Walking with Ghosts: From Ballyvaughan to The Rodd (and back again)

The bare landscape of a barren plain seemingly offers scarce sustenance, yet in this wide open space Sidney Nolan found the beginnings for his paintings, notably the bushranger Ned Kelly. Equally hardy survivors of the Australian Outback are the wildflowers that Nolan observed on a visit to his native desert land in the late 1960s.[i] From his observations, he made more than a thousand small paintings that came together as a large mural of vigorous bloom titled Paradise Garden (1968-70); this was exhibited in Dublin in 1973.

Ireland was Nolan’s ancestral homeland. In 1971, after the completion of Paradise Garden, the artist made his first visit to the Burren, County Clare, on Ireland’s Atlantic coast. Although of a different palette, this is a topography that resembles the Australian interior: harsh and desolate with little for comfort. The contradiction to a first viewing of the limestone pavement is the abundant flora that thrives in the grikes that dissect the plain.[ii] Nolan found himself at home in the remote Irish landscape. Recognizing his familial roots, he planned to buy a derelict family cottage in the village of Ballyvaughan, so, staking his claim on this ancient place.

Stephen Clarke: What was your first encounter with the Burren?

David Ferry: It was about fifteen years ago, to give a lecture at the small art school in Newtown Castle, Ballyvaughan.[iii] I remember distinctly driving in on a road called the New Line, a military road, and in parts wholly straight. The landscape changed after the town of Ennis and the main Galway road, the limestone pavement providing a distinct difference to the verdant green of regular pasture. A sense of bewilderment and exploration in equal parts; stone walls dividing stone fields!

The remote location of the Burren College of Art belies its expansive reach providing a creative education for international students, as well as residencies for practitioners from across the world. Many of these visitors will be strangers to this ancient land, although some might recognize their own lineage in the place as descendants of the Irish diaspora. All of these temporary residents become acquainted with the ghosts of a people long gone. The college is sited in Newtown Castle close to the harbour village of Ballyvaughan that was itself the site of a castle occupied by the O’Lochlainn family in Medieval Times. The Celtic chieftains were haunted by their own predecessors, whose scattered dolmens make their presence felt on the landscape.[iv] At the end of the twentieth century, cartographer Tim Robinson provided contemporary explorers with a map of the terrain [v].

Stephen Clarke: How did you as an artist respond to this environment that is both extraordinary in terms of nature and mysterious in relation to its distant past?

David Ferry: I use Tim Robinson’s Folding Landscape map every time I venture into this place. From the outset, the Burren and its geology, its flora and fauna, and its prehistory, present a remarkable tapestry of image and form. The idea of a visual tapestry, interwoven layers of the sights and wanderings in the Burren, become collage and montage ingredients for artists. After my initial visit, I predicated student projects on the interplays of legend and time in specific places and encounters using firstly, Ingmar Bergman's epic masterpiece The Seventh Seal (1957) the Burren’s backdrop of the medieval, and the coast so reminiscent of the film; and secondly, Ken Russell's horror comedy The Lair of the White Worm (1988) what may lurk in those caves of the Burren, so to speak![vi] The Burren area seems to resonate with narrative, clinging and binding the landscape.

In Dublin, in 1973, alongside Paradise Garden was exhibited another gargantuan artwork by Nolan. Snake (1970-72) is composed of 1,620 panels that feature Australian aborigine motifs.[vii] The snake is an archetypal creature that winds its path through numerous mythical backgrounds and into the Christian period. Strewn in the path of the ancient serpent are the abandoned churches, isolated graveyards and derelict farms of the Burren. In daylight, these remains of people long gone are ghostly; at nighttime, animated by metamorphosis, the darkness gives them life. Even more recent signs of modern man become transformed; a soulless caravan park can take on the characteristics of an archaic burial site.[viii]

Stephen Clarke: What impact did the Burren have upon Nolan’s Celtic Image paintings?

David Ferry: Nolan would have been as fascinated as much by the interaction of man on this strange landscape as the environment itself. Perhaps it is something to do with the fact that early man settled on a once seabed, and that in itself makes for a kind of fantastical encounter. It is no wonder after a lifetime of global travel that Nolan was able to distil and digest his own account of the Burren in his Celtic Image series. The ruins and their sentinel-like stone carvings, the humanoid faces and characters seemingly impervious to ruination and the weather, provide 'romantic', and 'gothic' readings.[ix] When I first saw Nolan's Celtic Image paintings I was immediately transported to an interpretation of place and a distinct atmosphere. It was pretty clear he was charged with an emotional recognition of the area through ancestry and sheer guttural visual fascination. These paintings resonate with prehistory but are made by our modern creative algorithms that can align the past and futures together. It seems to me that Nolan navigated ancient time and space as well as modern intercontinental travel, and fused recognition and personal understandings together. In his Australian paintings, he seemed to glide across the dominant historical and political areas of that country’s social development, but also realised the more remote past as a living pulse. This awareness was carried over to his paintings instigated by his visit to Ireland, the collision of very early indigenous rock art in Australia with Pagen/Christian stone carving on a wall of a ruined church in the Burren. To see the ‘ancient heads’ of the monochromatic Celtic Image in relation to Nolan’s 1939/40 painting Boy and the Moon [Moon Boy] is perhaps where the ancient and future meet.[x] Going back to the Burren in later life, Nolan landed in a time space conundrum. Moon Boy is Celtic Boy, as it were, and both were him.

Many people across the globe claim Irish descent. The Irish diaspora has a lengthy history that dates back to the Roman occupation of Britain through to current migration. It is this story of exiles that Nolan addressed in his series of paintings titled Wild Geese, specifically referring to the Irish soldiers who fled to France following the failed Jacobite rebellion of the 1690s. For the next hundred years these rebels became the Irish Brigade, fighting alongside the French army, often against the English. Smuggled abroad by sea, the Irish fugitives, many from County Clare, were officially described by the Ship Captains as ‘Wild Geese’.  In Nolan’s pantheon of protagonists, they become companions to Ned Kelly. Outside the law and estranged from their homeland, it is a position that Nolan himself had held when he deserted from the Australian army during World War II. For Nolan the interplay between history and place is viewed from the position of dislocated wanderer.

Stephen Clarke: Nolan has been identified as a modern Australian artist; his work tied to a specific landscape: the Outback. Is this viewpoint apparent in Nolan’s Celtic Image series?

David Ferry: When I first visited Rodd Farm, pointed out to me was a particular line of sight at the end of a drive. There were landmasses, hills and woodlands, on either side of a vast flat field. I was told this was Nolan's favourite view. The distinct colour of the landscape had a non-Northern European flavour to it. In 2016, I was the Federation University International Artist in Residence, whose art department is in the city of Ballarat, an hour and a half away on the train from Melbourne - Nolan’s birthplace.[xi] The landscapes between Ballarat and Melbourne as viewed from the windows of the intercity commuter train, reminded me of that view at The Rodd.

Ballarat, famous for the Sovereign Hill gold rush in the 1850s and the subsequent ‘battle’ of the Eureka Stockade that Nolan painted in 1949, has the oldest regional gallery and houses a fantastic collection of paintings and prints. Sidney Nolan is well represented in the city’s Art Gallery. I was able to invest much time looking at the collection and at the timeline of Australian art influenced by Europe from the early days of settlement to the present. A remarkable aspect is seeing the juxtaposition of indigenous peoples works with the artistic influences coming in from the United States later in the twentieth century.

Nolan’s Celtic Image series was probably created with great speed over a very short period of time and yet imbedded in these rock/cave-like images are the train journeys, the settlements, the histories and the human adversities that so powerfully bind landscape and its human secrets together. It is also worth pointing out here his use of media for this set of work. Nolan used the everyday paint spray can, as utilitarian as it is brutally simple. The wonderful textures and tonal fidelity of these paintings belies the means by which they were actually done.

Paradise Garden and Snake were joined by Nolan’s Shark (1972-73) as part of the Oceania triptych exhibited in Dublin in the early 1970s. A primeval creature that lurks in the depths, it is a feared predator that still stalks modern man’s imagination. Nolan’s Celtic Image series share this sense of foreboding of something lurking in the darkness. These spray paintings visibly incorporate the globular nature of water on a surface invoking the fluid environment of a land formed by the storms that sweep across the Atlantic. From these black foamy concoctions brewed by the artist, viewers project their own fears. There is, perhaps, a link to the gothic imagery of classic horror films that make use of a monochrome palette to evoke a dramatic narrative.

Stephen Clarke: A number of paintings by Nolan have a narrative purpose, such as his paintings of Ned Kelly. Is there an illustrative direction in his Celtic Image series?

David Ferry: I believe there must be. I sense that the unanswerable aspects of human interaction in a time before speech is an aspect of these paintings. Our interpretations of prehistoric rock art are an ongoing study with many interpretations and consequences. The myriad of improbabilities that make artists produce art in the first place is a bewildering mirage. In this sense any specific narrative locked into the Celtic Image is open to as vast an interpretation as his seemingly inexhaustible energy to make art.

For students to begin to understand the ‘mirage’ requires a certain amount of ‘stage set’. One of the reasons I brought cinema to the teaching of painting and printmaking at the Burren College of Art, was that cinema has a good way of connecting time and space in a setting. The simple analogy of a costume drama illustrates this very well. If we place a period template over location and place, then many interactive narratives and episodes can be unearthed and reinterpreted. The proximity of the Rodd Farm estate to the nearby town of Presteigne is one actual material fact that can easily be cast as an aspect of drama. If we supplant Nolan’s Jacobean manor house and the nearby village with the locational fictions that we find in Robin Hardy's 1973 film The Wicker Man, then the manor house becomes a castle, and the small town of Presteigne, with its pub, its hairdresser’s, butcher’s shop, library and old Court House assumes fully, the village of the May Day! On one level of our understanding we can look at things and construe them as real, but through imaginative filters they are transformed. This illustration gives me a 'plug in' as to how the Celtic Image series manifests itself in the overall oeuvre of Nolan and his endless desire to re-trace, re-tread and re-evaluate.

In March 2013, David Ferry and Stephen Clarke met at The Rodd to discuss Ferry’s multi-panelled artwork May Day in the Centre of England (2010-13), a re-scripting of The Wicker Man film using photomontage and spray paint.[xii] This conversation outlined how early memories form our viewpoint and continue to inform our understandings of place; it was one of the many reasons for choosing The Rodd as the setting. This relationship between Ferry and Clarke, in the shadow of Nolan, has its roots in an earlier residency in 2004 at Burren College of Art. Place, time, characters and converse continually shift. As David Ferry points out: “It’s all to do with that constant re-imagining of Nolan’s back and forth creative energy through schemes, sets, series, travel adventures, and human encounters.”

© David Ferry, Stephen Clarke

David Ferry RE was born in Blackpool UK, and studied at the Camberwell and Slade Schools of Fine Art in London.

He has recently co-curated ‘Zeno Factor, Mario Dubsky’ for the Chelsea Space in London 2017, and the first book arts exhibition for the ‘Impressions’ group in Galway Ireland in 2016, an exhibition of the Galway International Arts Festival. Other projects include: the Welsh International Printmaking Biennale, Wrexham in 2013; the UK National Printmaking Exhibition, London 2011; and the Royal West of England Printmaking competition, 2008.

An internationally exhibiting artist, specializing in printmaking and photomontage, he was awarded a Pollock/Krasner grant in 2002, and won awards at the First and Second International Book Arts Competition in Seoul, Korea in 2004 and 2006. His works are in international museum collections including the V&A London, MOMA, New York, Art Institute of Chicago, and the National Gallery of Australia, Cambera.

David is the Emeritus Professor of Printmaking at the Cardiff School of Art and Design, Cardiff Metropolitan University, and Hon Doctor of Arts at the Southampton Solent University. He is currently the Chairman of the Chelsea Arts Club in London, and contributes to the work of the Sidney Nolan Trust.

Stephen Clarke (b.1962) is an artist, writer and lecturer. He studied Fine Art and Photography at Newport Art College, South Wales (1983-86), and followed this with Masters’ Degrees in Contemporary Art and Theory (1994-96), and Fine Art Printmaking (2003-04) both at Winchester School of Art. He has photobooks published with Café Royal Books and The Velvet Cell, and writes for Photomonitor, The Art Newspaper, Source, and The Double Negative. He has collaborated with Professor David Ferry since 2012, writing consistently on his work; a selection of essays was published in Ferry’s exhibition catalogue The Invader’s Guide to the British Isles (2016).

Copy-editor Julia Clarke (b.1970) studied History of Design and the Visual Arts at Staffordshire University (BA, 1994), and Museum Studies at The Textile Conservation Centre, Winchester School of Art (MA, 2006). She is an independent editor and writer.


[i] ‘the Alpine Storm that created the picturesque landscapes of the ‘old world’ ignored Australia…On this dry, hot land, grows a strange vegetation. There are ten thousand species of Australian flora, far more than in Europe…’ (Colin MacInnes, 1957, in his catalogue introduction to Nolan’s 1957 Whitechapel show, republished as Sidney Nolan: The Search for an Australian Myth in England, Half English, Penguin, 1966)

[ii] ‘The word boíreann, means a rocky place’ (T. D. Robinson, 1977)

The Burren is sometimes referred to as the ‘Fertile Rock’ [anecdotal]

‘The rare combination of this landform and a mild, moist Atlantic climate nourishes a unique mixture of Arctic, Alpine and Mediterranean plants’. (T. D. Robinson, 1977)

[iii] Newtown Castle is a restored 16th century cylindrical fortified tower house. In the 1830s, the castle was occupied by Charles O’Lochlainn, known locally as ‘King of the Burren’. It has been part of the Burren College of Art since 1994.

[iv] A Dolmen is a single-chamber megalithic tomb, the oldest type of tomb dating from the Neolithic period, c.4000 B.C. The Poulnabrone Dolmen is located five miles south of Ballyvaughan, one of 172 to be found in Ireland. It is one of the few to have been excavated; it contained the remains of 21 bodies and revealed that it was in continual use over a 600-year period.

‘The Burren could almost be defined by its rich concentration of archaeological sites. The Survey of Megalithic Tombs of 1961 shows a close grouping of 66 of these graves of the earliest settlers, nearly all wedge-graves of a local form they owe to the natural limestone slabs produced by the rectangular fissuring of the region.’ (T. D. Robinson, 1977)

[v] Robinson, T.D. (1977). The Burren: A two-inch map of the uplands of North-West Clare, Eire. Arainn: T.D. Robinson

[vi] The Burren is Ireland's most important cave area. Aillwee Cave, which has been open to the public since 1976, is the most well known.

[vii] Snake (Rainbow Serpent) is installed in the purpose built Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania.

[viii] In 2004, Stephen Clarke photographed a caravan park in the Burren. The caravans stood as modern metal monoliths and seemed imbued with the same sense of mystery that characterises the ancient stones of the Burren’s surrounding prehistoric sites. a strange field is a concertina style, hand-made artist’s book of ten photographs. It was made in collaboration with the artist bookmaker Dr. Elizabeth Kealy-Morris. The field trip to the Burren was organized by Professor David Ferry.

The title a strange field is taken from Tim Robinson’s map of The Burren.

[ix] David Ferry has visited several abandoned churches in the Burren with his students from the Burren College of Art. He recalls visiting Rathborney Church and Temple Cronan. The ruins of the late gothic c.1500 Rathborney Church is located south west of Newtown Castle, the Burren. It is set in a circular stone ringfort dating from the Bronze Age. Temple Cronan, Teampall Chrónáin is a ruined 12th century chapel, near Carron in the Burren. It has two slab shrines, and stone faces embedded in its walls.

[x] The use of the term ‘ancient heads’ makes reference to the only labelled Celtic Image spray painting by Sidney Nolan as ‘Ancient Head’.

Boy and the Moon c. 1939-40 is a single coloured head shape on a different single coloured background. It is in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

[xi] The residency resulted in the exhibition David Ferry: The Invader’s Guide to the British Isles at the Post Office Gallery, Ballarat, Australia and the publication Clarke, S. & Ferry, D. & Heng, E.  (2016). The Invader’s Guide to the British Isles, (revised and reprinted 2017)

[xii] The constructed dialogue is published in Clarke, S. & Ferry, D. (2014). Summerisle Revisited: The Artist’s Cut. In  E. Shemilt (Chair), Borders & Crossings; The Artist as Explorer. (Proceedings of Impact 8, International Printmaking Conference) Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, September 2013 pp.110-115.

The Burren Annual is supported by funding from Clare County Council.

The Celtic Image exhibition is a collaboration between Burren College of Art and the Sidney Nolan Trust.