Norman Nicholson. Selected Poems 1940-1982

Norman Nicholson lives our own childhood, by proxy! To hear the names of his own childhood, Duddon, Cleator Moor, Millom and the same Black Combe that was the horizon of my youth, raises ghosts of many summers past.

Nicholson sounds ringing bells in all our lives. For those who have lived on north western shores, in “Shingle”, ‘It surges down-/ Slow underpull/ Of heavy grey waves/ Meeting the sea’s/ surge upwards. He isn’t talking about the Mediterranean, this is, undoubtedly, the Irish Sea. For those with a love of country I “To the River Duddon”, ‘…wet woods and wood-soil and woodland flowers,/ Tutson, the St. John’s-wort with a single yellow wad/ Marsh marigold, Creeping Jenny and daffodils. The heady aroma of that same wet wood-soil of our country-days, fills the corners of our memory.

But, most of all, his poems share. They share our loss of family. They share our memories of that planet that we used to inhabit when we were young. They share those ‘characters’ that enriched our lives, as in the “Old Man at the Cricket Match”.

Norman Nicholson’s language is the language that we all speak. His emotions are ones that we all recognise. But, most importantly, the music of his poetry has a beauty that we can all share.

“Selected Poems. 1940-1982” is a lovely little book, leaving you not only wanting more, but knowing a little bit more about yourself.



Sheila Fell. A Passion for Paint.

Sheila Fell was a woman. She was beautiful. She was born in West Cumberland. She is a massively underrated artist.

Sheila Fell was born in 1931, in Aspatria, a mining town like all those doomed towns of the area, Workington and Whitehaven in particular, where employment was becoming increasingly difficult to find. The indomitable spirit of the people of the area was exemplified by her parents, Jack, a miner, and Annie, who took in sewing to keep ‘hearth and home’ together. Poverty was endemic, the family lived ‘on the edge of dread’.

 Jack, like many Cumbrian men had joined the Border Regiment, at Carlisle, at the outset of World War One. In 1916, he was hit by shrapnel and his lungs were badly burned in a gas attack. He returned home, in a wheelchair, but, within a year, was back at ‘the pit’. These men’s resolve, and sheer courage, seems to be beyond belief, in the twenty first century, but his case was not isolated. Many men took it as their bounden duty to support their family, and were  determined to do so against all odds, their wives supporting them. They were true giants. The greatness of the Cumbrian people of that era would be shrugged off by those that can remember. But greatness it was.

Her mother, Annie, was an immaculate housekeeper, was ‘chapel’ and was highly respected in Aspatria. She loved poetry, could play the piano and the harmonium and gave Sheila a passion for music and literature. She also showed ‘iron’ determination to keep her family provided for, as she sat at her treadle sewing machine.

Jack was ‘ laid off’ in 1936 and had to travel the 35 miles to Parton, near Whitehaven, for work. He lodged there on the windswept shores of the Solway. A pit fire eventually closed the face and he moved to Siddick Pit, closer to home, but both his kegs were crushed when rotting pit props collapsed. He joined up with the Air Ministry Police in 1939 and stayed with them, at Silloth, until 1959.

Sheila attended Grammar School in Wigton. Of that time her cousin said ” She was very private,very self-preoccupied, and had a powerful inner life – not touchable emotionally. I was frightened of her because of her intensity.” at school, with support of her Art Teacher, she developed, “She worked with absolute concentration and seriousness.” Her music teacher wanted he to go to music college, her Headteacher wanted her to take up languages at university, but she won a scholarship to attend Carlisle College of Art. The die was cast.

 In 1955 she came to the attention of L.S.Lowry, who saw her work and asked to meet her. This friendship, of kindred spirits,  would last till his death in 1976. He would visit her parents, in Aspatria, he had a particularly close relationship with her dad. Sheila and he would go on sketching expeditions, where she would sketch and he would wander around, watch and talk. She said of him,” He was marvelously humorous, inquisitive, mischievous as a child, gentle . . . but had shrewdness and understanding.” He lived to see her elected to the Royal Academy in 1974, as did her dad, who also died in 1976.

Sheila Fell’s work speaks volumes about her intensity and her dedication to her art. Her life, like that of all true artists, was complicated. She was a heavy drinker and one December morning she was found dead at the bottom of the stairs of her flat. One of her friend’s, who helped identify the body said, ” she looked like an Aztec queen – this unbelievably grand death mask, as it were. Absolutely reposed, but this amazing profile – unforgettable.”

The book, by Cate Haste, ‘Sheila Fell. A Passion for Paint’ is a must read for anyone interested in Cumberland, the work of a wonderful artist, the workings of the creative mind or just a story of our times. The illustrations are lavish, and well printed, the text is lovingly written by Cate Haste and relates Sheila Fell’s work to her life with sensitivity and grace. What a wonderful book about a truly marvellous artist.

Poor Start for Stade Rennais.

Stade Rennais start this season where they ended the last campaign, battering at brick walls! A goal mid way through the first half was all Lille needed, they could, and should, have had more. Les Rouge  et Noir found themselves playing the same game that had failed last year, playing the ball endlessly across the park and, then, putting their own teammates under pressure, by playing the ball into crowded areas,the places where the ball is lost and mistakes made. And… it was and … they were!

The brightest part of the evening was the new signing Alessandrini, who put the Lille defence under pressure, by attacking spaces out wide and trying to put Montano into scoring positions, which he did, without Rennes finding the net . There’s a ray of hope there. M’vila came on, in the second half, to a mixed reception, and made little difference. Pittroipa has been ‘worked out’ by Ligue 1 defences, and rarely threatens. He performed the odd trick, and always looks a ‘slippery customer’ on his way to nowhere in particular. He rarely looked like putting Erding or Kembo clear on goal, or getting there himself.
All in all, this was a pretty miserable game, which Lille were in total control of, whether they had the ball or not. Rennes haven’t learned that, to play that sort of game, you need players of top quality, we haven’t got them, we’ve got honest toilers. No-one seems to want to attack opposition defences, they’re too intent on just retaining the ball, for retentions sake. Barcelona have got a lot to answer for, lower down the food chain.
Odd flashes of hopefulness, from Rennes, again led to crowd frustration, when the ball was blazed wide or given away. The defence looked vulnerable around Kana Biyik, Apam always looks as if he’s about to commit a gaffe. Pajot and Danze worked really hard, as always, and Costil looked sound.
It was last year all over again! Slow, slow, without the quick, quick before the next slow! Tribune Ouest France, or the  lower tier, at least, was quiet and patient (and loyal!), I don’t know how long that will last! Mid table mediocrity beckons. The ‘acid test’ will be Lyon, next Saturday. How often is the first game of the season a ‘must win’ one?  But I think this one is, if only to give the players, and the crowd, the confidence to think that we can attack the best, and win. I do hope that there is a good season in prospect. Fingers crossed.

Who is Percy Kelly?

Percy Kelly. Who is Percy Kelly? A question that six months ago I could not have answered.

Then, an innocuous book review in ‘The Guardian’ caught my eye. It wasn’t the name ‘Kelly’ that attracted me. I wasn’t looking, particularly, for the review. I was just scanning the  ‘Arts’ section and my eye latched on to one word, ‘Workington’. My family has lived, since the mid-1800s, in the town, and although those that live there now, or in Whitehaven or Harrington, are really distant relatives the name of the town still rings an ancestral chord.
There was a picture to illustrate the article, only a small one, but enough to engage my attention. I read on. The review, of ‘ The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Drawing’ by Chris Wadsworth, was a good one. It seemed that the reviewer had just discovered Percy Kelly himself for the first time. The article drew me in.
By the time I had finished the review I knew that I wanted to know more about this extraordinary man. Workington is a town that still exudes an aura of warmth for me. Not in a scenic way, as the steelworks, the pits, the docks have declined, in the same way as in many of our industrial towns. The area where my family lived, the Marsh, can only be glimpsed, as a ghostly footprint, from the top of the grassy gnoll that was once the slag heap. Indeed a childhood memory is of sleeping in Uncle Dick and Aunt Ethel’s house, on the end of Berry Street, and watching the little train chugging up the ‘bank’, at night, and tipping its cargo of molten ash into the deep blackness? What a a glorious sight for a child. But it’s  the people, and their natural Cumbrian spirit and friendliness, that are the glory of the town.
But Workington, as the home of an artist? That was a new one on me. I had heard of Sheila Fell, and loved her landscapes, but she was from nearby  Aspatria. I ordered the book on my new toy, an i pad. I’d almost forgotten about it, when it arrived at the local La Poste, in St. Brice.
From the very first picture, the ‘Red Field’ and the very first charcoal  drawing, ‘ Bank Barn’, I  was drawn in. The quality of his draughtsmanship, his eye for perspective, his calligraphy and the ability to express his feelings, and emotions, into his art, are mesmerising. His individuality, and the strength, and confidence, that they exude take the breath away. For a rank amateur, such as myself, there is little consolation  in the fact that he, like me, has eyes, like me, he paints and draws with a pencil or brush in his hand and he, like me, is a mere mortal. His work is pure genius.
He was born in Workington. He worked for the Post Office, in Kendal and Workington. In 1939, with his twin brother, he joined up, in the Border Regiment, of course, as all my family had done in 1914, but was soon transferred to the Royal Signals. His drawing skills had been discovered. He was posted to GHQ in London, and was billeted in a small room, next to the Cabinet War Rooms. Of course, as in all good war stories, he met, on several occasions, Winston Churchill, with whom he discussed their shared passion, for painting. Some of his work was exhibited at an exhibition of service men’s work at the National Gallery. So far, so believable. He wasn’t a soldier, and army life became a trial. He had a belief that he was always right, not an immediately attractive trait to officers and ‘non-coms’, so was often in trouble for indiscipline.
When the war ended he was posted to Germany, where, he found, he almost completely lost his muse. He was unable to feel at ease in the country of ‘the enemy’.
On his return, he played professional football, under Bill Shankley, at Workington Town, the ‘Reds’, and he was married. He rejoined the Post Office. His wife, Audrey, had ambition for him, within the GPO, she wasn’t interested in art. They had a child, Brian. As with a lot of ex-servicemen Percy had problems readjusting to civilian life and he became depressed and unhappy.
The Kellys took a Post Office near Cockermouth, which gave  Percy more time to spend on his art, whilst Audrey ran the shop. His son, Brian said ” My dad was a genius. He just wanted to draw and paint but my mother wanted him to be the Postmaster General.”
He had a nervous breakdown and the family moved to Allonby, whilst Audrey supported them, working at Dovenby Psychiatric Hospital.
Percy always seemed to attract women who would care for him. There had been his mother, then Audrey, and then, through the poet, Norman Nicholson, he met Helen Sutherland, a patron of the arts who lived at Dockray, near Ullswater. Through her interest and the influence of her house which contained Courbets, Mondrians,  Hepworths, Moores and Picassos, Percy was fired to apply for a course at the Carlisle College of Art. He couldn’t get a grant, he was, at 41, considered far too old, but he won a place. He then ‘worked’ his way through college. The usual route, part time jobs, the Christmas post at 41!
The work he produced at college included a series of studies of industrial scenes in, and around, Carlisle. He drew on building sites, Citadel Station, Carlisle Brewery and Whitehaven docks and the villages around Whitehaven, Lowca, Moresby, Parton. His love of Cumberland starts to glow from his work, not in vivid colours, but in ‘real’ Cumberland, natural, shades. The totally beguiling beauty of his water colour pieces, particularly the haunting ‘Lorton Fells from Pardshaw’, leave you wanting more.

The ‘detective’ work for this book, carried out by Chris Wadsworth , draws  you slowly in to the work of PK. But this isn’t her only book with Percy Kelly themes. She wrote a series of collected stories, ‘Hercules and the Farmer’s Wife’, stories connected to the art world, and artists she has known. In ‘The Man who couldn’t stop Drawing’ she refers to a relationship he had, whilst at college, with a 17 year old, Rosanna Vergowan. She was a girl, from an eccentric family, who lived at Rigg Beck, up the Newlands Valley. Sadly for Percy his ‘love’ was not reciprocated, but he did visit Rigg Beck and started to correspond with Rosi. His letters were a portent of the future, because they were illustrated. The letters are an important part of understanding Kelly, and Chris Wadsworth handles them with care, but doesn’t ‘duck’ the issues. Audrey, his wife, senses that something is ‘going on’, but it isn’t until you read the short piece in ‘Hercules . . .’ that you find out that, on one occasion, Audrey followed him to Rigg Beck and confronted him. She knew. In addition, the house, painted,  bizarrely, purple, was a house with a history for many young artists, poets and actors. Ted Hughes, Shelagh Delaney, Victoria Wood, Bob Hoskins, they all stayed at Rigg Beck.The familiar themes of the ‘ always going to be thwarted’ older man falling for a woman more than twenty years younger are played out here. We have a “She’s behind you!” moment. You just know what’s going to happen, and it does!

But the manner of the separation falls like a bombshell. We have been ‘coasting’ secure in the knowledge that Percy is a man who needs the strength of a woman, his mother, his wife, Helen Sutherland, Rosanna Vergowan, all played a rôle.
Percy was starting to have problems with his eyes, he thought he was losing his sight. He visited a doctor in Pardshaw, just outside Whitehaven, and was greeted at the door by the doctor’s wife. Paul and Chris Griffiths, the doctor and his wife, were invited to see Percy’s cottage, on the coast, at Allonby.  Audrey was suspicious of his ‘arty’ friends, this wasn’t her scene at all. She had been introduced into the ‘Art Establishment’ in London, and had met Princess Margaret, now that was more to her taste!
One evening, Audrey returned home to find a stranger, sitting, in the half light, in the armchair in their cottage. The clothes were familiar, they were hers! The ‘woman’ was, in fact, Percy. That was it. She threw him out, there and then, and had the locks changed. She only saw him once again . . .  in court! All he wanted from the marriage was his work, Audrey had burned his passport and driving licence, she wasn’t for giving it up. The judge awarded Percy one penny and his precious work.
Chris and Percy married and, eventually, went to live in a run down cottage in Pembrokeshire, with two of Chris’s  three children. It is now 1973. Percy had corresponded with her other child, Kim, with more of those gorgeous illustrated letters. The trials and tribulations he submitted his wife and step children to were beyond belief.
In St. David’s he continued his transvestism, much to everyone’s embarrassment. But Percy found great difficulty in parting with his work, consequently life was a constant struggle against penury. The sheer volume of work continued to flow. It is fair to say that the love with which he paints Cumberland, is emphasised by the fact that there seems to be less positive emotion in the work produced in Wales. There is a real darkness of the soul. He hated selling his work, even when his new cottage, or his cars, needed work or when basic family needs were in need of addressing. He loved his work. Not just the actual physical tasks of painting and drawing, but the pieces themselves. They were his family.
At the age of 60, in 1980, Percy and Chris moved, once again, to Pear Tree Cottage, Rockland St. Peter,  in Norfolk. He obviously had a ‘thing’ about names! By 1983 Chris had had enough and left him, emotionally battered. He was totally alone, and a long way from Cumberland.
Now another woman entered his life. Joan David had seen one of Percy’s paintings, at a friend’s house, and wanted to buy one. She wrote to him. This kind, and generous woman was to become his ‘rock’. But, importantly, this correspondence, which carried on until his death, resulted in a a collection of illustrated letters which became the basis of another study by Chris Wadsworth. They are, truly, magical. The joy of receiving a letter is tangible, but to receive letters like these beggars belief. They are pure delight.
Meanwhile, Percy, who had been secretly taking Chris’s HRT, had developed  breasts and was more openly exhibiting his gender confusion. He changed his name to Roberta. Oddly, the darkness of the work he produced in Wales disappeared when his feminine side became more dominant in Norfolk, and his touch, and palette, become visibly lighter.
Percy died in 1993, a lonely, and confused man. The remarkable Joan David died in 2000, but not before she was instrumental in bringing Percy’s son Brian, and Chris, together to save the enormous number of art works ‘stashed’ at Pear Tree Cottage. A serendipitous miracle!
The story of the discovery and development of his career since his death is admirably, and sensitively, told in ‘The man who couldn’t stop drawing’, ‘Hercules and the Farmer’s Wife’, ‘The Painted Letters of Percy Kelly’ and ‘Whitewash and Brown Paint-Lovely’, all by Chris. Wadsworth.

His story could have died with him and his paintings and drawings been destroyed, without the determination of Chris. to preserve, and develop, Percy Kelly’s reputation. The books that she has produced, including a collection of his charcoal sketches, are stunning, in demonstrating the quality, and range, of his work, in whatever medium, and on whatever surface, whether they be paintings, sketches or letters. His life is a fascination, at times you want to just shake him, “Get a grip! Get real!” But, after the frustration, to sit and quietly enjoy his skill, his genius, is a delight, and that is with no small thanks to Chris Wadsworth herself.