Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Winter Flowers: The Life and Work of Lorna Graves 1947-2006: A Memoir by Clare Crossman. Bookcase. £12.
“Thoos touched, thoo is.” That was what the other children used to say to Lorna Graves when she was growing up as a child in Brampton. The farming children may have found her different, “mad”, but Lorna felt that she was different, “chosen, being linked to other worlds and different ways of being and understanding . . . I was at the centre of my own golden world.”
It was this absolute personal assurance of the golden world around her that was the essence of Lorna Graves’s art.
Her sculptures have an honest simplicity and purity. A raku sculpture of an animal is of a creature – dog, sheep, wolf – it is only identifiable as a four-legged mammal, standing firm on its thick legs with its head stretching yearningly forward – it seems an animal reduced to its essence.
A similar creature made of bronze balances a silver sickle moon on its head.
A small painting in gouache and pastel shows a similar creature, bright in the light of a moon in a sky alive with clouds. Beneath the creature’s legs lies an elongated naked woman. It is a picture, named enigmatically Legend, which resonates with meaning and yet which yields no specific interpretation.
It is the naturalness, the directness of this symbolism, which makes Lorna’s work so quietly powerful. A small raku construction in ceramic and wood is of a stone arch, crudely inscribed with a frame with a wooden door.
She wrote that “The Beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath. . . . We do not weave the web of life we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web we do to ourselves.”
Lorna emerged from a difficult childhood. She was born in Kendal in 1947. Her mother was Kathleen Hardisty who earned a living of sorts as a hired labourer on Cumbrian farms. Her father, John Postlethwaite Airey Percival Graves, the son of a Cumbrian vicar, described himself as “a gentleman of independent means” and spent his life living in hotels. When Lorna was born, he left. Kathleen managed as best she could. Lorna remembered: “I sat with the hens and gathered under their wings for warmth and protection.” Her mothered worked at Boustead Hill, Walton and Crosby-on-Eden. Lorna was sent to a foster home in Denton Holme. Without a blade of grass or her mother’s arms, she remembered it as “a dark, itinerant time”. Then she was placed in Scotby Children’s Home. When she was seven Lorna’s mother returned. She had qualified as a nurse, had married and Lorna became part of this new family and they went to live in Brampton.
She came to live in an imaginary world. “My reality was the mysterious, the beautiful, the awesome, the presence of people, things and places.”
She attended Carlisle College of Art and Bedford College in London. She lived in Paris, London and Cambridge, but she returned to Cumbria, to the North Pennines, the land of the Helm Wind, where “the winter landscape with its bones and bareness has a truth about it.”
Kathleen Raine felt that Lorna’s work had “a kind of grave simplicity, something tender and enduring”. Her gentle work with its quiet power, which seemed to speak so simply and honestly, gradually became known and was being exhibited in many galleries. In 2006 she was taken seriously ill with cancer of the kidneys. She refused any treatment that contained animal matter. She died on 23rd July 2006.
Clare Crossman has written an affectionate biography of her friend. The spirit of Lorna Graves emerges from her thoughtful diaries and poetry and from the quiet presence of her works.