Pembrokeshire through an illustrator’s eyes: Jackie Morris puts us in the picture

Jackie Morris © Jay Armstrong

Goldfinches in mid-flight, a proud oak bent in the breeze, the unfurling of a fern, an owl gliding on a moonlit night, the slippery grace of an otter under water – Jackie Morris’ illustrations are the ultimate journey into the natural world through the simple act of turning a page. The British artist and writer lives in a cottage in Pembrokeshire on Wales’ wild west coast, where she does not have to stray far for inspiration.

Jackie won the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2019 for her illustration of The Lost Words. More recently she illustrated Spell Songs, its musical companion piece, and the children’s book Mrs Noah’s Garden. All of her work is imbued with a profound love of nature and her home in Wales. Here she explains why.

Tell us about your connection to Pembrokeshire, Jackie. Why did you decide to move there?
I came to Pembrokeshire for the first time in early 1992. I had been thinking of buying a house, something I never thought, as an artist, would be a possibility for me. I grew up in Evesham and Broadway. I loved Dorset and Devon. Then I went to Wales: to Pembrokeshire. It was winter but the air was warm and the sky was blue. I fell utterly in love with the shape of the land, the birds, the sea. I bought a small cottage and moved. And yes, I moved here for good and found a home, friends, peace and beauty.

How does your cottage on the Pembrokeshire coast inspire your work?

The cottage is small, ramshackle and squat to the ground. It hunkers in from the wind like a hare. It is cool in summer, warm in winter. I can see the sea from my studio. I bought a home, not an investment. I have a firm belief that investment in property is destroying communities. In this time of lockdown I see the second ‘homes’ more clearly and understand more deeply that to call them second homes is to deny what they are. Not home, just empty houses.

What wildlife and plant life can you observe where you live? 

The seasons here are marked by the coming and going of creatures. Seals come to shore to breed in summer and autumn. Birds arrive to people the cliffs in spring. Wheatears race swallows in spring and the earth blossoms bright with gorse in the late spring, then blushes purple with heather as autumn approaches. In between times there is meadowsweet. Dragonfly time is wonderful, as are the months of snakes and lizards. The earth turns, moon marks the skies and shooting stars fall from clear skies in August showers. The sea sparks with phosphorescence.

Are your illustrations based on memory or do you paint from life?

Everything I paint is informed by the experience of living. If I am working on images of animals I like to have seen the animals, birds, plants. Painting from life is always best. Learning the shape of things through drawing and then painting. It’s a curious way of feeling your way around things. Photography helps, too, especially when it comes to the flight of birds. Their movement is so fast. I am lucky to live in an age of slow-motion film and photography, which helps to show how feather and muscle and brain and bone work to make flight.

Where is your favourite place to contemplate the natural world?

Home. I live just outside St Davids, Pembrokeshire. I love the shape of the land here, and living here is like living on the edge of a map. You can see the shape where the land meets the sea. It changes every day, every moment, with the movement of light, the turning of the world and the movement of creatures. And the beach. Any beach. Again I suppose it is movement. Tide makes time visible. I do rather love the neighbouring bays of Abermawr and Aberbach for their smooth stones, and Abereidi for its dark black sand. I also like the area around Crickhowell [in the Brecon Beacons]. And the town, which maintains the integrity of independent shops (especially Book-ish). The landscape cradles the town and the hills branch off. But then I also adore Hay and its hinterland, its festival and bookshops. Both of these places draw me back. I love travelling between the two via Llanthony. Driving along the narrow lanes and then up and over the hills with red kites circling below.

The Lost Words features your exquisite illustrations of ‘spells’ that reconjure words that are vanishing from the language of children. How can we bring these words back? And why do we need to ‘sing nature back to life’ today?

Children don’t know these words because adults have become disconnected from the environment they live in, shielded by cars, double glazing and the busy rush of life. We need to teach the adults first. Or maybe not. Let the children rewind their parents perhaps? It is of the utmost importance – every minute of every hour of every day – to end the cycle of human dominance and realise our place in the interconnected labyrinth of life. Surely the last few months [the Covid-19 pandemic] have taught us something. One of the best quotes I heard was: ‘it’s as if nature has sent us all back to our rooms to think about our behaviour’.

As cars stood still, planes grounded and silence returned out of the din of human movement, the air became breathable again. The waters cleaner. And then what? We are told by those who would be our leaders to ‘go out and shop for our country’. So, have any lessons been learned, as humans return, leaving their litter in beauty spots? If we do not address our behaviour, Covid-19 will simply be the start. We are all connected. All life is connected. We are a tiny part of an incredible ecosystem. Generations of people feeling superior to all life on earth has led us to a precipice. We can continue, or we can change.

The Lost Words is also a travelling exhibition, an outdoor theatre production, numerous trails both for walking and cycling, a song cycle, a card game, jigsaws. I have loved especially seeing the amazing work produced by young people in response to the book. They are our hope, these young people. We’ve not served them well. We need to do better, and to learn from them. And I guess that was another of my hopes. That the book would land in the hearts of those who love the earth and all things wild and help them find their voices and their courage.

Tell us a little bit about Spell Songs. How does it tie in with the concept of The Lost Words and rekindle a relationship with nature through music? What do the book and CD hope to achieve?

Spell Songs is a project that grew from an event that Robert Macfarlane and I did at Hay Festival Winter Weekend. We began our event with a film of me painting a wren, Rob writing the spell and Kerry Andrew singing the wren spell. Under the curation of Caroline and Adam Slough and Neil Pearson it grew into a series of songs, an album and a performance.
Music takes the wonder deeper into the soul I think. What I tried to do when painting the pictures in The Lost Words was to honour the nearby wilderness that we live in, whether we dwell in country, town or city. I wanted people to open their eyes and see it, with awe and with wonder. That was my hope. It was and is an ode to the wild, a praise song and a song of protest.

READ ON: Meeting a modern-day pilgrim: insights from pilgrimage guide Iain Tweedale.

To learn more about Jackie Morris and her work, visit her website or follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.