St Barbe Museum & Art Gallery

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By Annie Jeffery

Springlines brings together the creative talents of artist Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis and poet Clare Best, and offers a chance to experience paintings and words together – creating a rich, intense experience.  

The two artists have used their considerable talents to explore the hidden worlds around the bodies of water, from springs to dewponds, claypits and chalk springs along the South Coast.  

While the title of the exhibition does not refer to the season, it arrives in Lymington just at the point when we are seeing leaves unfurling and blossom bringing hope of summer.

The painter, Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis, seems to relish the intricacy of enmeshed twiglets and the tangle of brambles and these are often painted in incredible detail against the backdrops of suggested frosty fields, wintry sunsets and mysterious moonlit woods.   Her large paintings (and some of them are very large!) allow the viewer to become absorbed in their sheer scale. They are complex and beautiful with a dreamlike quality that draws you in. You marvel at the patience and skill with which hairline twigs are defined, and it is fascinating to read that the artist will turn a painting upside down, or work on her knees, the canvas on the floor, to ensure she gets just the definition she seeks. 

 Her extraordinary “Hidden Oak” is still unfinished after 16 months but offers the viewer intense light on the detail of bark and moss while the shadows of twigs play on almost matt watery surfaces, whose depths hold their own stories.

Smaller paintings are exquisite in the play of light on dark, with fragile paper-thin leaves and a droplet of water on an oak leaf set in a small bottle, drawing the eye on the falling leaves, which you can almost hear rustle.

Alongside these paintings large and small, each with their tale to tell, sometimes dramatic and sometimes peaceful, there are the new images introduced – a horse, a flock of sheep, the herd of deer just imagined against the settings of dusk and dawn, or sometimes moonlight.    “Pilgrims” has the feel of a Medieval tapestry - are those hunters or soldiers heading home with their own stories to tell, and dreams to dream?   Have they been absent for a day, month or even years?

Clare Best’s beautiful and evocative words, add to the depth and breadth of the paintings, and, with their ability to create atmosphere and magic of their own, also give much pause for thought.   Without the paintings alongside, the poetry is enough to provide a lyrical pathway through the secretly observed places she has visited.   They are reminders that you do not have to travel far to find an undiscovered spot, even in this day and age, and that, having found it, you should take the time to breathe it in, listen to the sounds, observe the tiny details, and connect with what you see.

“The Moon Owns this Place” read alongside the painting of the dark blue sky, the outlines of trees and their mass of skeletal branches, the silver of water or frosty fields behind, stands out for me.

The poetry has sometimes inspired the paintings, and sometimes the paintings have given Clare the idea for her poems, but together each take the works to a new level, with a richness and depth that offers the audience better understanding, greater appreciation and a broader and more expansive imagining.  

Cart Pool offers the feeling of place and history, as does the Furnace Pond, seen in Mary Anne’s painting as a tranquil expanse of water occasionally broken by half-sunk branches, but with Clare’s words reminding that this was where the Iron Works saw charcoal burned, forges and hammers at work, with wheels and weapons made, and men working their lives through to create the machinery of life.

Clare also captures the sense of time, the flow of years beneath the calm surface, the flick and buzz of insects leaving their traces.

Mindfulness is very much the word of the moment, and this exhibition, seen at leisure on a Saturday morning, with the market in Lymington loud and busy outside, offered a chance to step away from that noise and bustle and to focus on where we live and the things we look at but often fail to see in this part of the world.     

The artists have been inspired by a number of locations, but those of us who live in the New Forest can connect with all of these, seen in these pictures and remembered in the poetry. I found myself walking in Wilverley Inclosure after my visit to the exhibition with a heightened awareness of place, seeing the trees and the sky beyond with renewed clarity.   Instead of seeing just an oak tree, I found myself considering the acorn from which it grew, the water and the soil which enabled it to germinate, and the years and the changes it has gone through to make it the tree I see today, perhaps a couple of hundred years since that acorn fell.     We take too much for granted and fail to see what is before us.   If this exhibition gives us joy, it is something we should take into the world outside the gallery walls again and use it to refresh our own sense of place.

Annie Jeffery is Chair of Trustees and CEO of hArt, the Lymington-based Art Therapy charity.   Annie is a sculptor and has carved stone for some years, starting in her 40s when living in France. She now works full time running hArt, which she set up in 2014 to offer creative opportunities to support mental health and to bring together people of all ages and abilities for relaxation and social contact.   hArt now runs drop-in sessions and programmes for groups as well as one-to-one in Hampshire but also as far afield as Dorset and Wiltshire.