It is impossible to trace all those elements that have contributed to the place inside me where my work flows from. This here is about the beginning. The early years and the foundations like stone plinths that underpin it all, when I was at the whim of chance and childhood.
I was born in Hornchurch in Essex but moved to Liverpool at the age of 10 months so I would imagine this is when I started taking note of my surroundings! For as long as I can remember I yearned for the countryside. I was always a tomboy but it was not so much that I had been born in the wrong body or assigned the wrong gender as that I felt I had been born in the wrong place.
Nonetheless, despite living in a city, we were lucky in having a large garden, which was surrounded on two sides by rough church land (my father was a vicar, my mother a teacher) and bizarrely a chicken farm! All of these places became our playground as well as the streets and derelict houses where we scared ourselves silly with ghost stories, and bullyboys and stray dogs chased us on our tiny bicycles.
I pestered my parents to teach me to read as soon as I could, before I started school, and, luckily for me, words were my friend and I quickly learned to read so that, even from a very young age, books became my real escape. Early favourites were the 'Orlando' books and the Richard Scarry books, both of which featured animals as their heroes and always had fabulous illustrations. But as I got better at reading, books became not only a way of entering worlds of fantasy but a complex array of maps and self help guides that would reinforce my plan to get out of the city and into a crumbling stone cottage with a pony in the garden and dogs and cats galore.
There were pros and cons of growing up in a vicarage. I was once told that being brought up in a Christian household meant that I had an unrealistic belief in the fact that ‘everything will be alright’ (I do) but it also meant our house was a haven for all sorts of people, alive and dead, and the only way my father was ever ‘off work’ was if we were completely away. As a result, we benefitted from numerous camping holidays in the bitterly cold, goblin lands of North Wales, the wilds of Northumberland, as well as a few idyllic holidays in the Lake District, and an annual holiday on the isle of Arran with our cousins (we were three sisters and so were they). Later our destinations broadened to include Pembrokeshire, North Somerset, North Devon, and Northumberland.
One of my favourite early holidays (I was 6) was when Granny paid for us to experience the luxury of a cottage in the highlands of Sutherland (she came too). My Dad bought me, ‘The King of the Copper Mountains’ by Paul Biegel, in a bookshop in Dornoch, and we read it at bedtime in the eaves of the tiny stone cottage where we were staying. There was a tame deer nearby that we could stroke and adders in the garden and we ate a roadkill grouse which produced very little meat, milk came in plastic bags, my mum painted a picture of the cottage, and I touched a real python at a tiny but exotic travelling show somewhere by a harbour full of rocks and green sea. My younger sister and I nearly drowned in an entrancing rockpool where the turquoise water enticed us in but the beautiful white sand slipped beneath our scrabbling feet over and over and we could not escape. Luckily our big sister was not ensnared and ran for help, and our Dad pulled us out of the tiny treacherous place. We also climbed a mountain and drove and drove and drove in our big red van across a moonscape where roads were like a causeway across the vast tracts of bog and heather and strange mountains appeared like monsters out of nowhere. And what I mean by mentioning this long list of things that happened, is that they became enmeshed with The King of the Copper Mountains and I drank it all in. And Babs Van Wely’s illustrations became part of my DNA and I became the book, the story of a dying king, the cottage, the snakes, the terror, the beauty, the mountains, the wolves, the horse with golden hooves, the deer and the rare speedwell flower (and some years later I will shout for joy when I realise there is a real flower called a speedwell). And at six years of age, I laid down the foundations of my learning - that the world is full of stories and miracles and wonder.
Perhaps the contrast of going from city to countryside made me more attuned to the heart-expanding joy of being in natural surroundings, I can’t know? But the sensations that were imprinted in my very core are still there to be conjured up in a flash wherever I am. Falling asleep in a sleeping bag whilst driving into the night, hearing the hoot of an owl, then to awaken to the sounds of rooks cawing early morning, the bleating of sheep and the lapwings’ cry. The scents, the many scents, I learned which are a library of memories to read; the crisp clean smell of streams and burns (that beer brown rushing water), bracken, mossy trees, bog myrtle, juniper, snow, coal smoke, wood smoke, sea water (sometimes stinky), cattle, sheep, horses, and foxes, and all the time my own experiences of these things were backed up by the words I read or were even pre-empted by them. For example, I learned how to recognize the sweet sharp smell of something dead from reading about it before actually smelling it. The Arran holidays with the cousins would also be a place where the landscape, the weather, the experiences would morph with reading, swapping books and the head-stories told to us at bedtimes by the Dads. These were made up on the spot and would include any items that we might request however unlikely. Hence storytelling was a live event, as well as the written word.
I consumed books that had belonged to my parents, the 'Out with Romany' series from my Dad, and numerous pony books from my Mum, as well as their joint favourite by the then master of countryside writing, BB’s, 'Brendon Chase' and 'The Little Grey Men' all of which were liberally illustrated in black and white drawings or scraperboard. Likewise, I read and re-read the ‘colour’ fairy books collated by Andrew Lang, which were beautifully and terrifyingly illustrated by H.J. Ford.
I was also obsessed by animals. I wanted to know all I could about them, I wanted to think like an animal and be an animal. I saved my pocket money to buy nature books and then painted pictures from the photos and made my own books, either writing them from scratch or making quizzes up from magazine images that I cut and pasted with my own questions.
When I was eight years old we moved to Derby and suburbia. I could now access countryside on my bike and learnt to ride at nearby stables and then with friends. But I thought the world was still a dull place and I felt weird compared to my contemporaries. I took refuge in books. I would get home from school, rot my teeth with a Sherbet Dib-Dab and read on my bed. Some especial favourites were, ‘Charlie’ by Joan G. Robinson, illustrated by Prudence Seward, ‘The Little Broomstick’ by Mary Stewart, illustrated by Shirley Hughes, and ‘The Midnight Folk’ by John Masefield, illustrated by Rowland Hilder. At primary school I read the whole school library. Everything from ‘The Family from One End Street’ books by Eve Garnett to the ‘House at World’s End’ books Monica Dickens, and was told off for lying about it!
The books I read during these years which have resided like talismans and totems in my heart are probably those that introduced elements of British myths and folklore into my psyche. Some were fairly general like the Piccolo compendiums of 'Ghosts and Goblins' etc by Ruth Manning Sanders; all fantastically illustrated by Robin Jacques, but the two authors that stand out for me and who I return to over and over would be Alan Garner and Susan Cooper. Garner’s darkly, exciting 'Weirdstone of Brisingamen' and the surreally disturbing 'Elidor' illustrated by Charles Kingsley, were a preparation for the strange and more adult, 'The Owl Service.' I am sure that this book foreshadowed the film 'The Exorcist' with its terrifying scratchings in the attic but also introduced me to the myths of 'The Mabinogion' and the compelling concept of timeless events that are so imprinted into the landscape that they overplay themselves time and again.
However, it is probably Susan Cooper’s ‘Dark is Rising’ series that I hold most dear. So much so that I could hardly bear to share it with anyone for years and was horrified when I discovered the social media fan clubs which, quite rightly, adulate her work. I felt like Silas Marner with his gold, keeping the secret of its world close to my chest and drawing comfort from it in lean times. From these visionary books comes knowledge of Herne, the Wild Hunt, Merlin, again 'The Mabinogion', ancient monuments, and earth magic, all of which are seemingly rooted in these Isles but acknowledge a wider network of magic across the globe. I hung my O Level art on the books, producing my final exam piece based on Herne and he has appeared in my work on occasions and will again. These books are still alive for me. Although I wanted to be Will the hero, when I was ten I fell in love with a boy my age who epitomised Will in my mind; I thought he was wise because he was from the country and showed me a myxomatosis rabbit at the Roman site of Vindolanda! I met Merriman and the lady in the form of my dear friends, the artists, Graham and Ann Arnold, and the sensation of reading these books runs in my veins to this day 45 years after first opening ‘The Dark is Rising’ as a Christmas present.
As I said these are the solid foundations of my inspiration. I am not an expert or academic on folklore. I do not remember the actual details of any of these books that I adore and I have deep connections with television programmes as well as books. I am sure my upbringing in a Christian house will also exert an influence in my work, as well as family visits to ancient sites, my degree in medieval literature, and an adult life lived in Scotland, Cumbria and Herefordshire. Now, in my fifties, I have also been lucky enough to experience motherhood and the opportunity to raise my own family in the countryside with my woodworking husband. All of which has opened my eyes to the inspiration of the everyday.
My work makes much use of the colour of the glass but essentially all the illustration I do is black; monochrome. I think it is no accident that the unsung heroes of all these books are the illustrators who so enhanced my reading experience as a child and I thank them all for my monochrome world of the words and the black and white pictures, the words and the pictures, the words and the landscape... The combination of these things battered themselves lovingly into my greedy heart and sowed the seeds of my work for the past twenty years.
IMAGES TOP TO BOTTOM:
Story-time with Sisters, Cousin and Uncle, Tamsin being the youngest beneath her Uncle's arm.
Still Dreaming of Cottages, original artwork by Tamsin Abbott (Sold)
The Ascent of Stac Pollaidh 1972, Tamsin (far right) with her Mum and two sisters
Herne, original artwork by Tamsin Abbott (Sold)
The Library Catalyst
'She is Feathers' inspired by The Owl Service, in turn inspired by The Mabinogion, and created to accompany this article. Please do enquire if you wish to purchase this piece firstname.lastname@example.org
Dimensions 10.7 x 20 cm
If you are inspired by Tamsin's reading memoir then do take a look at our Spring Walking Book Club selection: