled down.’

There was a shared sense of disquiet:

Woolf – ‘We had been much worse than we had expected.  We had seen the world dead.

Dillard – ‘We got the light wrong. In the sky was something that should not be there.’

Take the sun away from our planet and you take away the life of most of earth’s creatures.  This is stating the obvious but it takes events like total eclipses, volcanic eruptions and long, sunless summers to remind us of our dependence on this burning star – something that our ancestors were all too aware of.  Electricity and modern technologies serve to dim our sense of this vital relationship, while at the same time they bring us more knowledge about the sun and the galaxies we are just one tiny part of.  We now know that our ancient fears, brought so vividly to the surface during total eclipses, will eventually be realised.  The sun is dying and we are moving away from it.

Sun & Moon Plaque

The actual death of the sun is too far in the future for our minds to encompass, thankfully.  But I, for one, struggle to comprehend that this beautiful planet is as finite as each of our individual lives.

One theme of Dillard’s essay is the inability of everyday language to capture the immensity of experiences such as total eclipses, or, indeed, of our life on this earth:

All those things for which we have no words are lost. The mind—the culture—has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel. With these we bluster about the continents and do all the world’s work.

She echoes what eclipse watchers were saying on the radio – that they could not describe how they felt. That is why she set to work to give a full account of her experience and what she had observed of human behaviour, as well as the motion of these masses of gases and matter that make up our world.  We need writers such as Dillard and Woolf, and other artists, to give us words for our fears and our awe.

Sometimes though, when the clouds part briefly to reveal the sun in all its summer glory, and I rush out to worship it, and top up my levels of vitamin D, what goes through my mind is a much simpler account of how the sun nurtures our well- being.  It is a song, written by a fellow Northerner, and the music (absent here, but oh so much part of the message) summons up for me the warmth of sunshine on my skin:

Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right

George Harrison, Abbey Rd, 1969.

Sun & Moon Plaque


Noticing 1

Arctic_Tern_141 IBC

from the International Bird Collection

This post is inspired by Mary Ruefle’s poem ‘After a Rain’ (Selected Poems, Wave Books, 2010), in which she explores being ‘a noticing kind of person‘.

Like the arctic tern in the photo above, many of Ruefle’s examples of noticing are grounded in observation.  Here is one of them:

………, I noticed an infant will grip your hand like
there is no tomorrow while the very aged
will give you a weightless grip for the same reason,

And here is a recent observation of mine, not so beautifully condensed as Ruefle’s.

I noticed that the heron on the other side of the canal did not flap away in the usual indignation as I passed by with the dogs.


Grey heron by Andy Holt for RSPB.

On my return I checked and saw it in the same intent position. Moving on, a sharp splash made me look again, to see the heron backing away from the water’s edge, a flash of silver in its beak, and then its thin neck bulging as it swallowed.  I have passed countless solitary herons staring into the water, but this is the first time I’ve seen one get its reward.

In this kind of noticing we rely on our senses – sight, of course in my case, but also hearing, and touch in Ruefle’s consideration of  the grip of a hand.  Perhaps you can think of when smell or taste have been part of something you’ve noticed?

Ruefle also makes use of another type of noticing in her poem.  Here is an example:

……… and I noticed the road followed roughly
the route of a zipper around a closed case,

Here, you may say she is drawing on sight, but this is imaginary vision, a noticing that draws on her language knowledge to make new connections between things.  She also mixes the two kinds of noticing together – as in the first example ‘I noticed an infant will grip your hand like there is no tomorrow‘.  This kind of noticing is a primary staple of poems, of course, and is also part of the work of visual artists, using the power of image rather than words.  Louise Bourgeois’ work immediately sprang into my mind as I was thinking about this kind of noticing:

BOURgeois NY Times

One of Bourgeois’ spider works from the New York Times.

This kind of noticing is a creative process of course, and so here I am, thinking about creativity again, which wasn’t my initial intention in this post!  As such it needs a great deal more practice than those based on observation only, at least to make connections that open up the eyes and minds of the rest of us.  Here is another sculpture example, this time from Kiki Smith:

Rapture by Kiki Smith


My journals are jampacked with small incidents I have noticed.  They are there for me to remember and rejoice over, but these quickly written notebooks are not the place for this second kind of noticing, such as the kind of connections Mary Ruefle shares with us in her poems.  This kind of noticing makes me go ‘oh yes!’ as the image she has summoned up in words enters my mind, and I begin to savour the rich meanings invoked.

Honing our senses to notice what is going on around us is though, something we can all make more space for in our daily lives, and prepares the ground for the second kind.

Facing my fears for 2017 with the help of Goya’s painting of ‘the dog’.

I’ve recently been thinking of Goya’s painting of ‘the dog’, the simplest of what are called his black paintings, which he painted on the walls of his house in his last years.


Goya’s ‘The Dog’, from the Prado Museum website

All his dark paintings were taken from these walls after his death, and placed in the Prado Museum, Madrid, even though Goya did not necessarily intend them for public view.

It was Laurie Anderson talking about this painting in her personal film essay ‘the heart of a dog’, that made me look it again, as we were nearing the end of 2016.  Like Laurie Anderson, I find that I learn a lot from living alongside dogs, and I have a great love and respect for them.  Perhaps that is why this image of a small dog’s head, submerged in amorphous matter,  makes an emotional impact on me.  In addition, I have been looking at it whilst full of fear for what 2017 will bring – to the UK, the USA, all countries they are connected to; and fear for this lovely planet they are part of.  This small grey dog speaks my fears back to me.

I read its eyes as full of fear, and that this is reinforced through the rest of the painting.  Goya has painted the dog as alone, its body sunk in murky matter.  He has positioned it near the bottom of the wall, just off-centre, facing a rising level of this brown stuff, as if it is about to be enveloped within it.  Trying to describe this painting, to transform it into words, is not straightforward.  No wonder John Berger pointed out

Seeing comes before words

in his seminal TV series and book ‘Ways of Seeing’, way back in the last century (the book I am using was published by the BBC in 1972).

I want to bring in Berger’s work here because it is still highly relevant, but also to mark his recent death at the age of ninety.  He lived his life to the full and used his vision and gift for words to make this human world a kinder, more thoughtful one.

goyas-dog-croppedBerger urged us to consider the context of any painting, as part of its meaning, especially when viewing a reproduction of it, rather than the original, where the work of the painter – the brushstrokes, and colours, close the time gap between the painter and the viewer, and make the communication much more immediate.  That is why I said above that this painting, and all the paintings he did on the walls of this house on the edge of Madrid, were painted for himself, and we have no information about whether he wanted others to look at them, especially in a museum, where they were changed from murals to pictures hung on walls as ‘works of art’.  What we do know is that he had recently recovered from a serious illness before painting them; had gone deaf; that he had experienced the horrors of war in his lifetime, and that the political situation in Spain was very unstable.  A Liberal government that was in power when he he was painting his walls with many disturbing scenes was, in fact, overturned shortly after he moved away.  There are some parallels here between his world and ours, don’t you think? These experiences fed into his painting of the little grey dog.

But the meanings of any image are not fixed by the creator, of course.  The viewer brings to this dialogue their own knowledge and their personal emotional state.  For example, Jonathon Jones, writing about this picture in the Guardian (‘Goya in hell’, 4/10/15), describes the dog thus

Its grey head pokes defiantly out of the brown sludge.


 Jones sees defiance where I see fear.  What do you see?

What none of us see, at this moment of reading, is the original mural, or even the painting it was trasformed into.  We are looking at a digital copy – a type of reproduction Berger knew nothing about when discussing the proliferation of reproductions of paintings back then.  He was arguing that the ready availibility of these reproductions needed to be accompanied by a similar spread of knowledge about what the artists were trying to achieve, and how, and the political and art history they are situated in, and communicating about.  He wanted to take this knowledge out of the hands of an elite few, so that:

we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experiences of our relation to the past: that is to saythe experience of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.

Now we have the internet, and wikipedia, and museum websites we have instant access to a huge amount of the world’s art, and also to that previously elite knowledge.  I can use this, as I am now, to get to know a painting in which I recognise an experience of anxiety that reaches across time, and death, to connect us.  Goya was trying to deal with old age and illness when he painted this, which I have tet to face, but we share the turbulence of political instabilty caused by the strong drives we humans have to split ourselves into distinct groups of ‘us and them’, so we project our own fears onto others.

The first digital copy of this painting I looked at showed an area at the top of the wall, to the right, as painted a lighter, creamy brown than the rest, almost as if there was a distant sun struggling to penetrate the murk surrounding the small dog – a suggestion of light which the dog’s gaze could reach.  This prompted me to read the possibility of hope as part of the meaning of this work of Goya’s.  But looking at a range of digital copies, and learning more about the painting, and the painter, has led me to dismiss this reading as due to the vagaries of the software rather than as part of Goya’s own work at that time of his life.  I wish I could confirm this with a trip to Madrid, but that will have to wait.

goyas-dog-croppedThere does not seem to be much historical data about this series of murals, which ‘the dog’ is part of, and some even dispute that Goya painted them.  Goya left behind no words of commentary or explanation, or, at least, none have been discovered yet.  He has, though, left us this memorable image of a small grey dog alone in an uninviting space, and this expresses some of my emotional state at the beginning of 2017, as well as his own two hundred years ago.  Getting to know this painting has helped me situate my own fears and consider my own finiteness.  It has also helped me through the absences, through what is not included in the painting.  Dogs and humans work very well together,they build reciprocal relationships, but the human companion, who could encourage the dog to get out of the murk, is absent.  What is missing from this painting is any reference to all the amazing endeavour that is helping us understand how interconnected we all are, and how we must keep facing difficult issues together.  Goya was expressing a despair we can all recognise.  Understanding our feelings is important, but so is what we do next.

from http://www.hiraeth.wales/2011/11/07/wales-greenham-common-and-occupy/

Women working together at Greenham Common

Green Man: past and present

This is the Green Man that oversees my garden, courtesy of a local artist.

assorted 2008 and 9 010

I knew he had to be there as soon as I laid eyes on him, but I didn’t know much about his origins, apart from a vague association with pre-Christian beliefs.

UprootedSo I was happy to read Nina Lyon’s recently published book ‘UpRooted’.  This is a book about what little is known about this enigmatic figure, and its current revival.  It’s also about being English and Welsh in these first decades of this century and at times Lyon’s wry descriptions of some of our contemporary rites and rituals (and her own attempts to construct these) made me laugh out loud.  She weaves into these discussions of past and present philosophies about the relationships between Nature and spirituality.

This book is about place, as well as people and their ideas, especially the woods and valleys of the border lands between England and Wales, where the Green Man once had a significant presence.

She takes us to places where images of the Green Man were incorporated into the early medieval buildings of the newer Christian religion, in order, perhaps, to curtail the power of these earlier deities.

Her main focus is on the old kingdom of Archenfield, once a centre for Celtic beliefs, located in what we now call Herefordshire.  She takes us to Garway church, where there is a carving of a horned Green Man.  The church was built by the Knights Templar in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries on the site of an earlier wooden one, .


By Kxjan – Photographed from ancient stone carving., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37015203

This early Green Man is on an arch dated to around 1200 and why he is there is not known, but the warring activities of the Templars connect this rural building and place with countries and beliefs far away to the East.  Lyon gives us a detailed description of this image in her book but I wanted to see him for myself, at least digitally for now.   That is the main reason I am writing this post – not to attempt to summarise Lyon’s book (I’d rather you read it for yourself), but to look at these Green men she discusses and reflect on some of what she says about them.

She also takes us to the nearby Kilpeck church, built by local masons in the twelfth century.  These masons are thought to have been overseen by someone who trained, or worked in South West France, so we can see how two small, institutional buildings were part of global networks and set me thinking of William Golding’s richly imaginative account of this earlier time of building in ‘The Spire’.  Like globalising movements today, Kilpeck shows us the local in the global with its rich carvings from pre-Christian life and worship.  There are at least two Green Men, among a wonderful array of Celtic images.  Here is the one you see on the doorway, before going in:


Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=434197

These two powerful images in Garway and Kilpeck are given a more abstracted, distancing human form, in strikingmy garden 2010 comparison to the contemporary Green Man who guards the fertility of my small garden, and oversees my desire to encourage wildness within it, with as light a management as my neighbours will tolerate.

However, the Green Man that was originally on the roof of Dore Abbey, built in the same century as those above, is more recognisably human and approachable :

This is what Nina Lyons says about this Green Man:

He had the demeanour of a laughing Buddha, or an anthropomorphised Sun. This was the Green Man of pub signs and summer-worship.

He is a Green Man made by the Cistercians, formed from within their beliefs of working with the land, and with animals, his smile and colour symbolising the beneficence of Nature, with blue skies and rich harvests.  He reminds me of the version of the old Roman god, Bacchus, who officiated over the drinking of wine and free for all sex, the powers of fertility and creation.  The two Green Men of Garway and Kilpeck, in contrast, index the havoc-wreaking power of Nature we have no control over – the roaring winds, the floods and droughts, the tree roots cracking through concrete and the joyous mass of plants that take back places we have abandoned.

I would like to know what the people who made these images called them, what the people who went into these buildings during that time thought and said about them in their Welsh or medieval English tongues.  They certainly wouldn’t have called them ‘the Green Man’.  As Lyon said, this is a very recent name, invented by Julia Hamilton, writing about folklore in 1939.  Lyon argues that much of the writing about figures such as the Green Man, like Hamilton’s, and those of the Late Victorian, have created new myths, based on speculation, because all we have is a diverse set of images like the ones I have included here, and a rag-bag of remnants of old tales and rites.

Still, as Lyon says, the Green Man himself, representing our relationship with the very force or soul of Nature, has always been with us, ‘It had been there all along, hidden at the edges, doing its own thing, like a wild man of the woods.

These days he is coming out of the edges and into our garden centres and our festivals in new forms, as this photo from the Pilton Green Man day shows.   I think the Green Man, in his multiple guises, is as important for us today as he was to our ancestors, local and global.

Here is a friend’s Green Man,  who watches over her garden – a very ‘foliate’ man, but also less alien than the early medieval representations. green man Mary


Green Man 2013 by Mary

‘Words are things’: Mary Kelly’s Multi-Story house


IMG_20150226_133142 mary kelly

Mary Kelly: Multi-Story House

Last month I went to the refurbished Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.  I enjoyed the space and light that has been opened up in the development of this old red brick building, and the way it now blurs the boundaries between the park and gardens outside and the wide, white spaces inside.  I was especially struck by the way they have put together specific portraits from their permanent collection – where studies from the eighteenth century are hung next to contemporary paintings, sketches by unknown artists alongside the powerful works of Freud and Bacon.  Here is the link to this exhibition on their website: Whitworth Gallery: Portraits

The majority of the works are drawings and paintings that hang on walls, but they have also included less conventional ‘portraits’ such as the mix of feminist voices in the stories that are central to Mary Kelly’s ‘Multi-Story House’ (2007).  This small, warmly lit ‘glass house’ (the size of a garden shed) is what I want to focus on here.

In contrast with the images of all types of people on the surrounding walls, this bright object creates its portraits through words.  Instead of responding to a representation of a specific body, reading these ‘stories’ summons up a hubbub of different voices.  The words are all carved into acrylic panels in the same cursive style, all are in (or translated into) English, and all address the theme of feminism.  But the words in each extract conjure up a myriad of mouths, because each speaker draws on a differing choice of words and set of contexts.


The narratives are taken from conversations with women of different generations about being a feminist, and to read them you have to move around all the sides of the house, look up at the sloping roof, go inside to read those that present their back to you from the outside.  So it is a physical experience as well as a mental and emotional one, and one I felt I could ‘control’ by choosing which stories to read, by walking away to think about them, and returning later.  However, the artist directs your experience of  the relations between past and present by presenting all the younger women’s narratives on the outside, and the older generation of women (the same generation as the artist herself) on the inside.

Kelly said of this arrangement of time ‘you can’t be in both places‘ in a conversation with Paula McCloskey at the Whitworth in 2011.  She also said that through this ‘dialogue’ between generations of women she is addressing the question of ‘what (-) you feel that you’re obliged to carry on in terms of the legacy.

Questions are fundamental to her work as an artist, she stated in this interview: ‘I recognised that if an artist has a brief, it’s to ask the question – so that’s where I began in my work. It’s not about the answers,’

I like that approach – it makes sense to me – and perhaps helps me work through why I find some art works so stimulating, so thought-provoking.  They fill my mind with questions, they make me look again, physically or mentally.

Words are things

This is the title to a catalogue of an exhibition of her work in Warsaw in 2008.  I don’t know if Kelly chose this title or not, but it caught my eye as it is so central to her work, especially in Multi-Story House, where we are in the collective presence of other feminists through their words.  Words that you can see through, into the interior of the house, carved material symbols that take us on a journey into ourselves and into other selves.

In her conversation with McCloskey, Mary Kelly talked about the re-staging of a street theatre event, originally enacted in 1971, and she referred to the pleasure she remembered of being in the company of women acting together as feminists, a pleasure that re-occurred between the women involved in the re-staging in this century – the pleasure of a ‘collective presence‘.  This kind of pleasure describes well how I felt as I read the stories, and walked round and peered into her Multi-Story House.  I identified with the dialogue on the panels, and a felt a sense of belonging with these speakers from around the world, all actively embracing and re-affirming an identity that means so much to me too.

56_MaryKelly_Mea Culpa_Detail_Johannesburg_2

Mary Kelly: Mea Culpa 1997 from marykellyartist.com


Paula McCloskey, in conversation with Mary Kelly, Studies in the Maternal, 4(1), 2012, http://www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk

Missing my creative self

P: but then I did hit a point where I had to carry on, carry on with something

K: it was like a real need?

P: yes, definitely, absolutely and having dreams about drawings.  It became a really strong thing.  It’s like a different part of yourself sort of shouting out for some attention.

from Wikiart.com

Paul Klee, ‘Evening shows’, Wikiart.com

The  extract above comes from an interview I did with an artist when researching into creativity and the words we use to talk about it.  Here P is referring to when she became a mother of twins and had no time for her art for a few years (see the page on my book ‘Sourcing the Self’ for more about this research).

I have been thinking about P’s words as I have currently been having to give most of main daily energy to work that gives me a basic income.  At certain times of the year these commitments don’t leave me enough space in the day to continue with my own creative work – in my case, writing. In these periods  I don’t dream about writing, as P did about drawing.  In fact, I’m more likely to dream about my work when I am engaged in daily writing, as I find myself living in the world I am creating through words.

Joyce Kozloff 'voyages 21 Pohnpei' 2004 at wikiart.com

Joyce Kozloff ‘voyages 21 Pohnpei’ 2004 at wikiart.com

I don’t experience such a clear inner voice as P either.  For me it’s more of an indistinct ‘malaise’,  more as if something – not quite tangible – is missing.  Life feels incomplete. During periods where I am working creatively every day I feel much more in balance, and I’m more likely to have an underlying feeling of contentment or something like ‘rightness’, even though I will often be struggling with the writing, and frequently frustrated with my lack of ability to find the right words or to keep going at a steady pace (instead of staring out of the window).

When I don’t have enough time in a week to work creatively then I often question the ‘meaningfulness’ of my life and have many doubts about the value of it, even though I don’t have any illusions that any creative writing of mine will be seen to be of any value to anyone else.  But at least I’m giving it a go, and, more importantly, I get absorbed in it and my experience of time changes dramatically.

Do you have similar experiences, I wonder?

J.Audubon 'Birds of America'

J.Audubon ‘Birds of America’

Successful creative women – eccentric or role models?

How do you feel if someone describes you as eccentric? Do you feel pride or anger, or something else? Eccentric, ex-centric, out from the centre.  This is a word that’s pleasing to speak, sibilant –

'Abstract Swirl' Sonia Delauney. http://www.wikiart.org/en/sonia-delaunay/abstract-swirl

‘Abstract Swirl’ Sonia Delauney. http://www.wikiart.org/en/sonia-delaunay/abstract-swirl

but is this just an innocent term to denote those not in the mainstream? Does that depend on who’s using it?

Over the years I’ve noticed this word being used in descriptions of some creative women – not usually about their work, but about them as persons, as women. In 2010, for example, the British writer Beryl Bainbridge died at the age of 75. She left for us a whole set of powerful novels, two of which won the Whitbread Awards, and five of which were shortlisted for the Booker prize. Many were made into films. There were obituaries of her in most UK newspapers and other media and I noticed the frequent appearance of this word in them. Here are a few examples:
1. I did not know her well, wish I had known her better. She was, as they say, a one-off, eccentric, courageous, intelligent, well read – Dickens was her god. (Susan Hill, The Spectator’s art blog, 2010)
2. For many year’s Bainbridge’s work was edited at Duckworth by Anna Haycraft, better known as the writer Alice Thomas Ellis, whose regular Spectator column often featured her deeply eccentric, chain-smoking, hard-drinking mate, Beryl. ( Paul Levy,2010, the Independent)
3. Beryl Bainbridge, rarely perceived as cuddly even by those who relished her work and eccentric personality, was today celebrated as “a superb granny”, before being buried in suitably grand literary surroundings at Highgate Cemetery, where her neighbours include George Eliot, Karl Marx, the parents of Charles Dickens, and the poet Christina Rossetti. (Maev Kennedy, The Guardian.co.uk, books 2010)
What we can see in these examples is that the word ‘eccentric’ is usually accompanied by other adjectives that give it either a positive or negative slant.  In the first extract above Hill combines this descriptor with others that are all unambiguously positive (courageous, intelligent, well read). In the third the adjective is used alone by Kennedy (eccentric personality) but is put alongside a potentially negative description of the writer as not ‘cuddly’. In the second it is directly associated with negative, excessive behaviour (chain-smoking, hard-drinking).
Janet Watts tells us that this labelling of her as eccentric had been going on a long time, and that it was a description that she, herself rejected:
Beryl came to dislike the image she had acquired of eccentricity and wildness around alcohol and men. “Nobody can write books, bring up children and earn money if they are eccentric,” she said firmly. (Janet Watts, 2010, The Guardian)
Here Bainbridge describes herself as the same as the rest of us.

I will now give two more examples of this labeling from writing about Stevie Smith (poet) and Emily Carr (painter and writer). I wonder if they would also have rejected this label that was also applied to them?
Stevie Smith wrote poems and published them alongside her own drawings, which she referred to as ‘doodles’. Kristin Bluemel quotes from Seamus Heaney’s review of Smith’s 1976 ‘Collected Poems’ as saying “I suppose, in the end, the adjective has to be called ‘eccentric“. Here it is one feature of Smith’s work that is being negatively labelled, which is interesting, but Bluemel also says that Smith’s behaviour at poetry readings was labelled as eccentric too. Bluemel argues that Smith’s drawings and poems challenged the conventional traditions and assumptions of her time, which were mainly driven by white, male norms.  Think T.S Eliott, for example.
As I have discussed in a previous blog the Canadian artist Emily Carr also challenged dominant assumptions through her paintings, and she too has been given the label ‘eccentric’. I first met this in the foreword to a later edition of Klee Wyck, Carr’s initial collection of prose sketches, first published in 1941. The author of this foreword, written in 1951, is Ira Dilworth, who edited all her writing during her lifetime, and was her literary executor. Six years after her death he begins this introduction to her and her work with the following description:
My earliest vivid memories of Emily Carr go back (–) to a time when she was living in Victoria, British Columbia, still largely unnoticed as an artist (-). In those days she was a familiar figure passing down Simcoe Street in front of our house (–), she passed by each morning on her way to the grocer’s or butcher’s. She trundled in front of her an old-fashioned baby carriage in which sat her favourite pet, Woo, a small Javanese monkey dressed in a bright costume of black, red and brown which Emily had made for her. Bounding around her as she went would be six or eight of the great shaggy sheep dogs which she raised for sale. Half an hour later you could see her returning, the baby carriage piled high with parcels, Woo skipping along at the end of a leash, (–). The great sheep dogs still bounced around the quaint figure whom they recognised as their devoted mistress. I thought of her then, as did the children behind the hedge and as did most of her fellow-citizens who thought of her at all, as an eccentric, middle-aged woman who kept an apartment house on Simcoe Street near Beacon Hill Park, who surrounded herself with numbers of pets – birds, chipmunks, white rats and the favourite Woo – and raised English sheep dogs in kennels in her large garden.
Emily Carr was a great painter, certainly one of the greatest women painters of any time. It has been said that for originality, versatility, driving creative power and strong individual achievement she has few equals among modern artists.
Notice here that Dilworth starts with a description of her as odd, peculiar, excessive and only after this does he turn to her work and its value. In this description, as in the negative description of Bainbridge above is the highlighting of excess. In Dilworth’s portrait Carr is accompanied by too many animals, of too many species. Bainbridge is described as consuming too many cigarettes and alcohol. Out of long, complicated and sometimes difficult lives for all these creative women  these ‘different’ behaviours are selected as notable, and as excessive, rather than the aspects of it that we all share, as Bainbridge pointed out.
The association of Carr with the word eccentric is not confined to past times. In 2001 to 2002 an exhibition of her work in her hometown of Victoria at The Royal British Columbian museum was titled ‘Emily Carr: Eccentric Artist, Author, Genius.’ Nancy Pagh reports that the museum used a banner on its building to advertise the exhibition with ‘Emily Carr: Eccentric’ emblazoned on it, overshadowing the smaller text ‘Artist, Author, Genius’. This marketing parallels Dilworth’s representation of Carr as firstly odd, and only secondly, as ‘great painter’.
The website of the Vancouver Art gallery has an introductory biographical sketch of Carr which starts with the following sentence: ‘Emily Carr’s life story has all the qualities of an excellent biography — tragedy, inspiration, triumph, resolve, eccentricity’ (http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/Exhibitions/EmilyCarr/en/about/index.php). This gallery now owns almost two hundred of Carr’s art works, so it is an important site for the legacy of her work and access to digital archives of her paintings. In this first paragraph it is made clear that there are many different versions of Carr, by herself and those writing about her. There is no attempt to offer a definitive one, but the label of eccentricity is repeated twice more, ‘the eccentric, animal-loving recluse’ and ‘her eccentricities’.
I turned to Miranda Gill’s work on the concept of eccentricity to try and get to grips with what is going on in this labelling. She explored its genealogy – how it was used in the past – particularly in relation to its shifting meanings in nineteenth century Paris. Through her analysis of French popular culture and medical texts of that time Gill says that the term eccentricity is used by those who think of themselves as normal in order to label those they see as departing from current conventions. Like in my examples above, Gill has found that it was used ambivalently, to carry both positive and negative associations of what is seen as unconventionality. She shows how it was used negatively to mark behaviour as bizarre, transgressive, mad, or associated positively with innovation and creativity. Interestingly, she argues that females labelled as eccentric were more likely to be more negatively evaluated, especially in the Victorian period with its strict social codes for women. My examples show that this negative labelling continues.

As we can see from the extract from his foreword above, Dilworth goes on to praise Carr’s work and label her as a ‘great painter’.

Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer by DV Friedrich from WikiArt

Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer
by DV Friedrich from WikiArt

This is a perspective on artists that Gill includes in her genealogy of eccentricity, coming from the Romantic view of the artist as wild, solitary, exceptional. Like the term eccentric it marks off the person as different, apart from the rest of society, but with praise rather than fear or ridicule. Gill calls this a counter representation of eccentricity. She attributes it to liberal theory in Victorian England, citing J.S. Mill as an important source, in his championing of the freedom of the individual to act. She quotes Mills positive views on eccentricity, linking it to the concept of genius:
Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour and moral courage which it contained.

A well known example of this perspective comes from Virginia Woolf in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ where she is challenging the patriarchal social worlds of the early twentieth century. Woolf also uses the category of genius as part of her advocacy for female artists:
Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes. Now and again an Emily Bronte or a Robert Burns blazes out and proves its presence.’
Here she represents creative people as possessing a special ability that is unconnected with their social contexts. This view of the artist as exceptional is underpinned by the modernist view of the individual self as fixed, solid, immutable to the social worlds around her. Hill describes Bainbridge as a ‘one-off ’, Watts, in the Guardian obituary quotes the New York Times description of her writing as ‘the dark dynamic of her siren voice’. Dilworth, near the end of his foreward calls Carr ‘a great genius‘.  This Romantic perspective persists.  Through it these women are described as having strong, creative voices,  but is their power ‘roped off’, held in by accompanying descriptions of them as bizarre, abnormal women?

'rythme' by Sonia Delauney at http://www.wikiart.org/en/sonia-delaunay/rythme

‘rythme’ by Sonia Delauney at http://www.wikiart.org/en/sonia-delaunay/rythme

This view of the individual has now been displaced in the academy by the postmodern view of self as fluid, discursive, relational. The artist as a unique, lone individual is decentered through studies that trace the intricate relations of art social practices. Howard Becker’s ‘Art Worlds’ in 1982, for example, details the collective action that makes up art practices, and describes ‘the complexity of the cooperative networks through which art happens’. Art and creativity are now understood to be deeply social processes, through which art objects – music, paintings, books, poems, dance – are produced, and established conventions reproduced and transformed.

However, these descriptions show that the ambivalent category of eccentricity lives on, and that the idea of the artist as exceptional and distanced from us ‘normal folks’ is still in use.

Maybe this counter meaning is why some people are proud to label themselves as eccentric? . In 1995 David Weeks and Jamie James published a study of over one thousand people who chose to participate in the study because they were happy to call themselves eccentric. Their study also to brought together the concepts of eccentricity with creativity, as the authors declare that ‘creativity is at the heart of eccentricity’, but Weeks and James do not take a critical perspective on how this term can be used to try and reinforce specific social norms.
Gill points out that the meanings of the term eccentric are always context-dependent, as they shift alongside the social norms they are part of. This semantic shift is clearly illustrated by the highlighting and negative labelling of different behaviours and work in these three examples. Smith’s drawings are dismissed by Phillip Larkin as ‘frivolous‘, according to Bluemel, as well as eccentric by Heaney.  Carr’s love of animals is shown as excessive, as is Bainbridge’s smoking and drinking by Levy. In his description of Bainbridge we can clearly see the gender work. Would a male writer of the same generation and cultural background as Bainbridge be marked as abnormal for ‘ chain-smoking, hard-drinking‘? I think not.

It is one thing to describe yourself as eccentric, as the particpants in Weeks and James’ study have, but quite another thing to be given this label by others. Bainbridge tried to reject it, but up it popped, in both its associations, in writings about her after her death.  It seems to me that the negative meaning of this term is still being used to mark strong, creative women as different and outside current norms of femininity. They are presented as a category of difficulty.

Composition Dada by Sophie Taeuber from WikiArt

Composition Dada by Sophie Taeuber from WikiArt

I wonder if you have come across this use of the term eccentric and can add more examples here– or perhaps counter examples that disrupt this kind of labelling? I feel we still need to work hard to widen the social pool of role models available to the next generations – to celebrate different kinds of women (and men too!), different kinds of creativity and ways of living – not be content with them being labelled as deviant.


Becker, Howard, (1982) Art Worlds. University of California Press
Bluemel, Kirstin (1998) The dangers of eccentricity: Stevie Smith’s doodles and poetry. Mosaic, 31.3

Carr, Emily. (1941) Klee Wyck Toronto, Irwin Publishing

Gill, Miranda (2009) Eccentricity and the cultural imagination in nineteenth century Paris. Oxford University Press.
Hill, Susan (2010) The Spectator’s Art Blog; http://www.spectator.co.uk/arts-and-culture/touching-from-a-distance/6124993/beryl-bainbridge.thtml 6/7/2010 (accessed 15/7/10)
Kennedy, Maev (2010) ) http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jul/12/beryl-bainbridge-buried-highgate-cemetery, accessed 15/7/10
Levy, Paul (2010) obituary in the Independent, 3/7/10
Pagh, Nancy (2002) Seriously Emily, a review essay, BC Studies, no. 133, Spring
Watts, Janet (2010) Obituaries: Dame Beryl Bainbridge. The Guardian newspaper, 3/7/2010.
Weeks, David and James, Jamie (1995) Eccentrics: A study of sanity and strangeness. Villiard.
Woolf, Virginia (1975) A Room of one’s own. Penguin Books

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