In his new book, Tracks: Walking the Ancient Landscapes of Britain, the distinguished artist Philip Hughes records eleven iconic walks across the length and breadth of Britain in more than 140 beautifully reproduced artworks. Inspired and informed by maps, aerial photographs and the latest electronic survey techniques, Hughes’s clean, spacious artworks, with their arresting blocks of colour, make contemporary some of the most ancient and formidable landmarks of the British Isles. In this article, Hughes reveals some of the methods and thought processes behind his work.
WHAT IS A TRACK? WHAT DO I MEAN BY IT?
It is more than a footpath. It is a path ‘with a mission’ (I got this expression from my daughter Carole). Which does not mean that as I move through the landscape I do not paint the actual path as well.
When I speak of a track I do not mean simply going from A to B. I involve the landscape it traverses and show how the track sits on the land. I try to present different views relating to the track, aerial views, its position within the geography of the place – hence the map which sometimes accompanies the drawing – its physical structure and historical connotations, for the term track also implies the traces left by whoever has walked on it.
My book on tracks is not a guide, nor does it involve an endurance test, no time pressure, as is the case with the work of Richard Long who measures the time taken to go from A to B. Speed is not a concern. On the contrary, when I walk a track I frequently stop to look, draw, take photos and write notes. All my final work comes from these drawings (except when I work from aerial photographs). My interest in the track I walk is largely its position in the land and how it relates to it. And this you can only see and appreciate if you sit and take your time to look. I am equally concerned with what lies 10 yards ahead and 10 miles away. Pictures constructed this way take in the immediate and the distant at the same time, (e.g. the book cover).
The tracks that engage me either have an archaeological interest or a special geological aspect. The two are often connected, insofar as some ancient sites depend on the geology, the land-forms and the rocks and stones present in that particular area. On the Ridgeway, for example, I am amazed by the combination of archaeology and geology, where the ridge follows the chalk escarpment and the sites of the ancient forts sitting at the top of the ridge. Such connection can also be manmade, as shown, for instance, by the case of the ancient hill of Silbury, which sits harmoniously in its surroundings.
When I walk a track I often write down personal notes, which form a sort of diary, marking the stages of my progress; sometimes these notes appear as a part of the drawing. This way the track becomes my own, my walking along it, my unique experience.
One way I try to represent the movement along the track is to make works that are a sequence of images: some close-ups, other views, and particularly fragments of maps.
I use maps in my work; I love maps, especially geological ones. They are beautiful to look at in their own right and in their use of colours. I read maps as one reads books: they are abstracted representations of the landscape. As I study them, I can see or imagine the land, its contours and features through their representation.
Virtually all my work starts with drawings done while walking the landscape. The exception is the use of aerial photographs. They form a powerful way of representing the track. They become the source for either paintings or prints.
An area that fascinates me is Assynt in the far north of Scotland. The remarkable geology is a series of sedimentary layers of sand stones of differing shades, while at the base of the mountain there lies a completely different geology – gneiss – with a myriad of small lakes and promontories.
In sites such as Stonehenge and Avebury, whose stones do not belong to the land immediately around, questions arise: Why were they chosen? How did they get there? Another track comes to mind: that followed by the stones in their journey to the site.
In certain ancient sites the track will lead to a specific place, which may sometimes during the course of the walk disappear, as seen from the main ancient approach to Stonehenge, the Avenue. Is it deliberate? At some point the inclination of the land is such that the circle is suddenly hidden from sight. Only by walking on, the place will dramatically reappear. Walking the track becomes almost a mystical experience.
In connection with this book I have been asked many different questions. For example do I feel I have I changed my style of work over the years? And if so, how and why? How do I choose colours? Do I feel there is constancy in my paintings? Whenever I go back to the same place to do more drawings, I seem to build on what I have done on previous occasions. In the process my work creates a kind of record of the changes occurring within the same place.
I have also been asked if I have a specific political message that I try to convey in my work. Not that I am aware of, except that I am very concerned with the preservation of the countryside and the safety of the individual’s right to roam freely in it, but I am not using my work to reflect this.
I am also asked why it is that I tend to visit places more in the winter. I do this for two reasons: One, the land is empty of visitors and I feel more free; two, the low light and the diminished vegetation show more clearly the bare bones of the landscape, and that is the way I like to look at it.
Tracks: Walking the Ancient Landscapes of Britain is available now from our website.
Further reading: Philip’s interview in the Scotsman