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The eloquence of Hope lives on in Exmoor

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 16, 2013

  • The paintings of Exmoor-based artist and writer Hope Bourne (left) have been collected into a new coffee table book. Hope depicted the life and times of the moor as only someone who knows and understands the place intimately can

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For years, Hope Bourne was a fixture on the moors. Martin Hesp looks back at her life and works.

In a beautifully produced new book featuring the artwork of one of Exmoor's best-known characters, there is a photograph of an old stamped addressed envelope, and on the facing page another picture of a similar envelope that's been slit open and used as a canvas for a painting.

Between these two images some words have been printed: "Of all the things most precious and necessary to me, paper ranks the highest, and being one of those few things which I cannot make for myself, is something for which I have to save up a few pence week by week. However, good paper I use only for important or 'finished' work – split reversed old envelopes serve for notes and rough sketches."

If you knew her, and I did, this could only be one person. Hope Lilian Bourne was an enigma, and a famous one at that. For decades she lived alone in a tiny, remote, decrepit caravan in the heart of Exmoor, surviving on a weekly income of not much more than £2, shooting the odd rabbit for the pot, keeping a few hens, and writing and drawing.

Indeed Hope, who died in 2010 aged 88, was best known for her writings – and anyone who ever sees one of her books for sale should grab it while they can. When it came to reflecting the rural hill-bound world around her, she was one of the finest writers the Westcountry has ever produced.

Fortunately for lovers of Somerset and Devon's unique wilderness area, she bequeathed her entire estate to the Exmoor Society, which has been able to curate many of the items, including numerous personal possessions mentioned in her books.

Many will have seen the exhibition at Dulverton's Guildhall Heritage and Arts Centre which was dedicated to the life and times of this writer, artist, professional countrywoman and reclusive moorland dweller. Those that either haven't, or who wish for more, will undoubtedly enjoy the new coffee table-style book of her pictorial works, selected by John Burgess.

It's called Hope Bourne's Exmoor: Eloquence in Art and it contains more than 160 colour pages of her artworks drawn, sketched, painted, crayoned, throughout her long and highly observant life. It is a collection that will be treasured by anyone who loves the wild moor because it somehow gets under the skin of the place.

It is a trick you can only pull off if you know a location intimately. And I mean really, profoundly, well. To do that, you not only have to live somewhere for a long time – you have to be out in it, wearing it like a hand wears a glove. I find myself wondering if someone who resides in a cosy Exmoor cottage, as I do, can really know his surroundings as well as a person who exists – or rather, survives – out there under the great rain-sodden skies.

For all those long years in that diminutive, leaking caravan, that's what Hope did. She survived – living, eating and breathing Exmoor. And the pictures in this book prove that.

"Very early in life I discovered the magic of drawing," she once wrote. "Then, with ever-growing awareness of everything around me, an idea took over. I could myself make likenesses of things. I could express and give form to my imaginings and desires. I could capture objects and thoughts.

"Thereafter I began to sketch anything that excited my interest, and that was almost everything. Plants, insects, birds, animals, farmyards and hunting scenes, buildings and views of cliffs and countryside. Then, on wet days and winter evenings my imagination was let loose making fantastic patterns or drawing illustrations to books I had read or stories I had made up."

These are the words of someone in love with the idea of creativity. They exude an individual's deep-seated desire to make some kind of mark – to retell life and all its textures and idiosyncrasies by making some kind of pictorial record.

I'll be honest here and say I've seen superior works of art that focus on Exmoor – it's my belief that Hope was a much better writer than she was a painter, which will no doubt sound like sacrilege to many – but that is not the point and it does not reflect the importance of this book. Exmoor: Eloquence in Art is more than worthy of its £24.99 cover price because it is a collection of work that illustrates one national park in a unique and altogether satisfying way.

As I write in the book's foreword (please note I have no financial interest here whatsoever), men and women have been attempting to make images of Exmoor since they came to these windswept northern climes before the last Ice Age. Had Exmoor been a territory rich in caves, then undoubtedly we'd have found ancient paintings and daubs upon their walls, as archaeologists have done in other upland areas of Europe. Indeed, I always felt there was something wonderfully primaeval about Hope. There was a deep-seated sense of honesty about her. The stance she took on all manner of topics, the way she thought, seemed to me to be totally unfettered by fashion, trend or vogue.

And so it is with Exmoor. There is sky and earth. There is running water and falling rain. The scent of peat and the chiaroscuro of moorland light and woodland dark. There are deer and gulls, cliff and sward, heather and bladderwrack. You can go on and on comparing and combining, but you cannot bend what Exmoor is. It is bold, and that means it's sometimes brutal and harsh – but this boldness affords both the landscape and the indeterminate atmosphere that lurks there a capacity to be vast, indomitable and honest.

Hope Bourne's pictures, and indeed her notes and writings which accompany them in this book, reflect all of that.

She once told me, at a time when Margaret Thatcher sat in Number 10, that she envied Britain's first female prime minister the opportunity to exert such influence and power.

Nonetheless, she may not have influenced great events or stalked the corridors of power living alone up there in her tiny caravan, but Hope Bourne did make history in her own very unique way. And we who love Exmoor are all the richer for it, as a glance at this book will prove.

Hope Bourne's Exmoor: Eloquence in Art is published by Halsgrove in association with the Exmoor Society, £24.99.

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