Book Review: Wildings: The Secret Garden of Eileen Soper by Duff Hart-Davis

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A delightful, beautiful book, capturing a snapshot of an unchanging, rural corner of England, whilst also making a wonderful record of the life and artistic talent of Eileen Soper, her father George, and to a lesser extent, her sister Eva. 5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

When Eileen Soper died in March 1990, the age of 84, executors found an astonishing treasure-trove at her home in Hertfordshire. Not only did the studio contain a great many paintings by her father George Soper, the celebrated horse artist, who had died in 1942. There were also more than 200 watercolours by Eileen herself, as well as a very large number of her drawings, sketchbooks and letters. Much of her work was done in the half-wild garden that surrounds Wildings, her home near Welwyn. Planted by her father, and designed as a sanctuary for birds and other creatures, the garden became the centre of Eileen’s life, when her father died, she and her sister Eva took it on, extended it, lived in it, worked in it, loved it and fought to protect it. In this magical haven birds would settle on Eileen’s head, and deer would come out to feed from her hand. This fabulous book details many of Eileen Soper’ nature artwork a must have for nature lovers as well as art lovers.

Favourite Quote

“For Eileen, the 1930s were and always remained a golden age, which her father’s engravings and paintings caught to perfection: his prints, she felt, reflected ‘the serenity that seemed then still to prevail on the land’.”

(From Wildings: The Secret Garden of Eileen Soper, by Duff Hart-Davis)

Review

I originally was given this book by my mother who thought I would love the illustrations for my junk journalling. However, on closer inspection of the book, we realised that the village in which Eileen Soper lived, the village where Wildings was built, was the next village up from where my own grandmother was born and spent the early years of her life.

Eileen Soper is perhaps best remembered for her illustrations and front cover art for many of Enid Blyton’s books, though her nature drawings and paintings, which I was unfamiliar with prior to reading this book, are beautiful.

The book is wonderfully illustrated with paintings, etchings, and sketches, by both Eileen and her father, George Soper. As well as the book being a biography of mainly Eileen, and contains snippets of the letters she wrote, there are also verses of her poetry too. A favourite read was on the subject of her dislike of modern art, which she conveyed in her own version of Rudyard Kipling’s If.

Making my way through the book, you can feel the sanctuary that was Wildings, especially in 1930s, for the family as a whole. There is art, there is creativity, there is collectiveness, and above all, you can feel the happiness. Also, although there is talk of many outings and holidays, there is a feeling of isolation and remoteness, which conjured a strange sadness in me as I read. I felt as if Wildings was set apart from the rest of the world, and those within its confines did all they could to keep everything inside it the same. But alas, the passing of time would not allow it.

Wildings: The Secret Garden of Eileen Soper is an interesting, engaging read, capturing a snapshot of an unchanging, rural corner of England as well as the essence and eccentricities of creative people in general, whilst also making a wonderful record of the life and artistic talent of Eileen Soper, her father George, and to a lesser extent, her sister Eva. I would highly recommend this book to those with an interest in the local area.

Rating

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Poetry Book Review: What the Owl Taught Me by Annest Gwilym

What the Owl Taught Me is Annest Gwilym’s second book and first full collection, published by Lapwing Publications in 2020.  My thanks to Annest for providing me with a copy of the collection in return for an honest review.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Beautifully written and wonderfully lyrical. Evocative word choices and vividly described imagery combine to make this poetry collection a rich and rewarding read.  Highly recommended! 5 / 5

Summary (from author)

The book is written broadly on the lines of a bestiary, and in the tradition of bestiaries, includes some imaginary animals as well as real ones. It chronicles my lifelong love of nature and animals. It includes some animals which are often ‘demonised’ by people and our human-centric view of the world, such as wasps and bluebottles. By including these I wanted to show that they too have their own intricate, valid lives and vital roles in the world. In a couple of poems, I share some environmental concerns, as well as concerns about loss of species.

Favourite Quote

The poems found in What the Owl Taught Me were so quotable that I had a very hard time narrowing down my favourite to just one…

beyond the bright cathedral

of the sky, the dark is deep.

(From the poem “Crows”, What the Owl Taught Me by Annest Gwilym)

Review

When Annest Gwilym, editor of Nine Muses Poetry, offered me the chance to review her new poetry book, I jumped at the opportunity.  A couple of years ago, I reviewed her first poetry pamphlet, Surfacing, (you can read that review here) and so was very excited to find a copy of What the Owl Taught Me waiting for me in my inbox.

The first things that struck me were the enchanting title and the beautiful, breathtaking cover, but when I read what the poetry book was about I just knew I had to read it.  Illuminated manuscripts but especially bestiaries have always fascinated me so a poetry book loosely based in the tradition of one was not to be missed.

Each of the forty poems came across as wonderfully lyrical. As I said in my review of Surfacing, “…the poet has a beautiful way with words, creating images that are easy to visualise,” and that remains true for What the Owl Taught Me. Fauna and flora, and landscapes and seascapes, all are vividly painted with evocative word choices.  The natural world is celebrated, and on occasion, mourned. The picture related in The Fox Road could be one in many an urban area across the country, where buildings and developments are sprawling ever outward at a cost to our green and wild spaces.

We are introduced to a wide range of creatures through the poetry, from the usual and regularly seen (I am loath to use the word “ordinary” here), to those more rarely encountered unless you live in a rural area or by the sea, and then there are those of the imagination.  Crows and starfish, herons and foxes, seagulls and pipistrelle bats, owls, mammophants, horses and so many more besides!

Some of the poems are gentle and warm, such as Encounter, whereas others remind the reader of what it means to be wild.  Here the descriptions are not muted or subdued, but neither are they overplayed nor excessively gory.  They just are, as nature just is

As I read Pipistrelle, a poem dedicated to the UK’s most common species of bat, I felt like the closing lines could have been written in the margin of a medieval text, which seemed to reinforce the idea of the bestiary.  This, of course, I loved!

The most powerful and evocative of the poems I found to be The Nightmare Bird, which blended the mythological with nightmarish description so easily and authentically that it could have come from medieval folklore:

Cauldron born, in the icy grip of Ceridwen. 

Moon-bitten, storm-struck eater of stars

and dreams, its scream strangles the night.

(From the poem “The Nightmare Bird” from What the Owl Taught Me by Annest Gwilym)

There is lightness to be found in the collection too…The Blackheart Malatrix had me smiling in places, as I read of all the things, some evil, some absurd, the creature would do (including stopping all the grandfather clocks in Milton Keynes!), until the very last two lines, which, punching out of nowhere, sobered me as I thought on the consequences this terrible creature wished to inflict.

Some of the poems are also visually striking. Still Life with Flotsam and Litter gave a voice to each flotsam and litter, one using found text, the other found objects and were presented in different ways. Then there was Wasp’s Nest, where the lines of the poem are shaped to form the shape of a wasp’s nest against the whiteness of the page, while Golden Child forms the shape of a ray.

If your idea of the natural world is of cuddly bunnies and fluffy lambs this might not be the read for you.  But if you want poetry that reflects the British countryside and its wildlife, as well as locations much further afield, not to mention the creatures of the poet’s imagination, you will find What the Owl Taught Me a rich and rewarding read.  Highly recommended!

To learn more about Annest’s poetry collection, check out this link to Lapwing Publications.

Rating


Sammi Loves Books Reading Challenge 2019 – I’ve chosen this book for challenge #14 in the list: a book of poetry or short fiction