Jem Southam: The Painter's Pool

Stoke Woods lie just to the north of the city of Exeter in the south west of England. They are described as ancient woodland and are recorded as being given by King Athelston to the Church in Exeter in 953 A.D. Much of the woods are now a city park managed by the Forestry Commission, but one small area is still in private ownership.

These woods contain a mixture of oak, beech, ash, wild cherry and willow. There are a few huge old trees but most of the mature trees are not so ancient, which suggests much of the wood was cut down for use during the First World War. This was common over much of southern England, with a few larger trees being left to regenerate. It seems from observation that since this time the woods have not been managed and what has grown up as a result is as close to a piece of natural woodland as one is likely to find here.

Under the high canopy of the mature trees is a shrub layer of hazel, hawthorn and blackthorn. From the tangled undergrowth of grasses, brambles, ground elder, wild garlic, and in some places reeds, ivy and honeysuckle climb up choking many of the established trees.

It was to these woods that the painter Mike Garton went each day to conduct his daily struggle. He was driven artistically by a determination to try to render, through the act of painting, the insanely complex visual and spacial fields perceived by immersion in this dense woodland. To say he was obsessive would be understating it. For over two decades he persevered whatever the weather, leaving his canvases while he worked on them in hidden dens.

One day he told me about a pond he had constructed shortly after he had started painting in the woods. A willow tree had fallen half-blocking a stream. He redirected the stream, made a dam from the tree, dug out a shallow pool and had then quietly and secretly maintained it for many years. But he rarely painted it, until a few years ago, just before he died.

I began to photograph the pool around the time Mike became ill. The series of pictures grew initially from an attempt to see how the photographic medium might be used to deal with a similar set of concerns to those he had pursued through painting. In the early pictures signs of his presence “an easel, wooden poles, bent twigs and bits of string” appear. Gradually as time went on and he was no longer able to work these collapsed and disappeared into the fabric of the woods.
– Jem Southam

We are pleased to announce the publishing of The Painter's Pool by Nazraeli Press. Case-bound and beautifully printed, it contains 36 sumptuous illustrations from this body of work, with essays by Southam and Christopher Cook. It is available for $65 from More photographs will be available on our website soon.