"There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion" Francis Bacon 1561-1626

Monday, 24 April 2017

The Hopeful Scrapbook

Printmaking and many other creative processes generate huge amounts of not-quite-right trials and experiments. I just cant quite manage to throw them out so they get shoved into bags and boxes and put out of the way somewhere. Every now and then I get them out and think about them and put them back.


Scrapbook Book 300 x 150 mm, 60 pages.

It can’t go on.. So  I made this rather lovely scrapbook which will hopefully encourage me to corral the bits and pieces together and save the most interesting things. I wanted to use a piece of the experimental paper from the paper decorating course I attended with Nesta Davies at City Lit to practise a bit more binding and it seemed appropriate for this book of experiments. I found some beautiful two tone shimmering pink bookcloth, some dark red paper for the ends and made three ten page sections of cartridge paper .. approx 60 sides to fill.

This all seemed fine and dandy. I made the book with many (but fewer)mistakes and now am faced with the almost insurmountable decision of WHICH of the bits to put in it. Best to just start…


I will post some of the more interesting spreads.It will be great when it’s full I am sure!

Sunday, 23 April 2017

April Sketchbook: Days 15 to 21

More sketches from my woodland route.


15th April: a young oak twig with oak flowers Quercus sp and the very strange and sinister shoots of the black bryony Discorea communis. In the spring their long swaying heads emerge from the ground like searching snakes. They wave about until they can find something to support them, sometimes each other, and then continue skywards unfolding handsome spear shaped leaves as they go. They drape themselves over trees and shrubs have small flowers but beautiful strands of red berries in the autumn.
!6th April: A fallen larch Latrix decidua twig with cone. The larch branches are too high for me to reach in the wood. They tower up into the sky on spindly trunks, their main leafy branches held right at the top in the light. The larch flowers are red…pretty…and develop into the rosette like cones.
And below the larch a single elder leaf. Sambucus niger


17th April: Field maple Acer campestre spring with small flowers and the start of those twin seed pods and charming little trotty wagtail Motacilla alba, ever present along the waters edge.
18th April: Lichen possibly Hypogymnia physodes blown off a tree in the wood in the recent strong winds. It’s curiously spiky and a lovely faded grey green. Some old sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus keys from a last season, fallen, spray.

19th April:  Elephant Grass. Miscanthus sp The elephant grass which grows in a large field by the reservoir has just been harvested. The harvester scatters bit of straw and grass heads along the road. It’s curious stuff with these very attractive fluffy seedhead.
20th April: Spring blues and pinks: bluebell, ground ivy, dog violet, red dead nettle, campion.


21st April: Deconstructed dead mole Talpa europa. Back in 2015 I had found a very smelly dead mole on the track in the wood and made some sketches.

I then buried it in the garden in a pierced plastic tub in the hopes that worms and bugs would clean it up for me and leave a pristine skeleton. However when I unearthed it after two years it was just a slimy mass of black fur and many tiny bones all mixed together. Ah well. Maybe the compost heap next time.

But it was worth digging a few out and I found a couple of jaw bones and some ribs and leg bones but the strangest I discovered are the 2 huge, (relatively  speaking) criss-cross shaped humerous bones from the front legs. See mid left on the sketch. Big strong digging bones. Very interesting!


And I am past the middle staples in the sketchbook now!

Saturday, 15 April 2017

April Sketchbook: Days 8 to 14

Continuing April sketches to record what is happening up in the wood.  Lots going on out there now. I have started noting the Latin names now, which are often illuminating and explain much.


8th April: A neat little fly that I see everywhere. It is elegant and attractive with spotty transparent wings. Hence its Latin name Syvicola fenestris otherwise known as the window gnat. Like most flies it has some grubby habits but is very pretty non the less.


9th April: Shepherds purse, Capsella bursa pastoris, from scrubland.( more heart shaped seeds ). The pretty silver backed silverweed leaf, Argentina anserina, and a sprig of already flowering cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris.

10th April: Pussy willow aka goat willow, Salix caprea, catkins and stems.


11th April: A page of yellows. Pretty greeny yellow of the celandine, Ficaria verna, which opens and closes with the sun. Delicate pale yellow of primrose, Primula vulgaris, with a darker flash near the base of the petal, buttery yellow of dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, and the daisy, Bellis perennis, centre. The gorgeous marsh marigold, Caltha palustris, and my phone, Objectus irritatus, which was on my desk at the time.

12th April: Sadly not all bees make it.  I found a little early bumblebee, Bombus pratorum queen on the track. Shame. They are so very attractive, with silky long hair and that slightly blunt ended ginger rump. Another small grey and white female mallard feather, Anas platyrhynchos, from the execution scene. And a tiny creeping weed, the ivy leaved speedwell, Veronica hederefolia, whose flowers and leaves are neatly arranged opposite each other all the way up the stem.



13th April: At the top a sturdy ash twig, Fraxinus, with its black leaf buds and contrasting little fluffy spray of flowers which have red tips. You can see old “keys” still hanging onto some of the trees. A little group on the right. I have never noticed these flowers before. Here they are sprouting either side of the leaf bud, looking like mad sort of ears.

14th April: Below two more willow catkins from the grey willow, Salix cinerarea, on the left and the elegant arching crack willow, Salix fragilis, on the right.

All sketches in A4 32 page sketchbook. I shall be in the middle soon.. hurahhh!

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Cuckoo Pint Suite

The Cuckoo Pint Arum maculatum was really the first spring leaf to emerge in the shade of the wood. It’s a fascinating plant with many many names, most of them rude and suggestive. This drawing was done back in March and today I noticed that the first flower has appeared. Something had also been nibbling the roots of the plant which is also interesting because that too is quite toxic.

The spotty leaves are particularly attractive and I wanted to celebrate this spring herald in some way. I had sketched it back in March and then recently made a series of small woodcuts. (approx 4.5 x6 inches)



The prints are of leaf, flower, seed and of course its namesake, a generously sized cuckoo. I played about with the interconnectedness of them. The flower is attractive to small moths, especially the small owl moth, the berries are poisonous but some birds can eat them, cuckoos are one of the few birds which can eat poisonous caterpillars, caterpillars become moths etc etc .

To echo that each image is under printed with the one before. I plan to incorporate some text and make a small book. Am looking forward to using some of those robust old country words…


Friday, 7 April 2017

April Sketchbook: Days 1-7

Up in the dark wood, the plants are starting to grow. Blossom is out on the blackthorn, primroses and bluebells are starting to flower. I wanted to make some sort of record of the developments for my work about the Spinney and I had also suggested to my painting group that a daily drawing sketchbook would be a good way of getting back into observed drawing before our first meeting at the end of the month. 
So it seemed only fair that I should do the same and I really need to get back to this essential bit of looking and seeing.

So here are the first 7 days of sketches. I try to limit the time and not be precious. It’s just a bit of daily practice but also a really good ideas generating process. A4 super cheap sketchbook with just 32 pages perfect for a month.

I collect a bunch of single leaves and other bits and pieces from my route. Some leaves are small, just emerging, some already well on their way. I keep them in a plastic bag in the fridge. Easily mistaken for salad apparently.


Some of this weeks ‘salad’… Mmmm…delicious!


1st April : Arum, 2 thistles..(ouch), burdock, fascinating agrimony with its additional leaflets, celandine, dock.
2nd April: Dog’s mercury, speedwell, ground ivy, primrose, wild garlic, goose grass, cranesbill, violet, dock with spots, field maple, dandelion, elm seed, ivy, cow parsley.


3rd April: Pine twig, dock again showing how the leaves turn back on themselves, spurge laurel flower and leaf. This shiny leaved plant manages to survive under the canopy of the wood and has curious nondescript little flowers and the beginning of the berries at this time of year. Dogs mercury again showing more of the plant and the spray of tiny flowers. A cowslip. This one from my garden but they grow happily on the banks of the reservoir so included in the “route”

4th April: Goat willow stem and its lovely catkin which has a fascinating structure when you look closely. A twig of blackthorn which is beautiful, a long black stem ending in a few white flowers. En mass this is such a poignant evocation of spring in the British countryside.


5th April: Common hogweed leaf. a young one and the very odd flower of coltsfoot with its long snaky stem with scale leaves. The flower has faded but again a fascinating structure.

6th April : Feathers picked up over the last couple of days. A big pheasant feather and I think an accompanying small one. A very beautiful spotted woodpecker feather and a mallard feather rescued from the little that was left of the bird on the waterline…only its head was intact. I know I should have brought it back to draw,  but….

7th April : A page of deconstructed  little wych elm seeds. A small bunch had blown off the tree by the shoreline. I removed them from their twig to draw. There are  17 of them. They are neat,  heart shaped seeds with a red seed capsule. I missed the flowers which are tiny red-ish bobbles. It seems so early for a tree to already be setting seed. When ripe they will rain down like heart confetti all over the village and into our garden.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Hortus Medicus: The Seed Book

Seeds are on my minds right now. Every year I optimistically plant many seeds. Every year I try to improve our heavy clay soil and every year a few heroically struggle through.This year I am doing it again. It is a classic example of the triumph of optimism over experience.

Last year as part of my MA I did manage to coax some life out of some of the medical herb seeds I was working with. Henbane, datura, artemisia, celandine, foxglove, and strawberry sticks germinated, other did not. But I was encouraged enough to continue.

One outcome of the work was the Hortus Medicus Seed Book. A small booklet which I printed in a week from start to finish in Amsterdam with the expert and essential  help of Thomas Gravemaker at Letterpress Amsterdam. Just the printing was done with Thomas, the assembling I had to do at home which takes a long, long time and I realised I had not actually posted the finished booklet on the blog before.. so with seeds on my mind and in my hopes, here is the booklet.


HORTUS MEDICUS. A booklet detailing the dubious attributes of Seven Medicinal Herbs.

The work developed out of a visit to the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam where I met the then head gardener Hanneke Schreiber. We had discussed the origins of the garden which was originally set up in 1638 as a Hortus Medicus, a teaching garden for apothecaries in Amsterdam and both agreed that the most interesting herbs were those which were both beneficial and deadly. The 17th century was a heady time with old superstition and new science co-existing in both peoples minds and in writing. Irresistible to me.

I decided to combine those two aspects in this little booklet which was really designed to be exercise in letterpress printing.


The blue slip cover was printed on both sides with the text “Hortus” and “Medicus” with nice big san serif wooden type.


I printed the small arrow and decoration on my Adana here at home after returning from Amsterdam.


The booklet cover is printed on both sides to echo the slip case.

On opening there is a small panel which contains a quote from the wonderful 16th Century botanist/physician Nicholas Monades.


“For it is a greate thing to know the secreates and marvailes of Herbes. I will make experience of them and I will know their vertues and operation. The Seedes we will sow at their due time to remedy the hurtes and deseases that we all do suffer and endure”


The inside spread shows 7 apothecary bottles, the names of the herbs spiral up in the fumes mixed with the red text which indicates warning and dangers. It was a tricky printing exercise. I hand drew the bottle shapes in an old fashioned way with photo stopout ( which reminded me of working on hand drawn colour separations many years ago) and prepared the fume texts in a very modern way with Illustrator. I worked on this overnight on my laptop in our AirB&B room in Amsterdam learning on the hoof really. Thankfully Thomas prepared a really accurate layout for us to work from on his Mac. That was just a bit beyond me!
The plates for fume text and shapes of the bottles were made with Thomas’ photopolymer machine and I hand set the herb texts for the bottle shapes in 10pt Garamond. It’s very small!


The herb texts were taken from some of the old herbals which I love so much; i.e. The juice of the Thorn apple boiled in hog’s grease cureth all inflammations whatsoever” .. Simple! What’s not to love!
Some are just bizarre and some have the element of truth. The foundations of our modern medicine based on trial and error and endless observations.

Having whetted your appetite for planting these mysterious and dangerous plants, turn over again for the seeds themselves, nicely prepared for you on perforated seedsticks which you can just pop straight into the garden.


Yes they are real seeds.. :)… but in the interest of public safety, not THE seeds.


We used some wavy brass line to signify the earth with the S indicating the root.


The final page has a small linocut I made of the gable stone attached to the printshop building which looks out on an adjacent  “secret” now unused passage. I just wanted to add something special to the booklet that was very specific to the location and to Amsterdam and as mysterious as the wonderful “herbes”.


It shows three fish and their baskets and is dated 1742.


Next to the gable stone image, the colophon etc.

And we printed it in just a week. It was quite something and not possible without Thomas!




Hortus Medicus, by Valerie Littlewood. 4 page Booklet in slipcase. Letterpress printed. Folded size 380mm x 11mm ( 15.5 x 4.25 inches).. and with real seeds…

My research into the whole subject of old herbals, superstition and bizarre texts and ideas was extensive and much of it still waiting to be developed into prints and booklets. 
Recently I attended a symposium at Warwick University which covered many fascinating aspects of book production in Italy from 1570-1700’s. Chap books, broadsides, illustrated books, natural history books, alchemical  recipes, were all discussed.
So many ideas….if only I had more time!

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Colour Print Trials and Bees.

The weather has been fabulous, spring has arrived and it’s been too nice to be inside so work has been a bit slow. But in between wrestling with the garden, sporadic bookbinding and printing I have been making a series of small colour print trials. These are using 2 relief plates and are helping me understand how printing ink colours behave when overprinting. It’s not always the same as applying glazes in oils or watercolours. Hmmm
The possibilities are endless.

Inspiration? The pond, minus frogs though.



Bees bees bees….
I have spent the last couple of days in the garden digging, chopping and moving things. The frogs have scattered now and it’s mostly quiet in the pond but I was accompanied by the buzzing of some newly minted queen bumble bees and the odd solitary bee.

So far the bee count this year is, Queen Bumble Bees;  Bombus hypnorum, pratorum, lucorum, terrestris and pascuorum. One odd little solitary, one Andrena fulva and… joy of joys.. the male Anthophora plumipes, the hairy footed flower bees, with their unmistakable high pitched buzz and speedy flight.

Hairy footed flower bees.

Top; one lurking at the bottom on a stachys leaf near a favourite spring pulmonaria flower
Above; zooming off to chase away another male. He is a little supercharged bundle of male aggression and will even tackle large bumble bees who stray into his territory.

A dainty little B pratorum The Early Bumblebee, approaching the winter honeysuckle, tongue unfurled in the first and legs up coming into land in the second.



The Common Carder Bee. B pascuorum. In the second photo she is balancing on one flower with her back legs while getting her nose right up into the flower.


A gorgeous two tone ginger Tawny mining bee Andrena fulva resting in the sun.


and a little solitary male… waiting… waiting… waiting for a mate.. :)