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My work has always been concerned with memory and imagination. I  try to find and understand what lies behind the surface of a person or a place and to discover the unknown there, whatever it may be.

For the last 6 years I have spent much of my time painting and drawing in a particular patch of landscape at the foot of the South Downs outside Lewes.  Over that time what started out as a series of minutely observed drawings has gradually become a personal in-depth study of a little patch of England, infinitely rich with layers of meaning. By looking into the minutiae: fallen leaves, a muddle of twigs, great tree roots appearing and disappearing into the chalky earth, a bank vole scurrying across my shoes as I work, signs of dormice, wild flowers perfectly adapted to their habitat, moths and butterflies, hazel trees which stopped being coppiced 70 years ago,and plants particular to ancient woodland, you start to see, just by being there day after day, how subtle and complex nature is.


The overgrown, unkempt hedgerow on the woodland edge I have been studying, is easy to walk past without noticing. There are certainly more dramatic parts of the woodland at first glance, but there is something incredibly evocative and secret about 'my' hedge which makes me want to draw it.  I started with a small drawing on paper which gradually over the weeks and months  grew into a patch-work of bits of paper stapled together', as I decided to follow the hedgerow along the bank.  After about a year of work when I'd finally decided on the scale and composition of the piece, I  glued the paper down with wheat starch onto a gessoed panel which I could strap to the roof of my car and carry balanced on my head up the bridlepath to the wood. A second drawing was begun which overlapped with the first, both eventually about 6 feet square. Any larger and I couldn't manage the panel. If it rains I have a sheet of tarpaulin hidden in an old rabbit burrow to keep the wet off. Sometimes a feather falls down onto the drawing while I'm working and I might paint it there and then or put it in a box and take it back to my studio to work on later. I've built up a collection of feathers, particular leaves, interesting and special bits of chalk which I can use to work from when the weather is too bad to go out in. I get to know the exact territory of a robin and know which trees the woodpeckers are nesting in. The sounds are nearly as important as the sights.  I have also painted a whole series of small panels which are like fragments of these big drawings  - light coming through sycamore leaves, a wood mouse, a fallen wood pigeon feather...

The closest description I have come across of what it feels like to be working in the way I am is Roger Deakin's phrase 'fierce looking'. The harder you look the more you see. But I'm not interested in producing  botanical illustrations - it is the atmosphere and poetry of place I am trying to capture.

It fascinates me to find the signs of continuity and sense of history within the landscape. My hedge is marked on maps from the 14th century (contemporary with my house!) but is almost certainly much older than that.  There are hundreds and hundreds of such places all over the  English landscape, sharing similarities yet all unique, discreet and quiet and all too easily overlooked. Such places can tell us so much.

Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis


© Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis, 2010