Wieniawski, Ravel and the Chicken God

Synaesthesia is not much a part of Western culture, unlike 17th C India where modal music – the Ragas – were expressed through paintings – the Ragamalas. The modes carry associated colours, hours, seasons and verses. Indian musicians sit before these pictures and literally play them.

Classical Hindustani musician Sadhana has a website to explain the basic concepts of Indian Music. Without hesitation she begins by comparing a palette of colours in painting to describe both the playing and the construction of ragas.


It is difficult to see why in the West it is thought strange, when singers talk of ‘colour’ although they do not mean anything one can see. Presumably, without becoming involved in what is meant by the western medical definition of an identified condition, presumably synaesthesia is a cultural development in the wiring of the mind.

Wieniawski Legende Op 17 sketch RRDuring many hours of painting in the studio, I used to listen to music until at one point the music took over, demanding that I draw the sounds. The images are not intended to communicate the experience of listening to the music, nor to provide a musical text, but they arise from it.

The Legende in G minor Op.17 by the virtuoso violinist composer Henryk Wieniawski has an undercurrent of bassoons. He wrote it to win his fiancée Isabella Hampton, and succeeded, so they say. It is romantic but precarious too, like Wieniawski’s life that ended at 45.

Wieniawski's Legende in G minor Op. 17 RR

Just listen to the music.

Wieniawski’s Legende Op.17 Anne-Sophie Mutter

(If you can’t access this on the ipad then you can use a free youtube converter to convert it to an MP4 file, then it will play. This is the URL to paste into the converter.)

I have heard critics describe Maurice Ravel’s music as unemotional, mathematical. This surprises me. Perhaps they mean that it does not follow a single emotional trajectory, but slides in the spaces in between, which I find truer of relationships. Sometimes tantalising and so nearly something, that becomes something else, and on again.It is no less feeling to go through these changes although they cannot be pinned and boxed for convenience.

Anyway the dance is at the heart of it, and drawing Ravel lead me on again to a series that I can only call the chicken gods. They are all masked, which for a painter of portraits is a strange release – allowing the dancers to say what no-one wishes.

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Widger’s Dig

James Lyon Widger was born in Broadhempston village, Devon and spent 20 years excavating the karst limestone caves in Torbryan. He dug alone in the dark to discover a sequence of British wildlife stretching back for 200,000 years. He began in 1865 just as the debate over the age of the world intensified.

His finds tell a story that he himself could not have imagined. His own story is part of the long battle between old ideas and new that are evidenced in the church of Holy Trinity in Torbryan. Working for The Churches Conservation Trust, I developed interpretation to tell that story of change from medieval devotion through Reformation iconoclasm, and we also created this cabinet about Widger’s Dig. It is the next stage in the tale.

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We needed something that would not take over the view from the altar to the tower, as some religious services are still held in Holy Trinity. That something had to convey a sense of mystery to encourage visitors to discover the story for themselves.  Smith & Jones Design created this cube cabinet, and we layered in information and activities for adults and children. I ran a project with Denbury Primary School for six weeks and the children got to grips with the Ice Age and spotted hyenas through studying Widger’s dig. They gave ideas for the cabinet.

The pull-up panels tell James Lyon Widger’s story in brief. The top drawer is about the caves and how far the Ice Age glacial sheet extended over Europe. Then the drawers open as the dig, going downwards and back through time.

Second drawer – shows animals Widger found back to 11,700 BP The Holocene Epoch

Third drawer – Into the Ice Age – to 70,000 BP The Devensian Glacial, included woolly rhinos, cave lions and hyenas.

Fourth drawer – Warming Up – to 128,000 BP The Ipswichian Interglacial, when hippos, hyenas and straight-tusked elephants all lived around Torbryan.

Fifth drawer – Freezing – to 200,000 BP The Wolstonian Glacial, more woolly rhinos, mammoths, cave lions, and lots of brown bears, clawless otters and wolverines. The layers of bones had different little lemmings, each a specialist herbivore, revealing the plants and the habitats.

Sixth Drawer – Spotted Hyenas. Widger found the remains of 600 hyenas in the caves. The school children studied their behaviour and habitats in Tanzania, to understand how the climate had changed around Torbryan, before visiting Torbay Museum and learning about the Ice Age.

NB No access to the caves, a protected SSSI, on private land, dangerous.


“What’s that?” said the Shag. “Just a boy, just a boy…” called the Kittiwake.’

from ‘The Rescue’ Rowena Riley 2012


It is the running line of life that interests me. The lift of a wing, tilt of a head, glitter in the eye. Entrancing as this is, it is not for its own sake that I draw this way. A living line tells a story. So I draw real life adventures, although they may be imaginary.

'The Rescue' Rowena RileyThe Rescue is a story for 3 year olds, about a three year old who is washed overboard from a ship. He was tied to a trunk. This is not as odd as you might think; all small children at sea were tied to trunks or bunks in storms in the 19th century.

Kittiwake 'The Rescue' Rowena RileyLuckily 'The Rescue' Rowena Riley

Boatman 'The Boatman's Knot' Rowena RileyThe Boatman’s Knot is about the same boy, a little older.  Bored with listening to his Captain trading tea, he becomes lost in the back streets of Guangzhou. I really wanted to know what Guangzhou looked like in 1870, and came across the stunning photographs of John Thomson who travelled across South China in the late 1860s. My illustrations grew from a mix of these photos, oil paintings and written accounts of the time.

Opera, The Boatman's Knot, Rowena Riley

Garden, The Boatman's Knot, Rowena Riley

You can see Thomson’s photos in the Wellcome Collection, London.

John Thomson

Up there against the sky, Calvino's WWII, Rowena RileyItalo Calvino’s WWII At the end of the war, Calvino wrote a collection of neo-realist short stories. He said that he did not have to make anything up as then everyone had an extraordinary story to tell. But Calvino has an ear for the rhythm of a tale, and an eye for the fantastic so that his stories of ordinary people trying to survive, have both a heroic quality and a precise psychology.

If you would like to buy a signed artist’s print of one of my illustrations details are here artist’s prints


The Final Account of Crew is an account of the wreck of the Joseph Sprott through photos of the Long Strand and newspaper clippings from the Cork Examiner at the time, which are a little blurry. A wreck is a chaotic and traumatic event, everything torn apart by the sea and thrown up as she dictates. Trying to piece together what happened afterwards is like reading bits at random cast ashore. So do not expect to find a logical order here – you must make sense of it yourself.

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Final account of crew

Read more about researching the shipwreck here Research & Writing

Research & Writing

Picture: Voyage of the Joseph Sprott 1870-1871 Manila to New York wrecked on the Long Strand, Rosscarbery, County Cork Ireland.

Chasing Hares

‘Chasing hares’ is how John Bensusan-Butt, artist and historian, described researching the 18th century locals of Colchester.  John was clearly an addict. He loved his searches, and he chased hares for over forty years. Delving into the archives, he retrieved the records of over 1,000 ordinary people, building an unrivalled picture of living connections in an 18th C British town.

Now chasing hares is fun. I agree with John.  It is a vital part of historical research, but for me there is always a question, something burning in my head that I have to find out. As I collect information, a proposition builds to solve the problem.  Each new piece suggests a scenario, another way of thinking. Whole lives pop into view, secret affairs, dodgy dealings. One minute with 1870s fur traders on a ship from Alaska to Kamchatka, down through Hong Kong and round the Cape towards Helsinki; the next in a dusky boarding house in Manila, looking at a cigar packet left by the bed.

To follow the trail you have to think like the person you track. The world they know is the one you must come to know. Absolute evidence is meaningless without the context from which it arose. Thus I read around the bigger picture, then details make sense and new leads appear; but in research finding out what could not have happened is also useful. More interesting to me than the erratic dance of the hare, is the web of global activity at a single moment in time. My research may begin with one story but the world it plays out in is my subject. The story is its voice.

In the course of my museums work I have researched many histories to be able to invite others on the journey. Often the subject is known but only among academics, and my task is to pull together an account from scattered sources to write for exhibitions, interpretation, and publications.

As an artist and writer I have my own tales to tell. Here are a few of my projects.


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On February 19th 1871 the Joseph Sprott, a 600 ton barque returning from the South China Seas, was driven ashore on the Long Strand, Clonakilty in the earliest dark hours of the morning. The coastguard arriving by 5.00 am could discern no-one on board.  A police patrol on the road from Milltown picked up two wreckers carrying a box from the beach. By dawn the ship had entirely disintegrated and the Board of Trade Wreck Returns recorded a total loss of life.

It was the third ship to be lost on the Long Strand that month. Most attention was given to the steamer the Crescent City that had sunk with crates of silver dollars. A question was raised in the House of Commons, and a lighthouse built on the Galley Head. But of the Joseph Sprott, after a couple of newspaper reports in the Cork Examiner, nothing more was said.

My search for the truth has led me through shipping records, newspapers, colonial developments and business letters in the South China Seas; Burke’s peerage, Irish landownership and tenancies; baptism records, trade directories, and wrecking enquiries. There is but a little further to go to tell the full story of the Joseph Sprott but I am nearly there.

The Galley Head protrudes into the Atlantic like a stranded foot fringed by serrated rocks. The tides and currents swept tall ships into bays either side and the wrecks buried under their sands are uncountable. In good weather and calm nights, for local people it was most useful, in bad it could offer up rewards.

The Wrecking of the San Francisco, Duneen, 1867

The Victorian Dream

IMG_1002 j 1038 st peter'sWhen the 13th Earl of Eglinton put on a Medieval Tournament at his Scottish Castle in 1839, he was re-enacting a scene for Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe.’ Only the best in society took part. As the aristocracy and princes of Europe thundered into the lists so did the Argyllshire weather. Everyone slid through the mud and the ladies were drenched, but no-one cared. Over 1,000 of the public turned up to watch and the ticket touts made a fortune, not so the Earl who lost his. Thus began the Medieval Madness of the Victorians.

The Victorian Dream tells the story of how medievalism drove the Gothic revival in church renovation and building, through the material evidence of a dozen English churches.  From the Cambridge students  who sent the public sleuthing to spot the gothic, to Sir George Gilbert Scott reinventing the 14th century to his own ideals, to the ferocious defence of the authentic by William Morris – it is an entertaining story. The churches are worth a visit, they are amazing.

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Widger’s Dig

In 1865, a Devon tailor began to dig back through time in the nearby caves. He was searching to discover the age of the world.

James Lyon Widger dug alone in the dark for twenty years, uncovering the remains of animals right back to the second to last Ice Age. That is 200,000 years of British wildlife, the most perfect sequence ever found.

Cave Hyena foot, upper & lower views, found by Widger 1866. A Monograph of British Pleistocene Mammalia, by W Boyd Dawkins

When he found the teeth and bones of over 600 hyenas mixed up with woolly rhinos and baby hippos, James thought them evidence of Noah’s Flood, for he was trying to prove the Bible right and Darwin wrong. His astounding discoveries achieved the reverse.

The story of James Lyon Widger and his dig is known only amongst palaeontologists. In his own time he was the wrong class and working from the old view, just as the battle boiled for the ancient age of the world. William Pengelly, the leading expert in excavation, ignored him.  James died impoverished, his collections mostly lost.

I pulled together sources from museums, recent excavations, and the short biography of Widger (Walker and Sutcliffe); and connected them to the history of Ice Age theory, the evidence of glaciations, and the fauna timeline for the Cattedown Bone Caves from the Devon Karst Research Society. Professor C. K. Brain’s study of hyena predation in African Cave Taphonomy, which begins with a discussion of Widger’s finds in the Torbryan Caves, gave insights into who was hunting who in Torbryan.

What did we do with all that? Created interpretation in Torbryan Church so that all visitors and locals today can discover Widger’s Dig. Widger’s Dig

NB No access to the caves, SSSI protected site.

Interpretation & Learning

Creating interpretation – some of the projects

Torbryan Holy Trinity 1450-70.Torbryan Holy Trinity 15th Century Church stands in a tiny Devon village, with its old church house inn still selling beers beyond the lych-gate. This is not a chance relationship. The pub is older than the present church, and built for the purpose of brewing church ales over the almighty hearth to raise money so that the villagers could pay for the upkeep of the nave and tower. Partying was the economic way of devotion and the beers were strong.

Open the weighty door of Holy Trinity and step down onto the stone flags of the church, and rows of 18th century box pews lead to a russet and gilded roodscreen still standing from the 1470s. Better still the screen is faced with painted saints that have mysteriously survived the ravages of the Protestant Reformation. In 2013 two saints were stolen by thieves, who discovered that selling rare medieval art is near impossible. After futile attempts, they put them on eBay to be instantly recognised, and now the Saints are back in the screen and the thieves prosecuted.

If I were inclined to think as a 15th century inhabitant of Torbryan, I would credit the panels’ miraculous recovery to St Margaret of Antioch, with her dragon, and St Vincent with his millstone.Torbryan right St. Vincent & St Margaret of AntiochThe CCT chose a new alarm system, and decided to stimulate support for the church by creating interpretation, schools projects and events through HLF funding.


Inside Holy Trinity, there is neither lighting nor heating. The  Georgians added box pews, building them over the oak medieval benches, and in the early 19th century a very careful restoration was undertaken, changing little.  Through the great doors, you really do step back in time.

Not intruding on that experience was crucial to the design of the interpretation. Chris Jones of Smith & Jones Design installed dark furniture echoing the square panels of the pews and the colour of the Jacobean font cover. He wrapped a free standing framework around the corners of the tower to minimise its impact in the nave.

We sourced illuminations from medieval manuscripts in the British and Bodleian Libraries, and from the Ranworth Antiphoner in Norfolk, to immerse visitors in the imagery of the time. The text is written in varied layers; and we created interactive elements, developed through local school projects to ensure a good fit for their interests and curriculum.

The history of a church is essentially an abstract account of changing ideas ferociously fought over the centuries. The material evidence is there in paint, wood and stone, but it was what people thought that created and damaged the fabric. Few of the public today have any grasp of its complexity. The exhibition in Holy Trinity church tells that story as it was acted out through Torbryan and South Devon.

Widger’s Dig

The story of the battle between old ideas and new, which is the theme of the interpretation at Holy Trinity, began with the medieval village and how the villagers used the roodscreen.  When Reformation took hold, and the burning of saints’ images began, someone there protected the roodscreen. But everything had changed. No more were painted pictures venerated and the words of the Bible alone became all. The next great upheaveal was when mammoths emerged from the permafrost and dinosaur mania took hold of everyone’s imagination in the 19th century. Again a local man in Torbryan was right in the heart of the debate, and his discoveries form the subject of Widger’s Dig.

Widger’s Dig

artist’s prints & illustrations

Illustration for Italo Calvino’s ‘Who Put the Mine in the Sea?’

artist’s prints

Some of my illustrations are available as signed artist’s prints.

I drew most of them as picture book stories, by researching historical resources. In The Boatman’s Knot buildings, boats, clothes and people are true to life in Guangzhou in 1860-70. The story is a fantasy but set in a real past.

If you would like to buy a signed artist’s print of one my illustrations contact me at

Here are some below, others under Illustration

All images © Rowena Riley