My co-creative workshops are with pupils from Portway Primary School in Andover. We started on 7 May with a visit to Winchester Cathedral to see the Winchester Bible and make drawings of animals, patterns and faces within the architecture. They were fabulous at finding mythical beasts and animals. Here’s the list they compiled in less than ten minutes – angel, bear, boar, bull, cat, cockerel, cow, crow, deer, dog, dove, dragon, duck, eagle, fish, goat, griffin, horse, human, lion, monkey, owl, partridge, phoenix, pig, ram, sheep, snake, unicorn, winged wolf. They made drawings of pattern from tiles in the retrochoir too. Apparently this are of 13th century tiles is the largest and oldest area of tiling to survive in England. The same tiles were used in Mottisfont Priory and have been reused in the summerhouse floor.
Catherine, one of the Rangers, introduced me to her Natural History Shelf – an exquisite, personal collection of nature finds from the estate including wings of barn and tawny owls, a stuffed jay and skulls of water vole, barn owl, tawny owl and what looks like snipe and kestrel. The sight of a stuffed water vole regarding its own skull might seem ghoulish to some but reminds me of the depictions of life and death in Momento Mori and Ars Moriendi that were common in the Medieval period.
Ars Moriendi (‘The Art of Dying’) were illustrated Latin texts offering advice on the protocols and procedures of a good death. They first emerged in the early 1400s and were written in the context of the effects of the Black Death 60 years earlier. The illustrations showed angels and demons gathered around the bed ready to receive the soul after death. This was a graphic reminder of the importance of dying well to ensure a journey onwards to heaven not hell. Similarly Momento Mori, (‘remember you too will die’) were artistic or symbolic reminders of the inevitability of death. One common expression of this in the Medieval period was in cadaver tombs found in churches throughout Europe.As I seem to be on the subject of tombs – I recently came across the stone coffin behind the summerhouse in the garden. The Test Valley Archeological Trust Archeological Recording of Mottisfont (1994/5) describes the stone coffin, found along with other 13th century items, when new drains were laid in 1836.
Jonny the Gardener in charge of Mottisfont’s Rose Garden (probably the best job in the world and he seems like a happy man) walks me around to look at the roses that were around in the Middle Ages. There are 650 species of rose in the garden. Jonny shows me seven – an act of distillation for which I am extremely grateful. The hardest thing about being an artist in residence, and a natural history illustrator for that matter, is the sheer abundance of interesting subjects. Choosing is difficult and I’m so pleased to have an expert pruner (as well as rose man) as my guide.
Rosa maxima alba : The Medieval Rose, so named because it was considered sacred in the period. It’s white petals with a red centre were used to symbolise the Virgin Mary and blood of Christ.
Rosa gallica officinalis : The Apothecary’s Rose, a red rose very popular in the Medieval period also known as the Damask Rose.
Yue Yue Yen, (Old Blush) : A rose thousands of years old from China. Unlikely to have been at Mottisfont during the middle ages but one of the most ancient species in the garden today.
Rosa Foetida : A rose that dates back to the 1400s. One of the earliest natural forms of yellow rose.
Rosa Canina, (Dog Rose) : A native, wild rose not found in the garden but grows abundantly on the Mottisfont Estate.
Rosa rubiginosa or Rosa eglanteria, (Sweet Brier) : An ancient rose from England with a simple pink flower and apple scent.
Rosa mundi versicolour, A rose developed from Rosa gallica officinalis with a distinctive red and white pinstripe.
On a very wet afternoon on 23 April I join a group of volunteers with botanical expertise on the Spring Wild Flower Count in the Wetlands. The point of the exercise is to identify all wildflowers in bloom and provide a field guide for volunteers leading tours. This exercise of noticing, recording and delighting in the natural world creates a link, in my mind, with the Medieval sensibility. The vivid natural history illustrations in Medieval manuscripts – often of common, flowering plants – is evidence that they looked minutely and with admiration at the natural world just as we are doing today. In most respects I find it impossible to imagine the Mindset of the medieval world but this simple activity of observing wild flowers (and their sustained existence here since the Middle Ages) seems like territory shared across centuries.
Fran Morely, who knows her butterflies, finds a male and female Orange Tip sheltering on Jack-by-the-Hedge. You would never find them if you didn’t know how to look.
Wings from the Medieval Galleries at the V&A and avifauna of Mottisfont.
On Easter Sunday I went to see the Medieval Galleries at the V&A. I wanted to familiarise myself with the visual sensibility of the period and to see the vessels Mottisfont Canons would have used for their religious ceremonies, particularly the reliquaries which housed holy relics.
Days 6 and 7 – it’s time to go outside and draw something significant and emblematic of this place. On a glorious, sunny afternoon I sit on the grass with the river at my back and sketch the magnificent Mottisfont Oak. It has lived for over nine centuries, possibly more. It was alive when the Priory was built in 1201. As far as I am aware it is the only living thing still here from the medieval period. By drawing it I feel like I am venerating it. It is a relic – a living, natural relic. Drawing, an activity that requires concentration and care and celebrating something glorious, has similarities with prayer. For the record this sketch was done during Sext and Nones on 14 April and Prime and Terce the following day.