Dalesman February 2014: In the Field of View

In the Field of View: artist David Winfield

Artist David Winfield has been painting landscapes on John Bell’s farm in Thirsk for five years.  It’s a match made in heaven: David wanted a place that he could paint repeatedly, exploring it in all its moods and seasons, while John loves both art and his farm.


John says, “I’ve lived here all my life, it’s a family farm and I was brought up on it.  The farm is a like a family member.  You can dislike it, but you must put up with it.”


David Winfield and John Bell enjoy the landscape of John's farm

David Winfield and John Bell enjoy the landscape of John’s farm

While the farm may frustrate John – he says that the collective noun for farmers is ‘a grumble’ – he loves the landscape, and was delighted when David wanted to paint it.  He says, “It’s very nice for me to have someone painting here.  Lots of artists paint the same places – for instance, Bridge Street at Helmsley, so it’s nice to do here.  David’s caught the feel of the place really well, in its different views.


The landscape of John’s farm in the Vale of York is less painted that hilly areas such as the Dales, but David says, “I’m like Constable – an East Coast artist.  I’ve been to the Lake District, and found it’s not for me.  Constable was the same.”


One of the attractions is the skies: John says the views change all the time, according to the weather.  “The hills come and go according to the light.  The Hambletons vary.  A friend came once and said ‘did they get closer overnight?’  Sometimes they look two miles away, sometimes ten – sometimes you can’t see them at all.”


Views to the Hambleton Hills constantly change

Views to the Hambleton Hills constantly change

As well as the weather, the process of farming causes change.  John says, “It always changes.  People think there’s always been a hedge system, but that’s only since the enclosures.  I’ve got farm plans from the late 1700s that show two strips of trees, but no woodland.


“The woods were put in for sporting purposes in the 19th century.  But before that, the hedges were full of trees.  Then we got grants to drain and take out the hedges to feed people.  Now we get grants to put them back.  In one place, the hedges were taken out, but the trees were left in, so you can see lines of trees.”


John remembers when the elms were lost to Dutch Elm disease, and still mourns them.  With Ash Dieback disease (Chalara fraxinea fungus) now threatened, he says, “Ash is our tree – ash and oak.  If we lost every ash tree, it would be almost every tree on the farm.”


In the meantime, he says, a small patch of commercial woodland, planted about 60 years ago, is ready to be harvested.  He says, “It’s commercial woodland with conifers in line.  I want to replant with indigenous, and the Forestry Commission has given me a list.


Despite this, he adds, “I’m sure that when I fell the woodland, there’ll be an outcry, but it’s only about 60 years old, and it’s ready to be felled.”


David and John discuss the hedgerow and its wildlife

David and John discuss the hedgerow and its wildlife

Other changes happen much more quickly, and David has tried to record them.  He says, “I’d thought I’d paint some work, some action on the farm.  But two years went by, and I never saw any action.  After two years, I saw a harvest, with them making bales.  And the next day, the field was ploughed.”


However, there’s plenty of other material to paint: open fields; hedges; small woods; buildings ancient and modern; machinery; a railway line; long views to the Hambleton Hills and Wensleydale; details such as tree bark; and a series of flooded brick ponds, now a haven for wildlife.


So far, David has painted many long views, taken from a ridge of higher ground that runs across the farm.  Then, he adds, “They are two other main areas I’ve painted so far.  There are three woodland patches I’ve worked in, and the brick ponds.  I’ve spent most of this year painting the ponds.”


John says, “It was a shallow seam [of clay] so the ponds are only about 4 feet deep, but they cover about half an acre.  They run in a line, so it makes a good route for wildlife to move about in.”


They are a favourite retreat for John, who comments, “I like to go to the brick ponds because I find them very peaceful, and I can relax there.  Because if you’re a farmer and walking your land, it just gives you a list of jobs.”


John says, “What I like about David’s painting is that good painters turn looking into seeing.  They teach you to see what you’re looking at.  It’s as in when people understand something and say ‘I see’.”


However, he adds, an artist may focus on something that the farmer isn’t pleased about:  “For instance, Monet’s poppies – as a farmer, I’d be horrified to have so many poppies.  For me, the worst thing is to have elder – and David’s painted it.”


John adds, “I like elderflower cordial, but it’s a bad-mannered tree, because they tend to grow in the wrong places.  You don’t want them in a hedge because it kills the thorn beside it.  And it grows right beside buildings, and damages them.”


“Working as a farmer is a different relationship with the landscape to walking.  You don’t see it as solid, if you’re ploughing, you turn it over and it flows.  You see it close up in different guises.  In the old days, you’d plough, and harrow it over 2 or 3 times to make a seed bed.  So you’d go over it several times before drilling, then you watch your crop grow.  A huge amount of farming is walking your crops, seeing if any are under stress, pests coming in, funguses and so on.”


David reveals the key to the two men’s relationship with the land: “That’s like me, walking and making observations, looking for signs and so on.”



Contact David through Zillah Bell Gallery, Thirsk, www.zillahbellgallery.co.uk, Tel  01845 522 479


Two public bridleways cross the farm, intersecting at OS map reference SE 417 841




About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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