A look at the HILL exhibition at the Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

The sun setting behind a bull on Middleton Moor

The sun setting behind a bull on Middleton Moor - Credit: kate bellis

Five artists have created an exhibition about its people and their relationship with the landscape that reaches into the heart of Derbyshire

New born lambs

New born lambs - Credit: kate bellis

When you visit ‘HILL’, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery’s longest-running exhibition, you are confronted by a full-face photograph of Oli Julian, an eleventh-generation stone mason. His face has the appearance of a mask: his eyes are almost closed; and his features are coated with white dust. Oli works with limestone, he lives on a limestone hill and, in this photograph, he has become limestone. This arresting image is one of 70 mainly black-and-white photographs taken by Kate Bellis that are on show in the exhibition, which runs to 6th June.

The hill featured in the show is a stretch of Derbyshire upland that caught the attention of Daniel Defoe during his visit to the county in the 1720s. Defoe wrote: ‘A little on the other side of Wirksworth, begins a long plain called Brassington Moor, which reaches full twelve miles in length another way, (viz.) from Brassington to Buxton.’ The origins of the hill can be traced to an era when the White Peak was covered by a sea whose creatures became fossilised over time into limestone deposits. In the words of the poet Lucy Peacock, ‘Once, there were sharks here./ Now their bones are encased/ in the limestone remains/ of all the creatures that swam/ in that ancient sea.’

Kate Bellis’ journey for the Story of One Derbyshire Hill was inspired by her belief that, ‘Defoe came to realise as he travelled these hills that the real “wonders” of the Peak weren’t just its geological marvels or its stately homes, the real “wonders” were the Derbyshire people he was meeting on his travels. That’s something I passionately believe in too, that’s what keeps me photographing.’

Today, the hill is home to families, farm animals, wildlife, working quarries, wind turbines and shafts of former lead mines. These various aspects of the hill are illustrated in Kate’s photographs, Lucy’s poems, the drawings and sculptures of Sally Matthews, a film produced by Gavin Repton and music written and sung by Carol Fieldhouse. The Buxton exhibition is the result of a two-year project, supported by the Lottery and the Arts Council of England, which has seen these talented artists helping with lambing, shearing sheep, exploring mines, talking to local people, descending a 300m shaft, walking into the bowels of the earth, chanting at the winter solstice in a cave at Harboro’ Rocks and watching explosions in Longcliffe Quarry, described by Lucy Peacock as ‘a vast cathedral inverted, formed by blast after blast.’ Some members of the group even measured a cow.

Book Cover of Hill

Book Cover of Hill - Credit: kate bellis

The measurement of the cow was carried out to enable Sally to make the full-size sculpture of a dairy cow that forms the centrepiece of the exhibition. It was created by using a combination of limestone, coal dust, glue, hay, horsehair, wood and feathers to build up a work in three dimensions around a steel frame. Sally says, ‘I always commence my sculptures with a steel armature that is the equivalent of the sort of quick line drawings I use to begin my two-dimension pictures of animals.’

One appreciative critic said of Sally’s animal sculptures, which have been shown widely in this country and abroad: ‘They almost breathe and have a life of their own.’ Exhibited next to the dairy cow is a life-size model of a ‘thought sheep’, whose fleece is made up of scores of strips of paper on which visitors to the exhibition have been invited to write ‘thoughts about the hill, or any green space that means something to them’. Several of Sally’s drawings of animals and birds have been hung on the walls of the exhibition space alongside Kate’s photographs. These sketches are a simple but very effective demonstration that every animal possesses an individual character.

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Sally Matthews and Kate Bellis had previously worked together on a joint exhibition about a Northumberland farming community, but the harnessing of the work of the five artists involved in the present project has been made possible by Kate’s enormous drive and enthusiasm, which has enabled her to gain the trust and involvement of local people, quarry workers and farmers.

Kate’s photographs of lambing-time at the farm are a graphic record of the close relationship that exists between humans and animals in upland Derbyshire. One particularly tender image shows Ian and Zoe Lomas helping a ewe to give birth, whilst a second dynamic image captures the moment when Ian is swinging a lamb to release fluid from its lungs. The photograph has also captured Ian’s nephew, Josh, looking on attentively, as if he is anticipating his future life as a farmer. In the words of Lucy Peacock, ‘These are the moments when/ life is most fragile./ When a swing by the legs,/ or a helping breath/ can be the difference/ between spluttering life/ and death.’

Sally's drawing of a raven

Sally's drawing of a raven - Credit: kate bellis

The second verse of Lucy’s poem describes a third lambing photograph taken by Kate: ‘With quiet precision,/ Ian cuts the skin from/ a stillborn lamb./ So now wearing that skin,/ a motherless lamb/ can feed from/ the lambless ewe.’ Another of Kate’s images in the exhibition shows the late Arthur Wheeldon with his ear pressed right up to his radio as he listens to Radio Derby, not only to make contact with the world beyond his cottage on the hill, but also to pick up the sort of news that was so vital to him when his livelihood was being threatened by the foot and mouth epidemic.

In addition to capturing the harsh reality of life on the hill, Kate has illustrated its surprising beauty. As one farmer has said, ‘Even in bad weather, this is a lovely place to be.’ One of her most beautiful images depicts a bull silhouetted against the sun rising over Middleton Moor, whilst another silhouette-like shot shows her son shadow-dancing in Harboro’ Cave. The show also includes striking photographs of the characterful, hardworking men and women who live and work on the hill.

Gavin Repton’s superbly edited film, shown on a continuous loop in the exhibition, captures the various moods of the hill, both above and below ground, including the violent smashing of limestone into aggregate, the eerie exploration of an old mine shaft, the creation of new life at lambing-time, recordings of haunting chanting at the winter solstice and the voices of people who work on the hill or live in its shelter. Commenting on a sequence that follows a group of people taking a night walk on the hill, Gavin said: ‘Even though I realised that there might be a risk of viewers not being able to pick out details, I am pleased that I included this episode, because I think it works particularly well.’

Earphones attached to signs that were used to warn of blasting are an appropriate component of two sound boxes containing recordings compiled by Kate of sounds made by animals and people, as well as the beautiful voice of Carol Fieldhouse singing a tune of her own composition to words by Lucy Peacock. Describing how she had first found the confidence to compose songs, Carol said: ‘I was travelling through the former battlefields of France when I heard the song of a lark. Moved by the sound of the bird, I parked the car and wrote a song. 40 minutes later, I asked myself if I had really managed to do that. It was so strange.’ As a result of this self-discovery, Carol has been able to use her talent to compose a tune that not only encapsulates the hill’s present beauty but also contains echoes of its distant past.

Thought Sheep, with a fleece made of strips of paper containing thoughts about the hill

Thought Sheep, with a fleece made of strips of paper containing thoughts about the hill - Credit: kate bellis

Thanks to the expertise of Lucy Peacock, who runs her own little publishing company called Green Feather Books, the poems, words and images from the exhibition have been collected in a beautifully produced book entitled HILL, whose cover displays that wonderful photograph by Kate Bellis of the lime-coated face of Oli Julian. On looking once again at this image, I was reminded of the moment when I was stopped in my tracks at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam by the artist’s painting of ‘The Potato Eaters’, in which the faces of the people depicted in the picture seem to share the same texture as the skins of the potatoes they grow and eat. Great art can capture the lives of people and their relationship with the landscape where they live and work in a single image!

The exhibition HILL runs to 6th June at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. News of future showings of the exhibition can be found on www.hillproject.uk as can details of how to order the book Hill and its accompanying DVD (ISBN 978-0-9574777-3-5), published by Green Feather Books.

Seated left to right: Sally Matthews; Gavin Repton; Kate Bellis; Lucy Peacock

Seated left to right: Sally Matthews; Gavin Repton; Kate Bellis; Lucy Peacock - Credit: kate bellis

Sally's life-size sculpture of a cow, using limestone, coal dust, glue, hay, horsehair, wood and feathers

Sally's life-size sculpture of a cow, using limestone, coal dust, glue, hay, horsehair, wood and feathers - Credit: kate bellis