Isabella Whitworth

probably more than natural and synthetic dyes, wax, resists, and history

A foreign country


Everything there is to be said about memory has been said before, and very much better than I’ll manage here. We build all kinds of structures with memories, but if we start serious archaeology these structures often teeter: fallen material is merely the start of a new construction.

I’m at an age when I have more past than future. So I am curious about probably unstable structures on which my memories (and assumptions) are built. I like revisiting once-familiar places, and finding out what happened to people I once knew well. It’s a kind of nosiness, but it’s mainly a need to clarify connections, identify patterns across time and events and reorganise a continuous construction programme.

Sometimes a more infinite past is tangibly and intriguingly revealed. In the last months, British coasts have been lashed by sequences of ferocious storms. At several coastal locations traces of ancient forests appeared when raging seas scoured out layers of sand and stones above them. Some of the 4,500-year-old stumps and roots are astonishing, such as those in Cardigan Bay – see here. Ancient forests also appeared in the South West.

We found the the ones at Daymer Bay, emerging from slabs of dark compressed soil-like material threaded by a network of roots and embedded with land snail shells. The submerged trees only appear every hundred years or so and may by now have been re-covered by sand and rocks. They look ordinary, just like any old tree stumps, which of course, they are – and aren’t. My imagination was fired and I noticed other visitors were approaching the stumps with something like reverence. By my calculation (and construction), the unknown but important person buried in the Dartmoor White Horse Hill cist  might have walked in the forest at Daymer Bay, although it’s a bit of a Bronze Age bus ride.

Last weekend I was teaching at West Dean and en route home diverted to the New Forest, a once familiar place. Starting with a clear picture of what I was looking for, and where, I soon found that memories weren’t particularly accurate. In ‘deconstructing’ I found that paths were longer, or shorter, or just somewhere else. Buildings that had clearly been in place forty years ago took me by surprise, as if I’d never seen them before. In ‘reconstructing’ a new visual memory, old versions were revised by new observations, both being perceptions which can, at least for the moment, be separately accessed. Most curious.

I was named after a great-aunt. Her grave is in a churchyard in the New Forest and my headstone would be the same as hers – were I to be buried, which I probably won’t. I don’t find it spooky or morbid visiting the grave with (almost) my full name on it; I like to go because there will be few people that now remember who she was.  I have her to thank for my love of textiles because her house was full of beautiful fabrics.  As a small child I loved to poke about in her mothballed chests of drawers where I plunged my hands into heaps of beautiful embroidered shawls and scarves. She made patchwork quilts, and beautifully executed decorative dolls from pipe-cleaners and precious fabric scraps. She tatted long scarves like nets for herself and her friends.


I still have some of her clothes. As an art student in the late 1960s I used to wear the reversible brown and cream silk jacket with the fleur-de-lys type motif (shown above) when I went in to college. It looked great over a black polo neck and jeans, which would have horrified my great-aunt. The jacket was much admired and if I wore it, I felt totally-far-out-cool.

All her clothes are in the style of the 1920s and 30s and are handmade: there are no designer labels.

6 thoughts on “A foreign country

  1. This is an extraordinarily interesting post Isabella, which gives a feast of food for thought. I wonder if the tree stumps at Daymer which you saw are separate to or part of the Raised Beach there that I know well from when I lived just across the estuary? There is more information about this here – it’s quite a famous geolgical phenomenon of which there are more examples in the South-west UK.
    Your memories and their (in)accuracy also have resonance with me. I think all emotions are prey to relativism! Is anything really known?

  2. Thanks, Richard and apologies to be slow to acknowledge this. I had forgotten how familiar you are with that area. I can’t answer your questions about the level and the raised beach on the other side. I will send you some images by email which might answer the question a little better for you but I don’t think the ‘old’ level’ with the stumps is very much below the normal beach at Daymer

  3. Sorry, I should have been more clear. The raised beach is at Daymer not on the Padstow side so must be quite close to your experience, but I’m not sure about the geological timeline so will have to do a wee bit of research.

  4. Dear Ms Whitworth

    I sent you an email but it bounced! Having recently ecently begun to paint on silk, I have greatly benefited from much of your and Jill Kennedy’s tutorials found online. Many thanks for sharing your experience with us beginners.

    I have been having problems with wobbly gutta lines, a problem caused by medication for my chronic condition, which causes my right hand to tremble at inopportune moments, especially when applying the all important gutta! Your article about Pro-Liners,, seemed to be the solution, but George Weil no longer stock it. Would you be able to tell me where you get yours? I have had good results with cold wax as my tremor does not affect it much, but not all the designs I want to make can be done with just that.

    Looking forward to your reply, and hope I have not been too intrusive in my questions.

    Kind regards

    • Hi Arati, As you know I have already replied to you privately but in case others reading want to know more, the Pro-liners are still on sale through Steidl & Becker GmbH. They now call them ‘Guttaliners’ and as far as I know they will ship to the UK although you have to buy a minimum quantity. The page from their site is here:
      I never used them without a metal nib, finding that I preferred fine point rotring-style nibs to a chopped-off plastic spout. These days I don’t use spirt-based gutta resist or water-based resist, preferring the greater freedom of wax. But, who knows, I may want to go back one day!

  5. Thank you very much, Isabella. I have replied to your email.

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