Cuckmere Haven is an English Channel haven of chalk and flint, white and black, curve and vertical; I have long had a yearning to paint this part of the Sussex coastline. This is the spot where the chocolate brown Cuckmere River meets the sea, and the two mingle for a short while before the river gives in and gives way to the grey English Channel.
This low plateau, surrounded by some of the highest and most dramatic coastal scenery in England, is home to grey herons and black cormorants. Swifts – dramatic in flight and in nature – seem to suit this landscape perfectly; their graceful curved flight paths punctuated by staccato, stop-and-start turns that mirror the soft rise and sharp fall of the chalk cliffs.
One of the many draws to this part of the English coast is my fascination and admiration for the work of artist John Piper, 1903–92. John Piper made artworks of the Sussex coast that are, for me, unsurpassed. Capturing the very essence of that coastline, these paintings are stunning in their simplicity, worked with fascinating and truly contemporary combinations of collage, fabric, gouache and ink, and are tightly composed yet completely fluid in application. The John Piper white cliff paintings capture the very essence of the Sussex coast. These works evoke the history and pre-history of the place where the chalk downs meet the sea; when I look at them I can smell the coast: the salt, the dank slippery mud and the acidic chalk. And I can hear the skylarks.
When John Piper was visiting Cuckmere and the Seven Sisters back in the early 1930s he discovered the same captivating landscape that we find today, albeit with a few subtle and sometimes dramatic changes. The white cliffs have slowly retreated over the last 80-odd years between Piper’s visit and mine. Coastal erosion is a major problem on the Sussex coast as the soft chalk cliffs are vulnerable to the ever-encroaching tides.
The white cliffs are synonymous with a glowing, nostalgic welcome for those heading home from Europe and as a defiant line of defence – no more so than when John Piper made his artworks. One war was still fresh in people’s memories and another about to begin; the cliffs became deeply immersed in the national identity, a complicated jumble of romanticism and nationalism, a longing for something intangible now lost, a metaphor for an England that never really existed.
Demonstration: Cuckmere Storm
Often, when working fast and loose, paintings don’t always go to plan. But this needn’t be an issue when we have creative ways to bring our artworks to life. This collage technique is one that I use regularly in my work; it helps to add structure and interest to an otherwise simple watercolour.