Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Kurt Jackson

2nd December 2023

Every November, we invite contributors and friends of the River to muse on the 12 or so months newly under our belts — and every December and January, we give the site over to publishing their insights. This year, acclaimed artist and environmentalist Kurt Jackson sets the ball rolling.

Kurt Jackson, Wytham Woods. Photo: Caroline Jackson.

Through and out the other side…

September:  ‘Yesterday I worked on a large canvas all day, spread out on the Oxfordshire ground under the trees in Great Wytham Wood.  Wytham Woods near Oxford are probably the most intensive ecologically researched area of woodland anywhere in the world, they have been studied for nearly eighty years by more than 150 scientists connected with the university. I wanted to make a painting that celebrated this place and its status as a site of sustained ecological interest.

It was incredibly humid, the sweat poured off my bare torso, dripping onto the paints diluting the greens to flow and dribble. The weather broke in the middle of the day, rain came on and I hung the two meter canvas across a horizontal hazel branch nearby, there the rain drops missed the vertical surface and I could still just about work on it. The humidity dropped with the temperature. After a few more hours the rain eased off and I was able to lay the painting down once again, to carry on bending over the painting, dabbing, wiping and smearing at my brush strokes, pouring it on, attempting to bring that mass of woodland structure, vegetation and life down onto the canvas. The sunlight burst through, illuminating the foliage in a light show of vivid yellow green against dark silhouettes. It gave depth to the woodland. The big oak next to me showed all her textured bark and mossyness, high lit, whilst the trunks behind showed light or dark within the tall forest. At the end of the day we put the canvas on the roof of the car that was parked out in the open in the forest ride and then I sketched until it was dry enough to roll up and take away.

This morning in the Oxford hotel after a restless night of aches and pains I find I have Covid, it is not just the stretching and pulling of my workout as I painted in the woods but the lurgy has finally got me for the first time after three and a half years of avoiding it. Time to go home.’

Just before the Oxford trip we had made a rare visit to London, a few galleries, some shows — it seemed like ages since we had ventured up to the city, left our rural abode to taste urban life.

In the National

Those sunflowers of Van Gogh’s
Attract the crowds
The eager tourists and visitors
In a jostling excited flurry
Like bees to the originals
Pollinators to spread their load
But here they came with other stuff
Not pollen or nectar
And that is what I carried away
To my sickbed

Two weeks later, after wallowing in our illness at home in West Cornwall, doing little but sitting side-by-side on the sofa, listening to the radio and me sketching our sorry selves, we headed offshore out to the Isles of Scilly to get back on our feet and to try and start working again. I was painting and drawing seals.

‘The boat came to rest just off the islands, around the back of the Eastern Isles, between Nornour and Ganilly. The anchor was dropped and we sat in the blue waters rocking gently with the rhythm of the waves to survey our surroundings. 200 meters or so away was the beach of Ganilly and what I initially took to be boulders I soon realised was a mass of seals, a great writhing, wriggling rookery continually adjusting their positions and interacting with each other. Howling and yodeling, they were spread out along the semicircular arc of the beach and in the waters out front between them and our boat the sea was dotted with the heads of dozens of further individuals. This was ‘seal town’. I pulled my flippers on, my snorkel into place and dropped off the boat; floundering around I righted myself, found my buoyancy and poise — my drawing board with clipped papers and pencils was passed overboard to me and off I set. Rather clumsily I peered into the depths below where strings of vertical orange and brown spaghetti weed led the eye the 10 meters or so straight down through clear waters to the rocky bed. The weed swayed in the current, a few small fish aimlessly swam past, small pale jellyfish floated around and then my first submarine seal appeared. Light grey, it approached from below. Sleek and speedy, it shot past, big dark white-rimmed eyes examined me and then a mass of paddling flippers. It vanished only for another and another to roll and curve themselves around me, by my side, behind and below me. They blew bubbles, tried to nibble my drawing materials. Inquisitive, curious and slightly cautious; if I moved suddenly with my drawing, they backed off or even flitted away. I tried to draw, tentative lines through the blur of my mask and the water; wet absorbent paper and crumbling graphite. The seals returned continually, gambolling like excited puppies in herds — enjoying the sport of their aqua dynamics. I had to keep righting myself, adjusting myself, the board between my gloves caused an instability. The papers tried to float away, the pencils did float off intermittently. It was a battle under the gaze of the seal audience. I felt motion sickness, was exhausted by the legacy of my recent Covid recovery but swimming with these huge wild marine mammals was all-consuming in the Atlantic wild, pushed and steered by the ebb and flow of the swell, the seal songs and swash of the waves as the soundtrack, the blue and green clarity below, all was extraordinary; the beautiful beasts hurtling around me, it was incredible and humbling — a truly beautiful experience. After an hour’s scribbling and snorkeling I was satiated, exhausted with blunted pencils and creased fraying papers and content to clamber back into the boat.’


The Wytham painting is a work in progress. The Cornish Seal exhibition will be at The Jackson Foundation, Cornwall from 16th March 2024 until August.