Painting Words

I have been invited to interpret an extract from Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal as part of an exhibition called “Weather Words” at the Wordsworth Museum. A fascinating and inspiring project, a bit like peering into the creative process across the centuries. I began by choosing several extracts from the journals and went to see them ‘in the flesh’ at Grasmere. I was blown away!

There is something magical about opening these tiny books – so closely packed with thoughts and observations, 200 years seem to drop away in the blink of an eye. The liveliness of their author is palpable. Her enthusiasm and curiosity, her worries and her thoughts bring these sentences alive in a way I had not fully expected. I love that she sometimes writes entries upside down or sideways – there are deletions and blots, the quill sometimes splatters… these are not polished, carefully edited lines, they are more like a sketch book full of snippets and ideas – source material. Here are two sketches I made from the journals.

I was interested in the rhythm of the words on the page. The deletions and changes of pace, sudden rushes of description and pauses for thought… The dashes and smudges and afterthoughts bring the journals alive and give the writing an energy that is missing in the printed version… it is in these ‘gaps’ that a natural flow emerges.

I narrowed it down to three favourite extracts and kept each of them in mind while I spent time drawing in Dove Cottage garden, as well as by Grasmere and Rydal Water. It seemed a good place to begin, to walk along and draw where she walked. The garden at Dove Cottage is a wonderful place to spend time… its atmosphere seeps into you and works a sort of magic.

It has been very special drawing there, hearing poetry read in various accents, drawing in the arbour in the rain, watching spring turn to summer. You can’t help wondering how many of these plants are descendants of those that Dorothy planted. She writes a lot about planting and flowers, they are a very tangible link to the past. She notices and I have found my own awareness broadening and sort of merging with hers. Here are some of my sketch book pages.

Brilliantly, today had dark heavy rain clouds and a lively wind… intermittent rain. Perfect. Watched lots of birch trees being pushed and pulled in the wind ’yielding’ to it, as Dorothy Wordsworth puts it. Also, lots of water… so much rain last week the streams are very full and the lake being licked up by the wind. Hearing birdsong constantly. As though my ears have suddenly been ‘tuned in’ to it! Dorothy Wordsworth talks about “the streams making a perpetual song with the thrushes”… I suddenly know what she means! Because of reading her words? Am I looking through her eyes? This is all about the noticing… stepping into her awareness for a moment. Noticing in her way. Weather, water, sounds. Would I have seen the voles and ducklings, the chaffinches and thrushes before? It seems appropriate to take this exploration of the journals outside on a blustery, overcast summer day.

Dorothy Wordsworth’s weather phrases are so exact that they perfectly meld feelings with description… so sharp they give the wide view as well as the intricate detail. Where does observation give way to perception? Could clouds massing on the page also be forming in the mind? Could yesterday’s “sweet rain” be tomorrow’s “cheerless morning”? These are some of the things that the exhibition looks at. Her ‘weather words’ sum up a mood, a climate, a mental state as well as sometimes a wider societal mood and sheer wonder at the mysteries of the universe.

“It was a sweet morning – Every thing green & overflowing with life, & the streams making a perpetual song with the thrushes & all little birds, not forgetting the Stone chats.”

Dorothy Wordsworth


This is the extract I used for the painting , a cropped photocopy was stuck on the studio wall and I painted to the sound of a song thrush. This is the finished painting, ‘Flow’,150 x 120 cm Acrylic On Canvas, and a section of words from the display panel beside it.

‘The marks and dashes in the painting bounce along on the current and find their own path. Like a dancer moving to music the paint finds the right speed, size and weight of marks to interpret the words. The twists and turns of creative thought go hand in hand with walking, watching, reflecting. An artistic collaboration across time; the merging of senses to form perception.

We are looking at a section of never ending movement that continues to flow outside of the canvas, just as Dorothy’s words live beyond the page. A shrill exchange between thrushes adds a high level conversation, a reminder of life lived alongside at another pace. There are subtle currents to be tracked through the painting. This is not about depicting a scene it is about feeling the pace of a person’s observations, the speed of their thoughts and placing their creative mind under the spotlight. Just whispers floating past, or even echoes of a thought, memories of a line written in a little book 200 years ago… left hanging in the air.’

I am very grateful to everyone at the Wordsworth Trust for their openness, knowledge and enthusiasm in making this a wonderful exploration into creative process and natural observation. For me all of this will feed in to a wider body of work about charting nature’s rhythm and flow through time and I hope many more rich collaborations.