The QT

Friday 14 June 2024

A Londoner’s labour of love in rural Northumberland

Christy Burdock reflects on eight months under Northumberland’s dark sky ahead of her farewell exhibition, telling David Whetstone all about the experience
Christy Burdock with two of her paintings in the barn at Highgreen

Labour of Love is the title Christy Burdock has chosen for the exhibition that concludes her residency at Highgreen, the Northumberland estate where occasional windswept walkers on the Pennine Way is the nearest you’ll get to a crowd.

You really will believe it’s been a labour of love. It has generated so much art!

Ahead of the final hang, it lies in readiness on window sills, on a sofa and stacked against chairs.

Some of it, owing to a colour palette worthy of a chameleon, appears to be growing out of the stone walls.

There are photographs in the kitchen, framed drawings in the room next door and just two large paintings currently hanging in the barn that will serve as the gallery this weekend (June 8 and 9).

Work waiting to be displayed including beechwood portraits

They chime perfectly with their rustic surroundings and although the leaves have been swept into piles, Christy rather likes them and is thinking about letting them lie. 

All this was produced during an eight month span that began at the onset of winter when she arrived from London, knowing no-one and with no firm idea of what she was going to do.

Sitting in the studio where she has spent much of her time, she remembers her first visit, one afternoon before the start of her stint as the latest artist-in-residence at Highgreen, headquarters of VARC (Visual Arts in Rural Communities).

“Alien… that’s what I thought. I knew nothing about this area. I live near Waterloo so I’m very much London-based.

“I did win an award in Edinburgh once and consequently went up to Dundee for a bit and had a show there. But that’s Scotland.

Visual Arts in Rural Communities… where the art happens

“I applied for this because it was novel. I’d never worked in a place like this before. That meant I could go in blind… although nothing prepared me for the dark skies!”

Accommodation, a studio, a final exhibition and acre upon rolling acre of solitude, along with those dark skies and a plentiful supply of weather, are VARC’s offer to a resident artist.

If, normally, you never open your door without seeing lots of people, it can take a degree of adjustment.

“I quite quickly thought, well, I can’t stay here,” recalls Christy with a laugh. “No-one’s going to come and see me because there’s no-one here.”

Not strictly true, of course, although to reach Highgreen you travel for four miles along a single track road and while you probably will see sheep, you’re unlikely to see a human being.

For someone accustomed to regular visits to the National Gallery and the House of Commons — “I’m curious. I like to see what’s going on” — north Northumberland was always likely to be a bit of a culture shock to Christy Burdock.

But having decided she must venture out she found her way to the nearest pub in search of what might pass for the locals.

In particular, she was interested in meeting people born in the area and to a particular way of life, whose families had perhaps been here for generations. 

“I’m not a pub-goer,” she insists. 

Christy in her Highgreen studio

But she went regularly until people grew accustomed to her presence and learned she could laugh at herself. Conversations began. Soon, as she has written in an essay accompanying her exhibition, she identified those with roots seeming to grow out of their boots.

“This group of people, immersed in a way of life tied to the land, weather and animals, became my main area of research.”

That word ‘research’ might sound alarming. But the way Christy explains it, it sounds like nurturing friendships (as far as friendships can be nurtured in such a short time).

It was a ‘delicate’ process, she says, a careful building of mutual trust and respect founded, for her part, on being seen to be doing things.

Not for her the chin-stroking periods waiting for the muse to sashay into view. Early on, she decided not to be seen doing sketches on bits of paper but to work on wood.

People she met talked a lot about wood, she says. Firewood, that is. Where to source it, the price and efficacy of it. Also, wood grows everywhere, shaping the landscape. Wood is akin to work.

Beechwood portrait by Christy Burdock

“I came to work,” says Christy firmly.

“I’m a grafter, a worker. Should have been a plumber. I’m a proper ‘get up, work, go to bed’ person.

“People decided quite quickly, I think. Call it integrity. No-one’s stupid. I think people could see quite quickly, ‘This girl means it. She’s not here to relax. God knows what she is doing but she’s not here to relax’.”

Christy laughs heartily at the way some people will say, ‘Don’t like art’.

She doesn’t seem to mind and it seems a lot of people came to not mind her. They cooked for her and she cooked for them. Someone gave her game and someone else enough mutton to see her through winter.

Lambing… Christy Burdock captures a moment

A man took her out on his motorbike, another read her poetry. A woman who invited her for a meal at her large house apologised for having rats. They had a laugh about it and Christy put one in a picture.

Christy says the residency generated more portraits than she would normally do, and they look appealing on their beechwood discs, durable and substantial.

When I liken a painting to something by Marc Chagall, famous for his flying figures, she promptly says: “Movement.”

That’s it. Her pictures are full of movement. While at Highgreen she joined people for some Scottish dancing and in a picture of Hexham auction mart she has the cows in the ring doing something very similar.

She confesses: “I did feel a bit sorry for the cattle being sold so thought I’d give them a bit of agency.”

Scenes at Hexham mart by Christy Burdock

Lest she seem like a sentimental townie, she also tells me of the lengths she saw farming people go to in tending their animals, particularly during lambing when it’s all hands on deck.

One woman, portrayed bending over a prone four-legged body, is ‘a super-nurse with animals’, she says. She can even tell if one’s depressed, apparently, and has a proven remedy.

Christy was delighted when one of the pictures she produced during her residency won a prize in a competition in Birmingham. 

She would love to see others end up in a museum of rural life — she’s a fan of museums, particularly small town museums which ‘tell stories so well’ — but all are for sale.

VARC headquarters at Highgreen

Due to return to the bustle of London once the exhibition’s done, Christy says the Highgreen experience won’t necessarily end there. 

“I’ll probably do more work in my studio. These people will never leave. They’re always in your heart.”

Christy’s Labour of Love exhibition can be seen on Saturday (June 8) from 11am to 5pm (refreshments provided and a guided tour by Christy at 2pm) and Sunday (June 9) from 11am to 2pm.

For details about how to get to Highgreen (the postcode is NE48 1RP), visit the VARC website.


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