Interview with Fiona Magee from The Reader Magazine
an emotional landscape
Louise Weir is an artist, illustrator and lecturer on the Illustration course at Southampton Solent University.
Her new and recent work – a collection of artworks and poems, Expectations of the Past – is an investigative journey of memory, identity and loss informed by Dickens’ novel Great Expectations.
She lives in Walthamstow with her family and works in her studio next to London Fields in the East End of London.
In 2012 I picked Great Expectations off the bookshelf at home, just by chance really, and that’s when I met the character of Philip Pirrip, which is how my project started. I vaguely remembered having done the book at school a long time ago, but this time I really read it and something about it resonated – the richness of the characters, the landscapes – and I thought it would be brilliant to go to the places in the book and do some drawings. I applied for and got a small research grant from Southampton Solent University and so I started dragging my husband and the kids round Gravesend and the marshes with my sketchbooks.
I started at St Mary’s Church – the church that Dickens used as the inspiration for the opening of the book, where Pip first meets Magwitch. It’s at Cooling in Kent, which lies next to the River Thames on its way out to sea.
In the first chapter, Dickens writes:
The marshes were just a long black horizontal line then, as I stopped to look after him; and the river was just another horizontal line, not nearly so broad, nor yet so black; and the sky was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed.
It’s an amazing landscape – it appears almost as a physical mani- festation of fear and treachery that Magwitch emerges out of it, a grotesque apparition made from man and mud. Nothing seems to have changed much since then. I remember finding a blackened wooden hull of an old ship next to the shoreline, which had lost its outer skin, exposing its inner wood skeleton eroded over time by the elements. It was like a huge beached carcass, covered in limpets, whelks, periwinkles, seaweed and slime.
I was already doing all these drawings, and then my dad, Bernard, died. He had dementia and he let himself out of the house one day and died falling in a pond in his back garden. My mum has filled in the pond and turfed over it so it’s there, but it’s not there; the memory of it is under the turf. What do you do with that memory? What I did was start writing.
There wasn’t any grand scheme, I was just really suffering and I had this stuff inside that I had to get out. It was like a diary almost, a journal. When he died, for a while I thought, ‘I am totally coping’ – I’ve always been the kind of person who’s never thought about ageing and death and been totally carefree – but about six months later I woke up one day and felt like, ‘Oh my God, life ends. It’s all pointless’. I’d never had those dark thoughts before. It was a delayed reaction I suppose: I really struggled. I felt as though I was meant to have finished with my grieving and shouldn’t talk about it anymore, so instead I began to write. In the beginning what I was writing down was just blackness, but then I started thinking about childhood, thinking about where I was from and thinking about my dad – it made me feel closer to him, a way of ‘talking’ to him.
It was compulsive, a coping mechanism; I couldn’t not do it. I’ve always used drawing in that way, but the writing was new. It just felt more honest and more immediate to write, somehow.
The more I wrote, I started to realise that my own experiences and personal history had a lot in common with the themes in Great Expectations. I kept going back to the book – I read it five times – and underlining bits that spoke to me, thinking ‘What’s this about?’ There seemed to be a real overlap between my life and Pip’s. It was like some sort of cross-pollination or conversa- tion – it was a strange feeling of everything converging and I wanted to somehow weave it all together and make something out of it.
Exploring the book helped me examine my own personal history and emotional landscape – it was as though a dialogue opened up between the text and my own memories and specific events. I kept coming back to the landscape, making repeated visits to locations both from the novel and my childhood home. It was as though connecting to those landscapes would allow me to find some kind of answers. The landscapes transported me back to a time before my dad’s death and I felt like it was somehow helping me to come to terms with my loss.
I’m from a hamlet called Hatton, which is south of Warrington. My parents ran the pub and before that my dad’s dad. I was quite a solitary kid and I used to spend most of my time just hanging out in the fields with my dog.
Some of the fields around Hatton were always planted with wheat or corn, which grew to be around a metre high in the summer and as you played in it, the field became a vast maze of narrow passageways and hiding places perfect for hide and seek, until the combine harvester came and cut them down, making it look suddenly quite brutal.
There was a place I called ‘The Denner’ – a muddy, magical hollow. I played for hours there in the streams, building dams, climbing trees and bushes, making dens, creating characters and stories, before heading home wet, muddy, tired and hungry. It was a place to stop and have a secret communion with the landscape.
Half up and half down Half with and half without In between
Waking and sleeping
A mosaic of memories tied together
This poem was written when I was deeply submerged in making the work. It came as fragments – that feeling of almost floating and trying to grasp things, when you are not quite sure what is a dream and what is real. I wrote it in the middle of the night in my sketchbook, which I would do a lot because I was having trouble sleeping.
It’s about the conversation between events in Great Expecta- tions and events in my life and not being able to sometimes distinguish between them. It’s like a kind of netherworld when I’m working – I’ll have drawings that come from Gravesend and drawings that come from Hatton and I’m creating this landscape that doesn’t really exist and it’s not really Dickens and it’s not really me – it’s this place that exists in-between. It’s an emotional landscape almost, because it’s been created out of my dad’s death and the book – I’m creating almost a make-believe space, some- where where there are ghosts.
I’d be drawing quite often – I started drawing when I was about ten – but sometimes I’d do… nothing! Just throw stones.
Landscape, for me at least, connects you with something bigger than yourself – it takes you away, it’s transformative. It was really important that the landscapes – both my own and Dickens’ – were somehow really present in the artworks. And I also wanted the process of creating the works to reflect the way the past and the present seemed to be overlapping.
A lot of the drawings were actually done with sticks and feathers and grasses that I found at the locations; water for diluting the inks and paints was taken from the ditches and streams at the sites – the places were not only inspiring the work, they were now tied up with the process of making the work.
The final pieces are a combination of traditional and digital media – again, it’s about that conversation and convergence between past and present. There are digital prints and there are also Letterpress texts – it felt right that the poetry was printed like that; when Great Expectations was written, letter-pressing was the predominant printing method in use.
The characters in Great Expectations really reminded me of all the people I grew up with when I was little – blacksmiths, farmers, really good, honest people, like Joe Gargary. There were a lot of Dickensian characters in the pub!
Hatton in the 1970s was a world away from now. A sporadic bus service connected the village to the nearest town but some of the residents had never ventured outside the village. The pub was the central focus where everyone gossiped, drank and smoked, if not daily, on a regular basis. Some of these people were like my family I saw them so often – in and out five or six times a day.
I remember two brothers – the Branwells – and one of them went to hospital for something or other, and he didn’t exist on paper: he had no national insurance number, nothing, because he’d always worked on the farm and he hadn’t entered the modern world.
And there was Gwen, who used to play the piano in the pub and ran the local shop. You would tell her what you wanted and she would use her long stick to hit the thing off the top shelf to get it down, although she sold hardly anything; people used to go in there for the gossip more than anything else. She was really funny. If you told Gwen some ‘news’ in the village shop at 11 it would be round the whole village by 5.
There was a Rose Queen event, where the whole village would get together and celebrate – and there’d be a three-legged race, dog show and afternoon tea in the tent followed by a dance in the evening where we would crawl under the tarpaulin and spy on the adults getting up to all sorts of high jinx before the age of social media. I remember we had a ram in next door’s field and people used to get pissed in the pub and then run round the field and see if they could beat the ram without getting ‘tupped’. Needless to say, the days’ and nights’ events were all rich fodder for gossip in the village for weeks and discussed sometimes for years to come.
A boy may lock his door May be warm in bed
May draw the clothes over his head May think himself comfortable and safe
But I will softly creep and creep his way and tear him open
This poem is a piece of text from the opening chapter of Great Expectations broken into a poem by punctuation and placing, where Magwitch tells Pip, very soon after their first meeting on the marshes, what to expect if he betrays his trust.
As a young child I had an Uncle Fred who would scare me and make me cry with frightening stories. He told me that ‘Billy Wind’ would creep into the house in the dead of night squeezing between door cracks and window frames to find me sleeping and then steal me away in his big black bag. I would cry.
My mum said, ‘Oh you can’t show that one at the exhibition, Aunty Ruth will be upset.’ And my brother said, ‘Well, he deserves it, he should never have done that. Dad should have told him off.’ To this day the noise of the wind whistling through windows and under doors really scares me.
Being publicans meant a total loss of privacy. Our lounge was attached to the main room of the pub and people would just walk through all the time; at night you’d be sitting watching telly and there’d be a loud knock and, ‘Beer’s off, Bernard!’.
We never had any switch-off time and I’m a really private person so I found that hard – maybe that’s why I was off down the fields all the time. I felt a bit owned. That’s why I wanted to come to London, I think, to just kind of disappear.
So I feel a real affinity with Pip – I was desperate to leave Hatton and I recognise that feeling of just needing to get away and re-invent yourself. All those strong characters knowing your business and exerting their pressure on you and you are just trying to navigate your way through your childhood when there’s all these people involved with your life that you don’t have control over. Through the pub, I’d have quite intense experiences with people I didn’t know and I remember just trying to figure that out as a child – who’s more powerful, what does all this mean?
I felt quite marginalized as a child, felt that I didn’t have a voice
– I was told quite often to be quiet, not to interrupt. From an early age I was expected to help out in the pub: bottling up from age 10; glass collecting at 11; then working behind the bar around 12, 13, which was awful for a shy kid like me. You could never be miserable, someone would say, ‘What’s up with you?’ It taught me that I had to present myself, at all times.
I used to watch a lot. I had a little hole in my bedroom floor and I’d spy on people in the pub below. I remember there was a customer called Brian, who’d often have lots to drink and get up on the tables, singing and banging his heels. I could hear it all from upstairs. Sometimes I’d drop dust into his drink from above.
I’ve been reading a lot more since I started this project because… it really changes things. If I hadn’t read Great Expectations in the first place, I wouldn’t have started on this journey. I think I used to read books as stories, I’d read for plot, for that kind of page-
turning excitement but I don’t think I do anymore: I read them now as kind of visual things. I think about the setting more and the characters; I read and then I go back and look at the people and the places and then back again.
It’s funny, thinking of ‘back again’ – when I was eighteen and planning to move away from Hatton to go to art college, I remember my Dad’s cellar man saying to me,
‘You’ll never leave here.’
Seeing the work exhibited for the first time, my brother, John Weir, said to me,
‘Well you haven’t left have you?’ And in some ways, he’s right.
To find out more: http://www.expectationsofthepast.co.uk To see Louise talking about her work:
Expectations Of The Past is at The Gallery at Bank Quay House in Warrington until July 4th, moving to The Dickens Museum in London NOW ON SHOW UNTIL APRI