To be a Pilgrim

Mary Miers walks and talks with an artist whose new show is inspired by Britain’s sacred ways.

The isolated hump of Pendle hill looms over what Ramsay Gibb calls the ‘lost lands’ that little-known relic of old Lancashire between the valleys of the Ribble and the Calder. The artist’s familiarity with the lines and landmarks of this unindustrialised landscape, his delight in its language and legends, radiates as we stride over Pendle’s skirting gritstone moor and on up the steady incline, buffeted by an ear-aching wind. It’s a landscape of mosses, crags and ‘sykes’; the little stream carving its way through a narrow cleft below is, I learn, a ‘clough’. On the summit, we drink in the panorama in one glorious, rotating sweep that encompasses the distant Yorkshire Dales and Bowland fells to east and north, the Lancashire coast and outer reaches of the southern mill towns.

The hill has a glowering presence, haunted by its association with the famous witch trials of 1612. But it’s a place of spiritual significance, too, where George Fox, father of the Quakers, had his ‘visitation’ in 1652, and where Bronze Age burials were made. All this connects Pendle with the ancient ways that Mr Gibb has made the focus of his new exhibition. In the past few years, he has travelled the length and breadth of Britain in the footsteps of pilgrims, following three-to four-day sections of their sacred journeys, from Pabbay to Canterbury.

‘Too many young people today consume the world through a screen; they miss out on the reality that is such an important part of being alive. There’s no better way to access that immediacy of experience than by moving at a natural pace through the landscape – it allows you to see things you would otherwise miss,’ says Mr Gibb, who mostly travels alone, camping at night. ‘Solitude is one of the things I like about walking and being a painter.’

We discuss the redemptive powers of walking, how the rhythm, repetition, monotony even, of the physical process, the discomforts and solitude that too many people today fear, can induce an elevated state of consciousness, for some a spiritual dimension. The artist has researched his subject in depth and is interested in the motives, as well as the routes, of the pilgrims of old. ‘As well as voluntary journeys undertaken by the devout, pilgrimages were, for many, a way of absenting themselves from the drudgery of domestic life and travelling to places they would otherwise never see. And then there was the penance element, with pilgrimages rated on a sliding scale.’ Three Above Bass Rock from Tantallon, hermitage of the Irish saint Baldred. Below Moonlight, Iona Beachdifficult journeys to the knuckle of rock depicted in Journey’s end, first sighting Bardsey Island, Wales carried the same weight in indulgences as one to Rome; three to St David’s was equivalent to one to Jerusalem.

Climbing Croagh Patrick on the feast of the Assumption, Mr Gibb spoke to several people he met scrambling up the scree: ‘I was amazed to discover that they were mostly doing it as a penance, ascending the mountain both for punishment and purification.’

The idea for this latest body of works came when he was painting on the Northumbrian coast and decided to walk over to Lindisfarne on the tidal mud flats trodden by Saints Aidan, Cuthbert and Cedd. ‘Suddenly, I noticed all the other footprints, including some bare feet, and it dawned on me that holy Island is still a place of pilgrimage today. I began to research other routes, many of which are not shown on maps, and I devoured books by people such as John Merrill and Oliver Rackham, and Ronald Blythe’s wonderful Divine Landscapes.’

Many holy places are set on islands or coastal promontories, and the artist’s preoccupation with water and the significance of the sea crossing comes to the fore in these works. he has sought out the isolated fastnesses of the early Celtic monks, whose self imposed exile represented a form of pilgrimage, and followed St Brendan’s route to the Outer Isles, ‘where the light is like a laser’. enraptured by Iona, he paints it under a rising Moon, describing the island as ‘liminal’ in reference to the Celtic idea of a ‘thin place’, where the threshold between the secular and the divine is as blurred as the island’s forms and colours merging with sky and sea. He favours views at dawn or dusk and plans trips carefully, using a compass to work out the position of the Sun or Moon at a particular time. ‘I’m very good at standing still for hours. Approaching Canterbury on All hallows’ eve, I waited patiently for the Moon, and then this mist came down and I got the perfect image.’ he prefers low northern light and landscapes ‘without surface noise’, where there is ‘no abundance of visual incident to distract the eye from absorbing a vast horizon’.

Many of the paintings capture moments and places encountered along the way. ‘It’s a chance thing; as I walk, the atmosphere of a certain place will spark something off. Then, I have to juggle wanting to complete the walk with getting to know that spot—walking all around it, building up a mental image with notes, doodles, maps and photos, revisiting it in different conditions.’ Painting in oils on board, he recaptures the initial spontaneous moment in the ‘calm, contemplative environment of the studio, where I can think about what I’m doing, slow the process down’. he admires the works of Nordic landscape painters such as Krøyer and Kreuger, which he describes as ‘studied, yet possessing a sense of moment; I love their feeling of mysteriousness and sensibility for low light’.

Mr Gibb’s paintings are as much about the journey as the destination and the line of a track, perspective or shadow leading towards the horizon is a recurring motif. Like Kierkegaard, he’s a tireless advocate of the spiritual and physical wellbeing to be gained from walking: ‘I think that even the devoutest pilgrims must have derived as much sustenance from the walk itself as from the sacred relic that was their journey’s goal.’

Country Life 26th October 2011

Portrait of a pilgrim painter

Born in 1965, Ramsay Gibb spent his early years in Ayrshire before moving to Bolton. He studied art at Brighton and travelled to America, where he decided to concentrate on landscape painting. Since showing his views of the Mississippi in Francis Kyle’s 1995 ‘Jazz’ exhibition, he has had seven solo shows with the gallery. Having lived on the Ayrshire, Sussex and Suffolk coasts, he retains a strong affinity with the sea. He returns regularly to Scotland and has explored many aspects of the northern seas as far north Greenland. However, his present home, which he shares with Cath and three children, is landlocked at the foot of the Bowland fells.