Judith Yarrow: landscape painter in the age of the Climate Emergency

On a morning of sunshine and early-summer flowers, we went out to talk to Judith Yarrow, a British landscape artist. Judith has travelled Britain and the world as both an ardent walker and a painter. She has paused to make quick sketches and sat for hours on bitter days to capture landscapes. Working in both drawing and painting as well as print and mixed-media techniques, her style is now as experienced as it is accomplished.

We sit down in her kitchen over lunch to talk to her about nature, art and the modern world. Her landscapes, so often windswept, wintry and atmospheric, make me feel I should be wearing two jumpers and drinking hot chocolate by the fire just to be able to discuss them properly. But Judith is as eloquent at discussing the landscapes she paints, as she is at painting them.

Through the seasons, she says, we see part of the changes in the land. It is this that she values most in often returning to paint the same places. ‘I mean, I particularly like the landscape in the winter, because you see the bones of it more and the colours are more interesting, I don’t really like deep summer, those very dark greens, I’m not so keen on, I like bad weather really,’ she explains. ‘There’s an atmosphere, you sort of pit yourself against it a bit more.’

Yet, it isn’t only the colours of winter that she values. She tells us that it also impacts the way she works. On walking holidays, if she is with family or friends, she can only pause long enough to keep a brief sketchbook to take home and work from later. But if she goes out alone, she can pursue another way of working. Recently she has been trying to do the whole painting outside. This is where her relationship with cold weather comes into its own. Having the weather and the temperature and the sounds and movement of the light through the whole working process, she says, galvanises her, 'especially if you are bit uncomfortable,' she explains amused. She says, ‘you are not driven on if it’s too easy on a nice warm day, you get more energy on colder days, you have to make faster decisions.’

A basket of sketchbooks in the studio

She also feels that in good weather it can be difficult to work and be satisfied, she says she almost feels that she can’t live up to it, it’s so spectacular, you feel you can’t make the most of a really lovely day. On a horrid day, going out is different. Walking and dog walking got her through her treatment during illness, and she tells us the value she found in rooting herself again in the mud and cold breeze after visiting the hospital. She says it was the sort of exercise that gives you energy rather being depleting. She describes walking, especially repeating a walk you know, as a form of meditation that allows you to notice what is around you and to notice the changes as the seasons move on.

She talks about how walking is an ancient thing, shown even by the archaeological impressions sometimes found of footprints. She feels it embeds people in the landscape and gives us our place in the different ‘levels of change.’ By this she means that in painting a landscape, the way you see it, it seems timeless compared to the pace of our own lives. In nature there are many different experiences of time happening at once. There is the seasonal change, the change that agriculture creates and responds to, but also the longer, slower geological scale of time at the base of these ‘layerings’ of change.

Walking and understanding landscape, engaging in it, is for her part of an ancient sense of humanity. Walking is something she does - never to reach the top of mountain for the goal of achievement, but rather to see the view and for the sake of walking itself. ‘It’s one of the things I like most,’ she says. ‘Walking and the pace, because it’s our natural pace, isn’t it, and it’s what people have always done. We’ve always walked, that’s always been the way we’ve got around, so to walk and to see where you’ve come from and where you’re going and to put one foot in front of the other, I think it roots you and it roots you back in time with all the people who came before, you know, and the people that will come.’

There is also a personal dimension here. Her childhood holidays were often in Pembrokeshire and then repeatedly to the same place in North Wales, with which she still has a particular bond, based on a house her parents had there. She talks about how much it still means to her to really know the area. ‘When I draw up there, I’ve always painted or drawn all the mountains, we’ve climbed all the mountains that you can see, all the ones you can see around in the distance, in the view, you know we’ve climbed.I really like that sort of intimacy.’ Holidays in general were less regular, foreign and exotic travel not expected and so, for her, any trip took on a different significance. And now, still visitingNorth Wales, her parents come back to her in landscapes that she knew with them and walked with them – she can hear things her mother said of that place – she thinks this must be the relationship aborigines have with the land, remembering that only their food and clothing and everything they need for life comes from the land, but also their ancestors as well. Even now with all our ‘mod cons’ she still feels that we have memories in the landscape. For her it is in Wales that she is with her parents again and that she is walking alongside them.

I ask if painting landscape was a conscious choice she made as an artist, or it was something she simply always did.

The landscape artist Judith Yarrow in her studio
Judith Yarrow with one of her unfolding books of nature paintings

‘Yes,’ she says, ‘it has always been what I’ve painted and drawn, from when I was quite little. I actually found, (because I do book-making as well), I’d done these little books on cycling to my studio, when I had a studio in the next village, on roadside verges and the flowers that you found in the different seasons. And I did a Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter book with little pictures of the flowers all named. And I found when I was looking through some stuff, a little book that I’d made when I was about six, a book that I’d sewn together, I’ve got it downstairs, with little pressed flowers and pictures of the flowers that I’d drawn, with their names, and I thought, "oh gosh, I haven’t really changed". I’ve always enjoyed doing them.’

She describes her childhood as having been ‘exceptional’ but only in ways she understood years later. Brought up in a Quaker-built village in Buckinghamshire, where all the homes were hand-built and the community maintained an idealistic quality, she had perhaps unusual access to nature in the beech woods where she would play and build dens and gather wildflowers to sell for charity in jam-jars at a stall with her sister.

Looking back on work she did as a school-girl, that was accepted into a Junior Exhibition at the Royal Academy, she recognises not only a choice to depict landscape, but the same observational interest she still has now. ‘I think there is, it’s almost like you’ve got something within you, and if you can find it, it’s what's true to you, somehow,’ she says.

I ask her if she feels the landscape artist has a particular role in this, the climate change era.

‘Yes,’ she says, ‘if you observe, if you put it down as an image – you are drawing attention and showing people what is there and what is special about it - if you frame a landscape that is what you’re doing.’ Though she does not feel that she is in a position to influence that many people, she knows that not everyone will relate to her work, ‘if you don’t walk in bad weather, in remote landscapes, then you won’t understand what it’s about!’ she says. But she agrees that any power to normalise engaging in nature plays its part. Friends have sometimes told her that they have been reminded of her paintings when visiting similar landscapes themselves. She has also been told by people who’ve bought her work, that they have been inspired to go out themselves and find the real place that is now hanging framed on their wall, whether Orkney, the Peak District or more distant climes where Judith has taken more intrepid walking trips.

She says that, as Climate Change is something we can control, we need to do it. She feels that anyone who is engaged, whether through gardening or walking, is going to feel the need to save the amazing complexity of the natural world. So some cyclical climate patterns may be beyond us and we can’t guarantee our own future but engaging is the way to care. Though, were humanity to face an extinction, she does question whether it would be such a bad thing, ‘when we’re making such a mess of things’ she says.

For herself, she feels now that her relationship to landscape has its heritage in the Victorian philosophy of the Romantic Sublime. Favourite painters of hers, like Samuel Palmer, saw things in the landscape that were neither to do with nature as a dangerous place to be feared and avoided, nor to do with working the land for agriculture. The time in her own life that she has spent working on farms and even now keeping bees, she says, makes you see nature differently. In its own way though, it also makes you engage, you have to work out, she says, why one year is better than another, why a season is particularly good or bad. You have to keep track of what is going on around you. There are different ways of relating to the countryside around you.

Judith Yarrow's aisle in her studio with landscape painting of an allotment

A current project of hers is painting a nearby allotment, now threatened by a planned by-pass. It is an interesting place to work, she says, not wild, but domestic and detailed with sheds, and plots and all sorts of unexpected items being invented and re-used by resourceful gardeners. She says that when you actually stand and observe for three hours, collecting the information in a drawing, the focus is wonderful though tiring. All other thoughts have to go away so you can concentrate. When she was ill and couldn’t concentrate to work, she really missed drawing like this. ‘I missed letting the positive things in – lovely things coming into you and being grounded – being in a landscape grounds you,’ she says. Drawing in nature is for her, just like walking, a form of meditation, one with restorative power.

More about Judith Yarrow's work and upcoming exhibitions can be found here.

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