The Pilgrim Coast
The following link will take you a film made by Paul Dutnall, featuring Mary Miers, on The Pilgrim Coast and Gibb's work:
To celebrate the return to Durham in July 2013 of the illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels, Britain’s great treasure from the Dark Ages usually in the safe keeping of the British Library, Northumberland County Council is contributing to the Year of Spirituality in the Northeast by presenting a major exhibition of landscape paintings, The Pilgrim Coast, by the Scottish artist Ramsay Gibb (born 1965). The exhibition will be shown in two parts to run concurrently at the Woodhorn Museum, Ashington, and the Granary Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed, and will have a final showing in September 2013 at Francis Kyle Gallery, London.
The Lindisfarne Gospels were created in honour of St. Cuthbert (who died in 687), most venerated of the numerous saints who lived in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, credited among his many good deeds with establishing the first wildlife sanctuary in this country. Ramsay Gibb has gained a national reputation as a painter of landscape chiefly in the British Isles with a particular focus on historical and archaeological settings. A serious walker, Gibb is well known for his paintings recording demanding journeys he has made in search of ancient pilgrim roads leading to sacred sites. Having begun his career as a watercolourist, particularly attracted to weather systems, he now pursues this interest in energetic compositions executed in oil on board – a medium which enables him (as it did for the old Dutch Masters) to do justice to the clear, low, raking light so characteristic of the North.
In Cuthbert’s early career as a monk at a monastery in the Lammermuir hills near Melrose, he built a following with his visits bringing Christianity to remote communities inland and on the coast. These first journeys Ramsay Gibb has been tracking, culminating in Cuthbert’s summons to Lindisfarne to assume the role of abbot. After the shock of the first Viking raid on mainland Britain, which occurred at Lindisfarne in 793, the community decided that St Cuthbert’s remains (later found to be miraculously preserved) should be moved, together with their precious library including the Lindisfarne Gospels, to a safer place inland. So began the longest of Cuthbert’s wanderings eventually lasting close to 100 years, finally coming to an end (the coffin refused to go any further) at the site of what was to become Durham Cathedral. Taken together these journeys, which Ramsay Gibb has been tracing and interpreting over the past eighteen months, amount to an index of Old Northumbria’s spirituality: a network of now little used old tracks connecting the region’s great wealth of shrines and holy places, many located for defensive reasons in half-inaccessible sites or overviewed by centres of power as for example, the community at Lindisfarne close to Bamburgh Castle.
As a portal into Ramsay Gibb’s Northumbria, a kingdom which at that time stretched from north of the Humber as far as the Firth of Forth and westwards across to Morecambe Bay, the island promontory of Lindisfarne provides a focal point, being the start as well as goal for many of the journeys associated with Cuthbert and his forebears such as Aidan in this region’s golden age. The broad coastal bands to the north and south, delineated by poles marking the pilgrims’ safest route, offer a series of powerful, almost abstract subjects. For some five hundred years arriving at this sacred (or ‘thin’) place where the route is broken by a crossing, represented a life-changing moment for countless pilgrims.
Inland there are equally powerful settings, as for instance, the curiously-formed Eildon Hills where Cuthbert in his early years was a shepherd, until he received a vision calling him to a life in the church. On the edge of the Cheviots the land rises to form the Yeavering Bell, not far from an Anglo-Saxon royal palace where in 627 AD a mass baptism lasting 36 days was conducted by St Paulinus. Further south islands such as Coquet or Inner Farne, where Cuthbert lived as a hermit for some eleven years, give Gibb themes where he can deploy to the full his exceptional skills in the treatment of water.
The routes Gibb uncovers on his wanderings may be in part real, in part conjectural or even mythic. In the case of the last great journey, when the monks of Lindisfarne brought Cuthbert’s body and the Gospels to the site of the future Durham, their circuitous route tells a larger story for with this move a fundamental shift is expressed in the regional balance of power as the great kingdom of Northumbria begins to lose integral parts of its vast territory to rising powers from both South and North. In undertaking these long journeys of pilgrimage Gibb has also taken the opportunity to visit locations associated with other holy men from seventh century Northumbria such as the retreats favoured respectively by St. Baldred and St. Herbert on the Bass Rock and at Derwentwater in Cumbria.
In his characteristic pursuit, as a tireless, purposeful walker, of the history which lies beneath or is embedded in landscape, Ramsay Gibb has honed an approach which owes something to several landscape traditions. There is an echo here of the vision of those painters of the Hudson River School who sought to capture the ‘sublime’ in their interpretation of immense vistas still largely untamed. As he seeks out shrines and sanctuaries, Gibb inevitably imparts to his landscapes a moral dimension, as did the German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich, for whom the Harz Mountains or desolate stretches of Baltic coastline became a metaphor for the fragility and isolation of humankind in the great scheme of things – just as many hermits seeking refuge in remote caves treasured a redemptive sense of the infinite which they found there. For Gibb, however, the journey itself is still the thing. This is what gives to his compositions their great energy and confident sense of direction, reflected typically in the loose, textural foreground, which seems to invite the viewer forward, to share those energetic footprints or scramble through the springy turf towards an irresistible destination on the horizon.
Gibb gives the following account of a walk on the Holy Island sands approaching Lindisfarne:
'I was struck by the impressions left on the wet sand by the feet of pilgrims following the staves marking the path out to the island. These prints were continually washed by the tide and obliterated, then re-established by the feet of new pilgrims. This cycle has repeated countless times for hundreds of years. I witnessed the traces of an act that could be dated to the arrival of St. Aidan in 635, the coming of Christianity to the Angles of Northumbria, the beginning of Northumbria’s golden age. These prints in the tidal mud connected me directly to the first footfall of the Christian mission to Lindisfarne. Whereas the last paintings explored the wider context of Pilgrimage, this collection returns to the origins of my inspiration, to the stories of one of the richest flowerings of early spirituality in these islands: the blossoming of Christianity that took place in the kingdom of Northumbria.'
I had no idea that I would be asked to write an introduction to these haunting northern landscapes by Ramsay Gibb on the day that it happened. The day on which Francis Kyle had asked me to pop into his gallery and see them was one on which I had gone, as I sometimes do especially in Lent, to an eight o’clock communion in Westminster Abbey. The priest appeared in festal white and when he began the service he reminded us that the reason for this celebratory colour was that it was the feast of St Cuthbert, March 22nd. This was a saint who all but became the patron of the entire country but, alas, St George came along. Still anyone who knows even a little about the heroic north knows that Cuthbert epitomises the spirituality of that domain, a legendary holy man, monk, hermit and bishop. This was someone who literally walked the north, so much so that tourists today can find on the net ‘St Cuthbert’s Way’, a walk of anything between four and six days which tracks in chronological sequence the saint’s movements from Melrose to Holy Island.
Cuthbert remains even in the twenty-first century a powerful presence. I recall giving an address in Durham Cathedral on the annual occasion on which the saints of the north were celebrated. And not just those of Anglo-Saxon England but embracing those of recent centuries down to the present who, out of Christian witness, had given succour to the poor, visited and tended the sick, founded hospitals, almshouses and hospices. Round the cathedral the whole congregation wended its way stopping now and then to honour those, including Cuthbert, who had contributed to the Christian life of the north.
Now what is so striking about Ramsay Gibb’s paintings, which re-enact the saint’s wanderings, is that, unlike what I have just described, they are devoid of human life. Where are the inhabitants the viewer must ask or are we them? On first sight the only being in these landscapes would seem, by implication, to be the painter himself. In that sense he is the pilgrim as he journeys along the paths trod by holy Cuthbert. It is that which invests the pictures with their keen sense of imminence, of an emptiness that precedes some cosmic event. The skies are lowering and intense and the recurring dawns with streaks of gold bathing the landscape or making waters shimmer have echoes of the apocalyptic visions of John Martin. These are landscape of hope for in them the sun does not set but is seen to arise in anticipation of what the new day will bring.
SIR ROY STRONG
Ramsay Gibb was born in Irvine, Ayrshire in 1965, spending his early years on the coast near Troon. Later his family moved to Lancashire, where he studied first at Bolton and then at the University of Brighton. From 1985 he based himself on the Sussex coast, finding subjects in the landscape encompassed by the rivers Adur, Ouse and Cuckmere. In 1998 he moved to East Anglia, drawn to the rivers, coastline and woodlands of Norfolk and Suffolk, with a sympathy for the region’s archaeology manifest in surviving traces of early occupation and agricultural activity. In recent years Gibb has become increasingly interested in getting closer to his Scottish roots with a particular predilection for islands, along with a growing fascination for the North, the seas once dominated by the Vikings. In pursuit of the historical dimension in the landscape of the British Isles, explored first in his 2011 exhibition A first avowed intent: On pilgrim roads from Iona to St. Davids, since early 2012 he has been working within the broad terrain of early Northumbria, developing this theme further in following the old routes taken by pilgrims and holy men in this region’s golden age.
Since 1994 Ramsay Gibb has been represented by Francis Kyle Gallery, participating first in the Jazz exhibition (1995), a project for which he travelled to the Mississippi Delta to interpret in watercolour a sequence of classic settings, urban as well as rural. Subsequently, he was a major participant in the Gallery’s exhibition devoted to woodland: Per una selva oscura - artists take to the forest (1995). From 1995 onwards he has worked mainly in oils, contributing to many of the Gallery’s theme exhibitions, including The Saxon Shore: a portrait of East Anglia in the perspective of history (1997), Everyone Sang: a view of Siegfried Sassoon and his world (2006) and That gong-tormented sea: contemporary painters pursue the idea and reality of Byzantium (2009). Since 2003 Gibb has been developing his approach to landscape in Britain as well as exploring aspects of the northern seas with working visits to the Outer Hebrides, the Shetland Islands, the Faroes, the Lofoten Islands, Finland and the Barents Sea.Nine one-person exhibitions with Francis Kyle Gallery since 1998, including Waterscapes (2004), In the Northern Seas (2006), A first avowed intent (2011) and The Pilgrim Coast (2013), shown first (summer 2013) at the Granary Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed and Woodhorn Museum, Ashington
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