Mark Spray | Until the Light Fails

 W. G. Sebald’s eloquent book ‘The Rings of Saturn’ was the starting point for an extended walk through Suffolk which inspired this new collection of works. At once fiction, memoir, biography and travelogue, Sebald’s writings wander the low lands of East Anglia in an unhindered narrative style that ebbs and flows through accounts of people, stories, thoughts and places. Informed by the landscape, the experience of walking and his own five senses, Sebald’s melancholic words paint a sensory and aesthetic whole as the author experiences the familiar, yet incongruous nature of the subjective self in time and place, and the cognitive dissonance of the uncanny.


Taking this book as a framework to explore an as yet 'undiscovered country’ Spray carried with him his sketchbook and his own existential experience, walking 120 miles through the Suffolk landscape. Beginning at sunrise and sleeping wherever he found himself as the day’s light failed, he spent long nights of contemplation in deep woods, a cell-like bird hide, open fields and on shingled beaches.


Immersed in self, sense and environment, each step of his walk defined an ongoing dialogue between writer and artist, between artist and landscape: starting out from Somerleyton train station, Spray took in the coastal town of Lowestoft, the once fresh waters of Benacre Broad – now invaded by the advancing salted sea, on to the hamlet of Covehithe, to Southwold, over the River Blyth and down to Dunwich, where coastal erosion continues its triumphant march and over time 12 churches have been swallowed by the ocean. The second phase of the walk began in the town of Woodbridge, then on to the village of Orford and the bleak beauty of Orford Ness, a wide shingle spit at the mouth of the River Ore that was once a military testing site and Cold War defense installation, before heading north-west along the roman road from Yoxford and finally back to Southwold’s Gun Hill, overlooking the cold North Sea.


Captured in the oil paint and mineral grit of Spray’s mixed media work is the shifting beauty of this landscape and its unique exchange with both author and artist: the vivid purple heather and white sanded paths of Dunwich heath glow brightly under ominous skies; low, brooding cloud lines skim the damp, sea level land and sandbars break the grey reflective waters of sea and broad in two; strange, silent circles of concrete scar the requisitioned and ultimately abandoned shingle of a once unspoiled Orford Ness; bare and brittle trees reach from wet earth up towards wetter skies; the bruised clouds of an emerging storm intensify the grassy green of fields along the roman road and will soon replenish puddles which soak colours from the rolling, humid atmosphere.


Drawing together elements of experience, thought, perception and prose, this collection of oil sketch and large scale studio paintings, which are in part both documentary and autobiographical works, evidence the physically exhausting yet psychologically restorative nature of time spent in the landscape and seek, in their way, to locate beauty in the midst of melancholy.


Mercedes Smith