Any attempt at trying to describe or précis the work of Richard Skelton is going to be fraught with difficulty, verging on the near impossible. Pretty much everything that needs to be said about the man and his work, his personal history, his modus operandi has already been said by those more capable than I.
I came across his work recently, having been diverted by accident by a search engine already in the throes of meltdown – a serendipitous error for me, as I quickly became entranced by Skelton’s exquisite aesthetic. At once an accomplished musician, artist/maker, animist, poet, writer, designer of bookworks and pamphlets (with wife and creative partner Autumn Richardson), and more; the man is sickeningly talented. I immediately felt a resonance, a spark of anticipation, and set about ordering some of his recorded works, and the book, “Landings”, one of his most recent masterworks.
The parcel arrived with a satisfying thunk on my doormat a few days ago, and I have been absorbed by its contents ever since. Much has been said about the music of Skelton, a skilled practitioner of a variety of stringed instruments, which he bows, scrapes and saws, creating dense, energetic fields of force, detailed layerings that recall the mysterious, archaic, mythic world that he inhabits in darkest Cumbria. I am short on reference points here, as this sound doubtless emerges from a folk tradition,(about which I know nothing) however, parallels could be drawn with the work of Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson , an Icelandic Neo Pagan, with whom Skelton’s music shares some commonalities. Richard Skelton guides his recorded material through an engaging arc, spinning rich textures, and odd resonances from his armoury of instrumentation. Some of the recordings have been through several incarnations and revisits, having been released by an array of small labels – but the entirety of his work from 2005-11 is still available via his Sustain-Release archive, or via the subsequently released *SKURA collection. Skelton and Richardson now run Corbel Stone Press, through which they publish all their various books, pamphlets and musical projects.
This has allowed total creative control of the look and feel of their output, and rarely have I encountered such a perfect synthesis of word, sound and image. Everything here is precise, beautifully presented, and totally unique, with poetry pamphlets observing classic rules of design, CD’s (under the banner of the Sustain-Release archive), postcards and written fragments that entrance and enlighten, and hand crafted objects and imagery that are at once commonplace, yet mystical and transcendent. These visual works bring Andy Goldsworthy or Joseph Beuys immediately to mind.
I want to focus here on the book Landings that is now in it’s fourth edition. The musical element of the work having been released on CD by Type recently, now takes it’s place as a download, elevating the written work here to it’s rightful position. Some 4 years in the making, Landings takes inspiration from a little known tract of moorland, known as Anglezarke, clinging on to the west side of the Pennines, just north-east of Liverpool. The author was once resident here, and walked the moorlands on many occasions, exploring its topography. These psychogeographic forays fuelled the work, and Skelton set about obsessively documenting the area, noting its moods and nuances, its magic and mystery, it’s history, successive layerings that began to form something much greater than the sum of it’s parts. Having just surfaced from an intensive reading of Iain Sinclair’s “Lights Out For the Territory”, Peter Ackroyd’s “Thames, Sacred River”, and Paul Virilio’s “Bunker Archaeology”, I could easily draw comparisons with all of these works and Skelton’s “Landings” – all are visionaries, all unique and compelling, with a richness and diversity of language that paints vivid and intoxicating pictures of the chosen landscape.
Dedicated to the memory of his late wife Louise, the book is at once elegiac and celebratory, almost certainly serving as a kind of cryptic epitaph; part travelogue, part poetry, part diary, interleaved with taxonomic details from the area’s historic connections, it’s inhabitants, familial dynasties, it’s flora and fauna, to the constantly layered nomenclature, Skelton’s musings, questionings, poems, and anecdotes draw sublime and unlikely connections, fusions that take on a mythic resonance.
About half way through, I begin to get a feel for the place, a place that some would consider too bland or too subtle, to be of any consequence, yet in the hands of one of it’s principle proponents, it is rendered in intricate and fascinating detail, vivified with the magical aura of language and sound, (one must accompany the other on this journey). The visionary author J G Ballard once said that “..everywhere is infinitely exciting, given the transforming power of the imagination…”, never more so than here.
Throughout the book, Skelton makes mention of many occasions when he has made offerings to the moor, various writings or even instruments are wrapped and buried, or attached to trees, reciprocating life forces – the anima. He makes music here, sees out a whole night alone, observing it’s denizens, feeding from it’s moods, he becomes one with the land. He merges natural materials with his instruments, weaving material into the strings and the body of the instrument. There is an active transfer of energy, an exchange that takes place between a man and nature, moments of personal significance, private rituals, or what he refers to as “gestures”. Throughout, Skelton manages his language carefully, avoiding reference or terminology that might invoke religion or philosophy, yet in many ways, this is rooted in Paganism, earth magic, something divine, sacred, Noetic. Skelton negotiates this landscape with sensitivity and intelligence, returning as much to the earth as he has taken, in the form of inspiration, husks, seeds, sheddings, materials that he delightfully refers to as “connective tissue” – the viscera of the land that serves to intensify his works as offerings to us, the sensitive observer. At some point, I felt that something was missing from the book though, an evocative image of this barren landscape perhaps, something to give us a visual handle, something that visually locates us in this environment, maybe a map or chart, but in doing so, I realise that perhaps Skelton’s intention is a simple act requiring no images -the landscape here is something we all recognise, we have all been here somewhere in our life , or our dreams – he presents us with a vivid sound/image poem already, any gaps will be filled with our imagination.