I have some idea of what it’s like to be obsessed with a painting. Over a decade ago, walking through Tate Britain, I found myself stalling in front of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation). It shows the Virgin Mary being approached by the Angel Gabriel, about to be told she is pregnant. Strangely, Mary appears to be sitting on something like a hospital bed. I inched closer to it, unable to look away. I went back to visit the painting repeatedly, imagining the set-up, the brush strokes, the hidden storytelling. I wrote about it extensively to try and make sense of it. Then one day when I turned up at the gallery, the painting was gone. I blinked, hurrying up to an assistant to ask them where Mary was. They looked at me, puzzled, assuming I meant I couldn’t find a friend. When I explained, they nodded kindly, said she was on loan to another gallery, and would be away for the next few years. I left, feeling oddly bereft.
Artist Tom de Freston’s debut nonfiction book Wreck: Gericault's Raft and the Art of Being Lost at Sea tracks his relationship with the painting The Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault. He describes stepping into “the uncanny mirror space”, over and over again — imagining and reimagining the creation of this painting, embodying both the painter and its subject, afloat and adrift. The Raft is a painting that towers above all who travel to the Louvre to see it; at nearly five metres by seven, it is a giant, and the imposing hulk of The Raft locks with Tom’s memories of his father, of an overbearing past he cannot fully remember, hurling shadows across the floor.
In writing Wreck, Tom allows readers into his studio, into his process, creating a series of layers as he breaks through canvases, peering through frames as though they are doors. We turn one way, then another, through the looking glass and out again, like Alice trying to form language from chaos. “I wonder,” Tom writes, “if one of the truths of art is that it provides order for the chaos of reality.” If we can abstract chaos and trauma, morph it, move it from body to canvas to book, can we refract its meaning? Can we distil it? Tom teams up with Professor Ali Souleman, a theatre and literature academic from Damascus, who now lectures at the Universtiy of Oxford, and who lost his sight in a bombing. Tom and Ali explore different ways of seeing through paint, ways of remembering colour, of feeling landscapes. They’re on a quest, but aren’t sure of its ending. Tom questions which stories are his to tell, which boundaries cannot – should not – be crossed, acknowledging that he doesn’t always get this right. Wreck is a bold paradox: the story of an artist forever chasing his own tail, painting outwards to see in. All creators will recognise this act of looking in the mirror to catch ourselves off-guard, of crafting metaphorical rafts in an attempt to save ourselves.
Tom’s book throws open questions of creation and destruction and, in a not dissimilar way, Lulah Ellender’s book Grounding echoes it. After the death of her mother and facing eviction from their family home, Lulah started to write about the idea of being homesick. She researched displacement, bird migration, how artists tied themselves to place, and she threw herself into her own garden, determined to nurture it. Consulting gardening notebooks written by her mother, she could reflect on their mirrored seasons throughout the year. Which flowers bloomed simultaneously, which bulbs failed. There is a wonderful section where she compares mowing a lawn to the act of pushing a pram, both gestures full of mothering.
Like Tom’s many-doored paintings, Lulah discusses splitting gardens into sections like rooms you can walk through, each symbolising something different. She lovingly describes the gardens at Charleston, exclaiming: “Do you see it? Do you see why I love it?” Both Grounding and Wreck acknowledge the inevitable gap between the reader and the writer’s garden, between the reader and the writer’s art, using word-spells to describe these magics as best they can. Both books are filled with such a love, such an ache, the child-like need to be understood, the human urge to foster growth. There are forests to be found in both of these titles. Afterall, the creation of art is a way of composting the self, of cutting back, of re-rooting, then seeing what edge of green appears.
Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written ten books for children and adults, the latest of which is The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.
Images courtesy of Jen Campbell.