Tuesday 25 October 2022

Morbitorium: A Museum of the weird, wonderful and downright bizarre

Nestled in the rolling hills of the Ebbw Valley, in deepest darkest South Wales lies a truly fascinating, and I'm sure to many thoroughly unexpected Museum, in the shape of 'Morbitorium'. 
This slice of suburbia has hidden within it a highly unusual gem, which few neighborhoods can boast. A museum and shop packed to the rafters with an overwhelming collection morbid and macabre curiosities. 

The unassuming stone cottage, situated in a typical enough Welsh village, has been thoroughly transformed into an immediately outrageous, spooky, kooky landmark. As ghosts trussed up in the front yard billow and bluster with the savage winds rolling in from the mountains and a sign adorned with a skull creaks and groans, I have no doubt I have indeed found the Museum.

I am given a warm welcome to the museum by owner Dave and one of his cats Pickles. It appears that Pickles failed to get the message from every other member of their species that I am reviled by their kind, and now holds an interesting record of the only cat in my time on this Earth to show me nothing but interest and affection (despite my poorly masked terror waiting for the inevitable strike, which shockingly never came).
Dave gave me a brief run down of the museum, explaining he and his partner Angharad had moved to this sleepy little town 8 years ago, initially buying the adjoining cottage as their home, then later when the end building went on sale, it was purchased and transformed into the museum and shop we see today.

The building of the museum has been, like all the best things in life are, a thoroughly organic process. Starting out simply as a shelf, this collection of curios has grown to an impressive size, and contains many fascinating and noteworthy pieces.

From important artifacts from medical history to Masonic regalia and everything in between, the museum houses something for everyone (if you're as abnormal as myself!).
My personal highlights on display were the wonderful items concerning Aleister Crowley. Crowley has long fascinated me and I am always thrilled to see pieces and places relating to his life and works (some how I never got round to writing a blog on my visit to the Abbey of Thelema in Cefalu). So to see these wonderful items, including Crowley's Thoth Tarot, a piece of Crowley's home Boleskine House (famously later purchased by Jimmy Page) and my absolute favorite; Crowley's death mask. Incredible. A real privilege to see such fine and important items on show.

One of the most wonderful displays at the museum is that of haunted Ouija boards, all of which have been gifted to the museum by folk who have clearly decided not to dabble any further. Everywhere the eye strays there is something new and interesting to see which ultimately is bound to spark a different emotive response in every single visitor. I peered in interest and curiosity at the display on house protection and mummified cats, while others may find it repugnant, and I confess a wry smile met my lips at the sight of a Rolf Harris annual, where others may have viewed it in the highest distaste. However taste is merely subjective and is clearly something Dave and Angharad are challenging, and enjoying playing with here.

Frankly the entire place is a real credit to its proprietors who have obviously put so much time, dedication and love into creating this carefully curated space. Every surface is packed full with so much, and covering so many topics, one could easily get lost in this place all day ...
One recurring theme within both the museum and shop is taxidermy. Dave himself actually teaches taxidermy classes, but also sells many specimens at the museum, from grandiose Ravens to simple skulls and mounted antlers. This very multifaceted place has so much to offer on so many levels.

The Morbitorium is a true testament to Dave and Angharad's obvious passion for the unusual. Their use of this compact but well concieved space to share with others this amazing collection of oddities, but also, incite in others wonder, interest, curiosity and perhaps even a passion of their own in a specific subject is to be applauded and celebrated utterly. There are few times in this world people take the brave decision to be truly different and stand out in their community. But it is clearly something which has been whole-heartedly embraced with the 'Morbitorium', and I for one wish to see a whole lot more of it in this world!

To check out the Morbitorium yourself, support this venture or plan your visit check out their website here!

Alice Durose

Monday 26 September 2022

Kilpeck Church: A Romanesque Masterpiece

This year so far has been one entirely unlike any other in my life to date, as I finally became a home owner at the ripe age of 31. This systemic shift in circumstances means that life has changed in immeasurable ways in the last 6 months, and time has to be taken for things like renovating my Victorian cottage, and keeping my jungle of a garden under reasonable control (and not always succeeding entirely). But exploration and adventure are still my lifeblood, they’re just a little less frequent than in recent years.

One little adventure I was lucky enough to make time for this summer saw me travel to a land unknown to me, Herefordshire, for the first time. And while I was there I made sure to soak up as many sights as I could cram into a short trip.

One place I’ve always wanted to visit in the region is the church of Saint Mary and Saint David in Kilpeck. Anyone whose ever thumbed through a book on grotesques of England, or holds any interest in church architecture at all will doubtlessly have heard of Kilpeck and it’s many treasures. 
Over recent years I’ve had the name ‘Kilpeck’ haunt me repeatedly, in books researching tombs and memorials, in literature on green men, and most recently in online lockdown lectures given by the Churches Conservation Trust, particularly on ‘naughty bits’ on churches - namely the Sheela Na Gig. I decided this year it was finally time to visit this rich resource in the world of ecclesiastical carving and see just what all the fanfare was about for myself. 

After an initial false start from the satnav who actually took me to another church a stones throw away, I finally found the quaint, unassuming church just down the lane. 

Records date a church being on this site as far back as 650AD at least. Though conjecture suggests that the lie of the land, waterways and the unusual alignment of the building hint at a pre-christian past for this obviously important place. 
Much of the church we see today dates to around 1140, and ties in closely with the nearby Kilpeck Castle and its landed gentry. Thankfully unlike many ancient churches, Kilpeck has remained reasonably unspoiled by Victorian restoration, with many early features surviving, and in better condition than most.

The church itself is on no grandiose scale, or exceptionally exuberant, but the details and decoration here are absolutely everything. On approach to the building, unusual corbels line the walls, with animals and men peering down with menacing glee. 
The huge beasts which flank the south-west face were really rather breathtaking. In all the hundreds of churches I've visited across the country I've never encountered anything like them. Colossal gaping mouths with great curling tongues erupting from a cornerstone of celtic interlacing. It can be easily imagined that these giant leviathans incited fear, and awe in all those who saw them.

The real jewel in the crown at Kilpeck is the South door, which is the main entrance into the church itself. This incredible archway is without a doubt the most detailed, and imaginative Romanesque doorway I've ever seen. Previous fine examples Ive been lucky enough to visit (Tutbury and Melbourne being some of the most impressive) generally feature a more repetitive pattern of beasts and celtic knotwork, however the lack of symmetry at Kilpeck, and its many, rather overwhelming different elements have a very different effect.

The senses are somewhat overwhelmed by the huge number of different beasts and creatures on every single inch of stone. Sinuous, writhing monsters edge the archway, with their gaping mouths devouring decorated knots connecting a whole host of beasts and birds, finished either side with a fierce Hellmouth like head.
Below these are a huge range of curious creatures, some devouring themselves, some devouring eachother, others with great serpents erupting from their mouths. It truly is a frenzied scene of fascination and sinister strangeness! The lone angel in among all this chaos seems almost out of place in the scheme, but is likely there to remind the viewer to choose salvation over sin and temptation (generally the most accepted idea of what these carvings represent, though we will never truly know).

The motifs continue down the columns either side of the door, with serpents intertwined snaking down towards the ground, surrounded by organic looking knotwork, more birds and beasts, and the unusual addition of figures. These figures are often considered to be warriors, but like so many other elements of this incredible carving its true meaning will be forever a mystery (which I rather like).

One of my absolute favourite parts of the entire church is this fantastic Green Man. His bulging eyes stare out to the path while vines flow vigorously from his mouth. He has such a wonderful feeling of folk horror I could have studied him all day. Stylistically he seems closest to the central pediment, which has a slightly more folk art feel than many other parts of the doorway. This distinction between different styles suggest multiple masons worked on the entrance way, each bringing their own unique style and interpretation to their carvings.

There are a great many wonderful corbels to be seen around the entire exterior of the church. Sadly the whole of the rear side of the church was covered with scaffold, meaning almost half of these men and beasts were impossible to view on this occasion, however, Kilpecks arguably most famous resident was thankfully on full view in all her glory. The Sheela-na-gig of Kilpeck is one of the most famous still in existence. I always feel a wry smile creep on my face when I see the image of a woman gleefully opening her vulva on the exterior of a church. The whole concept just feels so surreal and bizarre it never ceases to make me smile. 
There are many theories about the meaning of the Sheela-na-gig. The last remnants of a pagan fertility deity, Mother earth, a protection against evil (that one makes me smile most of all), a warning against sins of the flesh. The latter seems logically most likely given the mindset at the time of its creation. Female sexuality was hugely repressed during this period, and the idea of this image representing female lust as hideous and corrupting certainly falls in line with the chruches ideology of the time.

Kilpeck church is an absolutely fascinating insight into early Welsh church building, but also into the folklore, mythology and mindset of the time. This tantalising glimpse into a strange past gives us some small idea of the world these border people were living in at the time full of fantastical creatures, superstition and magic. The sense of mystery and wonder created by places like Kilpeck and their craftsmen, always make me ponder on the minds of these master masons. Their rude little in jokes, their cheeky little additions, their creative expression, and smile.

Sunday 10 July 2022

The Wicker Man: A Horror Homage

As a long time horror fanatic and film collector, the genre has long moulded and shaped me as a person, and artist. The aesthetics, stories and cult status of the movies I love so much have an awful lot to answer for!
My favourite film of all time; The Wicker Man (1973), says a lot about my connection to and enthusiasm for the folk horror genre in particular. But also my wider love of pre-80s British horror in particular (Hammer, Tigon, Amicus, British Lion).

As a homage to my favourite movie I have done a few small artworks recently themed around The Wicker Man. These pieces were simply designed to celebrate my love for my favourite film and it’s glorious uniqueness.

One pays tribute to one of my favourite scenes, in which Christopher Lee draws from the Walt Whitman poem 'Song of myself', with his dulcet tones declaring ‘I think I could turn and live with animals ...’. I always felt that seeing the footage of snails entwined while Heather deflowers young Ash Buchanan to be a stroke of cinematic genius, so wanted to express my adoration in the only way I know, through an artwork. I also feel the sentiment rings so true with me personally, as I seem to find myself often feeling I have much more in common with animals than humans, and increasingly so.

The second I created to celebrate May Day with the iconic Wicker Man sun face featured numerous times in the film. Initially I intended to create the piece as a dip pen work to practice my technique, however after discovering my remaining waterproof black ink had become a gloopy mass too thick to use I had to revert to using pigment liners (which in hindsight is probably the only way I could get the level of control and detail needed for the piece.)

I find creating these artworks, just for me and to express my passion and adoration for what I consider to be the pinnacle of British cinema, a near meditative practice. It is my own unique way to honour something that has become an integral part of me and shaped me for who I am from my first viewing almost 20 years ago. A heathen conceivably, but not I hope an unenlightened one ...

Tuesday 21 July 2020

Time Enough for the Earth in the Grave ...

'Back unto the land from whence we came. Bones burrowed deep by decay. And in creep the beetles and creatures of this land. Forever companions in your grave. As you slip from this world, and fade from memory. The cycle is complete, and nature triumphs.' - Danse Macabre.

'Time Enough for the Earth in the Grave' is probably one of the most detailed artworks I have ever attempted. The concept was inspired by the quote from one of my favourite films; Conan the Barbarian. This idea arose through wondering what we can expect from our own time in the grave. From our own decay what life will thrive and spring? What will we give back to the earth in our final stage in the cycle of life?

The imagery draws on the idea of the forest floor and humanity finally reintegrating with nature. There are lots of details in the piece and tiny symbolic elements which are only truly appreciated seen in the flesh!

Taking a slightly different approach from my favoured technique I combined pencil and watercolour to create the piece. This allowed a more delicate approach than my usual pen base, but was also much more fragile and delicate, meaning I had to take special care to protect the bottom layer while I worked on the piece.

I must admit that no matter how time consuming and what a labour of love this artwork has been I have enjoyed it immensely. And I'm very happy with the final outcome of the piece.

Limited edition prints are available on the Etsy Store now!

Sunday 14 June 2020

Green Men - The Spirits of the Seasons

I'm so pleased at long last to have finally given my Green Man series the time and attention it deserves. These ideas have laid waiting patiently for so long I had been feeling serious guilt about neglecting them for so many years. But after months of work I can finally say I have done the pieces justice.

Initially I intended to simply create a series featuring as many of my Green Man ideas as possible. However as sketching progressed and the complexity of the pieces grew I decided I would have to limit which ideas I was exploring unless I was willing to dedicate the entire year to the series. After some consideration I decided to transform my favourite ideas into the Spirits of the Seasons.

The series is designed to capture the essence of each season, visually but also the personality and feel I get for each time of year. Spring is the awakening, sleepy and bleary eyed but sending out new growth into the world. Summer is joyous and vibrant. The happiness seems never ending as he chuckles to see the insects go by and the flowers bloom. Autumn is humble and quiet. His appearance is most fleeting of all, yet he knows he is the most beautiful. In creeps winter, grumpy and frostbitten. Sad to have lost his leaves once more and silently waiting for Spring to awaken him and give him life anew.

Creating these characters was quite important for me in the process of developing the series, which I wasn't expecting. It helped me to give the pieces real depth and feeling which is something I really wanted to achieve to do the series justice. Through this process I hoped to evoke some of what our ancient ancestors felt about the seasons and how important these changes were for ancient Britons.

My Green Man series is now available as A4 prints here, with postcards and greeting cards coming soon ...

Sunday 5 April 2020

Parc Guell

Over the years during my time in Barcelona I have made it my mission to see as much of Gaudi’s legacy as possible. As a lover of architecture and all things a little strange, Gaudi and his style has long fascinated me. Weirdness is always bound to appeal to weirdos!

In previous years (and blogs) I’ve been lucky enough to see the Sagrada Familia, Casa Batllo and Casa Mila. But somewhere I’d hoped to go for the longest time was somewhere quite different; Parc Guell.

Sitting outside the hustle and bustle of the city, shuttle buses take you to the park, which it’s totally essential to pre-book to stand any chance of visiting. What I had envisaged being a tranquil place to catch a breather outside of the sprawling metropolis of this city was actually full of hoards of the most dreaded kinds, yes, tourists. Selfie sticks were out in force as girls posed as if they were being shot for vogue, not taking a second to truly look at the beauty around them, rather than that on their phone.

Luckily entry to certain parts of the park are timed, so this limited numbers to a certain degree at least and made things a little less cramped. As everyone trouped off ready to see the next ‘grammable’ spot I hung back to look at all the different tile fragments in the seats which were being restored, watch the workman with his angle grinder, and soak up a few rays.

Gaudi guarantees there’s always something to be seen. Nothing is ever mundane or plain, everything is so deliberate and detailed. The great stilt like columns leading up to support a beautiful mosaic ceiling, with every ‘crown’ section totally unique. Emerging from this shade one of the busiest places in the Park is heaving as people pose for photos with the famous mosaic iguana which is the star of every postcard stand in Catalunya. As ever getting a photo of him without the masses pouting was a challenge. But I was far more interested in a pigeon having a drink from the fountain anyway!

My favourite part of the park was incredible on many levels. It felt like I was walking through a location for Jurassic Park with curved cliffs enclosing the area and vegetation hanging down giving a prehistoric vibe to the area. The columns supporting this cliff, some of which were men and woman holding it aloft made it seem as though I was discovering an ancient Inca city. I felt so excited and curious, maybe that’s my lifelong love of Indiana Jones coming out! Other parts of Guell echoed this vibe with stunning wisteria hanging from curving rock faces while lizards darted around.

The buildings at the park, like the rest of the complex, were quite fun. It really feels like Gaudi let himself go with the designs here and had fun, which is an interesting contrast to buildings such as the Sagrada Familia which feel of such epic importance and seriousness to this mans legend.
The roofs spiral in colours and I feel like I’m in a sweet shop with all this amazing Mediterranean vibrancy and excitement.

Parc Guell was more than worth baring with the crowds to enjoy this beautiful slice of Gaudi's vision. Every so often you would find yourself alone in this paradise, grabbing a tranquil moment to breathe and relax in this wonderland. In some shady spot stumbling upon a busker, whose exotic rhythms transport you a world away from the busy city of Barcelona and to Gaudi's spring sunshine drenched dreamland.



Wednesday 25 March 2020

Burne-Jones: Forms Divinely Beautiful

Recently I visited an exhibition I’ve been looking forward to since I first saw its announcement. That one of my favourite local places; Newstead Abbey, was having a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition was a surprise to say the least! Having traveled across the country to see Pre-Raphaelite artworks and exhibitions for the past 10+ years this one is certainly the closest to home I’m ever likely to visit!

After a few weeks of waiting for the initial rush to have made their visit I could wait no longer and headed off to Byron’s pile to see some Edward Burne-Jones!
The exhibition is a little different to most Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions in the sense that what’s on display isn’t a collection of paintings, but is actually a folio of Photogravure prints. As a printer this interests me greatly as the value of etchings and prints are often played down and under appreciated by so many.

The folio on display is one of 200 which were commissioned by Burne-Jones’ son, Philip, to celebrate and showcase his fathers work. It was created by the Berlin Photographic company using photogravure, a technique using a photographic negative to create an etched plate to print from. This skilled technique produces high quality prints which at the time was a very popular method of reproduction and sharing art. Interestingly the Pre-Raphaelites were one of the first art movements to make use of photography in creating their work and to draw on this new technology, so it’s interesting to see how new and changing technology and techniques have been embraced in other ways.

Having seen lots of Burne-Jones paintings over the years his often very muted palette lends itself well to black and white reproduction, something which might not be said for more vibrant artists within the movement (Millais perhaps). The pieces on display are, to me at least, beautiful works of art in their own right. The depth of tone in these monochrome prints is truly stunning, and you don’t lose anything from these dreamy visions due to their lack of hue.

Learning from Rossetti gave Burne-Jones a similarly unique view and creative flair to his idol. The flowing hair, plump lips and long necks of Rosetti’s recurring female aesthetics all shine through in Burne-Jones work. All be it his own ideal of female beauty and perfection, but Burne-Jones style and stylisation of themes is unique in the movement, with a distinct nod to Rossetti.

Burne-Jones, like Waterhouse, is a great portrayer of myths and legends in his work. With many of his pieces focusing on tales and stories rather than the more religious tendencies of earlier Pre-Raphaelites. These later members of the movement were masters at depicting incredible far off places where heroes and monsters reign and damsels and their tantalising beauty await rescue. Burne-Jones escaped the real world through his art, and shared this beautiful world with us all in turn.
For me, Burne-Jones style only heightens the sense of ethereal, mystical realms and long forgotten times of our ancient past as he steers away from the photorealism of the movement and towards a more stylised portrayal of scenes.

My favourite piece on display, 'The Beguiling of Merlin' is captivating. Merlin's eyes pierce out at you from the paper, so wild and alive. They seem to follow you and hold your gaze in an eerie, haunting way, stirring emotions only art can make us feel.

This exhibition seems to have been quietly understated among the artistic community. Nobody I speak to knows about it, and online information is scarce. I understand that the current pandemic has caused the closure of Newstead temporarily, but the exhibition is still available to view virtually here: https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=cahQQShRaT1&hl=1&guides=0&kb=0&qs=1&ts=3&st=1800 
and when it reopens I urge everyone to go and immerse themselves in this dream world for just a time. Not that I think it will take any encouragement to get people out and visiting galleries and beautiful places again once this is all over!

My only criticism of the exhibition was I was hoping to buy a book, print, postcards, anything! But there was nothing sadly.

Tuesday 10 March 2020

Five Wells

Recently I spent some time compiling all my research into the best local Neolithic and Bronze Age sites to form a list of where I hope to visit in the near future. A number of local sites I have already visited. But that doesn’t mean I don’t intend to return, especially to see different seasons from these amazing sites.

One place high on my list was the Neolithic burial Cairn of Five Wells, located near Chelmorton, just south of Buxton. After seeing a few photos of this site and reading a little information I was impressed how intact the Cairn was compared to many and how visible the chamber was to visitors, so it went high on the list of where to go next.
In early March a perfect opportunity arose to visit Five Wells, so off I went on a 30 mile drive to discover another amazing piece of Derbyshires ancient history.

After some map consultation I parked near Chelmorton church and set out following a trail uphill in the general direction of the tomb. The villages original wellspring is en route and signed as a point of interest on the way.

The landscape is largely farmers fields and grazing livestock, but a strange, what I presume to be, natural rocky feature runs along the ridge of the hill as a seam dividing the space in two.  It’s quite rugged terrain and I imagine what the whole landscape would have looked like before agriculture moved in.

At a crossroads I managed to wander into a nearby farm, (still following a public footpath) when actually I should have turned left to find the Cairn in fields behind the farm. A little correction later (after thinking I was going to be savaged by dogs!) and I spotted the Cairn on the horizon at last.

It’s structure is quite imposing on the hillside. Like jagged teeth reaching out to the heavens it sits prominent and protruding. The moment I laid eyes on it, I loved it. The rugged and weather beaten hillside and these great stones erupting from the earth. It had an incredible feeling and atmosphere I wasn’t expecting, but wholly embraced.

One of the tombs is slowly being consumed by the earth, as much is covered by a thick layer of moss, while the more intact chamber exists like a miniature shelter missing its roof. Great upright pillars of the entrance give the feeling you are entering a mysterious and incredible time. As ever with these ancient places I stand and wonder what happened, were rituals performed when these people were buried in this great tomb? What did this place in the landscape mean to these people? The rolling landscape surrounding the Cairn is certainly one I’d be quite comfortable to spend my eternity in.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't find Five Wells to be an incredible, moving place. Though I will not attempt to provide any real reasoning why. For me personally these sites often seem to create an overwhelming sense of connection with our history and the traditions of our ancestors. Although this window into the past is only fleeting, for me it strengthens the feeling that these people, their values and respect for and use of the land is incredible, admirable and frankly far better than our own. These people had so many things right that we do not. They worshiped the land for the life it gave, we merely abuse it. For me, Cairn sites in particular always give a sense of ancestors rooted in the earth. For them, in life and death the landscape was clearly so important. I only wish I could know more about their lives and understand more about their world ...