A new exhibition in the Lake District is focused on the element which has defined the national park – water. And it seems pertinent in a hot summer, heading towards drought conditions, and amid concerns about the quality of water in the lakes themselves, to take time out with artist Nick May in a thought-provoking show.
‘Hydrosphere Blues’ opens this month at the Heaton Cooper archive gallery in Grasmere. It is a series of watercolours by Cumbria-based May, referring to the entirety of the earth’s water – oceans, rivers, lakes, groundwater, and glaciers, stunning images that combine a scientific curiosity with the magic of art.
Predominantly blue, May’s artworks are mesmerising in themselves, quite apart from the narrative of his work. The hydrosphere, he reminds us, is a vital component of the planet’s ecosystem, playing a crucial role in regulating climate, supporting biodiversity, and providing a source of life-sustaining resources such as food and freshwater.
“Today, the stability of the hydrosphere faces unprecedented challenges from climate change, pollution and over-exploitation, so it is all the more important to celebrate its beauty, value and fragility”.
“I’m keen to explore the science and cultural significance of water in ways which are powerful and informed – if not overtly illustrative, so I’m developing strategies to explore the physical and conceptual relationships between water as subject and water as medium. This also reconnects to the fascination of playing with water as a child, to exploring its versatility and beauty and I strive to inscribe the residual attributes of discovery and wonder in the work.”
– Nick May (artist)
Influences and background
There is, indeed, an almost child-like fascination in seeing May’s work for the first time. The artist quotes Loren Eiseley – “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water” and Toni Morrison – “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” But perhaps more pertinently today he emphasises the words of Jacques Yves Cousteau: “Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.”
Nick May studied sculpture at St Martin’s School of Art, and direction at the National Film and Television School. Shortly after moving to Cumbria in 1986, he wrote and directed the Prix Italia nominated film The Hills are Alive for Channel 4, which explored the experience of the hill farming community in West Cumbria following their exposure to Chernobyl contamination – and reflections on living with Sellafield.
Other films include John Cooper Clarke, Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt (1982), In the Mind of Man (2000) and Fair Game (2002). He’s had a number of solo exhibitions, and in recent years his work has been exhibited in the USA, China and Sweden as well as London and Edinburgh.
Hydrosphere Blues exhibition
This new exhibition is a distillation of work during a period which has seen the Covid pandemic and the Ukraine invasion, both of which are alluded to here.
– Nick May
The Heaton Cooper Studio, located in the centre of the village of Grasmere, has been the home for the work of three generations of artists since the 1930s. It is still a base for the sale of originals and prints by Alfred Heaton Cooper, his son William Heaton Cooper, and grandson Julian Cooper, Britain’s foremost living mountain painter.
It also features work by William’s wife, the sculptor Ophelia Gordon Bell, as well as other members of this artistic dynasty, though the most well-known works are by Alfred and William, each distinctively capturing the magnificence and beauty of rock and fell, stream and lake. The current director of the studio, Rebecca Heaton Cooper, the grand-daughter of William, is also an artist.
But in recent years, the archive gallery has also hosted a series of visiting exhibitions, usually featuring the work of local artists or those whose work is focused on the mountain landscape. It’s become a centre of excellence in the North West. Likewise, the cafe which adjoins the gallery and is named after Alfred Heaton Cooper’s Norwegian wife, Mathilde and has won acclaim for its Scandi-style menu. It was Alfred who ‘imported’ the log house studio from Norway which was rebuilt first in Coniston, and then in Ambleside, where it remains today on the approach into the town. William, himself by then an eminent artist, moved the studio and family business to Grasmere after his father’s death.
The ‘Hydrosphere Blues’ exhibition will run at the Heaton Cooper gallery from June 23 until September 15.