the poetry of objects

Regulars here at the Artlog will have read about Catriona Urquhart, author of the sequence of poems The Mare’s Tale, plantswoman, raconteuse and much missed friend. Catriona and her partner Ian Hamilton were frequent visitors at our cottage by the sea. The place is redolent of the couple, with furniture, ceramics and plants that they brought to find a good home for, in surroundings they loved being in. (We still eat at the dining-table they loaned to us, and we always refer to it as ‘Ian and Catriona’s table’.) Peter and I have just had a glorious weekend there. On Saturday we viewed the result of some much-needed grounds-work carried out by gardeners Ursula and Ali accompanied by their delightful dog Malcolm, who I’m told takes care of the ‘quality control’ side of their business!


Up at the top corner of the property a small elevated spot has a chair where Catriona used to sit on warm summer evenings. During the final stages of her illness she took up smoking again, liking the occasional Gauloises while she watched the sea and waited for the bats to emerge at dusk. I was sitting in her chair when the news came by telephone of her death. I’d seen her the day before, made my farewells and left her floating deep in unconsciousness, safe in the care of Ian and her mother, her two brothers and sister and their families. With the help of the Macmillan nurses, Catriona’s death took place in her own bed at home, surrounded by books, paintings and music, which was just the way she wanted it.

Above: a painting made at the cottage of a jug given to me by Catriona. I’ve painted it many times.

After Catriona had gone I found myself unable to approach her chair overlooking the bay. It made me too sad to find it empty. With her not there to cut them back, the ivy and nettles took over and the chair vanished into their depths. Recently, pushing aside the Spring undergrowth, I discovered it caught in the thrusting brambles, pitched at a crazy angle and making for the tree canopy. I can think of no more poetic evocation of Catriona than her chair carried skywards by greenery, and I know she would have approved. (Perhaps I can mine a painting out of the idea.) Nevertheless, Ursula and Ali were co-oped to cut back the brash, and the chair has now been retrieved and set on its feet again. In the coming weeks Ali will replace its missing arm. (My friend Anita in the States has always maintained there is no practical problem on this good earth that can’t be solved by getting in a lesbian with a big old tool belt, and I’m glad to say that Ali is the proof of that particular pudding!) I will never stop missing Catriona, but the time feels right to sit in her chair, to listen to the sea and watch the bats hunting at dusk. I shall forgo the Gauloises.

20 thoughts on “the poetry of objects

  1. Pingback: Catriona on May Day | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  2. What a lot you have been doing while I was wandering North Carolina! Love the ascending chair idea…

    And I think Anita is unusually clever with her hands, and is no average gal with a tool belt!

  3. A beautiful seaside cottage garden and so very special with the objects and memories of loved ones. As I reread Peter’s beautiful and heart-rending eulogy, I could not help a tear as I thought of our own loved ones long gone. We are presently going through many of our parents’ belongings, again, which we’ve kept but have too much of, on top of our own, trying to pass them on to others who might love them. Sigh.

    • Thank you Marja-Leena. That eulogy really does hit the spot doesn’t it? As head of The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Peter supervises a large number of publications produced by his organisation. He both writes and edits, and outside of work he’s built a reputation writing about art and artists. He was in fact the editor of the Lund Humphries monograph about my work published last year. Most of what he produces is factual, and so the opportunities for him to take an emotional approach are minimal. However in his eulogy for Catriona he really went with his heart, and as a result I think he produced something quite remarkable. A good template I would think for anyone considering writing a eulogy.

      • Thanks, Clive, for telling me more about Peter. His eulogy is truly memorable. I doubt I’ll ever attempt one myself. And what a fascinating job he has with such an organization. I’ve bookmarked that link to explore as I love archaeology and history ( was just looking at a Finnish museum site) . I can imagine you have learned some Welsh history from him, for your art work is so very rich with it.

        • Glad that you found the Royal Commission site interesting Marja-Leena. It’s a wonderful organisation with a fantastic archive. An exhibition about the interiors of Welsh homes curated by one of the staff has just opened in Aberystwyth prior to a tour throughout the Summer, and the accompanying book, which from everything I’ve seen so far looks fascinating, will be published shortly.

          What’s so wonderful about the archive is it’s supported by all the specialist staff that work for the Commission, and so it’s a living, constantly evolving organism, and not just a paper archive in store. There are photographers both for terrestrial and aerial imaging, historians… including a marine specialist for coastal wrecks etc… and archeologists as well as library staff. It’s not huge… between forty and fifty staff I think… and with a marvellous publishing department. In a country where government and big organisations are largely Cardiff-centric, it’s wonderful that here on the opposite side of Wales we have in Aberystwyth the Royal Commission, the National Library and and a University of enviable reputation. We may be a small town but we pack a punch!

          (And yes, I am proud to be here!)

  4. Clive, indeed your garden pictures are stunning, refreshing and, I must admit, a little envy-producing! More than one garden of Eden to call your own, plus an angel called Catriona to watch over them – what could be more desirable?

    • Oh please don’t be envious. I never feel like an owner, more the sense of being a temporary custodian. We come into the world with nothing and leave with nothing. Anything in-between is temporary. I look after these gardens as well as I can. The most I ever hope for is that when the time comes for them to be passed along, they’ll be in good shape.

  5. Your photos of your two gardens pass on to us a great sense of calm in a busy world. Because of the events of last weekend I have found myself rushing about replacing, renewing, filling in forms and spending hours on the phone. So it has been a welcome break, to stop, look in on your peaceful garden worlds, take a deep breath, slowly exhale and feel calm for a while. You help more than you can ever know. Thank you.

    • Jacqui, those thieves that came at night to violate your home did a terrible thing. One can only hope that one day, and for their own sakes, they’ll begin to understand how the way they’ve conducted themselves has impacted others. I’ve often found that people who do bad things have very little by way of imagination, and thus a defecit, too, of empathy.

      It’s kind of you to say that the recent accounts of our gardens here on the Artlog have been a comfort to you. They give such pleasure to us that it’s little enough for us to share them online.

      I know you’ll continue to find occasion to stop, breathe deeply and let the calm wash over you, and in this way allow space for the restoration of equilibrium in your life.

  6. Dear Clive
    as usual you are the miner of memories (and derelict chairs!). I still see her in that chair looking out to sea and remarking that she hoped your neighbours below would not disturb Peter too much with their building plans (hope they never did).

    You will like this story.
    I was in Ferryden on 1st May just gone and was winding up Catriona’s clock, which never in all our memories ever chimed (although it is a chiming clock – full Westminster). To my surprise it started chiming!!. I was impressed that 7 years to the day she died, things were still happening…
    Later that day, I was carrying out some maintenance invoving an electric drill. Up a ladder and merrily boring into the outside wall, a flash of fire shot out of the wall and burnt my hand. I later learned that I had drilled into a main cable with about 200 amps of current and many volts. By all expert standards I should have been electrically fried. Not so. I think luck may have had a part – but the clock is still chiming!

    • Well Catriona didn’t hope in vain, as things are just the same as they were when she was last there. She must be keeping a weather-eye on those neighbours!

      The chimes surprise me not a bit. That’s a particularly Catriona type of story. No-one could ever hurry her, so why on earth should her clock be any different?

      Ian….. the cable!!!!! Oh my gosh but you were lucky. I’m glad the house at Ferryden didn’t kill you. Please be more careful with your drill! We don’t want to see the circumstances of your death an occasion for the folk of Ferryden to be raising their eyebrows and invoking Catriona’s name as though she were anything to do with it! Ha ha!

      • Hi Clive
        No I think it was her who saved me!
        I went to see Stephen in Prague recently. I will call you with all the news
        Ian x

        • Oh please do call to fill us in. We haven’t seen Stephen for far too long, though a few years ago we spent a week touring Czech with him as our guide. I spoke with him over the phone only last week.

    • It is indeed ‘a kind of magic’, Zoe. She spun it from her fingertips and from her tongue. She conjured words and ideas with such dexterity. Not a day goes by when I don’t ask myself ‘What would Catriona have made of this, or that, or the other?’ I know that she’d love the way the garden at the cottage has matured. I know how she would have loved The Book of Ystwyth and enjoyed the company of her fellow-poets in it.

      I have conversations with her still.

  7. Were I there with MY tool belt, I would surely lend a hand! ; ) Alas.
    It’s a wonderful garden. The place and objects of some of my fondest memories, too.
    xo AM

  8. Wonderful place, wonderful memories, wonderful chair, glad you saved it.

    For some reason it tickles me that Ursula and Ali’s dog is called Malcom!

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