Cyantotype Exhibition at The Coach House Gallery, Winterbourne House, Edgbaston Birmingham
Stepping into the Coach House Gallery was like stepping into a cool, calm and soulful place. The contrast of the beautiful cornflower blue cyanotypes in the bright white room with the welcoming glass doors, allowing the Spring sun to shine through was delightful. It was as if the captive wildlife in the images could sing and fly off the walls. Birds, moths and reedy grasses, floating feathers and fluttery butterflies all forgotten spectres of nature, present but not present, evocative and ethereal, camouflaged from view by the intense blue reminiscent of the sky they should be free to inhabit. This Nature is captured forever in the cyanotype prints, stilled and preserved forever.
You can hear the BUT thundering along as you realise the impetus behind this work is to encourage preservation of another kind. Anne Guest has a burden to share, her distress at the demise of songbirds, butterflies, habitats and the natural world is challenging. Using the natural beauty of the creatures and plants to illustrate the fragile beauty of their plight is masterly. Guest has captured the birds, and immortalised them, to encourage the viewer to consider the situation. She states that sixty-seven species of bird are endangered and thirty-three of them are songbirds. She challenges us to imagine that we might never hear the Song Thrush or Nightingale and the fading ghostlike images of these beautiful birds are limited to an image, albeit a beautiful one, which is testament to Anne’s skill, but tragic beauty by its possible silence forever.
The quadrant of fine feathers immediately ahead of the entrance is beguiling. The Lightness of Being, here Anne explains the code hidden in the composition.
67 feathers represent the 67 species of birds currently classified as endangered in UK, where 1 in 4 species in UK are endangered which is why I divided the 67 feathers into 4 sectionsAnne Guest correspondence
The delicacy of the feathers offer the perfect example of the cyanotype process. The fine, wispy afterfeather and downy barbs at the base of each one lend themselves to the accuracy of the medium. Careful handling of the feather is imperative to allow the sensitive trembling to be reproduced in the image, and the result is an image light as air where the feathers appear about to blow off the page as soon as a door or window is opened.
The cyanatype process is simple and requires little specialist equipment once the chemicals ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide have been sourced from photography suppliers. Mix equal parts of the chemicals with water as directed and then evenly brush the mixture onto paper. This paper has to withstand water, so watercolour paper is suitable, but this process can also be used on fabric, wood etc. Leave to dry in a dark place and then assemble your objects. Expose the treated paper which is now light sensitive to ultra-violet light either in natural sunlight or a UV lamp. The length of exposure to the light will vary the results, and just a few minutes will produce great images; the longer the exposure the paler the blue colouration. Remove the objects and wash the paper to remove the chemical residue and leave to dry.
Anne has an MA in fine Art from Birmingham City University and enjoys painting, drawing and photography as well as her cyanotypes and she also makes wonderful smoke pictures. Living in the relative countryside near Earlswood in Birmingham she has:
gradually become aware of the natural world again, having already been interested in it, and losing it for a while, but then as everything starts coming back it broadens out and you find the bits you’re really interested in, and then to find what you rediscovered is endangered underlines the fragility and vulnerability of what you previously took for granted.Anne Guest correspondence
Highlighting the demise of the songbird, such as the Song Thrush, is Guest’s quest, so for Bear the Scar she sourced an old, discarded musical score in a charity shop and treated it with the chemical wash. Hand drawn silhouettes of each of the thirty-three endangered species of songbirds in the UK were then placed on the treated score and exposed. The silhouette remains clear and the surrounding area becomes blue. The title of the piece is taken from the score’s lyric visible under a stave in one of the bird outlines.
There is a positive and hopeful side to Anne’s work concentrating on the successful re-introduction of the Large Blue butterfly to parts of Cornwall and south-east Britain. This is a butterfly with a complicated life cycle which contributed to its demise globally and its extinction in the UK in 1979. Feeding on Wild Thyme the butterfly lays eggs in the flowers, they hatch and the larvae then drop to the ground where red ants, attracted by a sweet secretion from the larvae, take them into their brood chamber. Here the larvae feed on the ant grubs and pupate before emerging from the ground. Anne has chosen circles of wood to be treated with the cyanotype process to celebrate this successful re-introduction with Blue Haven. The arrangement gives the Large Blue dominance, showing the spidery, delicate antennae and the illumination edging the wings. Cradled in vegetation and balanced on a far smaller disc the work accentuates the vulnerability of the butterfly and its habitat.
Eventually the Song Becomes a Sigh 1 and 2, also uses the cyanotype on wood. Four circles in each work showing songbirds and a representation of their song below in gold. The gold expresses the precious nature of the song and highlights its worth and therefore the sadness at its loss. We see the birds in their ghostly representation as they appear to disappear as we strive to see clearly the detail of the bird’s markings and attribute a species and a name. The fact that a great deal of the identification of a species is often down to the sounds it makes, is also testament to the lack of sound and the vibrancy of its song in life. Guest’s birds are present, but elusive, tantalisingly tangible, but spectres of their true selves.
The true sadness of this exhibition is that it has been lost in the pandemic that is Covid-19. Open for just a few days before the ban on public spaces forced its closure one cannot help thinking there are parallels to the plight of the birds and nature in general. The loss of the bird’s habitat, the Wild Thyme for the butterfly and the mistreatment of the environment has wreaked havoc for the decline in native species.
The causes of the losses are the intensification of farming, pollution from fertiliser, manure and plastic, the destruction of habitats for houses, the climate crisis and invasive alien species. The State of Nature report shows no significant improvement since the last one in 2016, which said the UK was “among the most nature-depleted countries in the world.”Damian Carrington
The Guardian Environment editor
Thu 3 Oct 2019 19.00 BST
The irony is that as people are experiencing a lockdown and social distancing, making some of our towns comparatively empty some animals are returning, curious to take advantage of the changes. People are hearing birdsong in the absence of traffic noise, and pollution levels have dropped significantly. Maybe lessons can be learned and a renewed reverence for nature with the realisation of mankind’s impact on the environment will alter our perspective. There is still time to save some of this endangered wildlife if we would just recognise the cause and cure.
Anne Guest artist website.
The Winterbourne House and Garden is open to the public, or at least will be when the pandemic had ceased, please check the website. The Coach House Gallery is located in the beautiful estate.
Richard Nicholls photography where stated (otherwise my amateur photography Karen Parker)