I have recently been spending time with my parents in the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire. On a bright sunny Sunday morning I explored some of the winding tracks of a near by village called Chalford and Chalford Hill. Where is that? In the South West-ish of the English Midlands ( see map below). The Parish of Chalford is contained in the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Beauty
Chalford Parish stretches a fair way over this part of the Cotswolds. Chalford Hill is a steep valley within the parish. There are four other historic settlements in the parish. The villages are Chalford Hill (1 on map above), France Lynch (2), Brownshill (3), Old Bussage (4), Chalford Vale (5) and Manor Village (aka Bussage) (6). Much of my information comes from a publication by the Chalford Parish Council (see the last link at the bottom of the blog)
The original villages of Chalford, Chalford Hill, France Lynch, Bussage and Brownshill were squatter settlements for handloom weavers and other cloth workers as a result of the expansion of the woollen industry in the early Middle Ages and later. The valley road through Chalford was first developed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. From the later 18th century, when the valley bottom offered no further sites, cottages were built on the hillsides above, an area sometimes referred to as Little Switzerland.
As the wool trade ebbed and flowed, so did the population and prosperity of the area, though the opening of the Thames and Severn Canal in 1789 helped to create further, if different, jobs, at least for a time. The next important change was the opening of the Great Western Railway line in 1845, built along the valley beside the canal. A station was opened in Chalford village in 1897 and there was also a halt west of the village. Both stations closed in 1964. Today the next station stop is Stroud.
The Parish is renowned for its steep hillsides and scarp edges as well as it’s narrow roads and footpaths many of which have a gradient between 10% and 25% Behind many of the honey-coloured houses are narrow paths that stretch over an incredible 28 km within the parish. These tracks lead up some very steep hillsides. In the past the narrow mud tracks allowed workers to quickly reach the mills in the valley by foot – a majority of the paths leading straight down hill. Although you might be forgiven for thinking this is mountain goat country it was donkeys that did all the heavy carrying in the past. Today this is 4×4 country.
These tracks enabled goods (food and coal) to be transported up and down the hill by donkey. These days alpacas are becoming a common sight in Britain and Ireland but back in the day Chalford was the domain of the donkey aka “Neddy” or “Ned”.
Donkeys were used until the 1930s to deliver bread, coal and other household items to people’s doorsteps (Jennie being the name of one of the donkeys). In fact, many front doors can still only be accessed by a winding network of ‘donkey paths’. In those times Chalford was known as ‘Neddyshire’ which derives its name from the use of donkeys.
I am looking forward to exploring more of these tracks when I return as well as the path along the canal at the bottom of the valley.
I was absolutely delighted to spot Claire Keegan’s “Foster” (and my painting on the cover) at the BBC’s screen of this year’s British Academy Film Awards, known as the BAFTAs. The Irish language film “The Quiet Girl” was nominated for Best Screenplay (Adapted) catagory. The film’s director Colm Bairead wrote the screenplay, adapted Claire Keegan’s beautiful novella. The moving film was also nominated for the Best Film Not in the English Language.Sadly, “The Quiet Girl” lost out to “All Quiet on the Western Front” this time.
Screen Shot of the Quiet Girl (“Foster”) at the BAFTAs
The Quiet Girl has become the first Irish-language feature film to be nominated for an Oscar. So fingers crossed!
Looking through my recent work, I was surpised to realise that I haven’t painted many paintings of Arranmore Island in the last couple of years despite visiting the islands in the summer. So I have put that right with a series of new paintings.
As always I am entranced by the journey to and from the island. You can read my short History of the Island here
Arranmore is lucky to be served by two ferry companies. There is The Arranmore Ferry (Blue) which is based on the island and Arranmore Ferry (Red) which is not. Yes, I know the names are almost identical, just a small matter of “The”. They both offer a fantastic 15 minute journey from Burtonport (Ailt An Chorráin) to Arranmore Island. On a calm and sunny day the view on the crossing are just heavenly. Sometimes there are dolphins too.
The ferrys sail through a narrow passage past a scattering of islands on the way to Arranmore.
Rutland Island (Inis Mhic an Doirn) lies between Burtonport and Arranmore, Donegal. William Burton Conyngham (a local landowner for whom Burtonport takes its Anglised form) had warehouses, a street of houses, a post office and a school built c. 1784 to capitalised on a the abundant herring fishing. Unfortunately, the herring disappeared very early in the 1800’s and the station fell into disuse. The island was inhabited until the 1950s. These are the remains of the fish factory and landing stage on Rutland Island.
Opposite is Inishcoo Island with Mount Errigal in the distance peeping out from under the clouds. The jetty in the left hand corner belongs the magnificent Inishcoo House (see painting below)- once a coast guard house, built in the C18th.
There are several tiny holiday homes dotted across the islands (and cows)
A you can see the views are quite idyllic. Whether from the ferry or from the island. To be honest, I wish the ferries were like the Circle Line on the London Underground, where you can ride the tube rround and round (it takes and hour and an half apparently, I have never done it) and you could ride them back and forth to the island all day!
I am very excited to have an article in today’s Irish Independent on Sunday about me and work by Niall McMonagle. Below is my expanded Q & A interview that was much edited to feature in Niall McMonagle’s What Lies Beneath feature . It’s interesting to see that the online version had a different headline from the printed version (Below)
This expanded interview will be in two parts, published as two blogs, today and next Sunday.
Q: Take me back to your earliest memory of your awakening interest and awareness of art. How old were you and where were you? I realise that you became a full-time artist much later but as a child did you draw and paint?
A: I enjoyed drawing and making things from an early age. One of my earliest art-related memories was drawing a picture of my mother in the kitchen at home with our cats and dog. I knew I wasn’t very good at faces so I decided to avoid this issue by adopting a bird’s view of the kitchen!
Q: As a teenager you did embroidery, sewing and used oil pastels. Can you say something about that please. And when it came to pastels what was your subject matter?
I took up embroidery when I inherited some embroidered table clothes, threads, a hoop and some iron-on embroidery pattern books from my great aunts. I really was taken by the beautiful designs and the intensity of the colours of the threads. The dark winter, in the North of Ireland, has prompted me to take it up again as it’s something I can do under artificial light. I am like a child in a sweet shop, trying appliqué, embroidery and felting. I am still exploring.
I enjoyed the physically of oil pastel sticks and the vibrancy of their colour. I used to paint interiors – my bed room a lot. I got real pleasure from observing the changes the bedroom lamp made to the form of the bed under the bedspread. It was the start of my obsession with light and shadow.
Q: You were you born in Hereford. What was your life there like – urban? rural? and was your family background artistic?
A: My childhood was characterized by moving, thanks to my father’s career in Insurance. I was born in Hereford and lived in the town and then in a village called Morton-on-Lugg. My earliest memories are of village life; the sound of cows, visiting the river and our neighbour’s pigs. We then moved hundreds of miles up north to Whitley Bay on the North East coast. After a few years we then moved back down south to Gloucester. I found this move the hardest of all as I had felt really settled in Whitley Bay. I have also lived in Cardiff, London and Swansea. So I am a “townie” with a love of the rural which is why I ended up a Derry city and rural West Donegal. I have never felt that I am “from” anywhere in particular.
My strongest connection is to my family and to art. My paternal grandmother’s family are from Cork City. My mother is Welsh and her family is from Cardiff. I have a lot of Celt in my genes, Scottish too, hence my name Cownie. I came from a family of four children and we are very all quite competitive, creative but also eccentric and geeky. My parents painted, my great aunts were talented painters and my sister went to the Royal College of Art so there is creativity in the family genes.
Q: You studied medieval history in Cardiff and London and taught for 20 years in a secondary school. During that time did you paint and did you ever consider becoming an artist.
A: I painted, on and off throughout those years. I thought about doing Art at college but I wanted to do something different from my sister who had studied fashion at college. She did an MA at the Royal College of Art and worked for Paul Costello, partially in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, for a few years, before she gave it all up for motherhood. After my History degree I flirted with the idea of being an artist and even got some funding but it wasn’t enough to live on so I got a job with the council.
Soon after I won a fellowship to do a PhD in History so I decided to pursue that. I really enjoyed academic research and my years at Cardiff University were some of my happiest. I also spent three years doing a Post Doctoral fellowship in Kings College, London where I continued to paint. Opportunities for Medievalists were limited so I trained as a secondary school teacher in Swansea. I enjoyed working with children enormously but I was always doing something else in the holidays – writing a novel, crocheting and, of course, painting.
It was only after my car accident in 2012 when I started to paint in any spare moments (not just the holidays) and I started to make progress. I had been inspired by seeing the works of a painter called Robert Bevan in the Welsh Museum to start painting again. My husband set up a website for me and put my work on a website called http://www.artfinder.com and to my surprise I started selling. He then formed the company Emma Cownie Art and we have been fairly successful selling art since then. He paints too, portraits mainly, under the name James Henry Johnston.
Q: I read that you’ve lived in many places in the UK. Have you painted those places. Is your work a diary of your movements?
A: Yes but in terms of landscapes I only painted the areas I have lived, or my parents have, after 2012 – so South Wales, the Cotswolds where my parents now live and Donegal and the North of Ireland, particularly Derry, Tyrone and Antrim . The light is different here to South Wales and requires a different colour palette. East Donegal, easily accessible for Derry, is also subtly different form west Donegal in light and colour.
Derry Panorama – Emma Cownie
Derry and rural Donegal. How did that come about?
A: It was my husband, he was home sick and wanted to have a foot in Ireland. He was born and reared in Co. Derry. We bought a house in West Donegal in 2018, as he went to the Gaeltacht there as a teenager and had lovely memories of the area. His great grandmother came from there too. I just thought the landscape was stunning. Like nothing else I had seen. Brexit also pushed us into the decision to move over here permanently. My husband felt increasingly unwelcome there. We both hated they way politics lurched to the far right. It was very unsettling.
The people Derry won me over. It’s a lively and intense city. People are funny, interesting and kind. The women in particular are stylish, articulate and self–confident. I love the fact that women of all ages, from babies to grannies wear Doc Marten boots. The city takes the time to consider all communities – there’s an LBTQT+ rainbow crossing by the Peace Bridge.
Q: How aware were you of Irish history before you came to live here. Is Derry now a place beyond the Troubles? Is it often said that the Irish know so much more about England and the English than the they do about Ireland.
A: It would be impossible living with my husband for twenty five years, who grew up in Co. Derry during the Troubles, not to have learnt a fair bit about reality of growing up in the Troubles. I have also read a lot about it too. I taught some Medieval Irish History when I lectured at Cardiff University. I also taught A Level C19th British (and Irish) Political History for 16 years at Secondary school in Wales. You cannot understand the History of Britain without understanding it’s relationship with Ireland. I have also been a dedicated listener to Irish Times “Inside Politics” podcast ever since the Brexit Referendum. There is always more to learn. I have enjoyed finding out about the places I paint. I often like to write a short blog about the places in my paintings, as well as on aspect of my process.
There is a lot of British politics reported here on the radio and TV news, often with more insightful commentary and in depth discussion than I would have heard in Britain. I love that the Irish love to discuss a topic thoroughly and without acrimony. I would say Irish people are more informed about this interconnected history. I find Irish people are very articulate in expressing their views which is to be admired.
I cannot really comment on whether “Derry is now a place beyond the Troubles” as I have not lived here that long. My husband, who knows it from his youth, tells me it is a city utterly transformed from when he lived here. Back then many parts of the city were a war zone or had access controlled by the British Army.
The Peace Bridge, linking two communities across the River Foyle, seems to have connected areas that were separate before. All I can say is that Derry is a very picturesque and lively city with the friendliest population I have ever met.
Derry doesn’t hide the past either and embraces aspects of its History through various museums and excellent guided tours. Lots of tourists come to Derry throughout the year. It is a great place to live. The close proximity to Donegal, the glorious Antrim coast and Sperrin mountains in Tyrone make it ideal for a landscape painter! Plus, as an intact walled city, Derry is unique in Ireland.
Q: A terrible car accident on 29 February 2012 was life-changing for you. You suffered PTSD. Did that influence your becoming a full-time artist?
A: Absolutely. The accident itself was pretty minor – my car was a write-off but I expected to be back at work with a bit of whiplash the following week. The accident, however, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It uncorked layers of stress and anxiety that had built up over many years and it completely overwhelmed me. I also had many stresses in my life, including that of being a head of department in a busy secondary school.
I found it hard to get through the day and function as a normal person. Only by eventually getting therapeutic help and EMDR counseling was I able to work through my emotions regarding an earlier trauma in my life that underpinned it all. Once I started therapy I took up painting all the time. I found it soothing and therapeutic. I don’t think that people don’t talk enough about breakdowns and mental health issues. It’s a very lonely place to be. Unless people have experienced depression or breakdown themselves, people are frightened of it and don’t know what to say to you. Breakdowns are surprisingly common. People have the idea that breakdown happen because you are weak – the opposite is true. I had been strong and carried an intolerable burden of stress and responsibility for far too long. You don’t have to have been in a war zone to develop PTSD. Everyone has their breaking point, if they are pushed hard enough for long enough. My husband says breakdowns can act as “a breakthrough” – your unconscious is telling you that your way of life is intolerable and you have to change it.
Q: Your paintings are beautifully calm, peaceful. Does that reflect your own life now or do you still live with pain and trauma as a result of the accident?
A: My painting used to be more colourful than they are now and I think that was an unconscious effort to cheer myself up. I think was depressed without realizing it. I just soldiered on. I am much happier now I have left teaching and paint full time. I make a great effort to make my colours more natural and realistic. It’s quite a challenge to capture the awe and wonder I feel looking at Irish landscapes. I am always looking for clarity in my colours and composition. I keep my palette clean in order to achieve those simplified colours and shapes.
I think the breakdown has left its mark on me. Feelings can get stuck. I can get a upset about a relatively minor incident if I don’t talk it through with my husband or a family member. But I think it made me a kinder more empathetic person. I have always been a sensitive person. I hate cruelty and suffering in people and animals. I also hate heights and I can find the beautiful Peace Bridge a bit challenging (at night especially). I broke my leg in 2020 and had three plates put in my leg so I have to a series of daily yoga exercises to ensure I don’t experience pain when walking.
Q: Though you paint people [‘Living it Up’] and animals your work is mainly of beautiful empty, light-filled landscapes. You mention Hopper. Paul Henry. [Your work also reminds me of Maureen Gallace.] What other art forms – literature, music for example – are important to you?
Living it up (Brynmill Park, Swansea)- Emma Cownie
A: I love to read fiction and non-fiction. I am an avid reader, usually having several books on the go at any one time. I have recently read Donegal and Derry authors such as Peadar O’Donnell and Tony Doherty to get a sense of the past, in relation to the areas I now live.
This section is more about how I work, my style and influences.
Q: How do you choose your places to paint? And is there a particular time of year that you favour?
A: Light and colour draw me to a subject. I am looking for a strong composition and clean colours. Usually bright light and strong shadows, so any time of year except for summer. I paint large paintings in the long hours of summer instead. Composition is key to my work. I also like to express the quiet like various American realists like Edward Hopper. I also love Rockwell Kent, a painter who also painted west Donegal.
Q: Do you work en plein air? From sketches? Photographs?
A: I tried painting en plein air in South Wales – I was crippled by feeling self-conscious and frustrated by my lack of control over the conditions. Plein air is also not conducive to my style of painting, and what I am trying to achieve in my work; in the magnification of simplicity, form, light and shadow. I am continually painting layers over a period of time. My creative process starts with taking the photo, editing and then using it for inspiration. I try to recreate the essence of a place I am painting rather than simply reproducing a scene. I am very much influenced by the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson and how he used composition to create dynamic images.
Q: You now live in Derry and Donegal. How did that come about?
A: We wanted to have a combination or urban and rural so that we could experience both, so we live 7/8 months of the year in Derry and 4/5 months in Donegal. The Derry/Donegal combo is hard to beat. Derry also opens up another area of east Donegal, Inishowen, as it is only a few miles away from Derry city.
Q: Your work features on a Donal Ryan Spanish version of Strange Flowers [‘Cottage on Bunbeg Harbour’] and Claire Keegan’s Foster [‘The Traditional House. Gola’]. Congratulations. Has that made a difference?
A: It has been great to get recognition from two such brilliant writers. I feel greatly honoured. I knew that when I moved from South Wales to Ireland that I was likely to lose collectors (although I still paint the Gower Peninsula in South Wales and Tenby from time to time) and it would take time to build up an Irish following.
I am hoping these book covers will help with that, plus this feature.
Q: How did the dreaded Covid affect you and your work?
A: I broke my leg at the start of the pandemic and was awaiting an operation in Morriston Hospital, near Swansea as the country went into lockdown. So whilst most were confined to their houses I was confined to my bedroom for several months and had to do physiotherapy down the phone. I took months to recover and regain my mobility and make it up the steep stairs into my attic studio.
Artists live very solitary lives so lockdown wasn’t a massive change to my life, as such. I was frustrated that I couldn’t visit locations to take photos for new paintings so I spent months scouring through the photos I did have. I was surprised at how many photos I had discounted could be made into interesting pictures.
Covid has definitely affected our life here – I feel frustrated that we are living at arms’ length from everyone. It has meant that we have limited where we go and what we do. My husband is asthmatic, so we are very careful. We got vaccinated and boosted and always wear masks indoor but we were still very ill this summer. It knocked us both out for 6 weeks. I don’t want to catch it again because we don’t know what the long term effects will be.
Q: In terms of your palette what colours are essential?
A: It depend where I am painting and whether I am using oils or acrylics. The light in South Wales is more yellowy, in Donegal it is clearer and bluey-white. Our house in Derry is smaller than our Donegal house so I had to learn to paint with acrylics because of the fumes and having pets at close quarters.
Acrylics are very different to oils as you have to build them up in thin layers. They dry fast and are difficult to blend. Oils are more opaque but much slower to dry. I have to think about each medium in a different way and use different colours. With both oil and acrylics I prefer underlying warm colours (oranges, ochres, pinks and mauves) but I have to use different colours to get a similar same effect in each. With oils I would use Naples Yellow, Yellow ochre, Olive Green, Raw and Burnt Umber, Raw Sienna, Van Dyke Brown, Warm Grey, and Cool Grey, Mauve and for the sea and sky Ultramarine and Phthalo Blues.
With acrylics I would use Lemon Yellow, Ivory, Light Ochre, Sap Green, Cerulean Blue and Ultramarine blue, pink and purple, Payne’s grey for darker tones. I use more mixing white and fluid medium in acrylic. I have had to train myself to mix large quantities of “sky” colour and keep in a tub with acrylic. There’s this thing called “colour shift” which means the paint dries lighter. So it’s almost impossible to match wet acrylics to the dry colour you want to achieve. The irony is that I think that although I prefer painting in oils, I think my acrylic paintings might actually be better.
Q: The painting reproduced in the Sunday Independent on 15 January is ‘Down to the Pier, Gola’. Would you say something please about your links with, your relationship with, Donegal in general and Gola in particular.
A: I love the Donegal islands – they are a glimpse of a vanishing Ireland. Gola and Inishbofin are wonderful locations, in particular, although the one I most visit and have painted most is Arranmore.
I went to Gola island because of the space as I thought it would suit my “rural minimal” style of painting which proved to be the case. They have very few vehicles and I really enjoy the peace. Isn’t that why we like the coast – with just the sound of the waves and the wind? How the houses were placed, in this vastness lent itself to composition. The islands, more than any other place I have been to, chime most with my style of painting. They have moved my style forward. Also I really like the fact that there are almost no telegraph poles to complicate compositions too.
The way the vernacular houses are arranged, sheltering from upland areas of the island, and close together suggests how people of the past worked together and with the landscape. I think I am attracted to the sense of community. People had to work together in order to survive. A sense of community, interconnectedness, of Irishness, lingers there. It is tangible.
Q: Also re ‘Down to the Pier, Gola’ how quickly does your eye know and choose the perspective and the composition of the piece? And would you say something please about how you went about making this work? Did you begin with a drawing? What colour did you put down first etc.
A: Composition is key. The cinematic-type compositions and dramatic use of light and shade. As I said before I am strongly influenced by the French photograph Henri Cartier Bresson and I often look for a road or fence posts to lead the eye into the painting.
Elements will also be left out or simplified to give the image more punch. Most of the Gola and Inishbofin paintings are painted in my own “rural minimal” style which is the rural manifestation of the “urban minimal” style I developed to paint the city with. This style of painting is influenced by those American realist painters who paint the quiet, the spacious and the still and revere a certain treatment of light and colour such as Edward Hopper as well as by Contemporary Minimalists such Jessica Brilli, (whom I traded paintings with last year). The rules of composition are strong light and shade, use of diagonals and simplified forms. I wanted to explore the interplay of the geometry of shadows and structures – the tension between the 3D buildings and the 2D shadows. I wasn’t sure if this style would work in the countryside until I went to Gola and found it was perfect for evoking the silence and the stillness of these beautiful islands.
“Down to the Pier, Gola” is an oil painting. I sketched the outline of the road and buildings in thin red ochre paint. I painted the white house first. It takes a several layers of paint to create that intensity of the whitewash. I usually use thin layers of paint, but my final layer of white will be thicker. White oil paint takes the longest time to dry, which is why I often start with white. I then added the blue sky and the pink road and distant buildings. I like to work quickly when I paint in oils. I will rub away the paint if I am not happy with a colour. I have learnt to be quite ruthless with rubbing back and starting from the canvas. This way the final piece is lighter and has more coherence. I am wary of over-working the paint.
I use a different approach to painting with acrylics. It is much slower as I usually paint a grayscale (or in earth tones) underpainting to check I have my tonal values right and then I add colour. There is a lot of adjusting of colours and correction that goes on. I will often work on two paintings at a time so that I can add sky, sea and use the same colours and let them dry so I can consider the colours and how they are coming together. Acrylic paintings can take up to a couple of weeks, on and off, to complete.
Q: What do you look for in a painting? And do you have a favourite painting by another artist that means a great deal to you?
A: Often I am drawn to the light – a shaft of sunlight on a window sill or a strong shadow by a house. Often times it will be a particular colour – such as the blue of clear seas of Donegal or the pale fluffy clouds.
Robert Bevan’s “Maples at Cuckfield, Sussex” (painted in 1914) is very special to me as it was a complete surprise when I came across it at Cardiff Museum in 2012. A good painting makes me to go home and paint. I used to feel that way about the Van Gogh’s and Monet.
I just loved the muted colours with the light orange and purples and the semi abstract trees. Bevan had spent time in Paris at Pont Aven in Brittany. He met Cezanne and Renoir was friends with Gauguin. I went back the follow year to see it again and was disappointed to find it wasn’t on display. The museum was kind enough, however, to let me and my husband go down to storage to see it close up.
Q: You have sold many many paintings. Are you sorry to see them go? Has there ever been one that you just did not want to part with?
A: I have had to toughen up a lot about parting with paintings. My sister’s advice was “paint so many you are sick of the sight of them”. It did work but some paintings really are tough to let go of. I really regret selling a painting of a horse “Blaze” and another of a elderly lady carrying her shopping in Swansea town centre, called “Soldiering On”. I have learnt my lesson and I have a handful of paintings that I won’t ever put up for sale – one is of a Gower pony, another is of a cat that used to hang out at the local general store in Swansea.
Q: If you would like me to include your website, instagram, upcoming exhibition etc please give them here.
A: I haven’t exhibited in recent years in galleries by choice and I sell the majority of my work via my website although I have a private art gallery behind my cottage in Donegal which is usually open, by appointment, May – October.
I am delighted to have another of my painting adapted for a novel cover by an Irish writer. This time my painting “Cottage on Bunbeg Harbour” (2019) has been used for the Spanish translation of Donal Ryan’s “Strange Flowers” or rather “Flores Extrañas”. I have started reading the original and I am thoroughly enjoying it. It was a best-seller and won An Post Irish Novel of the Year 2020 & was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award too!
Here below, is my original painting so you can see how it has been adapted by the publishers.
Here is the proposed cover below; the white background is in the house style of the Spanish publishers. I think it looks really impressive.
Reviews of Strange Flowers can be read below (I haven’t read them yet as I dont want to ruin any surprises)
In my last post I decribed visiting the abandoned fishing village of An Port tucked away in a remote corner of the Donegal shoreline (read it here).
We were inspired to seek out this very remote spot by American artist Rockwell Kent, who visited and painted the area in the 1920s. I was waiting for a book on the artist to write this post but it only had a couple of sentences about his visit to Ireland so the delay was unwarranted.
Rockwell Kent enjoyed Donegal and had originally intended to stay longer. He stored his larger paintings in Annie McGinley’s family home in Port (see my previous post about Port) but he actually spent most of his time in the neighbouring valley of Glenlough. He rented a old barn (byre) from hearing-impaired farmer Dan Ward. He lived in it with his second wife, Frances, and used it as his studio. The paintings of the views from Glenlough, especially of the bay and the giant sea stacks, are quite remarkable.
Welsh poet Dylan Thomas later stayed in Glenlough in the summer of 1935. His stay didn’t go too well, he found the soliditude difficult to bear and he described himself as “lonely as Christ”. He left without paying his bills (although his editor later paid them).
Following in Rockwell Kent (and Dylan Thomas’s) footsteps is easier said than done. For a man who loved to visit and paint inacessible and elemental places in Newfoundland, Alaska, Terra Del Fuego and Greenland, maybe this should not be a surprise; even a century later.
Glenlough is an anomaly in this modern world. It is a lost valley. It’s located on the lip of a gale-swept edge of north-west Ireland. It’s an inacessible part of a very remote county. No one has lived there for more than 30 years. There is no road in and no road out. There isn’t even a footpath. The local farmers ride the curves of the rough landscape on their quad bikes.
There is a song “The Road to Glenlough” by fiddler, James Byrne, from near by Glencolumbkille, Donegal. The title must be some sort of joke as there is definately no road to Glenlough. I know, I have looked very hard for it. You can find Glenlough Bay on a map. Here. Where that red tag is.
Map of the North of Ireland – the red tag marks Glenlough Bay, Donegal
Google confidently suggests that route to Glenough Bay is quite straight forward. The straight white dotted line should immediately suggest wild over-confidence on the part of AI. Compare it to the dotted blue line, which is the single track road to An Port. This road/track does not exist.
We decided to (sort of) follow the coastline from Port and climb up the very steep hill to Glenlough. The map only gives you a hint at how truly rough and rugged the terrain is. Its all elevated upland bog with and massive bolders dropped by glaciers thousands of years ago. The first part of our “walk” invovled a scramble up a steep path strewn with rocks (see photo below). I had my walking poles with me and I clambered up this section like a weird four legged beast. I have a lot of pins and screws in my left leg from a bad break I had two years agao, and this section terrified me. I would not have done it without the additional help from the poles.
We first passed the remains of the village of Port.
The climb up hill seemed to go on for ever. Up and up. First we followed sheep tracks upwards. The sheep aren’t very interested into getting to Glenlough and so we were on constant lookout for ways upwards in the right sort of direction. The sheep track kept vering off to the left and right. I had never walked somewhere where there was no human path before. I found it quite exhausting looking for a way up. The ground was springey underfoot. It’s bogland. It was mostly dry. It was one of those cimbs where you keep expecting to reach the brow of the hill but there’s just more boggy incline, going up and up!
Eventually, there were spots where we could pause and take our bearings. The view was something else.
I haven’t mentioned that it was very windy too. We stayed away from the cliff edge. He sat in the shelter of a dip in the landscape to eat our sandwiches and look at the view towards An Port.
Dont go too near the edge!
Finally, after a lot of walking when we were thinking of turning back, it appears. Our view of Glenlough Bay. We stand and gawp at it in wonder. It is vast and the colours are vivid. The colour of grass on the stacks is an intense green, the colour of the sea is a cold blue. The sea water is very clear and you can see the massive boulders on the raised beach from up here. It is hard to covey how stunning it is in a photo or a painting. We watched the shadows cast by the clouds pass over the landscape. It was mesmerising. The last time I starred at a landscape in such wonder when was when we visited the incredible Grand Canyon.
I wish we could have got closer but we were already very tired and decided to come back another time to go down to valley of Glenlough itself. I am not sure I am able bodied enough to make it down to the beach (see the video by Unique Ascent below) but we could come back with a drone camera and take photos. I just want to see the buildings where Rockwell Kent and Dylan Thomas stayed all those years ago.
Unique Ascent’s video makes the visit to the shore of Glenlough Bay look so easy!
An Port has loomed large in my imagination for a long time. It’s very remote and quite difficult to get to. To reach it, you have to drive down a very, very long single track road (it’s about three miles but it feels longer) on the way to Glencolmcille. There are plenty of sheep and only a few people.
At An Port there is a small quay and a tiny deserted fishing village which looks out over a small bay, surrounded by cliffs and truly massive slabs of rocks and sea stacks. Its one of those landscapes that you imagine can be found all along the west coast of Ireland but is actually unique. When I visited Texas in the late 1990s I thought it would all look like Monument Valley, thanks to those John Ford films. I was surpised to find it was pretty flat.
The village was still inhabited in the 1920s. The hillside is littered with the remains of the stone houses
There is one inhabited house, now an AirBnB property. You can see it on the hill behind me in the photo my husband took of me (below). This was Annie McGinley’s family home.
I first heard about Port in 2018 from a TV programme about the famous American landscape artist Rockwell Kent and his stay in Donegal the 1920s. Rockwell Kent is probably best known today for his illustrations for Moby Dick.
Unfortunately Kevin Magee’s film (in Irish with subtitles) “Ar Lorg Annie” or “Searching for Annie” is no longer available but you can see a short clip on Youtube here. A friend of Kent’s, Rex Stout, had funded his trip to Ireland. He paid him $300 a month on the condition that he had the choice of two painting when he got back. This is one of them in California, “Prince Charles’ Cove”.
Rockwell Kent and his second wife Frances Lee Higgins (they were on honeymoon) spent several months in the near by valley of Glenlough on a farm belonging to farmer Dan Ward. Kent stored many of his paintings back at Port, in the home of Annie McGinley, who modeled for him. Her she is.
Rockwell Kent returned to Donegal, 32 years later. He had wanted to buy Dan Ward’s farm but it had already sold to another farmer. Instead he sought out ‘this singularly lovely teenage girl with whom I had danced many a jig’ and found her in nearby Crobane, married, midddle-aged and ‘broad-beamed’. She had had 14 children, 12 had lived.
If you look on the left hand side of my painting “An Port” (below), you will see tiny fence posts along top of the cliff. They help give a sense of scale of the huge cliffs and rocks. I can’t remember who first described this landscape it as the “land of giants”but it truly apt.
It is hard to do justice to this incredible landscape but I think that Rockwell Kent’s paintings do. He really capures the majesty and warm colours of Donegal. He also excels at Donegal skies and light. I am really in awe of him.
I wish I could see the original paintings but this is very unlikely. It seems that none of Rockwell Kent’s large paintings stayed in Ireland. Most of them are either in the USA or in Russia. But that’s another story.
The west coast of Ireland is dotted with islands, big and small but also plenty of sea stacks. Perhaps, they were once sea arches, I am not sure. If they were the crown of the arch fell in to create these majestic pillars. They can be seen from miles away. Even on misty days. This one, Tormore (in the painting above and below) is miles away, near a very remote location called Glenlough Bay. There is something exciting and other worldly and timeless about it.
Rossbeg (sometimes spelt Rosbeg) is a tiny townland on the west coast of Donegal, just three miles south-west of Portnua and Nairn. This is the Dawros Peninsula. There is a pier and a scattering of houses, some are modern, but many are old cottages, probably used as holiday lets.
There is another beach around the corner too.
The beach and the view is just perfect. The water is so very clear that the rocks and seaweed are visible from quite some distance from the shore.
There is a definite shift in the seasons. In summer here, the light seemed to stretch on for eve; well past 11pm. Suddenly the days have started shortening fast. It is now dark before 9pm. It has rained solidly for the last two days. In typical Donegal fashion, the sun has come out and everything is bright and fresh.
Artimus (aka Artie) our Donegal rescue cat has just passed me to go outside in the catio to smell the breeze. He used to be a stray. It’s hard to believe as he’s so beautiful and such a softie. He now enjoys the warmth and comforts of indoor life (especially hiding under the towel rail) but he still enjoys the smells and sounds of rural life outside. We lost three pets in the last year (two cats and a dog) and I am not letting him outside when there’s a busy road at the bottom of the garden. I cant face the heartache, if I dont have to. So Séamas, built a catio. Or the cat veranda as I like to call it. Both of our cats, enjoy it but Artie, especially so but not when it’s cold. He’s been in and out of it four times in the last twenty minutes. I think he wishes it was warmer. He must have found life as a stray really tough!
Errigal from Cruit Island, Donegal:-This was one of a pair of large paintings I started before I got ill. It sat in it’s greyscale state for over a month and a half until I recovered enoungh stamina to complete it! Large painting require a lot of strength as you lift your arms/hands above your head, even if you are just moving the canvas. I was very glad to finish it.
I enjoyed painting the rolling landscape; splattered with rocks. I took great pleasure in adjusting the colours in oil paint and “tightening up” the details. The rash of rocks amongst the boglands is quite unique to this part of Donegal. Further south towards, Glencolmcille, there are far fewer bolders and rocks. There the bogland blankets the landscape uninterupted. There are far fewer houses there too. This area of Donegal, the Rosses, however, is dotted with houses old and new. I like that the old houses nestle in the nooks and crannies of the landscape; keeping out of the prevailing westerly winds and showers.
I have recently been spending time with my parents in the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire. On a bright sunny Sunday morning I explored some of the winding tracks of a near by village called Chalford and Chalford Hill. Where is that? In the South West-ish of the English Midlands ( see map below). The Parish of […]
I was absolutely delighted to spot Claire Keegan’s “Foster” (and my painting on the cover) at the BBC’s screen of this year’s British Academy Film Awards, known as the BAFTAs. The Irish language film “The Quiet Girl” was nominated for Best Screenplay (Adapted) catagory. The film’s director Colm Bairead wrote the screenplay, adapted Claire Keegan’s beautiful novella. The moving film was also nominated for the Best Film Not in the English Language.
I am very excited to have an article in today’s Irish Independent on Sunday about me and work by Niall McMonagle. Below is my expanded Q & A interview that was much edited to feature in Niall McMonagle’s What Lies Beneath feature . It’s interesting to see that the online version had a different […]
New Work & Recent Sales
Washing Line, Arranmore _Emma Cownie
Inishcoo (To The Fore of Arranmore) – Emma Cownie
Kinnagoe Bay (Inishowen, Dongal)
Over Glenlough Bay, Donegal-Emma Cownie
Still, On Gola (Donegal)
An Port, Donegal_Emma Cownie
House on Ishcoo, Donegal-Emma Cownie
On Rutland Island, Donegal -Emma Cownie
Spring on THree Cliffs Bay, Gower_Emma Cownie
Sun on the Reeds (Glentornan, Donegal)-Emma Cownie
View from the Pier (Portnoo)-Emma Cownie
From Port to Glenlough (Donegal)
Fishing Boat at Port Donegal-Emma Cownie
Portnoo Pier, Donegal_Emma Cownie
Down to Rossbeg Pier, Donegal
Errigal reflection (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Errigal from Cruit Island. Donegal _ Emma Cownie
Over to Fanad Lighhouse (Donegal) _Emma Cownie
Errigal painting – A Commission 2022
From Arranmore (Donegal)- Emma Cownie
Abanoned (Glentornan, Donegal) -Emma Cownie
Ferry Home (Arranmore, Donegal) by Emma Cownie
Summer Morning on Pobbles Bay
On the Way to Kinnagoe Bay (Drumaweer, Greencastle)
Down to Doagh Strand (Donegal)-Emma Cownie
Lambing Season at Fanad Head
Fanad Lighthouse (Donegal)
Down to the Rusty Nail
Carrickabraghy Castle, Inishowen
Upper Dreen_Emma Cownie
Portmór Beach, Malin Head, Donegal
Down to the Rusty Nail, Inishowen
The Walls of Derry
Painting of Derry City
Derry Walls by Emma Cownie
Shipquay Gate by Emma Cownie
Over to Owey Island (Keadue) Donegal
Lighting the way to Arranmore
Old Stone Cottage in front of Errigal (Donegal
Boat at the Pier, Gola
House on Inishbofin, with distant Seven Sisters (in studio)