A taste of things not forgotten

Some years ago when I first met Valerie Thornton, a friend was suggesting to her that she should put people or animals into her work. Her reply was, "But they are already there!" and she pointed to a family of stones on the wall in her picture. The faces of stone had seized her attention.

Just as it is impossible nowadays to think of a rainbow without recalling the work of Patrick Hughes or a swimming pool without David Hockney, so other artists have claimed their territories. It is not so much a question of style as of choice of image.

The Norman churches, blunt and massive, still brood over our landscape. Out of the age of William the Conqueror, Thomas Becket and the crusades emerged High Romanesque. The style is characterized by strong designs and restraint in sculptural decoration. There is also a persistent conviction in these churches that the lost gods have not been altogether forgotten. These stone churches have become Valerie's territory.

While studying with Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17 in Paris, she discovered some of the possibilities that etching held. Etchings are often sparse and scratchy, but she learned to work her copper plates into rich textures. She allowed the acid to bite deep into the plates and she gave considerable physical effort to free her imagery.

Drawings now done on site are taken to the studio. There the sketches are changed into plates. Then a kind of alchemy is practiced. A mixture of technical knowledge and artistic feeling engages to produce a powerful image. Each pitted plate is inked with rich stoney colours and a print is taken.

She has found a way to encourage acid to erode plates in the way that stone is weathered. Within carefully delineated areas she allows acid a freedom which is akin to that demanded by rain, wind and lichen.

In the dark windows and doors, in the gritty walls and worn stones of a church, she finds a composite expression. The churches she draws look alert, melancholy or patient. All of them are wrinkled with time, cracked and crumbling but nonetheless heavy and stable.

In her best work Valerie Thornton not only bares the soul of the building, not only allows the total expression to peer out at us, but evokes the spirit of the past. We are allowed to taste the medievalism, the monasticism and the feudalism. The society which built romanesque churches left its expression within the walls. When she elucidates these signs for us and reveals the personalities of places, she avoids all the dangers of cold topography! These churches may not be real people, but they embody and personify.

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