Words by: Suz Inman – Mightier Words
A lone figure with blonde hair walking along the beach, combing the sand for elusive treasures and one-off finds. Visit the beaches of St Eval parish on the North Coast of Cornwall and it’s likely you’ll find Jane Darke beachcombing. She’s been doing it since she was a child.
Jane’s art is all tied to her experience of the sea. Her best-known films The Wrecking Season and The Art of Catching Lobsters and her book Held by the Sea are each filled with her love of the big blue.
This beachcombing wonder, wife of the playwright Nick Darke who sadly passed away in 2005, is painter, writer, educator and filmmaker all rolled into one… and she’s jolly nice to talk to.
Suz Inman, from Mightier, caught up with her to find out more about her work and what she’s planning for her slot at the Festival.
Tell me about your work. I’ve been looking at your website and it seems like a vast subject?
It is vast! I had to talk to some students at Falmouth about writing and my work and it goes off in so many different tangents that it’s kind of hard for them to get a grip on it – because as a student they want to think of going down one road but that doesn’t always happen.
I started out as a painter and that is what I really consider myself to be deep in my heart. That is the thing that is easiest in some ways because that’s what I was trained to do and that’s what I’ve been doing longest. And I try to do that but I keep getting pulled off to other things.
You made a film about beachcombing. Tell me about The Wrecking Season.
Nick, my husband was a playwright and he died nearly 13 years ago. During the time I was with him I was mostly painting and we had kids. He had a stroke four years before he died so he couldn’t read or write for that time. We got some Arts Council money. There was this thing at the time where you could get ten grand for an artist who was known in one medium to try another. So we decided to get a broadcast quality camera and I followed him around for a year and a half and we both got obsessed with beachcombing. He’d grown up on the beach here and I’d always been a bit of a scavenger with skips and the like.
The Wrecking Season has become a bit of a cult film. Everyone buys it, knows it. I was talking to someone at the University the other day and the students can look at it any time and it’s the most watched thing there! So we made the film and Nick died just before it was broadcast from cancer.
And then you made another film after that?
Nick was diagnosed and died within six weeks. In that last few weeks we were starting to think about another film. We decided to film his recovery but of course it wasn’t a recovery. So he put a lot of his effort in those last few weeks in talking on camera about his work and so on but there wasn’t quite enough to make a film. So I decided to carry on recording my grief for about a year. So the film The Art of Catching Lobsters was a BBC commission that was then broadcast two years after he died.
And then you wrote a book?
Yes. Nick had written the narration for The Wrecking Season but I wrote it for The Art of Catching Lobsters. And a publisher, Ernest Hecht, phoned me up and said he thought that I could write and would I like to write something for him. He’s an old-school publisher. He started very young and has been going for 63 years. He has an amazing office just opposite the British Museum in London. It’s extraordinary. The first office I met him in had books piled up everywhere and a plastic Viking helmet on the top and a desk covered in newspaper and papers and you could just see him sat behind. And he looks a bit like Albert Einstein, he’s 80-something and he’s wearing a navy fisherman’s jumper with food all down the front and the elbows all gone through. And about a year after I went again and I went into that room and it was abandoned. It was so full of stuff and instead of clearing it out he just moved to another room on the floor above and started again!
So I wrote Held By The Sea. Which is the only book I’ve written. It’s a book about the healing power of the landscape. It’s about Cornwall really, a eulogy.
Are you planning on writing anything else?
I’ve written all sorts of small articles and this and that. And I’ve been trying to put together another book. I’m not quite sure which direction it’s going in but I’m kind of writing my way round in a circle and that’s kind of what the book is about – going round in circles – in terms of our lives, but also in terms of what I’ve learnt about ocean currents. And what I’ve learnt about life by spending a lot of time walking on beaches and about the world and that thing about the nature of things, the seasons, the turning of the planets daily, the tides, the way everything comes back to the beginning again. It’s taken me a good few years to feel like I’m getting to the heart of a way of writing about it but I think I am.
You seem a busy lady. Any other projects on the go?
About six years ago I got some FEAST money to start an archive of St Eval parish. It’s not too big but it’s an interesting parish because it has a lot of farms with Cornish people still in but also right in the middle of it the village was flattened in 1938 to make an airfield. There was a married quarters for RAF personnel which was sold off 20 years ago so there is now a new community of young families living there – it’s a great juxtaposition of people. So I started by recording the older people, a lot of whom have died since we recorded, and digitising their photographs. And we made a rough cut film of that for them ads a kind of finishing point for that project. But I decided it would be good to go back to it later so we will and we have funding to go back to some of the people we started with about what’s happened in the last five years which has been an interesting time really both internationally, nationally and in Cornwall with people moving in and it all going up market a bit.
And meantime in that period I’ve also been working on a film with Andrew Tebb, who’s my new partner and lives in Derbyshire, about the poet Charles Causley. People say why did you make a film about Charles Causley and I just really liked his poetry. And I love Cornwall and it seemed like he’d be an interesting person to get to know more about and it was worth recording some of the people who knew him before they disappeared. And also I’ve been interviewing a lot of really wonderful poets in order to make that film. It’s been a great project – a really lovely thing to do.
Charles died the year after Nick but it’s the hundredth anniversary of his death this year, which I didn’t realise but it has proved to be rather fortunate, not least for the Causley Trust who’ve been able to hang various events around it. So we’re taking that up to Edinburgh in August as part of the Festival and then to various Festivals around Cornwall. And it’s with the BBC at the moment and I’m hoping they’ll pick up on it. We tried to make the film about being a poet generally and about what it takes to be a poet.
And then I’m going to be having an exhibition at Kresen Kernow. They’re going to be opening in less than a year and for the first two years they’ll be exhibiting their collections but I’m going to the first artist to have an exhibition there. So I’m going to set up my house and some of the wonderful documents I have here from Nick’s family who were always very much associated with the sea and have been an inspiration to my work.
Do you ever have time to paint any more?!
I do paint but not enough! In fact I’m going to start painting this afternoon. What I’ve been doing lately is putting together different objects. I’ve got this weird and wonderful collection of finds from beaches and I’ve started putting them together so that they tell a little story of some kind. It might not be anything that anyone else would recognise or they might find something different to what I know is there. There are things like I’ve got a lovely little figure of a woman who must be form the 1950s who came out of the dunes when the sea cut them back in the big storms in 2013/14. She’s wonderful – she’s got articulated legs and a great little hairstyle. She hasn’t got any arms but she looks like a little swimmer. So she’s cropping up in different paintings.
I see on your website that you open up your house to school groups? Can you tell me about that?
It’s a great house with generations of stuff in it. Schools come here and they quite often watch The Wrecking Season before they come. And we talk about all the things that are here in the house and the film. It’s a great education tool that tells you about the currents, the Atlantic, the little creatures who live in the sea, about conservation, Cornish history, geography. So that’s been a great thing to do.
Was the house Nick’s family house?
It was bought by Nick’s Dad in 1947, the year before Nick was born. And that’s another thing is Nick would have been 70 next year and the Hall for Cornwall are talking about some sort of celebration for that which would be lovely. I’m going to have a big party here anyway.
What will you be talking about at the Food Fest?
I’m planning to share the first ten or fifteen minutes of the Charles Causley film because of the 100th anniversary. So that’s really interesting and timely – and it’s a writer, of course. Then I thought I would talk about the various things I am working on and throw it open for questions.
Do you know Porthleven?
I know the Loe Bar a bit. And the harbour at Porthleven is absolutely monumentally amazing — it always reminds me of an Aztec temple or something with all those amazing granite stones — the whole thing is just absolutely fantastic!
Jane will be appearing in our Literary and Acoustic tent on Saturday at 3pm.
Find out more about her work and watch some of her short films at: www.janedarke.co.uk