‘Widdershins’ – Moorland Mythic Arts in Moretonhampstead

Moretonhampstead is a little town on the eastern edge of Dartmoor. It’s not far from where I live, but we seldom have a reason to go there, so yesterday was the first time I’d visited Green Hill Arts, a former primary school which has been turned into artists’ studios and a very nice exhibition space.  What drew me there was their new exhibition ‘Widdershins’, featuring paintings, drawings and sculptures on mythic and mystical themes by some of the artists based in or around the nearby town of Chagford, whose most famous members are Brian Froud and Alan Lee.

How I would have loved this exhibition when I was fourteen!  Back then, Froud and Lee were my heroes, but I never got a chance to see any of their original artwork – I just had to pore over their illustrations in books like Faeries, which they illustrated together in 1979.

Nowadays I would usually run a mile to avoid the sort of people who insist on spelling ‘fairy’ with an ‘e’, and Froud seems to have abandoned forever the quirky and beautifully observed landscape backgrounds and strange, foreshortened spaces which were what I always liked best about his work. But it’s still good to see some of his pictures up close, including this ‘Green Man’, (above) which is also used as the exhibition poster.

Wendy Froud, his wife, makes what are basically dolls: troll dolls, faery dolls (definitely faeries with an ‘e’).  She makes them wonderfully well, but unfortunately I feel about dolls the same way that many people feel about clowns – Eugh, they’re so creepy, with their little beady eyes and their winsome, waxy faces! RUN AWAY! Still, she has one piece in this show that I did like very much – a ‘wood troll’ with gnarled stick-like hands and a bunch of actual sticks sprouting from its back. It could have stepped out of one of her husband’s paintings from the ’70s, and it’s clearly a relative of the mystics in the film The Dark Crystal, which Brian Froud designed and Wendy Froud worked on.

Alan Lee is in New Zealand at present, busy with the Hobbit films, but he’s well represented here, with a couple of pencil drawings and the painting of the sleeping Smaug from the illustrated edition of The Hobbit , as well as one of Fangorn Forest from The Lord of the Rings. There’s also a piece of his concept art from the LOTR movies – a loose pencil sketch of Eowyn vs the Nazgul, the battlefield suggested with old-masterish skill and economy by wiry, wandering pencil lines.  And there’s one of his pictures from Faeries too, done in his older, tighter style, and a cover illustration for an anthology called Hist Whist which I think I can remember being fascinated by (and trying to copy) before I even knew who he was.

His daughter, Virginia Lee, seems to have inherited some of his talent: there’s a rather beautiful little relief plaque here of a scene from The Fellowship of the Ring (below, though a photo doesn’t really do it justice). My favourites were two of her pastel drawings; imaginary landscapes in which stone angels’ wings and carvings of the Tinners’ Hares take the place of the stone circles which crown some Dartmoor hilltops.

And it was particularly nice to see some pictures by David Wyatt (with whom I was lucky enough to work on the Larklight trilogy) hanging here among the Frouds and Lees.  His pictures have similar qualities to theirs, while being entirely his own: beautifully drawn, full of invention and visual humour, and steeped in the landscape and atmosphere of Dartmoor.  I’ve pinched the image below from his excellent blog.

Widdershins continues at Green Hill Arts until 10th August. In addition to the artists I’ve mentioned there is also work by Terri Windling, Rima Staines, Hazel Brown (whose little boxes of miniature objects have something of the genuine weirdness of 19th Century fairy art), Neil Wilkinson Cave, and Paul Kidby. And Green Hill are running a tie-in programme of events and workshops, too.  If you are in Devon, or planning to visit during the summer, this is well worth a look.

Details on the Green Hill Arts website or Facebook page.