In August 2020 I found myself taking part in filming for Sky Arts ‘Landscape Artist of the Year’. With episode 2 having been broadcast in January, it seems a good time to give my recollection of that particular day.
Having watched LAOTY over the years, I’ve often mused wistfully that, despite promptings from friends and fellow painters, it would be unthinkable for me to offer myself up for scrutiny on a TV programme – being by nature a sociophobe! As an early fan of self-isolation I was ahead of the pack when lockdown dawned in the spring of 2020. But then, with the end of the world looking a bit nigh, I felt oddly compelled to address my fears, phobias and forebodings and drop my name in to the LAOTY hat. After all, I thought, even if this next series were to go ahead, by the time of broadcast there would surely be only a few people left alive to watch!
Thus I sent off an application and waited with mounting anxiety at my foolish folly. To my inordinate relief, the result was negative! I could relax back into tried and tested anonymity. Summer pressed strangely on and just as I’d begun to brood over an opportunity missed, the call of the wild card dangled itself over the internet, like a Wonka factory golden ticket. I held my breath, clicked my heels and snatched the opportunity. This time the response came back in the affirmative. Moreover, I could see this lower-key approach playing better to my natural inclinations – in the mosh pits of the wild cards I could choose, if necessary, to hide behind vegetation, leaving no one the wiser that I had ever taken part!
Arrangements for accommodation were made, the day to leave duly arrived and I stowed my husband, Michael, safely away amongst my luggage for moral support and baggage handling requirements. I kissed the dog a teary goodbye and gave last minute instructions to the dog sitters – my daughter Elsa and her new-born babe, Oscar. We headed southward towards my episode destination of West Wycombe, arriving two nights ahead of filming, the plan being to settle in and gain a feel of the surrounding landscape.
On the following day, like a seasoned grand national jockey, I (and Michael) headed off to walk the course, trying to imagine what might be included in the following day’s filming. We couldn’t actually get into the bit of the estate where filming was to take place, so we walked around it. The walk took in the imposing folly of the Dashwood Mausoleum and adjacent St Lawrence Church, together with the wonderfully camp gothic frontage of the ‘Hellfire Caves’, that once hosted the still more camply titled ‘Hellfire Club’, plus numerous other sites and constructions relating to the estate / National Trust. They were set in undulating and wooded chalkland, rich in wildflower meadows suffused with yarrow and purple knapweed and a refuge to a surprising number of Red Kites, hanging in the air all around us.
Along the route I noticed nodules of chalky flint, a common building material in the area. Picking some up to fill my pockets and backpack, I recalled their nobbly appearance on the rusticated bands and edgings of the mausoleum. I also pocketed an enormous feather – a present from the Kites. The main house and grounds were beyond our reach, but we’d been able to circle around its curtilage, catching glimpses of neoclassical finery from distant footpaths. All was looking positive in the augur department and I began to look forward to the morrow with less trepidation.
The day dawned … we arrived at the grand gateway to the estate and were ushered in and on toward a gathering of cars. People were decanting their vehicles of all manner of deck chairs and sundry equipment, giving the impression of a charabanc beach holiday re-enactment group. After choosing my own props, I joined the 50 strong registration queue. We were under instructions to keep a distance, so it was difficult to engender a sense of cameraderie, although some old hands were clearly re-aquainting themselves, calling across their allotted meters. Eventually the production team – who were also the registration team – indicated for me to step forward. I was gratified to hear one of them admire my home-made canvas, whilst another murmured an interest in my choice of yoga mat for bodily comfort. A good sign – or was I being noted down as ‘Eccentric Woman Number 13 – best avoided!’
And then we were off – in my mind to the tune of ‘Wild Thing’ (as rendered by the Goodies) – following the production manager at a gathering pace, deckchairs etc flapping. With cameras rolling we swung right, over a bridge and onto a broad stretch of turf, approaching the fine neoclassical frontage of West Wycombe House … but with heads craning longingly towards the house, we were ushered on for a final furlong, and called to halt in a clearing at the end of a small ornamental lake.
We were bidden to settle ourselves down and to begin painting. People quickly threw down their kit bags and dug themselves a defendable space. I felt panicked by the overwhelming amount of pretty greenery and couldn’t sight on anything of immediate interest. I could see a tantalizingly meaty Grecian Temple off to one side on an island in the lake, which had clearly been reserved for the top table of Pod dwellers. Peering at the water ahead of our group I found the other more modest focal point, in the shape of a Gothic wooden boat house. I resolved to render this structure with as much regard as I would any classical confection. I plunged to the ground in front of some ensconced deckchair dwellers and – making myself as low as possible – set out my picnic of recycled plastic paint pots and paper-plate palettes. Feeling more comforted by my encircling installation, I began to relax. Then I remembered my Red Kite feather and flint nodules and added them, like talismans, to the assemblage. As I began to map out a composition, I considered how they might be able to play their part in informing the landscape in front of me.
On I daubed through what was turning into a tranquil day’s painting, with intermittent appearances from Michael bearing treats that he had tracked down in the nearby village. I acquainted myself with my immediate neighbour, a gently spoken American called Sandy with her young daughter, Zoe. Now and again I would stretch my legs and after one sojourn to find the rather elusive toilets I noticed, off to my left, that Joan Bakewell was chatting intently with a flamboyant wild card contestant fielding an impressively large canvas. Expounding professionally to the cameras and looking every bit the ‘oven-ready’ TV star-in-waiting, my new friend and I hypothesised that she was surely the ringer amongst us. A little later, the cameras descended on a collage artist seated just to my right. Again, she spoke with confident composure to the judges, explaining her distinctive technique. Oh well, I thought, it’s been a nice day and I’ve enjoyed getting an insight into the making of this very entertaining programme, so I can’t complain.
Then out of the blue sunshine to one side, the TV ether was given form and Tai himself settled cross-legged, albeit precariously, on the reedy edge of the lake, patiently waiting for me to take note of his presence. I swung my gaze across to meet his and tried not to notice the camera equipment blossoming around us. We had what felt like a companionable chat and he asked if I had a strategy to avoid making a saccharine painting. Reaching for a plausible reply I thought about my keen-ness to explore the forms of this constructed landscape and to take the approach of emphasising form over colour, choosing to work with a spare colour palette … but reduced that to saying I was a bit ‘green-phobic’, which seemed to cause a degree of amusement.
Then both Tai and the camera crew lifted off into the sunlit atmosphere like dragonflies setting off for richer hunting ground. Normality had been restored, we all breathed again and my American companion said, ‘Well, that was quite exciting’, whilst I pondered on the wisdom of declaring a dislike of green to the judge of a landscape painting competition! Thankfully, after a short burst of self-torture, one of the LAOTY team popped over to tell me that Tai had really liked my work, and we exchanged a thumbs up moment.
Meanwhile, like a pair of lionesses, Kathleen and Kate were circling around the wild cards. I wasn’t too distracted by their attentions because of my positioning at the edge of the water. But then suddenly Kate was asking me for an interview. We had what seemed a lengthy discussion about my nodules, which were by now well established in the composition! She left, but then briefly reappeared, leaving her coke can with me for safe keeping, in the manner of a mate – which should perhaps have seemed more odd than it did at the time. On later reflection I mused that this may have been some coded signal to the film crew.
Having told Michael to stay away to let me concentrate, I kept on painting – music plugged into my ears to reduce distraction – when suddenly we were asked to down tools, the day being done. Someone would soon be anointed wild card winner and, we were instructed, Kate would come amongst us in such a way that the chosen one would gradually becoming apparent, at which point we were to amass in socially distanced congratulatory accord. My money was placed firmly on the large-canvassed lively lady and, thinking there would be time yet to join the throng, I wandered over to chat to my second choice – the collager – thinking to hedge my bets and be on hand when Kate arrived.
Headed by Kate, a throng were sure enough now heading in our direction but, I suddenly realised, were loitering next to my pitch! Befuddled, baffled and bemused I headed back to the congratulations of those present and Kate’s announcement that I was the wildcard winner!
There followed a final slightly stunned and, on my part, ill prepared interview. I then found myself chatting dazedly to my neighbouring artists before Michael re-appeared over the brow of the hillside, looking as surprised as I had been – and a little miffed that my sending him away meant he had missed all the excitement.