George Beacham was a cattle doctor and a conjuror, a west-country cunning man. His house stood across the lane from the Quaker meeting house in Sidcot and it is said that he owned a wizard’s staff and books of magic. When he was nearing the end of his days he told his wife ‘Yew bury me to cross-roads, I a’nt going to be under no churchyard soil I tell’ee. I wants to be where I can keep an eye on the neighbours doings, so dig my grave to the crossroads, if ‘ee don’t I’ll trouble ‘ee.’ For whatever reason his demands were not met, and on July 27th, 1788, his ashes were deposited in the local churchyard. Twelve months later, on the day of his passing a great uproar was heard from his old cottage ‘Oh neighbours, do ee come! Here be all Widow Beachams things valling about the vloor!’ Some Quakers having heard the commotion went to find pots pans, chairs and tables flying through the air, but more than this, they saw Old Cunning Beachams boots walking down the staircase.
The paintings in my latest exhibition (John Martin Gallery, 3rd-22nd December 2009) all came from a fascination with the unseen. The subjects themselves are from traditional folklore, old family stories, the nature/mysticism of Richard Jeffries’s writing and the poetry of Hardy and Coleridge. In the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Richard Jeffries the mysterious presence of nature and the soulful yearning for a deeper communion with it are so clearly expressed, and through much of Thomas Hardy’s poetry the presence of the world of spirits is made most tangible. Yet it is also in the record left behind of ordinary people through the medium of folklore or in simple story that I have looked for descriptions that sense the invisible hand of nature shaping everyday lives and the awe and wonder this inspired. They are often entwined with the knowledge of liminal spaces, the thresholds that exist between two distinct areas of time or space: midnight, midwinter, midsummer, the cusps of dusk or dawn, the edge of a wood, crossroads or a barn door. Heard but rarely seen, the nightingale’s midnight song perhaps best represents the numinous presence of nature and the understanding of the unseen.
The Nightingale is a mysterious bird by virtue of its night-song, and was traditionally associated with all that is melancholic, but it was Coleridge who transformed its experience into a reverie of moonlit orchards. The nightjar is also a largely nocturnal bird, along with the owl, and all are subjects of augury, the revealers of signs. Just as the seasons are heralded with birdsong, in the mid-world of superstition so too are the fates and fortunes of man. The cockerels crowing at dusk and dawn announce the arrival and
29departure of spirits. Crowing three times will announce the arrival of a stranger, three magpies in a field and you will meet a girl, hear the owl’s cry on St. Mark’s Eve and you may never marry. As if to petition for good luck crows must always be treated courteously, and ravens must be greeted as if royalty, addressed as King and Queen.
A lot of the old folk traditions are concerned with the finding of a future spouse, and it is at these in-between times where their presence can be divined. It is easy to imagine that this would have been something of a preoccupation in older rural communities. Stand in a barn doorway at midnight on St. Mark’s Eve and the wraith of your future love will walk past. Scatter hempseed by moonlight and the image of your true love will appear to you.
A Silent Supper is a more involved way of inviting the pale form of the future, a table arranged with bread and cheese is set out as if for a special guest. The Marriage Service is open at the centre of the table. An empty chair awaits their arrival through a half-opened door, which again will coincide with the chimes of midnight. The guest will enter the room, eat the meal and then leave. All of this must take place in total silence.
Often referred to only as ‘they’ or ‘them’ there are many examples of offerings being made to the unseen, and many ways to acknowledge their mysterious presence. A wish made at dusk and ‘they’ may grant it or perhaps a small pile of stones left on a hilltop or primroses left on a barrow. Patterns drawn in the ash of a hearthstone to attract good spirits to the home, posies and rowan crosses hung above doorways to keep out the bad, again all liminal spaces.
In the old celebration of wassailing bread soaked in cider is pressed into the forked branches of the oldest tree to promote fertility and to acknowledge the Apple Tree Man, the presiding spirit of the whole orchard. It is perhaps by maintaining a relationship to the spirits in this way that we reinforce the personal connection to that which they represent – in that deep part of ourselves where the spirits have their origin and where we form our relationship to the mysteries of the everyday world.