Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Fantasy Forest Festival

I first discovered fantasy forest festival entirely by chance on a Facebook post which was utterly unrelated. A bizarre way to find out about a new event, but, the instant I read Brian Froud was in attendance, it had my interest. Although a pretty long round trip for a day out it wasn’t possible for me to make both days, so, I bit the bullet and ordered tickets for the Sunday.

Upon arrival I was a little worried we would be the only ones not in costume, however there were a few of us (all be it utterly in the minority.) The happy, chilled and certainly hippyesque atmosphere was evident immediately upon arrival through arches covered in foliage and being checked in by some bright eyed ‘creatures’. The site of the festival; Sudeley Castle is very pretty, and intriguing. I had hoped since the festival was being held in the grounds we would be able to visit and explore the grounds in their entirety, alas only a segment was used for the festival and the rest fenced off. A bit of a shame as I would liked to have an explore, but a reason for a return visit I suppose!

Lots of interesting stalls lined the entrance to the festival, and a Glastonbury dragon resting, hinted of the fantastical beyond. The guest speakers at the festival had their own little enclave, with Brian and Wendy Froud, Anne Sudworth, Anne Stokes and Linda Ravenscroft all facing Terry English in his huge marquee with all sorts of fascinating armour and interesting movie memorabilia. Each of them was scheduled to give a talk throughout the day. Unfortunately I only had time to attend Brian Frouds, even though I was desperate to hear Terry English’s tales the long drive home meant we couldn’t stay late enough which was a real shame.

Never for a moment were you short of things to do. With 2 stages packed with bands all day, knights fighting, vikings battling it out, dragons wreaking havoc and stalls full of the weird and wonderful there was always something to entertain and amaze.

As well as countless incredibly impressive costumes paying homage to lots of heroes and characters, there was no shortage of fantastical creatures at fantasy forest either. With a tame lady raven totally stealing my heart, some lovely lupine dogs and even a couple of mermaids floating around!

In all fantasy forest festival was a wonderful, refreshingly different event where imagination was truly king. I hope that the event was a great success for everyone involved and returns next year bigger and better than ever for another instalment.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Brian Froud

In all my years I can't say I've changed a great deal honestly. As a child, books and films were some of the biggest influences on my life and who I was, and the same is still true today.
As a young, impressionable girl I remember my love of picking up beautiful books filled with wonderous pictures (again, nothings changed). 'In Search of Forever' by Rodney Matthews, 'The Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were' by Michael Page and Robert Ingpen (with illustrations by various artists) and 'Faeries' by Brian Froud and Alan Lee were the ones which have stuck with me all my life and left a lasting impression on me, as well as moulding me as a person.
So when by chance I saw that Brian and Wendy Froud would be appearing at Fantasy Forest Festival, giving a talk but also present all weekend, I knew what needed to be done.

As a child never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would meet these incredible people with off the scale talent in real life. And I admit, part of me still feels that way; disbelief. Meeting Brian Froud was a big deal, to 6 year old me reading about Kelpies and Redcaps for the first time, but also to aging Alice as an Artist herself.

Brian was certainly the most humble, down to earth artist I've ever met. I felt rather embarrassed taking my tatty old copy of  'Faeries' to him, but he signed it all the same, which was important to me as its been with me all my life, and I intend to keep it that way. He was more than happy to indulge my ramblings and also discuss the upcoming new 'Dark Crystal' series which Netflix are due to release, and we happily agreed on a passion for 'real' things and what they bring that CGI just cant.

Brian's talk was an incredible insight into his mind, methods and world. Clearly nervous and it would appear not particularly fond of public speaking, Brian immediately won us over jokingly asking if he could go home and he'd made a mistake agreeing to do this (though I do suspect there may have been some truth in his words), but he talked on about his work and the thinking behind it. He was truly in his stride when he got out a portfolio and began to share new artworks with us all. All previously unseen by the public, mostly painted in the last few months. I didn't fail to appreciate what an amazing, once in a life time opportunity this was. My eyes were out on stalks.

Brian shared pieces in his trademark style of a composition bursting with countless faeries, he discussed these pieces being quite 'flat', which I'd never actually considered before, but is entirely true. They were nothing short of stunning and moved me so much. I felt like a child thumbing through 'Faeries' seeing Froud's art for the first time. Then came pieces which were quite different, much more close-up, in your face faeries. Their personality really shone through, their naughtiness, their cheeky sidewards glances, their mystery. And though very different they are equally engaging and have the same curiosity-inducing, mystical beauty.   

Brian talking about his pieces in detail was fascinating. What different elements mean, and the fact one day he could simply no longer paint with watercolour washes anymore. It just wouldn't physically work, which is incredible! So started working in acrylic instead. His mention of 'The Green Woman' was also very intriguing as I am planning a Green Man series later this year myself, definitely food for thought!

For me, the most interesting insight was hearing Brian talk about being what being an artist is to him. Hearing him say he hates painting and its a total nightmare initially shocked me, but when he talked about wishing there was an easier way to get to the end result, without all the torture and torment, I began to understand what he meant. I remember for many years a hideous frustration at seeing what I wanted to create in my mind and not having the artistic skill to achieve it. While I'm not for a second suggesting Brian could ever not achieve what he put his mind to, art can be a difficult, heart wrenching thing. Something else I thought was fascinating was his comments that creating artwork is just constantly trying to fix what you're working on and resolve a piece, but knowing when to stop and not tip a painting over the edge meaning you have lots more fixing to do. A very true sentiment even though I never thought about painting like that.
Brian saying he thinks hes very boring and has no imagination was really quite baffling! He gave the impression its not really him creating these creatures, but they create themselves and come into being through their own will. He lets them take on their own personality and creates them all from shapes or lines, and doesn't seem to consider his own imagination to have any part in the matter.

Something which was honestly refreshing, was hearing Brian talk about his belief in Faeries. I think without this belief Brian couldn't really create the compositions which he does with such beauty and conviction. It is a wonderful thing to believe that there truly is still some real magic in the world, and Brian has helped capture that for countless people with minds wandering astray from the world which we live in. Brian may think he has no imagination, but I think him and Wendy have minds, and hearts nothing short of glorious.

Thank you to Brian and Wendy for their time, kindness and being absolutely wonderful souls!

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Catacombe dei Cappuccini di Palermo

For me one of the most important things to experience during my visit to Sicily was the Catacombs in Palermo.

Your average tourist in Palermo has no idea the Catacombs are even there, and would probably have zero desire to visit the moment they saw a few photographs. This ensures that the site isn’t too busy and generally means it manages to maintain a sombre, calm atmosphere most fitting for the Catacombs.

I was lucky enough to have the advice of my good friend Soile before visiting who had been to the Catacombs 10 years ago, and also the information from a few blogs read many years ago when my thirst for Sicily first began. Opening times in Sicily can be very varied so it’s always worth checking before you visit any attraction/restaurant.

The Catacombs stand on the site of an old church, which existed before the Capuchin friars arrived in Palermo. The birth of the Catacombs itself is an incredibly interesting one. Initially, the bodies of the deceased friars were simply covered in a shroud and placed in a mass pit beneath the altar, known as a Charnel House. As you might imagine, eventually as the order grew so did the number of monks dying, and the Charnel House became rather full. The decision was made that an underground cemetery would be excavated for future burials to solve the potential health risk being created by a bulging mass grave. One day when the Charnel House was opened to remove some of the bodies to the new space created for the dead, it was immediately noted that the unfortunate folk who were last deposited looked as if they had been dead for mere hours, not months. This miracle was declared fascinating and word soon spread about the miracle cemetery.

The decision was made to remove 40 of the best preserved bodies from the pit and display them in the catacombs of the church. This began what we see today as the Catacombs, lifeless figures propped up as if standing waiting endlessly for some important event, or recumbent as if they just slipped into slumber in their Sunday best.

Initially no lay burials were allowed in the Catacombs, but over time they did accept lay mummies, and increasingly so. People were willing to pay handsomely to have the honour of being displayed in the Catacombs. During the 16th and 17th Century when the Catacombs were at their height, the emphasis was on where your body lay after death. The thinking of the time was if you were laid to rest near a holy relic, inside an important church or somewhere with great religious significance you improved your standing in the afterlife. So the Catacombs was a very sought after place to spend your eternity.

However prepared you might think you are for seeing the Catacombs and its inhabitants with your own eyes, you won’t be. Nothing can quite prepare you for the huge range of different mummies lining the walls, all fully dressed in their best clothes, allowing them to maintain some of their humanity and personality throughout the ages. It makes them seem far more ‘real’ than a pile of bones, relatable. A little girl in a lace dress, curls still rolling from her head. A monk, hood hanging low, still looking in pious contemplation. Men in suits lined up as if for a job interview. Bishops still in their mitres and robes, having some eternal debate with one another on theology. Children, posing as if for a school photograph. It causes questions to flood the mind. Who were they? What did they do? How did they die? How did they look alive compared to now? All unanswerable.

The most shocking are probably those whose flesh still clings to their old bones. Tight and twisted with age. Their mouth hangs open in a silent, never ending scream. Lips peeled back to reveal the vastness of their gape in all its glory. Their flesh waxy and yellow like the pages of an old book. It is disintegrating in places and looks like it may just slide off the bone at any time. Their eyes mostly closed, or looking at you through huge hollow sockets. Some still have all their limbs, others have substitutes for what has fallen away, a hessian sack stuffed with straw to form an arm and stop a suit looking empty. White gloves as if about to handle some priceless museum piece, hiding the nothingness. The different rates of decay/preservation are fascinating to observe. Some are skeletal, while others cling to their former selves more vigorously, one man even still sporting his beard and eyebrows.

There was a quality I suppose quite puppet-like about many of the dead. They stand motionless, but as if about to burst into action, held up by string and wire, their clothes slightly surreal on their bodies, their form reduced to a bare structure with joints and bones laid bare. Thankfully nobody moved a muscle and the calm and quiet continued.

The Catacombs is a unique glimpse into a past when attitudes, beliefs and the world in general were so incredibly different. It is a close took into the face of death. And, understandably, not everyone likes what they see. But I have to admit I found it both fascinating, and moving. All these people, all these faces and lives. That no one remembers. That will be us all one day. And perhaps that's the reality people who fear the Catacombs shy away from.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

The Old Operating Theatre Museum

For quite some time I have wanted to visit the Old Operating Theatre Museum since a good friend of mine paid it a visit and couldn't recommend it highly enough. Finally a trip to London for some gigs meant I had the opportunity to pay this unique place a visit at last. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from the Old Operating Theatre, but I certainly experienced far more than my greatest expectations!

Immediately upon arrival at the museum it feels quite hidden away and secretive. Surrounded by landmarks such as The Shard and London Bridge the hustle and bustle of everyday life in the capital seems to pass this slice of history by. Its unusual entrance is secreted through a small door and up a steep spiral staircase winding on and on. At the top you find yourself in the gift shop and entrance, full of all sorts of interesting books and knickknacks to do with anatomy, medical history and a firm favorite; the human skull.

After excitedly paying my entrance fee, I was let loose into the museum. An array of glass jars and bottles, taxidermy and medical equipment awaited me. Only a few people walked around the museum besides myself, however it felt quite busy as it is rather small and consisting of only a handful of rooms. Being quite a fan of my own space in museums (and in general really) I viewed the exhibits in order of least busy. Hopping from place to place to according to where was devoid of anyone else, which gave the visit quite an exciting, energetic feel strangely.

There were countless fantastic photo opportunities throughout the museum, interesting artefacts and instruments behind glass, dioramas, all sorts of jars and bottles arranged interestingly (the ones in the window catching the light were very charming in particular), the old operating theatre itself of course and the Herb Garret with its scales, baskets and a whole manner of different sights and smells.

The sensation of visiting the operating theatre was a curious one indeed. To stand lofty in this (very literally) theatre like space and imagine the kind of things that would have gone on to some poor soul on the table below. Without the mercy of modern medicine and the benefit of the scientific know how we enjoy today. A very unique, strange feeling indeed. What these walls must have seen during their history, operations without the aid of anesthetic and many other modern tools and treatments we take for granted. The horrors and the marvels people have endured while onlookers gawp down in delight. How bizarre.

As I drifted around the main room; The Herb Garret, something absolutely captivated me which I can't properly express in any blog or photograph; the scent. It was utterly enchanting. Baskets and sacks filled with all sorts of herbs and ingredients with important medical ties were dotted around the room. Myrrh, rose petals, lavender, pomegranate, frankincense and countless others, all arranged in amongst pestle and mortar, scales, boiling flasks, plague doctors masks, jars, recipes and all sorts of intriguing elements required to recreate what the Herb Garret may have once looked, and smelled like.

This in particular was my favourite, and honestly the most unexpected part of my visit. Its not very often you come away from a museum raving about how utterly glorious it smelt, and its not the sense you expect to really be heavily engaged in any museum. The Old Operating Theatre Museum is the first museum I can honestly say has engaged almost all of my sense during a visit, as for taste, there wasn't much in those old jars of arsenic and the like I much fancied sampling funnily enough!

If you get the chance to visit The Old Operating Theatre Museum I can't urge you enough to do so. This unique, historically important and fascinating place is a truly fantastic experience. By visiting you are supporting this wonderful charity and keeping alive this slice of our medical history, ensuring the oldest operating theatre in Europe is safeguarded for future generations.

To plan your visit or for more information, visit:

Thursday, 9 May 2019

'The Witches Sabbath'

One evening on my drive home watching dusk approach and the moon rise in the sky an idea struck me suddenly, as they sometimes do. I saw the image of a ritual taking place at dusk, what I call 'the magic hour' where the light and sky do some amazing things which are very hard to capture. Fire flickers and dances in the darkness while a goat standing erect like a biped dances and sways. His adoring followers dance around him in a frenzied ritual, spinning and twisting and turning.

This strange mental image is what eventually inspired 'The Witches Sabbath'. For a long time the working title of the piece was 'Lunar Goat', but when deciding on a final title I went for something which was a nod to one of my favourite artists Francisco Goya and his 'Witches Sabbath', which also partly inspired the piece.

I wanted to try to convey some of the thoughts which Goya's black paintings give me through this piece. Curiosity, intrigue and wonderment largely. Whats happing? Have they summoned the Goat? Are they worshipping the Goat? Or with the Goat? Is he otherworldly? A God or Demon? Is he sinister and satanic? Or a Pagan symbol? I wanted to try and give a sense of mystery with the piece. Echo rituals and traditions long since forgotten, a secret practice of our pre-christian history perhaps. Something that I hoped would speak to Satanists and Pagans alike with its 'open to interpretation' messages. Themes touched on include; nature worship, respect for the earth and its bounty, the lunar cycle and the significance of the moon and the sun, wild animals representing our wild nature, the elements, freedom of expression; of lust, madness, passion.
I am sure that Goya's 'Witches Sabbath' means many things to many people, if I have achieved 1% of that effect of making an artwork personable and reflecting something for you uniquely then the piece has been entirely worth while.

The goat is based on a photograph I took of a goat at Aigue Morts in France during the Festival of St Louis where the town becomes a frenzy of Medieval activity. His posture in his dance is designed to have a rallying, beckoning effect and is inspired by Goya's goats pose to some degree.
The sky comes from a photograph I took of one particularly brooding dusk after the initial idea had struck me and I was waiting for the suitable sky to present itself.
The plants in the piece are all poisonous to some degree Poison Ivy, Belladonna (Deadly Nightshade), Henbane and Datura (Jimson Weed). Some of them represent the use of these in magic or flying ointments. They entwine symbols which reflect Alchemy, Pagan and Satanic beliefs and Solomons Seal, all of which have deep rooted occult meanings, which again have different interpretations depending on your thinking.

At over 30 hours work to complete 'The Witches Sabbath' is one complex and lengthy pieces I have created, and is one of the few artworks I have created that isn't part of a series. That isnt to say I dont have accompanying pieces in my mind already!

'The Witches Sabbath' is now available as a limited edition print Here

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Return to Calke Abbey

As a National Trust member I am always looking to make the most of my membership and for new places to explore, which can sometimes mean you neglect the old ones you love. It had gotten to the time last autumn when I was well over due for a return trip to my most beloved local Trust property; Calke Abbey.

All the times I have visited Calke it never fails to impress and charm, and this was no exception. On a rather wet and windy day I was happy as ever to vanish into this timeless temple of decay and peruse the collections of weird and wonderful things. I can't help but wonder if as a self confessed hoarder, the piles and piles of things are what appeal to me, or all the incredible birds and other marvels captured in the once so popular taxidermy, or the general decrepit nature of the building, which has an honesty and charm to it I can't always seem to find in the pompous grand houses pristine and full of Chippendale. Perhaps its a combination. But nevertheless Calke's spell is still cast over me as I snap away at the tattered beauty around me.

There is never any shortage of photographic opportunities at Calke. There is always plenty to capture and its never anything but a delightful experience. This particular trip it was interesting to compare the differences between the seasons at Calke, and while the fading light of autumn did not provide the bright illumination of spring for photographs, I was more than rewarded by the incredible gourds and pumpkins which had taken over the gardens. As a lover of Autumn and Halloween I was in my element, what a dream!

Photographing Calke this time felt more of a challenge (in a good way I hasten to add!) as I was attempting to think differently to my previous visit and capture photos entirely different to my previous visit. One element which helped with this was visiting the coach house, which I don't think was open on my previous visit. Something immediately struck me, frames filled with Butterfly and Moth specimens arranged in such a way that they formed a pattern. This is something that I did a project on at University and interestingly had been planning on revisiting this as a natural progression on from my recent moth studies (and all these months later I've still not found the time to move this idea forward! More hours in the day please!). As ever, Calke is an inspirational place and you always come away with a head full of ideas and imaginings. If only I had the time to realise all my ideas and use all the inspiration I absorb, wouldn't that be a glorious thing!

Calke Abbey is still the most unique, decadent, curiously charming National Trust property I have visited. Its approach of preservation not restoration has always sat very well with me and truly tells the tragic reality of owning a grand property and the crippling effect death duties have had on these once glorious estates.

I urge anyone who has never visited Calke to take the plunge! You will not regret absorbing and observing the faded magnificence of this wonderful place!