Category Archives: Paintings

Image: Paintings and Poetry in Up in the Air

Up in the Air poetry book

My new poetry book, Up in the Air, is divided into five sections – Air, Love, Water, Air (again) and Image.

The Image section consists of eight poems inspired by paintings, photographs, a display, a poster and a line drawing. In this post I’ll identify some of these pictures and talk about how they inspired my poems.

First off, the paintings.

The section begins with On Justice, inspired by the painting of Margareta van Eyck by her husband Jan van Eyck. The painting hangs in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges. When I saw it, I was mesmerised by the character in the woman’s face. I could see her intelligence and what I thought was a hint of sharpness, possibly even bitterness. My poem (check it out here if you don’t have the book) wanted to capture that, as well as meditate on the failure of even the greatest art to transcend mortality.

Image: Margareta van Eyck Portrait

The next poem, Self-Portrait, is based on one of Van Gogh’s paintings. There’s a lot going on here, as you can see, plenty of light, colour, chaos and energy. This painting is a gift to anyone’s imagination, so I just let mine run riot.

Exhibition, Merton is a long poem based on the paintings of the artist Jocelyn Merivale. I used to work with her husband, John, and so had the pleasure of studying her paintings in their home. Jocelyn’s main theme was water and especially the sea – but she also painted birds and portraits. Jocelyn died a few years ago and her website is currently down whilst her paintings are being professionally photographed, but below is a close up of Field of Birds. You can see more of her paintings here.

Image: Field of Birds, Jocelyn Merivale

The other poem based on a painting is Looking at it Now. Paolo Uccello’s Saint George and the Dragon in the National Gallery is a masterpiece. But, as with the poem that follows it, Beast (based on a gallery drawing), I wanted to re-imagine the relationship between man, woman, and ‘monster’, to reflect more modern sensibilities.

Image: St George and the Dragon

The Ogrw-Garw Display was an exhibition about one of the valleys in South Wales, created by a friend. The exhibition comprised beautiful photographs of the ancient oak woodland scattered across the mine-scarred landscape. But in the middle of the display was a single black-and-white photo of… a group of school children.

I wrote Ugandan Bestiary after a safari holiday with my wife in 2007. Back home, I studied the photos of the trip, mulling over the animals we’d had the good fortune to see.  In doing so, I came up with this series of short, vignette-style poems.

Image: Ugandan Bestiary

Finally, Christ in the Crowd was randomly inspired by this poster for Jesus Christ Superstar. As they say, inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere.

Buy Up in the Air here:

Polesden Lacey – English Country House inspiration for my next book

The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask, the forthcoming book in The Secret of the Tirthas, takes place in a fabulous country house based on Polesden Lacey, a property near Dorking that was almost bequeathed to the Queen but ended up in the hands of the National Trust.

My wife and I take our boys there on a regular basis, as they love amongst other things getting their hands on old stuff, grandfather clocks, the chickens when they’re not away on holidays, and, appropriately, the stone griffins. Plus the grounds are huge, and beautiful, so there’s plenty of space to run around.

I always wanted the series to be very diverse, with equal parts mystery and action, and a strong contrast between the exotic and well-known. After Lizzie’s harrowing ordeal in the Cameroonian jungle in The Dreamer Falls, I decided to revert to a gentler setting, with the emphasis once again on mystery and intriguing characters.

After watching an excellent BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (and then reading the no-less-brilliant book) I knew Lizzie’s story leant itself to the same kind of set-up. So I did some research and took a lot of photos of the building, uncovering more of the absorbing story of Margaret Greville, who bought the house with her McEwan’s inheritance (‘I’d rather be a beeress than an heiress’), and who held regular country parties for socialites from London and the wider Empire.

Portrait of Margaret Greville, Polesden Lacey

Margaret Greville collected ‘people with the unerring eye of a stamp-collector’ according to the Evening Standard, and her guests included European Ambassadors, Earls and Countesses, writers and poets – and Maharajahs. A perfect mix for an intense and suspenseful story, in which Lizzie is left wondering whether guests are who they say they are – or whether they are demons in disguise, come searching for a lost Artefact of Power.

The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask will be out in the early summer. The final book in the series (currently with numerous working titles!) will be out early next year.

Margaret loved her dogs, all of whom ended up in Polesden’s famous pet cemetery.

Every Bird is Singing

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A while back, whilst posting about the influence of painting on my poetry, I mentioned the artist Jocelyn Merivale who died two years ago, far too young.

Below is a sequence of short poems I wrote after visiting an exhibition of Jocelyn’s held at her home in Merton. I’ve included a few photos of her paintings, although I’m afraid they’re not the exact same ones that inspired the poems – but they give a good flavour of her talent. I would put all her paintings up here, they’re fabulous.

And a small point of clarification – these titles and sub-titles are my own, not those of the paintings.

Every Bird is Singing

I watch the painting
with its thousand yellow birds
all edged in black

and only some time later notice
that all their beaks are open,

that every bird
is singing –

fieldbirds

Green Ghost Girl at No. 9

Who is this green limned girl
stood at No. 9’s red door?

Won’t they let her in? Are there
bundles of garlic
splashes of holy water
sprigs of wolfsbane round the frame?

Does some sudden memory
paralyse the will of the dead?

Or perhaps she rehearses her performance,
how with just the right moment and angle
she might make forever good her intent,

push her teetering target
over the edge
of a measureless chasm of fear.

Or maybe she just doesn’t have the power
to walk through.

After all there is only so much
the dead can do.

lighthouse

The Sea

is everywhere. We are made to think
of our edges, our rocks and shingle beaches
bee-sting Victorian lighthouses –
of hulls on tossed waters
whose fate is to break.

But the sea is also amongst us
dull green with algae host
sitting, seeping around buildings –

an urge to circumscription
we can entertain, or not.

venice

*

– This is my favourite
he tells me, it reminds me
of the girl I fell in love with.

A beautiful, everything girl
full of treetop song –

with splashes of red
falling down gold beside her

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*

And, found behind the portrait of the baby,
a mental hospital, rain, billowing trees
in iron-dark grey

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This poem features in my poetry collection Up in the Air, available here: