On 23 March, 2020 prime minister Boris Johnson announced lockdown measures in response to Covid-19...
...and suddenly, overnight, everything changed. High streets shut down. Schools closed. Traffic numbers plummeted. Plane trails disappeared. The population of the country was told to stay at home and protect the NHS. As anxieties rose in those early lockdown days – news cycling in minutes as infection rates soared – it became clear that for many Cumbrian artists and small independent businesses 2020 was going to be a very tough year indeed.
I was in that boat. My publishing business – five years old this year – depends on Lakes visitors for much of its income, and on the intricate network of bookshops, gift shops, summer shows and tourist attractions that sell the titles I publish. Overnight that infrastructure closed.
I spoke to friends in the same boat as me: other indie business owners; retailers; creative people. Many were struggling to see a way through the ever-shifting waters ahead. They echoed similar sentiments: without shows, gallery sales and exhibitions they had few outlets for their work. Plans, projects – and in many cases inspiration – had been put on indefinite hold.
One of the friends I spoke to was long-time collaborator Evelyn Sinclair. What about a book?, I asked her, that had a practical purpose of giving those of us suddenly denied a platform and audience a tangible goal – and inspiration if it had taken a kick – while also demonstrating to the world how much talent and resilience our community of artists has? If we could raise money for the NHS and local grassroots arts at the same time, it would be a triple win. Evelyn give the concept an enthusiastic thumbs up.
I turned the idea over during my daily exercise, and, sitting atop a little ledge on High Rigg, the world silent but for birdsong in a way I had never know before, it became clear that terrifying as our new locked-down world was, we were also living through a unique time – a time that needed to be documented. And who better to document it than our artists?
So the word went out, spread, and over 30 days, entries came in: a trickle at first and, by the end, dozens each day. Put out a call for help in Cumbria – whether it is for hands in the wake of a flood; or for artwork in this strangest of times – and folk heed the call. In flowed art, from Barrow-in-Furness to the Solway marshes; from the silent streets of Keswick to distant Cowgill; from locked-down towns to lambing farms; from leafy gardens to city semis. Landscapes, prints, poems, photos, cartoons, portraits, installations, prose, songs... even a stained glass window. 200+ pieces of art in all.
Evelyn wrote back to me: “We’re going to need a bigger book.” So we increased pagination from 124 pages to 144, and again to 168. Even then, so high was the quality of art that many wonderful submissions could not be included.
Some of the work has come from professional artists; others from hobbyists; some from folk who have never put paint to canvas before – and some from those rediscovering a passion abandoned to the 9-5. Many artists were working away from their usual space, using limited materials, and sometimes forced (released?) into new ways of working. Some art even came from key-workers, crafting their works between life-saving shifts.
Day after day I was moved by the outpourings of talent: photos of street art; landscapes with perennially-blue skies; portraits of NHS heroes; a poem formed from shop window messages; an instillation that existed in a silent quarry wood for just one hour.
The artwork in this book tells myriad human stories. There is heartache for missed loved ones. There is grief over passed friends. Some entries are angry. Some are anxious. Some are heartbreakingly sad (I had to remove more than a few specks of dust from my eyes as I logged submissions). Some get at the edgy strangeness of the emerging new world. Many address mental health issues. Equally resonant is the strand of hope that threads through these pages. To create is to push back; to bring something new into a world that demands freedom – even when the doors are closed.
On the last night of entries, minutes passing to closing time, I sat in my kitchen, a few bottles of Loweswater Gold on the table – another perfect sunset, sky red over Skidda’ – and watched the final entries drop into my inbox. I knew as they did so that tomorrow, and the days after, would not be quite the same as there would be no new art to wake to. Two days after that Boris Johnson eased lockdown restrictions. It was the end of an era. And even amidst the rising death toll, the political failings, and the crumbling economy I felt a sense of loss – a nostalgia for the remarkable peace of those first weeks of lockdown. Those days now felt a lifetime away.
I was not alone in feeling loss. The tragedies acknowledged – alongside the critical work of the nation’s key workers – the fact is that for so many artists in this book lockdown offered a vision of a life that was both immeasurably different and... dare I whisper it..? better.
Lockdown enforced a kind of retreat – one not unknown to artists – and a moment for reflection. This was a life that was slower and, to many – if not all – kinder, where the treadmill of deadlines gave way to a springtime in which we grew to know our neighbours, and our little patch of home, and could watch, day by day, as nature awoke. Lockdown became a time to pause, think, walk, listen, hear, focus and... whatever else it is was that had been missing before.
'Through the Locking Glass' has been one of the most inspirational projects I've ever been involved with. The artists of Cumbria have shown once again that they are brave, industrious, compassionate and forever up for the challenges that life throws their way.
I am delighted to share some of the 80 inspiring spreads below. (You can click to enlarge them).
To buy the book - all profits are shared between local NHS Trusts and Cumbrian grassroots arts – simply head over to our shop.