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Author: mickyharris

This Green Earth – Bridget Macdonald and the Landscape Tradition of Claude Lorrain, Samuel Palmer and Peter Paul Rubens, Worcester City Art Gallery

13 February – 25 June 2016

Download Exhibition Catalogue

Opening of This Green Earth – Bridget Macdonald and the Landscape Tradition of Claude Lorrain, Samuel Palmer and Peter Paul Rubens

First of all, I want to thank Bridget and say how touched I was when she asked me to open this exhibition. It spurred me to think why it is that I appreciate her work so much. Paul Spencer-Longhurst has written a most illuminating essay, which sets Bridget in the context of the history of landscape painting. I’m not going to go over that again. Apart from anything else, I haven’t the professional competence. But I’d like to say something more personal – why it is and how it is that Bridget’s work speaks to me.

It is twenty years since I first bought one of Bridget’s pictures – a little oil painting of a sprig of bay that she had picked from Ezra Pound’s grave on the cemetery island of the Venetian lagoon. After twenty years I still love that picture. Interestingly, it is the only picture in the house of which one of my daughters has said to me, “I’d like to have that picture when you’ve gone.” The next picture I bought was a drawing, the study after the Rubens landscape which is in this exhibition. Its temporary removal from our wall has made us realise even more how much it is part of our life.


What is it about Bridget’s paintings and drawings that makes them pictures one can live with, pictures that don’t pall, pictures that nourish the spirit? It is, I think, their contemplative spirit. It seems to me that Bridget looks at a landscape or a bay leaf or a picture, or considers a story from classical mythology, in the way that a poem should be read, not imposing herself upon it, but respecting its integrity and letting it speak for itself. Yet, when she comes to draw or paint what she has seen, the outcome is unmistakeably her own. As she considers what she is looking at, she brings her own memories and associations to her reading and her seeing, and so enables us to see things we hadn’t seen before. It’s like a good production of a classical play or a musical performance. The more closely the director or the conductor attends to the text or the score, the fresher the performance. We see and hear things we hadn’t noticed before. It is an act of re-creation.

Last Sunday I had to preach on the transfiguration of Jesus. As I sat there thinking about what I was to say, I found myself looking at a little picture that hangs above my desk. It is one of Bridget’s – a little landscape in oil. It shows the same square white farmhouse and the same poplars and the same hills in the background as one of her drawings, Spring Landscape, which hangs in this exhibition. The sky and the hills in the background are dark with approaching rain. But the farmhouse and the trees and a green field are lit up by sunlight.

The picture, together with my consideration of the light of the Lord’s transfiguration, brought a poem came into my mind, “The Bright Field”, by the Welsh poet R.S.Thomas. I leave it with you.

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, not hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Thank you, Bridget, for your contemplative eye, and for the hand that opens our eyes to the magpie and to the lit bush.

Mark Santer
13 February 2016

Arcadia, Art First, London

6 September – 6 October, 2012

Macdonald’s contemplative drawings recall what Greece has offered European culture in the past. They are perhaps an ironic reminder of how the brittle, impatient demands of a modern culture can quickly overwhelm and alter the present.

Through a series of charcoal drawings she evokes the space and light of remote Arcadian landscapes visited in the spring and autumn of 2011.

There were wild storms in October, followed by a sharp frost. An old woman running a tiny roadside café in her front room gave us her own walnuts, raki and bread. On the television in the corner we could see rioting in Athens, smoke, cars overturned, politicians gesticulating, but there were few signs of strife in the countryside.

Sometimes Macdonald finds a darker side of landscape, reflecting its status as a place in which human emotions and conflicts are played out. It is the tension between things observed and things remembered, between the immediacy of a specific visual stimulus and a process of retrospective distillation, that gives her work its power.

Download Exhibition Catalogue

Time and Place, Art First, London


30 April – 21 May, 2009

“The works in this exhibition are about time, place and the role of imagination in our relationship with the landscape. My childhood landscape of St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight is one place which recurs in the paintings. The other is the country around the Malvern Hills where I now live. Its farms, orchards, rivers and Elgar soundtrack exactly conform to the pastoral ideal. The paintings of the Severn in flood reflect the fleeting magical transformation that happens when the river floods, especially in the summer, which is a rarer occurrence.

The crucial point of pastoral is the idea of contrast between yearned for tranquillity as represented by the countryside, and the noise, stresses and strains of city life. It requires this counterpoint to give it depth and meaning. It is about the harsh realities of getting and spending, and our desire to get away from it all or to regain an imagined idyllic age of the past.

The drawings are less specifically located than the paintings. The May Bull is a reworking of a tiny photograph taken in the 1930’s by my mother with her box Brownie. Here the bull verges on the mythical, more obviously a fertility symbol. The young men in the Eclogue drawings relate back to Giorgione’s dreamers. I have been enthralled by the great paintings of Titian, and I love Giorgione and Bellini’s paintings of poetic young men, the enigmatic atmosphere they conjure up, the shadows and glimpses of golden distances.”

Bridget Macdonald

In her catalogue essay, Katharine Eustace writes: “The word ‘distilled’, the poet’s phrase ’emotion recollected in tranquility’, describe these fixed images.”


‘Bridget Macdonald – Inland’, Art First, London


Inland II
17 October to 9 November, 2006

Bridget Macdonald’s new paintings concern landscape and memory. In these she combines literary and art historical sources with her own roots in the English countryside, moving inland from the familiar coastal landscape of the Isle of Wight where she was born, to the country around the Malvern Hills where she now lives.

While the buildings and landscape stem from observation, the light and atmosphere of these scenes evokes another dimension: the Arcadian landscapes of Claude and Poussin and the dark vistas of Renaissance painting that have shaped the English Landscape tradition.

Macdonald is conscious, however, of the harsh contemporary reality beyond the rural idyll. Deep pools of shadow fall across what are depictions of great loss.

As with the Lighthouse in an earlier series, here a white farmhouse, viewed across a valley, appears as a motif, building associations of distance and inaccessibility into the scene.

Sheila McGregor writes in the catalogue essay accompanying this exhibition: “It is the tension between things observed and things remembered, between the immediacy of a specific visual stimulus and a process of retrospective distillation, that gives her work its power.”

From her drawings the image of Pan, the God of Flocks and Woods, presides over these elegiac landscapes

Drawings 1998 – 2004, The Rotunda, University of Birmingham

From 17 January, 2005

The Rotunda, Aston Webb Building
University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham

“This exhibition is a selection of drawings from the last six years taken from different times and phases in my work. Put together, new dialogues, counterpoints and cross references appear. They are linked by the common thread of an interest in the figure in the landscape and in the concept of the pastoral with its elusive associations of memory, nostalgia, celebration and loss. The intention is to make works which attempt to convey the layers of meaning and subliminal associations which are present in our perceptions of landscape.

“My sources are often either literary or art historical, or both as in Drawing after William Blake which is a reworking of a tiny woodcut by Blake forming part of his series illustrating Virgil’s Eclogues. A painting by Balducci of the Metamorphosis of Daphne is the origin of my drawing of Daphne, but the model is contemporary. Literary sources occur in Abbess of the Bees, taken from a line in Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters in which he recalls Sylvia Plath’s beekeeping activities, and Sweet Tenor Bull is from Briggflatts, another autobiographical poem by Basil Bunting but these are blended with my own memories of beekeeping and old photographs of my grandfather’s pedigree bulls. These are also the source of the drawing Riding the Red Poll Bull which is actually of my aunt as a young girl in the 1930’s. The early death of her son, a farmer all his life, is remembered in the drawing Death of a Farmer – his geese wander through a field where heaps of straw are burning. My own two sons appear in The Fourth Element, Fathom 1 and Fathom 2 in drawings which are about water and its sources – rain, sea, river – with intentional echoes of images of baptism.

“Another drawing The Spanish Horse is based on a chance encounter in Northern Spain. Finally two small landscape drawings Landscape with Smoke and Landscape with Magpies refer respectively to the place where I now live (the Malverns) and my childhood landscape on the Isle of Wight.”

Bridget Macdonald
January 2005

“Within the silence, Bridget Macdonald’s work speaks with a firm voice. The artist weaves her magic with considered composition and gesture, and, significantly, the abolition of time. In abolishing time, or perpetuating a moment, she is part of a five thousand year old tradition of picture making. Like the artists of surviving ancient Egyptian tomb-portraits, Macdonald seemingly makes her Abbess of the Bees gaze out at us across centuries; her Daphne, caught during transformation into a laurel tree, is poised on a threshold between the individual and the ubiquitous, between the noisy brevity of human life and the silent eternity of vegetation.”We are immediately struck, on coming upon Bridget Macdonald’s display of drawings in the Rotunda at the University, by their inner silence. Bold and assertive though the figures in the drawings may be, they nevertheless express their power by reserving themselves, and clothing themselves in silence. Two young men stand in water, as in the iconography of baptism, in silence. A girl trots out gingerly on a powerful bull, in silence. A naked figure pulls at a garden roller, in silence. Even the geese are silent – geese are nature’s fire alarms, but not in Death of a Farmer.

“Bridget Macdonald uses her sources, which she has described in her statement, with care and consideration. They are the spark-plugs of her imagination, the starting point for a long journey into the profound imagery she puts before us. She knows, as W. H. Auden put it: ‘About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position.”

James Hamilton
University Curator
January 2005

‘Pastoral Drawings’, Art First, London

5 – 27 September 2001

LONDON – Main Gallery

macdonald riding the red poll bullFrom the moment she began exhibiting her beautiful, assured drawings twelve years ago, Bridget Macdonald has attracted the attention of museum curators, collectors of drawings, and people with a love of poetry. In both her paintings and the charcoal drawings, she has tended to focus on the figure in landscape. A retrospective exhibition of Macdonald’s work at Wolverhampton Art Gallery in 1998 revealed an artist of great substance, capable of integrating autobiography and myth to create images that are suffused with memory and quiet mystery.

“The idea of the pastoral has been an underlying theme in my work for a long time. Sometimes it has been there in an almost unconscious way, and at other times I have deliberately explored its inherent contradictions. Pastoral has therefore surfaced in different guises over the years – the landscape of the Isle of Wight where my family farmed for generations, the idealised landscapes in Italian Renaissance paintings, figures from classical mythology, (especially Ovid’s Metamorphoses), and even, I realise now, the dark pastoral of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in their Devon retreat, where she wrote most of the bitter poetry which made her famous. I have been intensely drawn to William Blake’s illustrations to Thornton’s translation of Virgil’s Eclogues (actually the only works by Blake which I can respond to wholeheartedly) and in particular an image of a man pulling a roller, which has a strange violence about it.

“The tension between reality and the world of the imagination has been central to pastoral poetry from Virgil onwards. My subject continues to be an exploration of connections between things seen and the art and poetry which have fed my imagination.

“Over the last few years I have taken time out to visit the opera – three summers as an invited artist at Glyndebourne Festival Opera have yielded another rich source of imagery, and I have enjoyed the challenge of responding directly to another art form.”

A catalogue is available with an introduction by Mark Archer.