Rites and Rituals
Years ago a friend sent me a postcard with a picture of a strange figure dressed from head to toe in a costume covered with burrs, the bristly seed heads of burdock. He is having a pint in a pub with two assistants who are giving him his drink through a straw. Tradition holds that the Burry Man of South Queensferry will bring good luck to the town if he is given whisky and money and that bad luck will result if the custom is discontinued. He wears the costume for about nine hours and during that time can lose a stone in weight. The picture was from a book called Once a Year by Homer Sykes, the whole book made a great impression on me and since then I have been interested in the rites and rituals that take place across the country, often strange or bizarre, their original purpose often forgotten. For me they are an important part of my cultural heritage and help define my sense of Englishness.
The paintings of some of these rituals shown below featured in my last one man show in London and on the opening night the Waterly Bottom Mummers performed their play in the gallery to the initial bewilderment and eventual delight of everyone present.
Dimensions: 115cm x 200cm.
Cheese rolling has taken place at Coopers Hill on the Cotswold escarpment between Gloucester and Cheltenham on Spring Bank Holiday Monday for generations. The event is known to be at least 200 years old. A double Gloucester cheese decorated with red and blue ribbon is thrown down the hill and people chase after it, the first to the bottom of the two hundred-metre slope wins the cheese. The reputation of the event locally is that it is wild, dangerous and exciting. The slope has a gradient of 1-in-1 in places and in some places 1-in-1, its surface is rough and uneven and it is almost impossible to remain on foot for the descent. In my painting you can just make out the Malvern Hills away in the distance.
Gloucester Cheese rolling has become world famous and when I watched it in 2009 there was a crowd estimated to be about 20,000. The excitement of the event is heightened by the fact that there are few measures in place to ensure the safety of the spectators who watch perched precariously on the slope.
I know many people who have taken part in the race and lived to tell the tale. I remember as a chid watching Sir David Attenborough's famous programme about the sky-divers of New Guinea who jump from high wooden towers and are saved from death only by vine ropes tied to their ankles. The programme seemed so exotic and remote. It never occurred to me that anything as daring was happening on my doorstep. But here in Gloucestershire the annual Cheese Rolling is just as crazy and dangerous and does the same thing, giving young people the chance to demonstrate their prowess and courage.
It is a rare sight to see someone flying and it was the pose of the central figure in mid flight, looking as though he is about to zoom out across the landscape beyond the hill that excited me. The extreme poses of the figured and dramatic contrasts of scale hopefully communicate visually some of the drama, excitement and raw energy of this slightly crazy but wonderful race.
The Waterley Bottom Mummers
It was traditional for poor families to perform the mummers play to make a little extra money (plus food and drink for those performing) to help with the family's Christmas food. The old local text was preserved in the Bodelian library and in 1969 a group of young men from Dursley and Wotton–under-Edge in Gloucestershire revived it with material added from people who remembered seeing the old performers.
The Waterly Bottom Mummers have been performing it around Christmas time for well over 40 years and now the original cast’s sons play some of the parts. There are cheers for King George and boos for the Dragon and Boney-Part and it is the fight between these two that is portrayed in the painting. At the end whilst the wassailing song is sung the Wassail bowl is passed round so that a toast can be drunk to the company, which asks for good things for Christmas and the New Year.
I have known Richard Chidlaw, one of the founder members of the group, for very many years and he appears twice in the painting, once receiving the Wassail bowl from his son who plays the Doctor’s assistant dressed in a farmer’s smock, and it is Richard’s hands playing the squeeze box in the foreground. Friends and students stood in as the audience. Apart from King George and the Dragon we see saucy Jack in the foreground carrying his wife and children on his back (played by King George’s son), Father Christmas and the Doctor on the right, behind them with a horse’s skull is the Brand and at the back near the bar is Boney-part.
Helston Floral Dance
Dimensions: 130cm x 200cm.
The picture here is of the famous Flora Dance in Helston in Cornwall where hundreds of the town's inhabitants dance through the town in early May to welcome the Spring. This is the children's dance and I show them dancing through childhood and adolescence to adulthood as they progress from left to right across the image.
Morris Dancers Dancing The Dawn
At dawn on May Day all over England troupes of Morris dancers dance as the sun comes up to celebrate the coming of spring. Here in Gloucestershire there is a gathering of many different groups of dancers from across the county on the top of May Hill. I left home two hours before dawn to get to the hill before the sun came up and it was strange to make the climb in the dark, aware there were many other people I couldn’t see but I could hear chatting excitedly as they climbed too. On many occasions the sun has been covered by cloud at the event but the morning I was there it was a wonderful sunrise lighting up the Severn valley behind and below the dancers and giving a powerful sense of connection with natural forces. The men dancing in my painting are Lassington Oak Morris Men.