Issue 219
Winter 2021/2022

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Jan 26, 2022

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ArtWork Newspaper Issue 219
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What Goes Around, Comes Around – On Spirals, Circles and Labyrinths

Labyrinth with Cross on Louisa Waterford's Tombstone by G F Watts

HERE IN Northumberland the rain pours down. In Glasgow, it's Day1 of COP26. Not far away, Lady Louisa Waterford rests at peace in the churchyard in Ford village. Down in Plymouth the current exhibition at The Box Gallery, is 'Songlines, Tracking the Seven Sisters', inspired by dreamtime stories, ancient Australian creation sagas.

A century ago, my maternal grandmother was championing the rights, education and well-being of aboriginal women, too often victims of abuse by white settlers, men bent on exploiting the land and its riches – animal, mineral, vegetable and human.

The connections? What goes around, comes around. Not only spirals, concentric circles, labyrinthine patterns, and rock art, but issues like justice, exploitation, sustainable living, and perhaps even the survival of "homo sapiens".

The Seven Sisters are being chased across the land by a male predator, a 'shape-shifter' like his Nordic counterpart Loki, often symbolised by a coiled springlike spiral of potential energy, a serpent, as in the Garden of Eden in the Christian creation saga.

As so often, a singular male 'hero' is after a collective of females – not always such a good idea! The sisters' encounters with their chaser are reflected and embodied in both the landscape, and in the constellations in the night sky.

Survival in the outback depends on sharing, working together, remembering ancient wisdom, embodied in the land, and passing it on to future generations. Concentric rings are a recurring motif in the artwork.

This culture recognises and respects the continuity and interconnection of the creative process, concepts which the modern world has largely denied, or lost.

Central to the aboriginal life journey is positive, creative interaction between male and female, living, working and socialising together. That requires peace and understanding, shelter and food. Louisa, Marchioness of Waterford, who inherited the Ford and Etal Estate in 1859, clearly understood that, devoting much of her time to improving the lives of her tenants and their children, be it by building new houses, establishing one of the country's first schools, and encouraging sobriety, so no public houses on her estate!

She would have agreed with my grandmother, that "the best home is run by man's and woman's mind co-operating". Given that our planet is our home, probably a good plan to heed the words of Margot Neale, the curator of the Seven Sisters Exhibition, "Here we are, 250 years after the British set out to colonise and civilise us, taking our culture to the British – to teach them how to survive in this fragmenting world. Our civilisation had the resilience and knowledge, held in the songlines, to survive over millennia".

An accomplished artist, tutored by Ruskin, Louisa Waterford is best known today for the impressive series of watercolour panels of biblical scenes in Lady Waterford Hall. Less well known is her tombstone, designed by G F Watts, 'England's Michelangelo', considered one of the greatest of Victorian artists in his lifetime.

At the heart of the Christian cross, is a labyrinth. Labyrinths, spirals and concentric circles occur in ancient cultures across the world, symbols open to all manner of interpretation – pathways to the inner, unseen world of the ancestors, or the feminine, or the patterns of the two hemispheres of the human brain, or intestinal spiralings.

Whatever their purpose, they continue to fascinate and manifest. In Edinburgh there's a labyrinth in George Square Gardens, based on a similar one in Chartres Cathedral, and a spiral landform by Charles Jencks outside the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

To cap it all, the new St James's Centre tops itself with a golden swirl! In 2013 artist Mark Wallinger created 270 labyrinthine artworks for London Underground, reflecting on the mythic quality of commuters' daily descents and journeyings in that underworld.

Back here in Northumberland, not far from Ford, are some fine examples of cup and ring marks, prehistoric designs carved into rock some five millennia ago, and still shrouded in mystery and conjecture.

Astrophysicist Peter Tullet makes a highly original and intriguing case for these patterns to be tools for mapping the night skies, mirroring constellations, estimating relative brightness and nebulosity, and helping to predict lunar and planetary alignments.

Whatever their meaning and purpose, so long as we don't know what we don't know, these circular motifs continue to fascinate and inspire the imagination.

One thing seems certain, both these enigmatic rock carvings, and aboriginal rock art, are likely to survive a lot longer than the ephemeral, immaterial and virtual electronic records of our civilisation. It's a sobering thought.


Petroglyphs and the Stars in Northumberland by PF Tullet. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.


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