A friend assured me the other day that unless a writer already has some kind of reputation, in today's world, only the blandest and most inconsequential of fiction is likely to find a publisher. It may be true that nobody is on the lookout for literary classics, or even to be seriously challenged, but perhaps pitifully, I’m still tempted to believe the friendly introductions literary agents write: those statements of faith in talent and distinctiveness which inevitably suppress the commercial ambitions of their own endeavour.
My first book, The Bow, was quite intense and not an easy read. Since a revised edition was reprinted in 2000, I have gained more trust in stronger narratives. As a way of bringing readers in, this was a necessary development; but despite their relative accessibility, I’ve had no luck as yet in interesting an agent or publisher in either Maze End or Certainty Under the Rose (unmistakably novels, where The Bow was a “prose-poem”). Perhaps I haven’t interwoven the correct commercial ingredients? Whatever the reason, I remain convinced that a desire amongst serious readers for difficult fiction exists, even if it isn’t likely to generate enough profit to interest the average industry go-between.
The Bow is an enigmatic journey through landscape, time and memory, in which the narrator moves through a distorted reality of haunting images, questioning everything – including reality itself. Travelling through life or a series of lives, in search of lost moments, a sense of place is evoked; dreams and hopes are sifted through; a way to live is found.
One morning we stood in a museum, quiet museum of a market town, into which we had been forced by a sudden downpour. I stared out of the window, wanting to go but not impatient. It was a large Georgian window that looked out above as leafy churchyard, visibly growing more verdant in the rain, the bushes and lines of trees more freshly green. In a heavy sky the sun broke out, shone the cobbles and blazed upon the leaves.
Rewsanon was walking slowly around the room, I could hear his steps sounding on the polished boards. I turned from the window and looked into glass cases at fragments of years. Bits of broken earthenware and segments so small that you’d not notice them if searching in soil for undamaged tubers . . . dreaming of a language of clear and universal power . . .
In another case were some rich photographs, night black and coloured lights – moments from a re-enacted mystery play. Alongside, a fire festival, and on a silent screen, from a twilight hill descends a burning wheel.
In the end I became so absorbed with the glass cases that I didn’t notice that the rain had stopped. I left the museum, from static to moving, into the museum of the future.
"A liquid, lyric prose achievement of a high order. Its ostensible train journey is a vehicle for interior journeys of mind and spirit whose normality takes on unfamiliarity in the light of artist Lawrence Freiesleben’s vision. The eye of the landscape painter becomes ours . . . Landscape is made mindscape and vice versa. Mood becomes word. Both the visible world and that of the artist-narrator’s reverie are revealed in terms of what is seen." - Brian Louis Pearce
"Like Edward Thomas’ nature rambles in prose, The Bow is a sort of descriptive hymn to the natural world. A paean to the mysteries of nature and the equally mysterious identity of the human self and the natural world, drawn together by obsessive train journeying. A beautiful sense of apartness, dreamlike, arises from this postmodernist text, which combines it’s ecological concerns with severest criticism of modern consumerist living and, indeed, of human nature itself. The work of a nihilistic Richard Jefferies, if such can be conceived." - William Oxley.
Maze End follows the lives of two main protagonists: ‘Volcano’, committed but constructive outsider and artist – whose ivory tower is also occupied by his partner and their numerous children; and Lucy, an equally ambitious friend who falls into obsession and suffers psychological torment during a dark night of the soul that is revived by a chain of nightmares.
Beginning as a metaphysical fantasy, the early part of the book is an often humorous revisiting of the past and the happy chaos of family life – amid which Volcano questions everything from the decline of civilisation, to his own practice as an artist. Impatient, amusing, positive yet sometimes melancholic . . . supernatural and archetypal elements are also invoked.
Lucy’s parallel story is harsher. Her decline may or may not have a basis in reality (a form of “institutional rape”) but her situation is also symbolic she feels, of the position of women in society and the human condition generally. Necessarily repetitious, her ordeals are described in a subjectively emotional rather than an overly graphic way.
The main theme of Maze End is the search for meaning, and the importance in life for everyone to develop their own philosophy. Love is another important theme – especially romantic love – and how this essential quality needs to be guided to endure. There are a few major supporting characters used to introduce or emphasize other strands as well as numerous brief players – to provide contrary humour and textural depth.
The two main protagonists must both be healed in some way, and their stories converge towards the end. Ultimately, they are able to return to the lives they had both in one way or another, despaired of.
The name on the sign, Avalon’s Well, was scripted in bold curve – a golden arch across the top; while along the lower edge, smaller but not an afterthought, was emblazoned the legend: Freehouse.
Every aspect of this sign reflected the bright and temperate climate of the Garden itself. At present the Arcadian prospect glowingly painted upon it, showed a sweep of moorland with purple heather and cloud shadows chased down by sunlight to the foreground of dry-stone walls enclosing the garden. He stared up at the sign’s one unchanging feature: inside the painted walls on the lush grass, under trees in blossom or laden with fruit, was a small garden table. Its shape and style might change, but in any scene it was never absent, and always set upon it was a shining pint glass – radiant like a sacred object; full, waiting . . .
Certainty Under the Rose, a searching love story with both tragic and comic elements is set in the early 1980's in and around the small coastal town of Quay Royal in the southwest of England. Its main focus is self-questioning outsider Stephanie Letheren. Fifteen at the start, her story is overlapped with that of Huw, purposeful drifter and musician, who echoing Conrad's Axel Heyst, may be attempting to detach himself from the central current of life. In Quay Royal he feels he has found his ideal landscape and in Steff, the perfect companion.
Another important character is the argumentative Oxenham, aggressive antagonist of a society he feels always falls short of its potential, is rarely short of an axe to grind. He is also the prime-mover in a local experimental rock band and via their shared passion for improvised music, quickly becomes a good friend to Huw.
Being a work in progress Estuary and Shadow as yet has no final synopsis, but I can say that, featuring the same two main characters, it forms a parallel world to Certainty Under the Rose, (which is more loosely related to Maze End). I’ve a strange hope that when two stories overlap, some more complex, or archetypal truth between the two will be suggested: a vital borderland, stealthily increasing at the back of the mind . . . Perhaps this is similar to the way that quite outlandish dreams, on waking, occasionally seem to comment on or flex reality, in an enigmatic but powerful way?
Recently I’ve been noticing again the effect of mining and quarrying upon the landscape, and have become aware that the scars left by this, are often capable of projecting some crumbled atmosphere of human greed and exploitation. Ruins also speak of the rise and fall of human lives, of political and social ambition – perhaps even civilisation’s essentially superficial nature?
Determined and varied by the underlying geology and the extremes or weather, different areas in changing lights, can eloquently express a sense of anger or of melancholy and resignation.
To quote Graham Hough in his book, The Romantic Poets, (Hutchinson University Library 1953): “A dream only exists in the images in which it is embodied, though a shadow of its significance can be discussed for special purposes by an analyst. So it is with a myth, which exists to make actual a metaphysical, moral or psychological experience, that is only potential until it has been embodied in imagery.”
For me, no matter how unfashionable it might be to say it, painting is an intuitional vocation. As I’ve often said, my aim is to go far as possible into the mystery that lies behind appearances. Not inclined to view art as a governable career, I deplore the situation of serious contemporary artists – caught between the old establishment of academy skill, and the new establishment of gimmicks and shock concepts without depth or lasting meaning.
But here, I wanted to try to write as truthfully as possible about my intentions and working methods. This is problematic because when occasionally I end up with a notable painting (which at first can seem to me the most valuable ‘image’ in the history of civilisation!) I can’t say why it occupies this level. I can feel its value but not explain it, and if it should last and still occupy this level two or three years later, I’m none the wiser.
As for working methods, I would love to have a rational process, even one that only seems rational: anything to hold onto. Painting as an intuitional vocation sounds good, but in reality you’re constantly on the edge of chaos. It’s extremely stressful, and if I could escape from it forever I’d be glad . . . perhaps.
The trouble with such a Romantic conception, is that is that you may end up acting the process, which may not be immediately apparent in the finished paintings. It could take me six months to detect a fraud amongst my own paintings. I say my own, but how much are they my own? Although I can usually feel some connection between an experience of place, or a series of places in time, and a finished painting, my best results often completely surprise me – and yet can also be like the recognition of something always known. Beyond what I’m consciously capable of imagining, the best eclipse by far, the moments that gave rise to them – some becoming like elemental ‘objects’ of more value than I feel myself to be.
In the late 70s and through the 80s I most often worked through sketches to distil (like Graham Sutherland’s ‘paraphrasing’ of nature) a place or essence of a place, into a painting. I wish I could go back to that . . . at least I’d have an island to start from. Now, I look at a blank sheet, rarely with the confidence of a demigod, most often with reluctant or terrified sickness and try to think of a maintenance job on the car that really needs doing.
A painting has to be improvised from scratch without falling prey on the one hand to any learnt techniques – they must all be unlearned – or acting the tortured Romantic on the other. It’s next to impossible, and inevitably I hate the process more and more as time goes by – for while involved in the process, any past success counts for nothing.
Some years I’ve started up to two hundred paintings. About twelve to twenty initially survive. These I grade these from 1 (low) to 6 (high) – I find the hierarchy forces me to think and feel which of them embody the truest value . . . whatever that is. Regardless of my personal preference, they are in competition which each other. Of these only four to six are likely to prove of any value. So what should I do with the others? I may like them more, they are usually closer to lived experience, so I’d find it hard to destroy them. In any case, with less than twelve or so a year, I wouldn’t seriously be able to think about exhibitions. Also, there is no doubt that painting (any art, seriously carried out and rigorously self-assessed) is an arcane and rarefied pursuit in today’s relentlessly materialistic society. Therefore perhaps the simpler paintings provide a path to those more highly graded? I’ve done paintings I can only ‘understand’ when I’m in the exalted mood of the process (at the rare moments when it seems to be succeeding). Back in normal life, I can no longer see them, either at first, or ever. Does this invalidate them? Or in this case too, would other paintings provide the path to them?
In the end, it’s easier to say what the value of the better paintings isn’t. It’s obviously not about direct representation – no such art could ever satisfyingly equal nature. Neither, unfortunately, is it easily accessible, except perhaps to those of an unbiased, open temperament. Otherwise it requires a lot of hard work and exploration. But how many serious, page-turning bestsellers have you feverishly read, late into the night, only for them to evaporate from your mind? Much New Establishment art seems to occupy a similar position: they are meant to be serious and challenging, and in the long run they might be good for art within society. It’s just possible that they’ve enlarged the audience for art . . . and eventually this audience will want a proper meal rather than a brief sugar-rush.
Ultimately the most valuable art is not about innovation, no matter how useful – when genuine – this is. In truth most of the New Establishment stuff has in essence been done before. The value is always in the depth not the superficial manipulation of medium. The danger inherent in the 20th Century’s carnival of innovations, and how history records them, is that it over-emphasises the originators of ideas and insists on change as the only vital principle. Similarly, in society we expect a constant rise in the standard of living . . . with no thought of who’s paying; and in science and technology, we value ideas for their material or strategic use, without developing the wisdom to control or even see where they’re leading. In the arts, too often we celebrate fashions at the expense of depth and meaning.
Of course all the above are interlinked . . . and maybe that's why it’s impossible to say what the best paintings are about: they attempt to challenge the constant change in our daily lives that we have almost no choice but to give in to. They attempt to touch upon a path we are always losing, or an ideal we cannot have in this, or perhaps any other life.
I’ve never seen myself as an “artist”, but rather as someone who uses painting to get at some meaning that may be behind life. I’ve always had a sense of vocation, and could perhaps have willed myself to be a writer or musician instead. Because of this attitude, any technique I might have acquired is incidental, and only interests me incidentally. Starting out to some degree by imitating nature (a trap I can still fall into), I realised how inadequate this would be; it’s clear that all the imitative skills in the world cannot hope to capture nature. Schelling believed that the artist’s role was to create a second nature “expressive of the spirit”, and Jack B Yeats said that “you can plan events, but if they go according to your plans they are not events”. Whether such events come as “divine inspiration”, or well up from deep pools of the unconscious, I wouldn’t like to say. Trying to bring my paintings to light is not usually enjoyable — but the best do impress me and even make me happy. The best reach a universality which gives them their independence. They cannot be owned, even by me. In contrast, less successful paintings do recall, and are fixed in, particular times; they are like snapshots, children that never grew up.
In the Seventies it became prevalent to claim that Art was Dead; but in truth it was only the Twentieth Century’s carnival of innovations slowing down. The hidden stream, the searching for a ‘meaning behind’, that runs through some of these innovations, should not now be so obscured by much that was mere fashion, should not be lost in the shock of the new.
However this ‘meaning behind’ comes to light, any essences of it chanced (?) upon — if not fully realised at the time — bide in the memory. Recently, on a cycle from Shropshire to Bucks, we slept out on a high hill, and continued into the Cotswolds at 6.30 the next morning. Early light suffused the trees surrounding lush, tangled hay lines, and I was taken back to the time I lived in this area, and the paintings of then. Foremost, I thought of a 1990 painting entitled ‘Intuition’ which, I now realised, still more strongly called on some light I had chanced upon here, eight years earlier.
‘Intuition’ is one of the paintings that has made me happy. It comes from the border between the more clearly landscape area of my paintings and a more “mystical” area. I’ve said elsewhere, that in it, “Summer, day and night, cloud and land, real and symbol and hopes all assemble”. It was painted spontaneously the day before I left my last home in Devon, and a few things were in my head: the hay fields and trees of high summer which glow on through the evening and in the memory at night, the telegraph wires which cross a road nearby, and the high window which looks out into the sky above a courtyard also criss-crossed with wires. There was a feeling of happiness, of a completed time, and the imminent hope and sadness of departure. The strong presence of the people I knew, particularly perhaps my son, is I hope, also in the painting — but submerged, become general, purged of any sentimentality. Also clearly there beforehand was the influence of my son’s drawings, whose simultaneity of times, multiple viewpoints, and so on, are so refreshing. They, along with Picasso’s 1951 ‘Night Landscape’ (a Picasso that goes for the meaning behind), reminded me that true painting has little need of traditional tricks such as perspective or imitation. It also reminds me that the supposed inaccessibility of much 'Modern Art' is actually due to the inability of people to rid themselves of prejudices they have been given regarding what art should be about. That classic comment of stupidity, “My child could do that”, misses the point, and was dismissed in a visitor’s book at one of my own exhibitions (by a later visitor) with the very pertinent, “But will they still be able to do it when they are twenty-four?”
Only after painting ‘Intuition’ have I come to see other things in it; the telegraph wires (inevitable symbol of communication) are interspersed and interrupted by clouds; sky mixes with land. I like the ambiguity of the time of day — bright fields of noon, or glowing at evening? The oncoming night, or the night with day recalled in the mind’s eye? I like the ambiguity of ploughed fields/roofing tiles. The window could be facing out or in—it feels like both an escape and a presence. Old symbols and a feel of an earlier time’s light have reappeared from my work in 1982: a lens (another presence?) focussing the light of a symbolic sun. A sort of energy form (derived from the bow shape of my 1981 paintings?) becomes another representative of human presence — as many of the trees have often half been.
Filled with hope, the painting celebrates everything. Ultimately though, for me it is more than the sum of all I can suggest, which is why I was prepared to risk giving it the tide ‘Intuition’, defined as: the power of the mind by which it immediately perceives the truth of things without reasoning or analysis.
Lawrence Freiesleben - 1991