|You close your eyes and see|
the stillness of
the mullet-nibbled arteries, samphire
on the mudflats almost underwater,
and on the saltmarsh whiskers of couch-grass
twitching, waders roosting, sea-lavender
faded to ashes *
It has been several years now since the ceramist Annie Turner went back to the river of her childhood and began to respond – creatively – to its landscape. It was always there in her mind of course, a period of gestation as she worked on other projects – a necessary distancing perhaps – but it was the water that finally drew her back and has guided her work ever since.
It is for her a haunted place, the River Deben in Suffolk, where several generations of her family have lived and worked. Where Annie was brought up, near Woodbridge, the estuary is at its broadest and at low tide it narrows to a channel on its west side, leaving acres of silent mudflats, an expanse of meanders and rivulets, lonely posts and markers. It is, like all rivers, an unknown quantity, an estuary of unseen depths and currents, some of these familiar to Turner through years of sailing. Her Deben is not just one seen from the bank, it is a complex and everchanging force that takes a lifetime to fathom, an elusive and mysterious thing, both above and below the surface. And this is an ancient environment. Along the Deben shore you can find coprolite, essentially the “petrified dung of early animals”, but on the Suffolk crag defined as “rolled lumps of phosphate clay and included among these are the fossilised bones and teeth of mammals and fishes”, of which Turner has quite a collection. And Sutton Hoo, the site of that remarkable Anglo-Saxon burial, is just across the water. The residue of history is particularly potent here.
Turner’s sculpture is imprinted with the Deben’s past and present, the cycles of nature and the interaction of man. These are, as she puts it “objects that trigger the memory”, as much collective memory as personal recollection. These encrusted forms – families of spoons, sinkers, ladders, sluices and so on – reveal the particular texture and weather of this waterland, the character of its beds and inlets, the colour of its reflected sky. The richly layered ‘meander bowls’, impressed with the fragments and detritus Turner has found on innumerable walks, are small in scale but encapsulate so much about the broader landscape – a tidal geography concentrated and made intimate.
Like her various spoons, they are emblematic of the river as container, a source of nurture and nourishment. She sees the intricate grids of her “sinkers” in a similar way. As objects that fix moorings, they provide a sense of location, “of belonging”, in the moving stream. These structures, like her numerous sluices and ladders, invoke the human presence and interventions of a navigable river – the jetties and planks that straddle its shores, the buoys that chart the water, the anchorage of boats.
The surfaces of Turner’s work are accreted and rusted with slips and oxides, marked with tidelines that record and monitor the fluctuations of the water. Her art gauges the momentum of the river, apparently corroded by the relentless actions of flood, sun and ice – forms that blister, bleach and warp. The clay, once wet and amorphous, becomes something brittle and fragile and disarmingly light – bent and pitted by extensive firing. She explores the various currents – her funnels express the high pressures at the narrow mouth of the estuary and her “eddy spoons” spiral like whirlpools. Some of Turner’s motifs are integrated and expanded into other structures. Ladders and sinkers merge and evolve into lines of river wall or the rotund contours of a martello tower.
This is not static work. Here are ladders that climb and bridges that cross, shapes through which the water passes. The Deben’s ebb and flow is indicative of other types of journey, the course of time and experience. But here too is permanency, the continuity of the river’s pendulum, a touchstone by which we can live our lives and measure our days. Here in these saltings, muddy creeks and reaches, in the hinterland paths, is a world of its own. And yet out of the particular Annie Turner shows how, as T. S. Eliot wrote, “the river is within us…”, a river that grows and strengthens as it goes out to sea.