Poems for Nancy Nielsen

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Nancy Nielsen

The poet and environmentalist, Nancy Nielsen, died on May 23rd, 2016, after a lengthy period of declining health. Her partner for many years, Alan Brooks, has recently published a collection of poems, maybe someday, written during the last months of her illness and the two years following, and is putting together a collection of Nancy’s poems for future publication.

SomedayI was fortunate enough to visit Alan and Nancy a number of times in their secluded cabin on the shores of Straight Bay, in Lubec, Maine, and remember with pleasure evenings when, after supper, we sat around and read poems, our own and others’, and, if we were very lucky, Alan could be persuaded to fetch his guitar down from the attic and give us a song or two.  

Alan & Nancy
Alan & Nancy

 

 

What follows is a poem of Nancy’s, sent as a New Year card; a poem of mine, published in  a slightly different version in Out of Silence, and two poems of Alan’s from maybe sunday,

Uphill

 

The Light This Morning
for Nancy Nielsen

The light this morning is touching everything
the poet says, and I imagine you
standing tall again
no longer numbed or navvied
by pain,
letting loose the dogs
then stepping with them
into the pool of early morning,
the dew on the grass
fresh around your feet

I see you
walking in this early light
bending to your garden
setting things to rights,
these moments before
the day itself is up and going

A bird starts up from the trees
and you turn back towards the house
the cool of the kitchen
smell of coffee newly ground
the small clear crack of shell
as the eggs are loosed into the bowl
apples sliced straight into the butter
foaming ready in the pan
flour, a dusting of sugar, cinnamon:
Apple Schmarren

The taste of it;
the cabin encircled, almost, by trees;
the clearing into which we walked
and you walked out to greet us
the light around us touching everything

Your poet’s eye
your gaze
your stubborn hardiness and grace.

 

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Nancy and her dog, Skeeter

At Your Graveside

Even here
faint skirl of gulls from the flats –
ache of a yellowleg’s cry from the marsh:
end end end end end summer’s ending

The sky today holds everything
we ever asked of it.
Encircled by goldenrod,
late hydrangeas,

I say your name over and over –
you, who are now in this earth and of it.
Leaf shadows play
among first leaves falling.

Coyote Came In The Night

Coyote came in the night. I was gone.
Coyote, surely you know
we moved away years ago?
Surely you watched us leave –
felt our sadness –
saw us, a rare once in awhile,
return by day for an hour or two
and mostly me, alone, and then
and then, and then
only me alone?

She would have smiled, Coyote,
to see by first light that you’d visited –
come right to the back door –
and that you’d eaten of our fallen apples.
You sang to her often
and she called you Wise One,
Trickster, Brother,
sometimes even Friend.

Soon I will be here, Coyote,
both day and night. Come to me then
not as a tradesman or servant.
Our house is too humble for that.
Come to the front door as honoured guest.
Sing to me in the crisp nights of Fall
as a reveler, and in the longest nights
as a caroler singing
beyond this world’s grief
of joy.

 

 

 

Nancy and Alan in the garden, 2003 #2 copy
Nancy & Alan

Meeting My Great Aunts

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Katie Neville, 1929

As I explained in a recent post, my mother came from a theatrical family; her father, John Barton White [otherwise known, for his romantic proclivities, as ‘The Bounder’] was both playwright and actor and ran his own successful touring company; her mother, Louise, was the eldest of four sisters, all of whom appeared on the stage from a very early age – Louise, Katie, Ruby and Pearl. Both her father and mother died before I was born, but I did get to meet my great aunts, Katie and Pearl on several occasions, most memorably, in Brighton, early in 1942.

Pearl
Marie Pearl, 1920s?

By then, Katie would have been in her early 70s, Pearl some ten years younger. I would have been some months past my third birthday and not long started at kindergarten under the watchful eye of the nuns of the La Sainte Union Catholic School in north London, and the war would have been well into its third year.

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Katie & Pearl in later years [And how about Pearl’s outfit!]

We were in the kitchen when the bomb dropped. Or was it bombs? Whatever the case, the sound of the explosion was sudden, frightening; the vibrations close and strong enough to send every pot and pan from the high open shelves cannoning across the room and along the floor. What happened then, I don’t know. Did I scream or cry? I imagine my mother attempting to comfort me while my aunts, perhaps, put on a brave show of it, singing – they both regularly appeared in musical theatre and pantomime – as they cleared away and set things to rights.

There was more to come. We were walking, my mother and I, along the front, heading for the station, when a German plane – I presume on its way home after a raid – flew low towards us, strafing the promenade with machine gun fire. From nowhere, a man rushed towards us and shepherded us urgently towards one of the benches, under which we took shelter. It was over in moments: I remember it clearly. That and the saucepans flying from the shelves. Brighton, 1942.

 

 

“You Did It! You Did It!” Two poems for Roland Kirk

 

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A fascinating piece about Roland Kirk in Richard Williams’ always interesting blog, thebluemoment.com sent my back to these two poems of mine, which I used to read in and around Nottingham with a fine little band led by tenor player/flautist Mel Thorpe, the exchanges between voice and flute giving Mel the chance to give his best humming, whistling, growling impression of Kirk at his most fiery.

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?

What would you say of a man who can play
three instruments at once – saxophone,
manzello and stritch – but who can neither
tie his shoelace nor button his fly?

Who stumbles through basements,
fumbles open lacquered boxes,
a child’s set of drawers,
strews their contents across bare boards –
seeds, vestments, rabbit paws?

Whose favourite words are vertiginous,
gourd, dilate? Whose fantasy is snow?
Who can trace in the dirt the articular process
of the spine, the pulmonary action of the heart?

Would you say he was blind?
Would you say he was missing you?

 

YOU DID IT! YOU DID IT!

It was Roland Kirk, wasn’t it?
Who played all those instruments?
I saw him. St. Pancras Town Hall.
Nineteen sixty-four.

The same year, at the old Marquee,
I saw Henry ‘Red’ Allen,
face swollen like sad fruit,
sing “I’ve Got the World on a String”
in a high almost falsetto moan.

Rahassan Roland Kirk,
on stage in this cold country,
cramming his mouth with saxophones,
harmonica, reed trumpet, piccolo and clarinet,
exultant, black and blind.

“You did it! You did it!
You did it! You did it!”

Daring us to turn our backs,
stop our ears, our hearts,
deny the blood wherever it leads us:
the whoop and siren call
of flutes and whistles,
spiralling music, unconfined.

 

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‘Gumshoe’

There it is,  amongst the Top Ten films directed by Stephen Frears as chosen by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, there alongside such excellence as The Grifters, Dirty Pretty Things and My Beautiful Launderette, in at No. 10, Gumshoe, Frear’s first feature, working from a script by Neville Smith and starring Albert Finney as a Liverpudlian bingo caller who fantasises about being a private eye.

Neville won a Writers’ Guild Award for his screenplay, which he then – after some persuasion from his publisher, his agent and, quite possibly, his bank manager – turned into a novel. First published by Fontana Books in 1971 to tie-in with the film’s release, it was allowed to drift out of print, and joyfully picked up by Slow Dancer Press when we had a crack at publishing crime fiction alongside poetry in the late 1990s.

Pre-publication, I tracked Stephen Frears down to W8 and talked him into writing an introduction and Neville himself supplied a Coda. All it needed then was a strong and snappy design for the cover, which, as was usual, Jamie Keenan supplied, using a photograph by Trevor Ray Hart.

Gumshoe

And this is how it begins …

He looked like the kind of guy your mother would like to marry your sister. If you had a mother. If you had a sister.
He wore a three-button Italian suit, a Billy Eckstine-style flex-roll, buttondown collar, a slim-jim tie. Neat, flat-cut hair topped the lot off. The perfect brother-in-law, circa 1957. He leaned back with his feet on the desk, bored out of his mind, looking at me sitting opposite in my vintage Grenfell trench coat (Hawkes of Savile Row, W1. By Appointment); I wasn’t bored.

Stephen Frears and Neville Smith first met in 1968 when they were both working for Yorkshire TV. In his Coda, Neville describes it thus …

I was acting in an episode of Parkin’s Patch for Yorkshire Television in Leeds. The director was Michael Apted. Sitting in the canteen, in a powder blue suit, and dripping with gold, was Les Dawson, fidgeting while his wife fetched him a cup of tea. Apted and I took the table next to him, hoping to overhear a few quips.
We were joined by an unshaven chap. He wore tennis shoes, baggy corduroys, a green sloppy joe, and a black jacket, all of which had seen better days. He had a mass of black hair and, like Apted, was handsome.
Very soon he and Apted were drawling away in their posh Oxford accents. It was like listening to Trevor Bailey nattering away between overs. Then Apted said, apropos of nothing at all, it seemed to me, “Was it Nietzsche or Wittgenstein who said that the limits of language are the limits of the world?” The unshaven chap said, “No. It was Fatty Arbuckle.” I laughed, and that is how I got to know Stephen Frears.

It was then, or a little later, as he says in his Introduction, that Frears said to Neville, “Why don’t you write a thriller?”

He … gave me the opening pages of what would turn out to be Gumshoe. I don’t think it then had a title. And I found I’d stumbled on a writer with the grace of Jackie Milburn and the wit of S. J. Perelman.
I had thought he was writing a thriller. In fact he was constructing a self-portrait; a record of what it was like to have been a teenager in the English provinces in the Fifties. “I want to write The Maltese Falcon; I want to record Blue Suede Shoes.” He could describe a life unlike my own yet one I would like to have lived. His world was warm, funny, observant, generous, ironic, scrupulous, complex.

… I’ve never lost my love or admiration for Neville, who is in some ways, I think, the best writer I’ve ever come across. This book – the book of the film – I’ve never read. I couldn’t bear it if I found a job he hadn’t thought of when he wrote the film.

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Albert Finney as Eddie Ginley

Gumshoe_1971

 

 

“Blue Watch” my father & the Blitz

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My father served joined the London Auxiliary Fire Service just before or not long after the declaration of war in September, 1939 and served until a little after the war’s end in 1945. For most of that time, he was stationed at Chester Road fire station, opposite Highgate Cemetery in north London. You can see him clearly below, third from the left.

John's Dad AFS

The AFS was a reserve firefighting force set up as part of the Air Raid Precautions Act in 1937 and with the outbreak of war all 23,000 of its firemen and women joined the 2,700 regulars of the London Fire Brigade to form the London Fire Service. For a long time I’d wanted to find a way of writing about what it must have been like for him, during the years of the Blitz especially, 1940-41. Trying to get him to talk about it in any detail proved nigh on impossible. Oh, he’d talk about the companionship, easily enough, the camaraderie, but the danger, the experience of climbing a swaying ladder towards the top of a blazing building … He’d shrug his shoulders, light another John Player’s and see if there wasn’t another cup of tea in the pot.

So, over the years, I picked up books on the subject – personal accounts, histories – and it was reading one of those that I first came across fire service messengers – boys in their teens, too young to be called up, who, when the phone lines were down, which was often, carried messages by bike from headquarters in different parts of London to officers in the field. Well, I thought, there has to be a story there, and when my French publisher asked for a book for young adult readers as a follow-up to my earlier Nick’s Blues, there was my chance. The story of a young cycle messenger and his fireman father during the worst of the London Blitz. Blue Watch.

Blue Watch

Writer, translator and journalist, Seba Pezzani, had translated Nick’s Blues into Italian and since I knew he had read Blue Watch I asked him to let me know his thoughts. Here is his response …

I have had the honour of translating three novels by John Harvey,  including Nick’s Blues, a riveting story of an adolescent who struggles with the memory of a long dead father. So, when I found out that his new young adult novel Blue Watch had been published, I purchased it immediately. Now, I fancy myself to be a writer, with one novel and four non-fiction books in print, as well as hundreds of articles published in a couple of Italian national newspapers, but, to my mind, John Harvey is THE writer and with Blue Watch he nails it once again.

Harvey’s narrative style flows easily, the mark of a true master. His young hero, Jack, the son of a Fire Brigade officer, finds himself answering a higher calling when his country is under siege by the forces of evil, the German bombers. In a credible, burning London, Jack will come to understand the power of loyalty and belonging and will discover the natural pull of life called love along the way. Set at one of London’s most difficult times in history, this novel is a page turner, a book that can be read by adolescents and adults alike. I dare anybody who tries reading it to refrain from shedding the odd tear or summoning up a smile and not feel for Jack and his mission.

John Harvey makes the difficult task of writing so simple that I feel like banging my head against the edge of my desk because not in a million years will I be able to match his ease. If you are a fan of Harvey’s, you cannot miss this book. If you are not, it will be a good starting point and from there you will go back and start reading all of his previous novels. But, whatever the case, read it. If will be worth the few quid it costs. Mind you, though, you may get hooked and there will be plenty more spending to come.

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Me, wearing my dad’s Fire Service Cap

You can read an excerpt from Chapter One here …

Blue Watch is available from Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham
Owl Bookshop, Kentish Town, north London
Waterstones 
Amazon

Family Tree

As much by luck as judgement, I’ve ended up, these last dozen years or so, living just three short streets away from where my grandparents lived – my father’s parents – and where, when I was little, I went every day after school, staying there until either my mum or dad was likely to be home from work. It wasn’t until I was 10 or 11 that I was given a key of my own.

Mostly, I sat at the table in my grandparents’ small kitchen, doing homework or reading comics – Beano and Dandy, Film Fun – but once in a while – a bit of an adventure – two buses – I’d go with my nan to Chapel Market, tagging along as she searched for bargains amongst the crowded stalls. The treat of treats, however, was when she took me to see a cowboy film at the little Gaisford cinema in Kentish Town  – Gene Autry it might be, Allan ‘Rocky’ Lane or Roy Rogers with Trigger and the Sons of the Pioneers. Red River too much to hope for.

Where my nan was easy to get along with and even seemed to enjoy my company, my grandfather was the opposite. A long distance train driver who often spent nights away from home, in the small low-ceilinged house he was a silent, almost frightening presence.

My father’s father was the opposite, silent, unspeaking,
small pan of Camp coffee, black as pitch,
forever simmering on the stove.
Later, when I came to Dickens, he was the perfect Magwitch,
escaped from the prison ships on the estuary
to haunt my dreams. *

My other grandparents – my mother’s parents – I never knew – both had died before I was born – and my mother mentioned them rarely. Of my grandmother, Louise, I learned little other than that, like her three sisters, Katie, Ruby and Marie Pearl, she had been on the stage, and that she was beautiful. My grandfather, John Barton White, wrote plays as well as acting. It was how they met. About their lives together, the few facts I gleaned were sketchy, and eeked out over the years.

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Louise

My mother had a book she treasured, presented to her as a school prize. The only school, she would say, she went to for as much as a whole term. The reason for this – again, this only came out in dribs and drabs – was that she was living with her father and travelled with him from one set of theatrical digs to another, the ones she mentioned mostly in London  – Clapham, Kennington, Brixton, Stockwell – but there were others – Reigate, Worthing, Bognor – some further afield, Nottingham, Sunderland, South Shields.

G'mother Portrait
Louise, portrait painted by John Barton White

Why her father? How had that happened? The answer seemed to be that her parents, had either separated or divorced, and my grandfather had left the family home, somewhere around 1903 or 04, leaving Louise with four children to look after: Reuben, born 1892, Katie, born 1895, Marjorie, born 1899 and Helen – my mother – born 1901. Some little time later, for whatever reason – possibly Louise was finding looking after four children difficult and asked John Barton to take one, the youngest, off her hands – my mother went to live with her father, an arrangement that seems to have continued for a number of years. The manner in which she was handed over seems to have been particularly thoughtless, even cruel. Apparently, she was taken to a railway station (by her mother?) and left on the platform until her father arrived to take her away. She would have been no more than nine years old.

She explains it another way:

When my mother was nine years old
she got off the train at Colchester station
a hand at her back
moving her across the platform
to where a man was waiting

A man steps through steam
(I suppose there was steam)
smoking a cigarette

“You’re going to live with your father now”

He stepped hesitant towards her

(I hope he was hesitant)

He is a fair man
you will see … **

Fair, possibly. A womaniser, certainly. His estranged wife – according to my mother – living in the dread expectation of at least one young woman turning up on her doorstep with a babe in arms, demanding to see its father. In the end, my mother said, with more than a hint of distaste, he took up with a “bit of a girl” – Mary Alice James – who, when she was seventeen, had been my grandmother’s maid, and together they had no less than sixteen children. Yes, sixteen. A son, John, in 1906, and then fifteen more. It seems barely credible, especially when you consider that during a great deal of this time he was travelling around the country with his daughter – my mother – in tow. If my mother ever met any of these children, or even knew of them at the time, she never said.

But in the end, true to his memory, she gave me his name. John Barton White. John Barton Harvey.

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John Barton White

*from Winter Notebook, in Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014)

**from She Explains It Another Way, in Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014)

The Clapping Song … *

My friend and Italian translator, Seba Pezzani, whom I first met when I was invited to take part in dal Mississippi al Po, the festival of blues and (crime) writing which he organised annually in Piacenza, Northern Italy, asked me if, for an article he’s writing, I would contribute a short piece about the current Coronavirus situation, in addition to recommending a book to read in these anxious times.

Here’s the former, written in response to last night’s clapping in support of the NHS workers …

At first it was a dull, persistent clanking we were slow to recognise, someone in the street outside striking the base of a saucepan with a metal spoon. Inside the house, we stopped what we were doing and checked the time: sure enough, eight o’clock, and the front door opened to hear, haphazardly at first, then more and more in unison, people at their windows, on their balconies, clapping, clapping – older folk, younger, children – and from more distant houses and busier streets, bells ringing, car horns hooting, all coming together in a raucous, joyous cacophony of sound, of noise, of celebration at still being alive and giving thanks to those who were working full out to make that possible. And, as the sounds finally faltered and faded, I thought about those people trapped, as we are, in lockdown in other countries – Italy, Spain – where this nightly ceremony started – realising, in a way, how this has brought us together, while recognising that applause aside, there’s little most of us can do safe this: hope, wait, perhaps pray; wash our hands.

And here, without apology for drawing attention to this book and this writer again, is my recommendation …

One of the books I go back to from time to time, when I’m wanting to read something that rings true; that, in simple, hard-wrought language, is a believable and moving expression of the straightforward but surprising goodness of ordinary people, holding out a hand to those in extreme need, is “Plainsong” by Kent Haruf, the story of two elderly unmarried brothers, small-scale farmers, who, against all the odds, take in and care for a young woman, pregnant and homeless, and not so very long ago a child herself.

Plainsong
I believe the book piece may appear as part of Seba’s article for Il Giornarle and the piece about clapping on Globalist.it
* Apologies to Shirley Ellis, whose 1965 version of this Lincoln Chase song, is surely the best

 

Poem for World Poetry Day

THE U.S. BOTANICAL GARDENS WASHINGTON D.C.

The floor is azure blue tile
slick with the residue
of that morning’s watering,
green hose resting
slack between the leaves.

We would come here, safe,
afternoons, and sit, not touching,
humidity in the 90s
and helicopters hovering
a block beyond the Hill.

Though you are here no longer
I reach out to touch your arm,
trace the sweat, the way it beads
around the curve of your skin

From the display of medicinal
herbs, I break small leaves
into the palm of my hand:
yarrow, for internal bleeding,
foxglove for the muscles of the heart.

And when we meet, a year
from now, by chance, the
departure lounge at Heathrow,
the platform at Gare du Nord,
that harbour front café, and,
uncertain whether or not to kiss me,
you hold out, instead your hand,
I will slip into it these remedies
I have long carried, in the knowledge
that, nurtured, love flowers in the darkest place.

from ASLANT Poetry / John Harvey – Photography / Molly E. Boiling
(Shoestring Press, 2019)

You can see a selection of Molly’s photographs here …

Art Chronicles : We Will Walk …

In We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South, the current exhibition at Turner Contemporary, Margate, curators Hannah Collins and Paul Goodwin have brought together a fascinating collection of assemblages, paintings and quilts made during the 50s & 60s by African American artists from Alabama and surrounding states.

This selection of images gives some sense, I hope, of the vibrancy and invention on display.

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The exhibition runs till May 3rd and is recommended in the strongest possible terms.
See it if you can.

Art Chronicles: Hedda Sterne

There’s a photograph, quite famous in Art circles, known as The Irascibles, or, to give it its full title, the Irascible Group of Advanced Artists, which shows 15 from a group of 28 artists who had signed an open letter to the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, complaining that the exhibition, American Painting Today – 1950 was unrepresentative of what was currently happening in truly advanced contemporary circles.

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Photo by Nina Leen for Life Magazine

There they are – Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt prominent amongst them. The guys. As formally dressed as if ready for the office – or a funeral – and looking anything but angry or dangerous, and little resembling the popular image of the bohemian artist. And at the back, the sole woman in the group – imposingly positioned, one assumes, by the photographer – is the artist, Hedda Sterne.

Only two other women had signed the letter, the sculptors Mary Callery and Louise Bourgeois, and one might wonder why so few? Where was Elaine de Kooning when the letter went round? Where, Lee Krasner? Helen Frankenthaler? And how come Hedda Sterne? One explanation is that the gallery owner Betty Parsons, who represented Sterne in addition to a number of the male artists present, had used her influence. What’s certain is that Sterne hadn’t just happened to wander in off the street as the session was in progress – not dressed as smartly as that.

Whatever the reason, from Sterne’s point of view it did her, professionally, little good. As she later said, “In terms of my career (it was) probably the worst thing that happened to me.” … “I am known more for that darn photo than for eighty years of work.” Nor had she felt welcome at the time. The men “were very furious that I was in it because they all were sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all.”

When Sterne first emigrated from Romania to New York she was befriended by Peggy Guggenheim, who, in turn, introduced her to Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp, and her work was included in the 1942 exhibition First Papers of Surrealism. Exposed to the artistic zeitgeist of the day, her painting became less a product of European surrealism and increasingly influenced by American abstraction, although she never identified herself wholly with the Abstract Expressionist movement and, throughout her working life, would move between abstraction and figuration as her imagination demanded.

I believe … that isms and other classifications are misleading and diminishing. What interests me in art is what cannot be entrapped in words.

This refusal to be pinned down or labelled is perhaps one of the reasons why she is less well known than some of her contemporaries – that together with her dislike of the social scene revolving around such figures as the poet Frank O’Hara, which, to some extent, helped foster the careers of painters like Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan. No O’Hara poems would be written for her with titles like Poem Read at Hedda Sterne’s or For Hedda, After a Party. And there can be no doubting, in retrospect, the low opinion she held of her fellow female artists …

Most women were Uncle Toms and would rather be loved and accepted than admired and feared.

The exhibition of paintings and drawings on display at Victoria Miro, Mayfair until March 21st, represents Hedda Sterne’s first solo show in this country. In addition to seven drawings, there are eight paintings from two series, Horizon and Vertical-Horizontal, all from the early 1960s and the result of eighteen months spent in Venice on a Fulbright fellowship.

 

Victoria Miro 1

Victoria Miro 2

As Eleanor Nairne says in her essay in the catalogue …

Hedda Sterne’s paintings feel quietly alive. The bands of subdued colour – cream, grey, ochre. brown – emerge from and dissolve back into one another, with a glint here and there like the last light thrown up one the sun dips below the horizon.

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Hedda Sterne : Horizon #VII – Detail

Sky, sea, land; sea, sky; shifts and changes of light, of colour. Time and again looking at these paintings, I was reminded of the quiet minimalist abstractions of Agnes Martin, no longer held in place by the architecture of the grid, but rolling down in loose lines even as they spread across. Sky, sea, water, land.

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Hedda Sterne : Horizon #VI – Detail

Let the artist herself have the last words …

“I get enormous pleasure out of very small contrasts. I don’t know to what extent it is an emotional experience or an intellectual pleasure. You know there are knife-edge contrasts in my Vertical-Horizontal pieces. This is what I enjoy – these very, very subtle distinctions in values.”

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Hedda Sterne : Untitled, 1966. Mixed media on paper.
  • Victoria Miro have published a beautifully produced catalogue, designed by Joe Hales, with excellent reproductions of both the paintings and drawings, and an essay by Eleanor Nairne.
  • Exhibition photographs : Molly Ernestine Boiling