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Robin Oliver Cumberland & Beyond – The Art of Farming

Mr John W Davison at his Northumberland Farm with his Texel Shearlings ahead of an upcoming Hexham Auction Sale. Copyright Robin Oliver 2019.

‘Drawings from Cumberland and beyond; the Art of Farming’ is a continuing project by Cumberland born and resident Artist Robin Oliver, whose interest, and love of farming originates from the fact that he grew up at an Isolated Hill Farm situated within the North Pennine Hills of Cumberland (now called Cumbria).

This ongoing enquiry into the art of farming was inspired by a 2019 Farm Sale which the artist attended and recorded during the early summer. As he observed the people and the auction lots in front of him, Robin began to consider why it was that the Farm Sale had arisen, and what it meant to the people involved, in the context of any research evidence available, which asserts that we are continuing to lose our farms across the country for a variety of reasons. In light of some further enquiry, Robin felt that he ought to attempt to record what was happening within the farming communities, while it was actually happening, rather than when a farm subsequently has been lost, and become yet another prime residential development site, or may even become derelict.

Mr Anthony Hartley with his 2019 World Champion Herdwick at Eskdale Show. Copyright Robin Oliver.

In this context, Robin asserts that the role of the artist is not simply to attempt to create ‘pretty pictures’ which afford a romantic view.

‘The Farm Sale’, as summed up by the Artist is about endings, however, for some it is about maintenance and progression (those farmers who go to the farm sales to add to their own endeavours and farms), and for others it is about new beginnings (those who are starting out having purchased a farm, or taken on a tenancy or croft). In essence, this is the cycle of life and farming.

Eden Valley Ewe Aerobics. A quick drawing from life made in the field Copyright Robin Oliver.

Robin feels that he is attempting to highlight the struggle and the joy that farming can be through his direct engagement with farmers as they are farming across the United Kingdom and the Island of Ireland in a highly collaborative way.

The project is rather like a river which meanders, from each meeting it is hoped that something positive will grow. It is about capturing a moment, which may lead to more moments, where the Artist’s role, as he sees it, is to engage, look, listen, learn, empathise, and to record. Where appropriate, telling a story, whatever that story might be, working in a variety of media. This may simply be making a photograph, drawing, painting, and, or writing. Sometimes it is about reading between the lines, and at times it will be not telling the story at all, as many things remain confidential.

Shepherd’s Crooks & Walking Sticks after judging at the Eskdale Show 2019. Copyright Robin Oliver.

There are hidden issues, problems, concerns, anxieties, social isolation, and possible loneliness. For example, single farmers working the land with minimal interaction with the outside world. Or farmers who are on the brink of bankruptcy. And what of farmers of colour? Are they represented in our communities at all?

Robin is particularly keen to consider and make art in response to the issue of ‘Succession’ as a theme and backdrop to the Cycle of Farming Life. This area of study highlights those individuals working within the industry who have no one in the family too, or who wish to follow on.

What we know for certain is that farmers experience many joys, successes, satisfaction, and disappointments, however, the suicide statistics for farmers are certainly alarming.

To be able to visit a farmer at his work and make some photographs as an example is a privilege and a starting point which gives a reason for a meeting. It is also a means of highlighting the true Art of Farming as it is practised today within a diverse range of settings, landscapes, and endeavours. Some contacts will be the only meeting, or these meetings may be repeated over time, taking a Collaborative approach where the individual farmer may decide upon the context of any work undertaken jointly. The project overall is creating an ongoing archive (‘a snapshot of Farming life today’) across many miles. Ideally, an Initial Portrait of the individual will be made.

As well as meeting with some of the Farming community across the Island of Ireland in August, Robin says that he was privileged to be able to observe and photograph events at ‘the 151st Eskdale Show’, held on Saturday the 28th September 2019 where he felt incredibly humbled when witnessing the men and women who came together in celebration of their Herdwick flocks, and the wider farming industry, despite anything that the weather could throw at them. Hard-working, determined, dedicated, kindred spirits, meeting together, showcasing their stock, competing for the title of ‘World Champion Herdwick.’ which this year was won by Mr Anthony Hartley and one of his Herdwicks from the Turner Hall Flock.

In addition, Robin was pleased to reiterate that he has returned to meet with Northumberland Farmer, Mr John W Davison, who the artist had recorded earlier this year, preparing for the ‘Dispersal sale’ of his and his wife’s very fine ‘Langley Flock’ of accredited pedigree ‘Bleu du Maine sheep.’ A highly significant and historical event according to Robin because a dispersal sale may only be described as a dispersal sale where every registered sheep belonging to that flock is offered for sale. Further, the flock name will be thereafter terminated and cannot be resurrected by the present holder or used by any other member or future member. However, the Council under ‘the British Bleu du Maine Sheep Society’ rules retains the right to grant re-use of the flock name only on consideration of special circumstances. Friday the 16th of August 2019 clearly was a significant date, in the History of Northumberland farming and of the Davison Family, which went exceedingly well, and History was in fact made, as Robin had predicted it would. Particularly so, in the case of one of Mr Davison’s young Rams, out of his former Langley Flock Ram, named Maunby Butch and the outstanding auction price achieved.

Mr Davison’s gradual preparation for ‘retirement’ is exactly what Robin is aiming to record in his studies along with highlighting the very difficult decisions which farming families are required to make when facing the future.

These are the unsung heroes of our countryside, quietly and skilfully working away at their art, despite a great deal of adversity, bureaucracy, and hardship, which is all the more reason why the artist believes that we ought to take the time, to celebrate and promote them and their invaluable work.

Robin would like to hear from any individual working at their farm today, who may wish to arrange a meeting, particularly, those facing any of the issues which Robin is attempting to record, in addition to highlighting, in general, the Art(s) being practised by anyone in farming and agriculture.

Robin is happy to record aspects of the landscape only, the stock kept, or agriculture undertaken, in addition to making portraits of the individual as a stand-alone image, or recording farming in action in the field.

When time allows Robin likes nothing better than to sit down with his Drawing book to make some very quick impressions of Farm stock, for example, his ‘Eden Valley Ewe Aerobics’ which demonstrates his efforts in capturing and depicting the character of farm animal subjects.

You may find more information about Robin Oliver’s farming study, travels, and drawings in search of farmers farming as curated by the artist via his website gallery; www.robinoliverartist.co.uk

Please click on the heading ‘FARMING FOCUS.’ In addition, there is a ‘FEATURE’ section showing a slide show of images made at that initial farm sale. The images displayed will change over time as the project progresses.

It is hoped that there will be exhibitions of the work and the Artist’s growing archive along the way, including a publication, or publications of the Farming Art made.

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