Last year I found myself being caught on camera again – in a second sojourn to a Sky Arts ‘Landscape Artist of the Year‘ set, having been upgraded from a Wild Thing on the previous series to a Pod Dweller at the Eden Project in Cornwall … where I spent a long hot day in August 2021 painting and being filmed by the StoryVault Films crew (who make the programme for Sky). With the episode having been broadcast at the start of February, it feels an opportune moment to offer up a description of my experience.
I arrived on site a little behind time (Cornwall is a long way from Nottinghamshire), to find a nearly empty breakfast van and the assembled crew and cast wiping greasy whiskers in satisfaction. Fortunately, there was one last vegan burger which had my name on it and I popped it into my baggage for later consumption. Golfing type buggies were already ferrying folk down to the filming area at great speed and – like a 19th century émigré embarking on a potentially life changing journey into uncharted lands – I caught the last of these, waving my worried looking husband off at the quayside (well … car park), and setting sail. Gripping my rucksack and other baggage, we sped around the various hairpin bends leading ever downwards. Finally, I was united with the other artists and found myself in the hidden valley of Eden on the brightening beauty of a propitious summer’s day.
The now familiar LAOTY pods were stretched in a row close to the equally familiar geodesic domes belonging to the Eden Project – indeed the very ones that I had spent the previous couple of weeks researching – their history, purpose, construction, philosophy, not to mention my experimentation’s for how to visually represent them, hopefully in a fresh inventive way. My baggage was full of the means to create my best effort with the satisfaction that I had done the groundwork. What could possibly go wrong!!! Hmmm … As I joined my fellow painters, there was a discernible ripple of dissent – something was amiss. The pods appeared to have been put up back to front! They were in fact facing away from the domes and towards a deep bank of dog daisies, with vast amounts of greenery rising upwards to a very high skyline. Oh dear! Too late to back out now. A new strategy would have to be formulated on the hoof.
But for the minute I was swept into the many necessary preparations for the days filming. There was a microphone to be fitted which, due to my choice of outfit, required a certain amount of undignified and invasive investigation. Naturally my particular battery proved to be flat so that I was treated to some additional disrobing and underwear revealing before everything was in place for the day (stern note to self re trip to M&S for any future TV appearances). Then we were led by turns into a secluded garden for a pre-event interview to elicit our impressions so far. Next, we were paired up for an ‘arrival’ sequence and asked to process chattily along a pathway (any logos visible on T-shirts etc being carefully expunged from view as per SKY TV requirements).
Now we watched and waited with growing trepidation, like a flock of confused sheep in a sheering pen, about to be divested of our most commodifiable assets! The stars of the show began appearing amongst us – the lovely Joan Bakewell took time to greet each contestant with an easy familiarity; the three judges, Tai, Kathleen and Kate had welcoming good mornings for all and finally the delightfully personable Stephen Mangan bid us each a jaunty and warm ‘hello’, before we were put under starting orders and Joan dropped the proverbial chequered flag.
Sketch pad out, I tried to centre my discombobulated self with a quick pencil exploration of the unexpected problem now confronting me for the forthcoming few hours. For me, ‘bone structure’ is the most important element in a composition, with colour and light used in veils and overlays. I was struggling to find an interesting definitive approach to a bank of dog daisies. Then, with relief, I spotted some simple black folding chairs that had been left at the front of my pod and with the zigzag of their black angular edges echoing those of the pod, I had my theme. To my consternation though, whilst I was preoccupied as filming and interviews progressed, these chairs kept shifting position or even disappeared altogether like some fiendish party game. Having patiently reassembled my composition once more, with the remaining chair, I finally twigged that the film crew hadn’t grasped my compositional intent. I remonstrated and the remaining chair was left in place.
I ploughed on but with the anticipation that I was always on call. These filming incursions were actually all very pleasant, although I felt the need to justify my less that pretty take on the luxuriant surrounding vegetation. And, for the record, since childhood I’ve been in thrall to the natural world and love being surrounded by greenery. But I’m also interested in sculpture and texture and historical and biological context and exploring my own language in the hope of portraying some of these aspects in addition to representing what I see in front of me. I thoroughly enjoy diversity of artistic expression and am fascinated by the inventive ways artists come to their conclusions. It is an ever-evolving visual feast.
Hard to say what the judges were thinking of my attempt. Tai appeared at one point and scrutinised the surface at my canvas before disappearing. Kate drew me on why I had a problem with green plus Kathleen also stopped by for a filming moment. Subsequently, I had what felt like an ‘off the record’ chat with Stephen about how things were going, which was probably very ‘on the record’ as we were permanently mic’d up. Thinking about it afterwards, I really hoped that I hadn’t said anything incriminating. Anyway, later we had a more formal, if tongue in cheek, conversation about my Wagnerian approach to painting.
Throughout the day I had the loveliest ‘runner’ – a chap called Nick – who looked after me and participants. He was always on hand to fetch anything we needed, even escorting us on toilet trips (still fully mic’d up I’m afraid) – basically all the hidden, thankless tasks that are a critical part of making a production work and that deserve a big thank you. In fact, every one of the crew were very friendly and they worked together liked a fabled well-oiled machine. It was tremendously interesting to watch – and to talk to them. There was the odd break too when the contestants could talk amongst themselves and it was really interesting to learn everyone’s back stories.
Our submission paintings were also part of the filming process, with each of the artists posing alongside their ‘one I made earlier’. Mine was “The Beck at Staithes” (oil on canvas, 76x76cm) – I love the rich variety and patina of the elements in this view, looking down the beck as it cuts through the sandstone sidings and funnels under the footbridge.
All too suddenly Joan was telling us that we had half an hour remaining. The crew and other artists had made the day feel so chilled and chatty that I’d latterly lost track of time and was now panicking for having not made sufficient progress with my piece! However, paintings can be lost or found at such points, and I made many of my critical decisions in those last 30 minutes. Wishing for just a few minutes more, we were bidden to down tools. Although I was pleased with its concept, I was far from sure that I had produced a winner.
We stepped back from our easels and were sent into the nearby secluded garden to be fed biscuits and ice cream before having a ‘postpartum’ interview. And then we were summoned to line up in front of our work. The moment had arrived for the 3 short-listed contestants to be announced! To my surprise I found myself to be amongst them.
We were all sent away and then reformed as a trio. Sadly, it was not my fortune to be chosen that day as the overall winner. Having enjoyed the day so much, I suddenly felt very disappointed not to be following this curious company to its next assignation but, as all the artists agreed, it had been an extraordinary interlude.