Almost award-winning art, fresh from the wilds of Surrey

Runnymede Ghosts

In 2015 I took part in a major festival celebrating the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede. I had a solo exhibition with Royal Holloway, University of London when it opened its doors to the public for the anniversary weekend.

Magna Carta is the document that underpins the British legal system and is of huge importance to the American constitution. For the first time, a King acknowledged that he was subject to the laws of the land. Although for centuries it was just another piece of paper and in many respects it was a shopping list of petty grievances, it eventually paved the way for concepts like trial by jury and that all should be equal before the law.

I was initially asked to provide a little context for the festival, to simply celebrate the landscape which hosted these events. Most people I told about the project however assumed I would be making history paintings – full of Barons and Kings and pageantry. I’ve always had a massive problem with history painting because, like any artist growing up in England, I’ve been exposed to the Imperial War Museum’s collection and even the difference between the made by those who were and weren’t present at events: if the artist wasn’t there when the events happened then despite the best of intentions he has no option but to make it up. As a result, I wanted to take the opportunity to search for an alternative to traditional history painting. I started in the most rational way I could, by asking what do we actually know? The fact is, all we know is the date, the most senior names involved and a very approximate location defined by a river which is prone to moving.

Knowing that the only thing we can be sure of was the landscape, I walked and sketched and photographed day after day. I hit the records offices and academic publications and soon it became obvious that some elements of the current landscape are still characteristic of its appearance at many different times throughout thousands of years of human occupation so  I concentrated on depicting those elements as they are now, but emphasising the characteristics that hint at the past. For the sake of celebrating how the place is today, I chose to depict the different elements in all different weathers and at all times of day.

In terms of painting, these were the most sophisticated paintings I had made at the time. I had been exploring unusual and historic pigments since the first nocturnes I made and that work really bore fruit in this project. The paintings make extensive use not just of the difference in colour between pigments but also the difference in other characteristics; texture, translucency, how they react to a medium, how they feel under the brush, the kind of marks they’re prone to making. I had started making some of my own paints by this point and again, the increased understanding really enriched the use of colour and marks within these pieces.

Interpretive notes about specific paintings

This painting is from a point directly above the Runnymede Memorial, just after dawn. In the foreground, the traces of medieval terraced agriculture are clearly visible. In the distance, London fills the horizon. This is likely to be view recognisable to the people who lived here 800 years ago. It fascinates me that London would have been visible ever since the trees were cleared, slowly growing, occasionally being lit by catastrophic fires and transforming from a distant wisp of woodsmoke on the horizon to city of millions which is now only being held back by the M25 in a process that has lasted 2000 years.

This painting is deep in what is now woodland on the flanks of Coopers Hill. Walk through the woods in winter and you will quickly notice that it heavily terraced, that some trees are much older than others and that there are curious ditches and banks. This is again likely to be a remnant of medieval agriculture. The terracing made parcels of land. The ditches and accompanying banks that cut through them down the hill are old boundaries. The banks are topped with old oak trees – as the National Trust point out, oak trees don’t move so were frequently used as boundary markers. The whole painting is designed to emphasise one such boundary, featuring some particularly gnarly oaks that are instantly recognisable to anyone who walks these woods in winter. The painting also uses an unusually high step between terraces to emphasise both the steepness of the hill and also the extent to which it is man made.

This painting shows a walkway which crosses a marshy part of the meadows. It’s a simple construction – short planks bridge the gap between two long beams which in turn are attached to staves driven into the mud. The historic interest in this scene is twofold.

When the motorway was built a few decades ago it had to bridge the Thames. During the earthworks a bronze age village was discovered. I won’t say much about it here, but two things structures resonated for me. One is that there was a ridiculously substantial stockade along the riverbank. Archeologists argued whether it was for defence or not but to me the drawings looked exactly like the modern use of concrete and steel to stop the bank eroding. The other structure was a long walkway across a marsh remarkably similar to the one in this painting. I like the idea that the issues of day to day life here are the exactly the same now as they were 3000 years ago.

The other point of historic interest is that according to every map I could find, this walkway is along the line of the old horse racing circuit. Considering the last races were held in the late 19th century, either all the maps are wrong or there has been dramatic environmental change over the last century as this ground is wet all year round now. The most obvious potential cause was the construction of the road less than 100 years ago. It is plausible that this could have changed drainage patterns especially as a new stream appears to be being eroded just below the marsh.

I chose to paint the marsh on a wild, windy night partially as a follow on from my Sulgrave Manor work and partially out of mischief because it fits in with the stereotype of pre-historic man being less in command of his environment than modern man is, even though such comparisons are far from straightforward. I certainly wanted one painting to show Runnymede at its wildest and least human.

This painting is Ankerwycke, the north bank of the Thames. There was a priory there for centuries which provides good evidence to debunk those who claim Magna Carta was sealed on that side of the river – if it had been the record would have described the location as Ankerwycke as the priory was established 50 years earlier. The estate is criss crossed by sophisticated earthworks, channels and fishponds. Without actual archaeological excavations it is impossible to know which channels are hundreds of years old and which are modern, but this one may have been there, controlling levels in the fishponds, when Magna Carta was sealed. The stonework damming it looks old enough. The thing I like about this painting is not the speculation or the romance but the way it reeks of stagnant time, of a place where everything just stopped and was forgotten. I had to wade knee deep to get to this viewpoint and the painting almost smells of the ancient mud I disturbed.

This painting contrasts the two sides of the river. Runnymede pleasure grounds complete with trimmed lawns and concrete riverbanks are visible across the river. In the foreground, on the Ankerwycke side, the banks are more as they would have been for millennia – shelving, gravelly and held together by plants.

Runnymede is a water meadow; it floods from time to time with great drama. This was the February 2014 flood and the painting is based on an oil sketch I made immediately after wading through it. It seems as though the place floods with this severity maybe twice a century and there is no reason not to think this would have been happening 800 years ago too.

This painting contrasts the modern road with its heavy rush hour traffic with the rutted muddy track that runs alongside and that was all that existed across the meadow until well into the 20th century. This is kind of track the King and Barons would have travelled along and I’m still a little bit taken aback that it took 700 years for it to be modernised considering both Windsor and Staines have been the largest places locally for centuries and that this is the direct route between them. I would draw attention to how high the modern road is to limit flooding; I think this backs up my speculation about the marsh mentioned above.