Common Ground

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Milton’s Comus and the Ghosts of Trees

Winning competition entry to design 13 Gates and Fences for Townsend Street/Comus Place, London.

Part of my inspiration was Chinese painting:

“Gates quite often seem to be both symmetrical and geometric and I felt the urge to create something asymmetric and organic along the lines of a Chinese screen”

The full proposal:



INSPIRATION:   John Milton’s ‘Comus’ and the Ghosts of Trees.

I was intrigued by the place name – Comus Place.  I knew that Milton had written a masque called ‘Comus’ and that the action takes place in a wood. My inspiration was to design gates and fences using trees as a motif to reflect this.  I wanted to create the feel of an urban wood in conjunction with any trees already on the site.  Additionally, it would be an opportunity to commemorate John Milton, one of the great poets of the English language, who was born and spent most of his life in London.

I visited the site to get a feel for the area. One thing I noticed was the lack of trees. The site contained the few mature trees to be seen and I wondered what would happen to them – would they be preserved or uprooted?  I found out that, ironically, the trees are going to be uprooted to enable building to take place.  However,  the good news is that replacement trees will be planted.


I then looked at the plans, specifically the architectural designs.  It was immediately obvious that my initial idea would not work and that something more abstract was required to fit more comfortably with the sleekness and clean lines of the architecture.


I decided to use photographs of the trees on site as a starting point. I began to think of the images as  ghosts of the uprooted trees and to intensify this decided to use only the reflections cast by the trees as a basis for my drawings. This would commemorate their loss and result in more abstract images which would also serve as metaphors  linking the past to the present and the place-name to the design.  Milton  himself was a proponent of monism or animist materialism, the notion that a single material substance which is “animate, self-active, and free” composes everything in the universe: from stones and trees and bodies to minds, souls, angels, and God.


Taking into account the requirements of practicality, security and safety I opted for 6 mm mild sheet steel.  This can be laser cut and either galvanised or powder-coated for a long-lasting, economical finish.

The dark areas on the drawings are the areas to be laser-cut, creating a free-form lattice.  This allows light through and there are also flat uncut areas, for reasons of privacy and security, and which give a background for the play of reflections from the new trees.


As the walls surrounding the site are to be grey I felt that galvanised steel would be a good cost-effective option and I have based my initial colour-scheme around this.  It will give the  required shadowy tone and will be visually pleasing when, in conjunction with the lattice of the cut-out reflections, the actual shadows of the replacement trees are cast.

Asymmetry and Mirror Images

Gates quite often seem to be both symmetrical and geometric and I felt the urge to create something asymmetric and organic along the lines of a Chinese screen.

The drawings are based on one image of the reflections cast by a tree on site (see sheet 4).
As there are 13 gates and fences in total a design based on one image will give both greater cohesion and a feeling of rhythm and flow.

When I looked at the schedule I realised that Type B appears only once, as a set of gates on the Beckway Street elevation (no 3. in the Schedule of Gates and Fences).  They  appear to be the main gates for the development and are the one unique image.  Taking this as my cue I used Type B as a matrix for the remaining types, i.e. Types A, C and D are derived from Type B.

I noticed that Type A appears only twice, as gates, quite close together on the Townsend Street elevation and I thought it would be interesting to use mirror images.  As the designs are made from sheet steel it would be simple, and no extra expense, to flip them to create mirror images.

Mirror images would work especially well on the Comus Place elevation as there is a long run of Types C and D, both as gates and fences.  For example, the mirror image could be used when each type is used as a gate.  (Types C and D are already mirror images of Type B with the Beckway Street gates acting as a pivot.)  Please see sheet 3 for illustrations of mirror images.

Comus Place Shared Surface

The gates and fences need to fit in with the idea of the shared space and they form a threshold between the public and private lives of Comus Place. The play of light through the lattice organically links outside and inside as well as the trees on either side of the fences.  I also aimed to create a scheme which links the immediate past of the site to the more distant history of London by commemorating one of her  greatest poets, John Milton. Perhaps a stone-carver could be commissioned to produce short extracts from ‘Comus’ and a stone devoted to a brief biography of Milton? This would additionally anchor the gates and fences to the shared space.  My inspiration for this is Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton-Finlay’s garden in Scotland (

I feel that Milton himself, republican, rebel and passionate advocate of free speech would be happy to think that he was being remembered in a democratic shared space and that ‘Comus’ is playing a part in the theatre of the street of modern day London.

Rather than praising an aristocrat, the famous concluding lines of the masque, recited by the Attendant Spirit, urge:

Mortals that would follow me,
Love virtue, she alone is free,
She can teach ye how to climb
Higher than the Sphery chime;
Or if Virtue feeble were,
Heav’n itself would stoop to her .

Gung Hei Fat Choi! From Helen in Hong Kong

Much needed Good Luck Messages from Hei Nam Fung (Helen) in Hong Kong. Very cheering on a cold winter’s day!  They are known as Fai Chun pieces.

From The Princess (Tennyson)

This wonderful, wonderful poem by Tennyson also comes to mind.

From The Princess

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:
The firefly wakens: waken thou with me.

Now droops the milkwhite peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.

Now lies the Earth all Danae to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.

Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.

Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake:
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

Snow by Louis MacNeice

The rose petal from Helen brought to mind this great poem. Here it is as a Christmas present to you Helen.


Louis MacNeice

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands –
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

A visitor from Hong Kong (continued)

Helen is working on a project about sending pieces of love to friends and I received this little rose petal from Hong Kong in the post. What a nice surprise! Helen would like to know how the rose petals have survived after their long journey. Surprisingly well is the answer and here are two photos of the petal in its new home.

Residency at The Creekside Centre, Deptford

From December 2009 until December 2010 I will be working as their artist-in-residence at The Creekside Centre, Deptford for one day a week.  I am using the diaries of Gilbert White as model for my time there, and will be making very simple observations about the weather, conditions, wildlife etc, and using this information as the basis for a series of paintings which I will show at the end of the year.

Doing a residency at Creekside really appeals to me because I have long been aware of the rupture between the arts and sciences. As an abstract painter it has been previously difficult for me to think of a “way in” to remedy this for myself. If only in a small way working at Creekside will be a way for me to breach this historical gap and using Gilbert White as a model will give me a starting point to the days before the split between the arts and sciences, man and the natural world.

Please go to for my diary entries.




DeptfordX V3

Opening Event Sat 26 September 2009 (12-4pm)


Sunday 27 September 2009 (12-4pm)
Thursday 1 October 2009 (12-4pm)
Friday 2 October 2009 (12-4pm)


One of our lovely students, Hei Nam Fung (Helen) from Lee Shau Kee paid a whistle-stop visit to London. We spent Sunday afternoon whizzing from the Old Tate to the New Tate only stopping for a bowl of won ton soup at Wong Kei on the way. We took in Richard Long and The Futurists as well as cramming in as much of the collection as we could!  A very inspirational afternoon for us both.  It was wonderful to see Helen here in London though it also made me feel very homesick for Hong Kong.


Mich will be working together with poet and translator, Susan Mackervoy, on a collaboration based on Rilke’s Duino Elegies. There are ten elegies and Mich and Susan will be meeting each week in Deptford to see what comes out of the mix of reading these very dense poems and their walks in the everyday cityscape of Deptford. Susan, a Germanist, will be reading in the original and Mich will be reading Martin Crucefix’s translations (Enitharmon Press). There are four elements: two individuals (a poet and painter), the poetry of Rilke and Deptford, hence the title. What will come of the meeting of these four elements? The results will be shown as part of DEPTFORD X 2009.



We are back in the UK.  Using the work we produced during the residency in Hong Kong we are working towards our joint exhibition – venue to be announced.