Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Extraordinary History of The Stew - A Piece of Shrewsbury's Heritage in Danger of Demolition

The history of the building on Frankwell Quay known as The Stew gets more exciting the further back one looks.   I know the subject has been covered already on My Tonight From Shrewsbury but over the last few days all sorts of facts have turned up, courtesy of the archive of the Worshipful Company of Drapers, and I'd like to share some of them.

The above picture shows Frankwell Quay and the path of the River Severn as it was at the time of the Great Frost of 1739.  The Stew is on the right of the picture, in front of the bridge. However, the earliest mention of The Stew goes back much earlier than that – to 1405 when James Callerode [also known as Dyer] conveyed The Stew, comprising land, a croft and dovecote to his son Thomas. It’s described as being immediately upstream from the St George’s Bridge [the name by which the old Welsh Bridge was known]. 

Some years later, in an agreement designed to resolve debt issues, a group including Edmund, Earl of March – joined later by Richard of York, the Earl’s powerful heir - were invested with possession of The Stew as a freehold estate. These were the times of the Wars of the Roses, when two powerful Plantagenet lines, both descendants of Edward III, fought for the crown of England. Richard of York had a claim to the throne of England on the Yorkist [ie. white rose, for those of you who are still in Flower Show mode] side, and on the Lancastrian [red rose] side was Henry VI, son of Henry V, who became king at the age of eighteen and developed a well-earned reputation for being easily swayed.  

In 1433 Richard of York signed a release on the Dyer lands, including The Stew. However, in 1445 a new agreement was drawn up, again including him. The word used for this agreement was an enfeoffment – an old English word with Norman origins going back to feudal society, but also used in property law.

Despite this enfeoffment still being in place, the heir of Thomas Dyer, Hugh, decided at his death to pass on rights pertaining to The Stew and the body of land around it to Sir John Talbot, a Lancastrian supporter, later to become the Earl of Shrewsbury. In Dyer’s will his brother William was made his heir, and in 1452 that William released any rights he might still have on The Stew again to Sir John Talbot. 

Confused?  Believe me, this is simple compared to the mass of detail documented in the Drapers’ Archives.  These were complicated days, with kings fighting for, and losing, crowns, in a continual state of deposition and reinstatement. And it was the powerful Yorkist side of this wrangle that appeared to have the strongest clout regarding The Stew. 

The Drapers became involved in the story of The Stew in 1462 when, as a means of resolving the legal wrangles, King Edward IV passed onto them the Dyer lands by Royal Charter, because, it stated, there were no other claimants.

That’s not the way, however, that the family of the staunchly Lancastrian Sir John Talbot saw it. Having become Earl of Shrewsbury, he was killed at the Battle of Northampton in 1460, fighting on the side of the Lancastrian king, Henry VI.  During the two-year period when Henry VI was reinstated on the throne, Shrewsbury’s widow Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury - famous in her day as ‘the old ladye of Shrowesburie’, though not to be mistaken for that other old ladye of Shrowesburie, Bess of Hardwick - seized her chance and sent in her steward, Alan Stury, to seize The Stew and adjoining lands by force.   

In 1471, however, the Yorkist Edward IV was back on the throne, and Henry VI was executed. This was the perfect moment for the Drapers to act.  The king was petitioned, in which petition the Countess of Shrewsbury and her steward were described as ‘a gretely manace’. Alan Stury was called by Edward IV to appear before his Council and explain himself.  There appears to be no record of the outcome, except that the Drapers retained possession of lands and building, described as ‘a croft called le Stewe, croft with the pond there in Frankwell, next the chapel of St. George, between the land of John Colle, called Colle [apple] orchard, and the bank of Severn.’ 

Never mind the Battle of the Roses, which still had a way to run [Edward IV’s sons were the Princes in the Tower, who were murdered by Edward’s brother – but that’s another story]. The battle of The Stew was finally over, and the Drapers free to lease The Stew to tenants without dispute. The Countess of Shrewsbury died in 1473 and was buried in Shrewsbury Abbey. When he died, her devoted steward [some say husband], Alan Stury, ordered that his body be buried near ‘the tomb of my lady of Shrowesbury’.  

Whoever would have thought that property in Shrewsbury, immediately adjacent to the current Guildhall, had once been the source of so much strife, involving many of the great movers and shakers, kings and kingmakers of their day?  It’s astonishing what you find when you start digging into history.  

At some point The Stew and adjacent property came into the ownership of the Scotts of Betton Strange. The site was subsequently exploited as a large-scale maltings and brewing enterprise.  Though the Scotts continued to hold land on and around Frankwell Quay throughout the 18th century, a deed dated 1713 shows The Stew to be in the ownership of one John Astley, described as ‘yeoman of Little Berwick’.

Certainly an agreement of 1728 mentions John Astley, and his son and heir Thomas, as owners of ‘a messuage and malthouse’ called ‘The Stew in Frankwell’ [the word 'messuage' meaning a dwelling, together with its outbuildings and adjacent land appropriated to its use].  It’s believed that he was the builder of what we currently think of as The Stew, which in its day was a merchant’s house of high quality with cut stone quoins, most of which are still intact.

So - a long and noble history attached to the site, and a building from the early 1700s that’s robust and simply in need of repair according to Peter Napier, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors’ accredited building surveyor who surveyed The Stew along with Structural Engineer, John Avent in 2006 for Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council.  

I talked about this last week in the office of Peter Napier.  All the pictures in this article come courtesy of him.   ‘The building is solid.’ That was the message he wanted to convey.  It might not look like it to to the untrained eye but according to Peter Napier there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with it. ‘It has an amazing roof,’ he said, ‘constructed out of Baltic pine, which in its day would have had to be brought up from Bristol by barge. The building needs to be given a modern use, but despite its current state of disrepair both myself and John Avent, current Chairman of the Institute of Structural Engineers’ accreditation scheme, concluded that it was robust. The roof could be repaired. The only crack in the building hasn’t moved in thirty-five years. In the owner’s application to have it demolished, he describes The Stew as derelict. But it’s not.’   

Peter Napier’s not the only one to speak out for The Stew. In the last few days, English Heritage has come out and said that it should be saved and that they strongly object to its demolition, and that’s the view of the County Ecologist as well, Shrewbury's Civic Society, local residents, including Frankwell residents, whose spokesperson is Ian Lacey, and Shrewsbury Town Council. 

Frankwell Quay is important in the town’s history and, as Engligh Heritage point out, The Stew was an important part of Frankwell Quay. ‘Historically it is situated in the former ‘Frankwell Quay’ area,’ they say, ‘which was - together with Mardol Quay on the opposite bank - the site of Shrewsbury’s inland port on the river Severn, a major element in the economic life and development of the town.’

Today not much remains in Shrewsbury of the town’s river trade.  But grooves in the old bridge at Atcham - made by the rub of hemp against iron as heavily-laden trows were hauled upriver by rope - attest to the river trade to Shrewsbury being a roaring one. 

Given the layout of the merchant’s house at The Stew, and its position in relation to the river and layout of the old quay, there are some who believe that The Stew may well have been the Administrative Office for Frankwell Quay.  According to Peter Napier, that would make it a building of equal importance to any merchant’s house.

 ‘It’s a very fine building,’ he said.  ‘And it’s still intact. It has stone sills from Grinshill, and most of its cut stone quoins are still intact. It has stone string courses, stone cornices and even kneelers still in place, proving that the end against the warehouse was once a gable and that the warehouse was added at a later date.  

If you look at  other houses in town of the same period - the old Guildhall, for example, or Bowdler’s House - you’ll find the same features [see opposite Guildhall's string course and cut stone quoins] and get an idea of how fine a building The Stew could be if its brickwork was repaired, its damaged voussoirs [brick arches to you and me] refurbished, its windows and front door put back in, including its dormer windows, and its roof repaired.  

Here’s a drawing, done by Peter of what he reckons The Stew would have looked like in its day. The cart standing beneath the ‘taking-in doors’ would have been used for loading and unloading to and from the river. The presence of sails in the background are a reminder of Shrewsbury’s river trade.

Wouldn’t it be great, I said, my imagination running ahead of me, to have the last remaining flat-bottomed trow, the Spry [now currently residing in dry dock down river at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum] brought up here as part of a restored Frankwell Quay?  I’ve seen film of the Spry under sail.  Her restoration is marvelous. She’s a beautiful sight.

Whether or not that’s likely to happen [not, I’m suspect, being the case] Peter reckoned that getting rid of the gyratory effect around the buildings in Frankwell car park - which could be easily done by making the entrance to the car park two way - could provide a landscaped pedestrian area between the river and The Stew. This view is also expressed by English Heritage in their objection to the demolition. They recognize that the present setting of The Stew in unsatisfactory, particularly in its ‘highway dominated uses of the external spaces and the lack of a good relationship with the river’. They urge every effort be made by all concerned, including the council, to ‘regenerate the historic waterfront and make it an asset to the town’, and they pledge their willingness to work with us to make that happen.   

‘We’ve lost too much of our industrial past,’ Peter Napier said.  ‘We’ve got to hold onto what we have left. What’s the point of knocking down the Stew to replace it with a boutique hotel? We already have a boutique hotel, the Silverton, close by on Frankwell. And now across the river there’s a brand new Premier Inn.’

Given its history, The Stew would be a hard act to follow.  With modern buildings on either side, a new boutique hotel would be in danger of turning Frankwell Quay into Anywhereville UK.  What’s needed here, firstly, is to save The Stew from demolition. But then we need to find a good use for it – and a fine example of this kind of transformation isn’t far away. 

Today the Cinema in the Square, housed in the beautiful Old Market Hall, is an important part of Shrewsbury life. The building was never in danger of demolition, but restoring and finding an acceptable modern use for it proved extremely difficult.   Most people had never seen inside it.  Like The Stew, it was not a building in public use.  Now, however, it houses a cinema and attractive café/bar.  Everybody loves it.  Everybody uses it.  It’s at the heart of Shrewsbury town life.  Its restoration has been a huge success.

There’s a word I’ve heard bandied about recently – the Italian word ‘centrostorico’, meaning ‘historical heart’.  In this respect, Frankwell Quay and The Stew are every bit as much a part of Shrewsbury’s centrostorico as the Old Market Hall and town Square, and should be preserved as such.

What’s needed here is not only for the building to be saved from demolition, but innovative thinking applied to finding it a 21st century use.  Maybe it even needs extending.  If the extending were done sympathetically, and was beneficial in providing appropriate facilities, why not?  

People talk about moving into the 21st century, by which they more often than not mean getting rid of the past and starting again.  But surely as good a way as any of creating a 21st century town is to acknowledge its past and give something back to it, honouring its heritage, building on it, respecting its roots and figuring out how make the most of them in the process of moving on.

The river trade has gone.  The wool trade is a thing of the past. The Industrial Revolution that created so much activity on the river is long over. People come to Shrewsbury by train and car, not trow. But they do still come. And if we care about tourism, then we need to care about heritage. On the news last night, a figure of 25% was given for tourist visits connected to heritage sites.  In other words, our historical heritage here in Shrewsbury is a massive draw - and The Stew [seen here on the right of the picture] could be at the heart of it.

It would be madness to let it go.

At the beginning of the year, when I started this blog, I wrote, ‘I'm not the local tourist board. I don't represent the town council. I’m not even some great authority on Shrewsbury.  I’m just a writer and local resident who’s prepared to go on a year-long walk and see what I find.'  I'd do my best, I promised, and I'd try to travel with an open [and curious] mind.  And that’s what I’m doing here. I’m no historian, no architectural expert, just a local person who cares about her town and senses that something important is happening here and needs to be addressed.

If you think so too, and want to save The Stew, here’s what you can do [and now, please, before 27TH AUGUST when the County Council’s period of consultation closes]:

Two submissions to the County Council have been made. 1] For permission to demolish The Stew. 2] For permission to build a boutique hotel in its place.

For information and advice on how to comment on an Application: 

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Shrewsbury Flower Show

An important event in the town’s annual calendar - the most important event, some might say – is the good ol’ Shrewsbury Carnation & Gooseberry Show, as it used to be called back in 1836 when the first Show was held in the Frankwell area of town. 

In 1857, the 'gooseberries and carnations' bit was dropped and the Show became known as ‘The Flower Show’.  It was held in a marquee in the town centre and by 1874 was making a profit of one shilling and ten pence [about 10p today].  In 1881, the entertainment is recorded as including Bon Bon the tightrope walker with his 150ft long tightrope, standing at 40 feet above the ground.

The Flower Show continued yearly until the First World War.  Its revival in 1920 was attended by people from across the UK.  By the Second World War, it was being held in the Quarry, Shrewsbury’s main park. Except for the years when the Quarry was dug over for allotments as part of Shrewsbury’s war effort, it’s been there ever since. 

And now here we are again – August, and it’s Flower Show time. All the usual pageantry of military band and Mayor and entourage has taken place, and down at the Quarry gates, people are jostling to get in to the strains of a steel band playing ‘You Are My Sunshine’. 

There’s a sameness about the Flower Show. Same marquees, same trophies, same sorts of events, same showground, same time of year, heralding the end of summer with the evenings closing in and the skies dark enough for fireworks by 9.45pm.  But I wouldn’t have it any other way. One of the biggest events of its type in the UK - until recently its longest-running - Shrewsbury’s Flower Show is an institution. 

It’s also a great place for meeting people. Before I’m even through the gates I bump into Karen Higgins of The Big Busk.  Then, inside the Showground, the first person I meet is Bill Morris, who used to be a Town Councillor, and is the person who first told me about the Shrewsbury Fragment [something I’ve yet to write about but, believe me, you’ll be fascinated when I do]. 

Then the next person I meet is Helen Ball, Town Clerk, in a big pink flowery hat that looks very fetching.  Then down the central avenue of the Quarry, amongst its cheek-by-jowl stalls and hospitality suites, I find my old friend, the artist Penny Timmis, and some of her paintings.

We stop to chat in the Brewin Dolphin hospitality suite, where the paintings are hanging, then I leave Penny holding court and head down to the river. Here I find that railway tracks have been lain, and the oldest still working narrow-gauge steam engine is huffing up and down.  There’s a real mix of stuff down here - fluffy toys, garden furniture, a distant voice attempting to sell the Light n’ Easy Eco Deluxe Steam Mop [‘I’ll be honest with you,’ the sales patter goes], even a stall promoting Orthotic Works, whatever they might be, and another one selling Gnu Airers. What are they?

When I get hungry [which hasn't happened yet]  there are stalls selling everything from carvery and grill to a mountain of meringues. In the Food Marquee, a TV chef is demonstrating how to cook before a capacity audience, but I  don’t stay, lured away by the irresistible sound of a male voice choir performing Men of Harlech on the bandstand outside.

By the bandstand I meet my Welsh friend, Dai, who’s no mean singer himself.  Then I’m off again, heading for the main marquees, which are what  the Show is all about.  In the first of them I encounter the smoothest potatoes I’ve ever seen in my life, followed by the biggest onions and carrots so exquisitely tapered that it’s hard to believe they haven’t been sculpted.  These are  competition-class vegetables.

And these are the trophies waiting to be won.

I walk past cabbages that look like green elephants with waggling ears, cauliflowers with white hearts as big as dining-plates and gooseberries as big as apples, I swear [well, maybe crabapples].

After them I find rows of flowers, and fruit & vegetables, arranged in displays.

 Some of the marquees celebrate what local gardeners and gardening clubs have produced, others showcase what the market leaders in the horticultural industry have to show.  Between the marquees I find a series of small gardens, my favourite being this one by the Dingle Nurseries near Welshpool.  

I come across a scarecrow competition, where the best man, most definitely I reckon, has won. 

Then, back inside again, I find banks of feathery grasses...

...a riot of sarracenias [a fancy word for carnivorous plants]...

...and a display of different types of  bougainvillea.  People go on about the Dingle in the Quarry being a riot of colour, but this riot of softer, more subtle hues is more my cup of tea.

 The day wends on.  I stop to watch a falcon settle on a man’s wrist. I linger by the showground where white-helmeted motorbike riders have recently come off.  It’s show-jumping time. Riders on twitchy horses are limbering up, awaiting their turns. ‘It’s Tim Davies on Salome II,’ a voice announces over the sound system, to be greeted by a smattering of polite applause.  ‘Smack on the time,' I hear as I walk away.  'That’s a clean round…. Tim Davies on Salome II… leading by five seconds ex-act-ly…’ 

In the evening, I’m back again.  Bellowhead’s playing, and the arena is divided in two.  Either you’re sitting beneath your blanket behind the arena's outer rim looking as if the cold is getting to you, or you’re on the hallowed turf, bobbing up and down, waving your arms in the air as the bass goes through you, connecting you to everybody else.

Bellowhead’s an eleven-piece outfit of electric-folk musicians belting out traditional tunes and numbers of their own with a mix of fiddles, big-band brass and lots of attitude.  Definitely the best fun’s to be had right in front of the stage within breathing distance of the band.  These boys and girls certainly know how to work a crowd.

Eventually they’re gone, however, and people move back behind the barriers. The sky darkens, the spotlights come on and the marching band reappears, creating a sea of red and gold against the green of the turf.   It plays all the old numbers that come out every year, and people are instantly out of their seats, on their feet and singing along. 'Land of Hope And Glory'. 'Jerusalem'. 'Rule Britannia'.  'Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau' [Land of My Father’s to anyone non-Welsh -  I love it that at this Flower Show, here in the Northern Marches between England and Wales, we respect the Welsh Anthem as well as the English one]. 

And then here it comes, of course, 'God Save The Queen', after which it’s time for the bands to march away - and for the fireworks to begin.

What can I say about the fireworks?  Even more than the Flower Show, they’re a Shrewsbury institution.  Never mind the 50,000 people who over two days will be watching from inside the Show – on the bridges, in pub gardens all over town, on the far shore of the River Severn, and up on Beck’s Field with its view of fireworks reflected in the water [and of smoke drifting away between the trees], it’s party time.   

Everybody in Shrewsbury loves the two nights of the Flower Show when the Reverend Ron Lancaster’s Kimbolton Fireworks [they of London’s New Year celebrations and many of our royal pageants] illuminate our town.  For a moment in time we’re all lit up, faces raised before a night sky full of exploding stars - little kids again, gasping and wowing as the band plays Holst’s Planets [Mars, I think], Bizet’s Carmen, the William Tell Overture and Porgy and Bess, fireworks going off in time to them, carefully choreographed, bang, bang, bang.   

Then it’s darkness again. For fifteen dazzling minutes we’ve been drawn together by a bit of magic, courtesy of gunpowder and fire.  Now we draw apart again, heading for the exits, the Flower Show over for another year. At the main gate, a lone piper pipes us out to Scotland the Brave. The man at the gate says, ‘Thank you,’ and ‘Goodnight’ to everyone passing him by, as if each us had been his own personal guest. A typical Shrewsbury touch, that.

At the bottom of Claremont Bank, a fleet of Park & Ride buses are waiting to carry people away. You’d never think so many people could just disappear, but they do. Like the smoke between the trees they’re suddenly gone, and then Shrewsbury falls quiet, nothing left but to clear up those abandoned marquees.  

Thursday, 8 August 2013

OPEN STUDIO: Nathalie Hildegarde Liege

 'If I talk to you I may break everything. But that's not my fault; I can be very very sorry afterwards. But a break in a piece of glass can never be hidden.' 

Louise Bourgeois, 1911-2011 

This is the quote that leapt out at me from, the website of artist Nathalie Hildegarde Liege. Then, when I start browsing through the site I read this from Henry Moore:  'It is a mistake for a sculptor or painter to speak or write very often about his job.  It releases tensions needed for his work.' 

Oh dear. I arrive at the English Bridge Workshops wondering if I’m going to be personally responsible for destroying a work of art by forcing Nathalie to talk about it.  Or maybe I’ll find Nathalie unwilling to talk to me at all.

The English Bridge Workshops are situated in a large Victorian building just over the bridge on what’s known locally as the English Bridge gyratory. The building used to be a school, but now it houses a collection of artists’ studios, including those for a sculptor, a jewellery-maker and a couple of illustrators. Nathalie has space in it for firing glass, and a large airy studio that’s full of her work.   She’s primarily known for her stained-glass, but she sees herself as a fine artist in the widest sense. Her walls are full of paintings, prints and sketches, and every available work surface is covered in sculpted pieces using mixed media, including glass.

Nathalie is a tall woman with sharp eyes behind her specs and a long dark plait.  Today she has a flower tucked into her hair.  Her accent pins her down as French, but her English is very good and, despite my misgivings, I find her very open.  No problem about being prepared to talk. Nathalie claims to not be naturally talkative, especially about her work, but sharing is obviously very important to her.

Nathalie grew up in the suburbs of south-east Paris, the daughter of a computer analyst father and seamstress mother, whose greatest claim to fame was that she made the wedding dress for a Russian princess, the bride of Prince Michel Magaloff, married in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Paris.  ‘I regret that I don’t remember it,’ Nathalie says.  ‘I was a baby in the womb when that dress was being made, and only a few months old when the wedding took place.’

After school, Nathalie chose to study Fine Art at the Sorbonne where the concept of plastic art was stretched to include studies in poetry, theology, psychology and ethnology. Afterwards she worked for a while in the Pompidou Centre, where she was influenced by the work of Louise Bourgeois, which she saw at close hand on a daily basis.  ‘There was something in it,’ she says.  ‘Half-serious, half-naughty.  Something very French.’

Nathalie was very interested in the thinking of Joseph Beuys, in the ideas behind social sculpture and in Andrei Tarkovsky's concept of sculpting in time. The Sainte-Chapelle and Chartres cathedral windows unfolded for her a love of light and glass. 

Nathalie came to the UK in 1995. In France she was confronted with two completely separate worlds functioning side by side, very much in the Renaissance tradition. In the UK, however, the roles of stained-glass designers and manufacturers were brought together, so that designers were trained to get their hands on all the techniques involved in making their own glass - and this was what Nathalie wanted. 

Initially Nathalie attended the Swansea Institute, but left after the first year, disappointed that the teachers who had interviewed her weren't there on her course. The final straw came when her neighbour was stabbed.   'I had to rescue him from a bath of blood at four in the morning,' Nathalie said. 'It was another reason for wanting to leave. I moved to Wrexham University, where I was much happier.' 

Nathalie graduated in 1998 and received the Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Painters of Glass Journeyman’s Award for 1998-2000, which was a great honour  Her first workshop was in Ironbridge, then she moved to the English Bridge Workshop, where she’s been working ever since.

In recent years, Nathalie has produced stained-glass for private commissions as well as public and worship sites at Gobowen Hospital,  Shrewsbury Cyber Café, Bryn Offa School and St Luke’s Church, Grimethorpe. Last time I visited the English Bridge Workshop, it was the St Luke’s project that was being worked on.  Now Nathalie’s working on windows for St James’s, Ryhill in Yorkshire, in memory of parishioner June Mary Cooper, based on the theme of Our Lady of Walsingham – whose 950th anniversary, by a happy coincidence, was celebrated the year the windows were commissioned. At the same time, Nathalie is working on a series of small Icons, having been introduced to the medieval art of icon painting [‘I love the freedom that egg tempera brings’] by the icon artist, Aidan Hart.

Nathalie says that her work has changed greatly in recent years.  Concurrent with her stained-glass projects she’s working on a series of fine art pieces whose source are the words Enter into the rocks and hide in the earth, taken from the Bible - Isaiah 2 v.10. For some years Nathalie has had a battle with a type of cancer, lymphoma, of which she is now clear, but which has changed her perspective. ‘Before, my work was very different,’ she says.  ‘I was searching for something, but I couldn’t draw together all the strands that would make it one whole.  I finally became a Greek Orthodox Christian in the year 2000. This was the result of a long journey, starting at the age of ten, moving from a position of atheism to one of belief.

Many of Nathalie’s images involve recycled or reused items – survey maps, threads of wool, letters on wood, items that otherwise might have been thrown away. Nathalie is using them, she says, to develop ideas that have been going through her mind for a long time. She describes herself as a slow burner, things going on inside which will eventually emerge, like a lid being lifted on a boiling pot. The life of the spirit, her spiritual life, is of prime importance in choosing ideas for her to develop into pieces of art.  ‘We’re called to be humble towards things, but so often we’re far from humble towards nature and what is given to us.  This is something that I want to get across,’ she says. 

Nathalie sees her work as a form of story-telling.  Before the lymphoma, she says, her focus was different.  Now, however, the narrative drive of her work, in her own words, ‘just keeps going, keeps going.’  There are so many stories to tell, she says.

Nathalie’s second name, Hildegarde, is her Orthodox name. Becoming part of the Orthodox Church has plainly been a huge thing in her life.  She grew up typically French, she says, baptized as a baby but unlikely to enter church again except for her wedding day.  This non-activity to the point of unbelief, she feels, impacted on the way she worked, tied to deadlines, a slave to the notion of slogging it out.  Now, however, she is far more flexible. When she feels that something is happening that shouldn’t be lost, she will say ‘no’ to whatever gets in its way. Before, she used to say ‘yes’ when she should have said ‘no’, but nowadays she’s more finely tuned to the life of the spirit working within herself for others.  She feels that what she’s learning, and is able to create out of what life has imposed on her, shouldn’t be kept only for herself.  ‘Why not share more?’ she asks. 

Together we walk around the studio.  Although there are real differences in the works of art on display, repeating images begin to appear. I stop before one image, a head drowning in a sea of grass.  Nathalie is talking to me about the cancer and about her experiences at that difficult time. Her mother had a life threatening incurable illness too, and was slowly dying. Though miles away from each other, time had something to say to each of them and this experience enabled Nathalie to bring together the different sides of herself - artist, storyteller and seeker for a spiritual resolution. What happened to Nathalie over this period of years she describes as ‘an evolution in who I am’.

Many of Nathalie’s pieces speak of silence, everything stripped bare except the layers of self, one inside the other, interconnected mutely, as she puts it, by ‘the mystery of who we are’.  A sense of change runs through her pieces, a sense of what we, here on our earth, can hope to aspire to, and what change can do to us, ‘as bitter sometimes,’ Nathalie says, ‘as it is sweet.’ There’s a fascinating mix of control and lack of it in some pieces. Nathalie smiles when I point this out. ‘But then that’s life,’ she says with a half-shrug.

In recent years, Nathalie has been writing too. Poetry was part of her training at the Sorbonne.  She describes this period as ‘two years of smoke-filled rooms; an intense introduction to poetry.’  She’s been writing ever since, but more so since she started thinking about storytelling in new forms, and wanting to share more.  Her writing to begin with was personal, not for publication. It took Shrewsbury poet, Liz Lefroy, to dig it out of her, she says.  Since then she has gathered her poems together and given them more recognition.

Nathalie writes in French and translates into English.  As well as poetry, she writes occasional pieces of fiction. On the back burner she has ideas for a series of small illustrated books, inspired by her interest in the ways we talk to children about illness.  This perspective comes from being ill herself, and from losing her mother at the same time, experiencing everything stripped away except the child inside.  ‘I started listening to that child,’ Nathalie says. ‘She returned to me when I was ill.  What I’ve written is born of great challenges, and it’s something I very much want to share.’

In one piece of writing, ‘Grow and Hop’, Nathalie speaks about illness as an invader who’s found a kingdom to live in, using the image of a rogue seed implanted between the bricks of an old wall. Her story gives a separate voice to the child, a voice lodged in the child’s heart, speaking words of truth in clear, simple language while the adults in his or her life speak mysteries in long words to do with chemotherapy and drugs regimes.  Mummy loves you, the voice inside translates.  You are her little darling. These are the words the child needs to hear.

I like the way Nathalie puts things.  To me it harks back to what she said about Louise Bourgeois – half-serious, half-naughty, very French. ‘Days are ongoing creations,’ she says. That’s worth thinking about.  And worth thinking about too is what she means when, talking about presenting herself as an artist, she says that before and beyond anything else, she’s Nathalie Hildegarde, touche-à-tout – a manifold being.  

I also like Nathalie’s work. Take a look for yourselves, and see what you think. ‘Art can slay you,’ Nathalie says, ‘if you only open your eyes.  ‘Look, look. Slow down, people.  Pause and look.’

To read one of Nathalie’s short, short stories, go to the Flash Fiction Shrewsbury website 
Nathalie's Facebook Page 
Nathalie's website, Couleurlive