Some time in the spring of 1977, having moved to Cambridgeshire from
I was painting a landscape that had in the distance a small hill, covered with
In the foreground of sweeping fields of young cereal growth that flowed up to the hill, stood a hide, made of straw bales. This hide was plainly made for a marksman whose job it was not only to scare off the pigeons from eating young shoots in the field, but also to bag as many as possible for the pot or sale.
There was no sign of anyone in situ. I was quite alone in this expansive landscape. It was the way that I liked to paint.
I was using oil paint that I ground myself, applying it to paper that I had previously primed with a thin coating of beeswax. Knowing the wherewithal of my craft, in the way of paint, brushes and paper, was all-important to me. With complete knowledge of my equipment and how to use it meant that only the subject matter was of concern.
Just the hum from a distant road and the sound of a skylark disturbed the silence.
A couple of hares appeared and started to engage in their ritual of springtime sparring. I added them to the scene.
I had been sitting on the grass overlooking this idyllic landscape for some time, painting away, when I was very surprised to see, in centre stage as it were, a little smoke rise from the straw hide, to be followed almost immediately by flames. The construction had self-ignited right in front of me. In a short time there was nothing left of it except for a patch of black, smouldering straw.
There was still no one about, and certainly no body, or remains of one, where the hide had stood. It was quite disturbing. Moreover, the farmer might happen to pass by and enquire if I had been responsible for this arson attack on his straw hide.
The marksman’s cover, set in the rolling sward, had been the focal part of my picture, with the tree-clad hill and sky behind. Now, even the hares had departed. So I packed my things away and returned home.
What was this all about?
I returned a few days later to look at the scene once more. It now somehow seemed more magical than before.
I made enquiries locally to learn that the hill was called Goffa’s Knoll and that in an ancient age the local chieftain or king, called Goffa, had been surrounded by his enemies and that after a bloody battle he, his family, and all his men had been slaughtered.
Was I being told something by being witness to this fiery manifestation?
I returned to the same spot several times more and came to believe that Goffa’s soul, or spirit, or whatever, was trapped in his knoll and needed desperately to be released from its earthly bonds.
So I set about doing just that in the form of a series of paintings, combining his release in the light and purity of East Anglian landscape with the seediness of London living.
That was how I came to contrive Goffa’s apotheosis – in paintings shown at a most successful one-man exhibition in the Art Gallery of Cambridge Central Library in 1977.
Christopher Neve, Art Critic for “Country Life”, wrote: With its mounds, clumps, moods and fecundity, it persists in the sexual analogy of the monotypes but with a sense of timelessness. In the largest works here, most memorably, the painter has chosen to release the energy of Goffa’s Knoll, like lancing a boil. A half-glimpsed figure, sometimes still bound and shrouded, escapes upwards, from tumulus to cumulus. Menacing traffic threatens to run out of the frame. Ubiquitous hares box and run. Bales of straw stand about like stone circles. For me, to an astonishing degree, these paintings have the power to suggest how man’s used landscape mysteriously survives him, marking his place.