Words by Lucy Studley
Follow a rich thread of luminous colour into the dark night of winter.
Acclaimed artist Catherine Hyde’s latest solo exhibition at Lighthouse Gallery in Penzance is set to be a feast for the senses this November. With all the power and erudition of an accomplished visual storyteller, Catherine will take gallery visitors on a journey through the seasons, celebrating the richness of the natural world as we stand on the cusp of the darkest months. The life-cycle of the buff-tailed bumblebee is the thread which weaves this exhibition together, but at every turn there’s a window into eternal daydreams.
Catherine studied Fine Art Painting at Central School of Art in London. Her atmospheric and symbolic landscape paintings, enlivened by flakes of mica and inlaid with gold and copper leaf, exist on the boundary between the observed world and the realm of magic and myth. As she puts it: “I try to capture those dreamlike moments of our interaction with nature, the fleeting glimpses which leave us feeling privileged and humbled. An owl swooping through the trees, a fox slinking across the path, a deer in a distant field – they are ephemeral moments imbued with a deeper meaning, and they stay with us for a long time.”
Catherine has been showing her work with the Lighthouse Gallery for over 15 years. First opened in the Spring of 2003, this spacious light-filled gallery on Causewayhead is now firmly established amongst the most respected in Cornwall. For gallery Co-Founder Tracey Spry, a Catherine Hyde show is an eagerly anticipated event. “Catherine’s work has an extremely loyal following and it’s not hard to see why,” she enthuses. “Her paintings have a special magic – an irresistible allure. We know collectors are eagerly awaiting the arrival of this new body of work.”
The exhibition coincides with the release of Catherine’s latest book, The Bee & The Sun, and a large number of the paintings that form the collection were created for its pages. A compendium of beautiful and evocative words and images, this is the new companion book to The Hare and The Moon which was released by Catherine’s publishers, Zephyr, in autumn 2019. Both books are like bedtime stories for the natural world, putting flora and fauna soothingly to sleep for the winter. Each contains the promise of regeneration and renewal as the annual cycle unfolds, anchoring us all during troubled times.
‘The Dew Flirt’
In The Bee & The Sun, Catherine follows the efforts of the buff-tailed bumblebee, the biggest of the bumblebees, through the seasons. The queen – Catherine’s muse in this book – has a buff-coloured ‘tail’, while the workers have white ‘tails’ with a faint buff line separating them from the rest of the abdomen. She hibernates alone all winter in the soil, awakening and emerging in the spring with the rising temperatures. When she first emerges, she feeds on flowers, drinking nectar to gain energy before beginning the search for a suitable nest site.
The Bee & The Sun, published by Zephyr: an imprint of Head of Zeus
Like the whole of the insect population in the UK, bumblebees are in drastic decline, a situation which could have dire consequences for both wildlife and people. With so many of our plants – including food crops – pollinated by insects, without bees and other pollinators we quite simply can’t survive. Raising awareness of this issue and encouraging people to take action is something Catherine is passionate about. “I’ve done a lot of research and reading on the decline of pollinators and it is quite a scary scenario we’re heading for,” she says, as we chat in her studio ‘in the sky’ in the attic of her beautiful Victorian townhouse in Helston.
However, it is one environmental problem where individuals can have a positive impact with relatively simple actions – something Catherine is actively trying to promote in her own creative way. As she explains in the book, one of the best ways to help bees is to create your own bee-friendly garden. There’s an abundance of information on the web about how to do this, and it will bring you pleasure as well as the bees. Catherine recalls: “Some of my earliest memories are of my mother’s garden, a paradise of herbs and flowers and the buzzing of bees and insects. I find the glorious aromas of freshly picked mint, rosemary and oregano powerfully nostalgic and it fills me with pleasure to gather them now from my own wildflower garden.”
Catherine’s observation of bee behaviour comes across powerfully in this book, and her love and appreciation is conveyed via a treasure-trove of visual and oral language. Every month is illustrated with a bee in various stages of the cycle as the sun charts its seasonal arc across the sky. Each month Catherine introduces a handful of bee-friendly medicinal herbs and plants, harking back to the days of herb gardens in medieval monasteries, and evoking the spirits of witches and their ancient potion-lore. Discover the historical uses and mythological connections of plants like sage, rue, betony and saffron, and follow the queen bee as she dreams, stirs, unfolds and begins her gentle passage through the nectar-giving months, and on again to her autumnal harvest and winter rest.
Top left: ‘Bee Unfolds’ | Top right: ‘June Spread’ | Above: ‘Bee Drinks’
‘August - Catnip’
Catherine’s captivating painting style is the perfect foil for this journey through nature. The larger canvases in the exhibition are in the style of diptychs and show the bee within the larger natural environment. A stag runs powerfully across a winter landscape as the bee sleeps below ground; swallows dance in the bright sky as the bee drinks her first nectar of the spring; a cat stalks across a wheat field as the bee settles after her summer feast.
“There is more colour than is usual for me in this collection of paintings,” Catherine explains, as she shows me some of the small canvases – putting me in mind of precious Byzantine icons – which she created for the book. They have a luminosity and a rich texture (Catherine has incorporated seeds, such as honesty seeds, onto the surfaces in some places) which is characteristic of her work but more pronounced than ever. “To me, this group of paintings from the book and its supporting images are about the golden hours,” she explains. “Those positive moments of affirmation, connection and new beginnings.”
‘The Golden Circle’
She goes on to explain that she was chiefly working on the book during the first lockdown in spring 2020, when life stood still. “I had time to witness the beautiful unfurling of nature that takes place at that time of year and, like many people, I found the natural world louder and more beautiful than ever in the space vacated by human activity.”
During that anxious period, Catherine immersed herself in this project – a therapeutic endeavour at what felt like a dystopian moment in time. The results are life-affirming and restorative, as an artist who has always been close to nature revels in heightened bird song and the resurgence of wildflowers and herbs – and the sound of a buff-tailed bumblebee in search of nectar.
Catherine Hyde’s solo exhibition can be seen at Lighthouse Gallery between 13th – 27th November. Join the gallery’s mailing list beforehand for updates. Signedcopies of The Bee and The Sun will also be available.