Wight Life

Sand Pictures

by Joyce Eley

SAND AS AN ARTISTIC MEDIUM sounds as impermanent as a child's sand castle that will be washed away by the tide. Yet the art of 'painting' with coloured sand or 'marmortinto' was carried on by artists from the early part of the eighteenth century, and some of their work has survived to the present day. Unfortunately, these artists jealousy concealed the methods they used so that their secret died with them. Now after a lapse of over 100 years, the art of 'painting' sand pictures has been revived by Mr Brian Pike of Carisbrooke.

Sand pictures first became popular on the Isle of Wight in 1840 when an important centre for their production was established at Newport. Several artists took part in this activity, including Edwin Dore and his brother John of Arreton and James Neat of Newport. James Neat who was also a geologist seems to have concentrated more on filling glass 'bells' with coloured sand and arranging it in the form of designs and pictures. Three of these bells, one of which is nearly a foot high, can still be seen in the museum next to the Swiss chalet at Osborne House.

Here, too, are various geological specimens which Mr Neat collected from Alum Bay and Blackgang Chine at the request of Queen Victoria in 1862. These glass bells made in Czechoslovakia are no longer obtainable and have been replaced by modern glass phials in all shapes and sizes, but the sand is arranged in coloured stripes and there is no attempt to make a picture. Mr Francis Neat as a young boy can remember his Uncle James poking the sand into the bells but nobody knows exactly how the pictures were produced in the bell or how the framed pictures were made.

So Brian Pike's problem was to master the technique and find an effective adhesive, for there were no records of what the old artists had used although it was believed that two of the ingredients had been gum arabic and spirits of wine. It was a question of trial and error. Many of Brian's first attempts had to be scrapped because the sand came off, but at last he found an efficient fixer using a form of PVA adhesive which is mixed with the sand he spreads on plywood after it has been primed with grey, white or black emulsion paint. He uses cardboard egg boxes to keep his colours separate and applies the sand through a small funnel made of stiff paper or card. Brian first became interested in sand pictures in 1965 and not only set out to re-discover this almost lost art form but studied its historical background as well.

Sand pictures did not originate on the Isle of Wight. The Japanese were apparently the first to make pictures in sand, producing formal designs with white sand on black lacquered trays, but no attempt was made to 'fix' them. The idea of sand pictures was introduced to European courts by travellers returning from Japan.

Designs of fruit and flowers in coloured sand or marble dust were used by the table 'deckers' during the reign of George III to decorate the centre of the royal banqueting table but were swept away at the end of the meal. These designs eventually became so elaborate that the king himself suggested that some attempt should be made to fix them. Benjamin Zobel, the Bavarian court painter of George III was one of the first to do this and produced the most realistic sand pictures of animals. Very few have survived, for a large collection of these pictures owned by Mr W Burrough Hill at Southampton was destroyed by incendiary bombs during World War 11.

Picture of Mr. Pike at work

Mr Pike who had spent several holidays on the Isle of Wight moved from Croydon to the Island in 1969 where plenty of the coloured sand he needed was readily available, for many parts of the Island are covered with sand, clay and gravel laid down the early Tertiary period. Marine and freshwater deposits produced a diversity of mineral substances which stained the quartz crystals different colours before they were pounded down into sand. In Alum Bay, violent earth movements forced the horizontal strata into a vertical position compressing the various coloured sands into a comparatively small area so that, in spite of many landfalls, 21 colours are still available there, although coloured sand occurs in other parts of the Island. Mr Pike told me he gets most of his sand from the Blackgang Chine area and Brighstone where he obtains green coloured sand which does not occur at Alum bay. Blue is the only colour for which he uses a chemical dye since he cannot afford powdered lapis-lazuli which is what the Georgian artists used. Sir Henry Englefield, the geologist, describing the colours of Alum Bay sands in 1816, refers to a 'dusky blue' which has no doubt disappeared.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Brian Pike is the fact that he has had no formal art training but he has always been interested in craft work. He has made basket-work shades for lights, woven articles for the home and was even interested in sewing. He told me he bought his wife a sewing machine but soon found that he was doing the dress-making! Now, painting sand pictures as a hobby occupies all the time he can spare from his work as an accountant with Chevertons Workboats at Cowes. In just over a year he has produced more than 40 pictures, and I was amazed at their artistic merit and the perfection of their workmanship.

Picture of sailing ship

Sand pictures covered the walls of the sitting-room, bedrooms and landings. Fortunately his wife is as enthusiastic as he is and has no objection to the house being turned into an art gallery, although the pictures have to be kept out of the way of the exploring fingers of Simon, their two year old son. Unlike the early artists whose pictures were often little more than postcard size and sometimes smaller, these were on a much larger scale. Brian showed me four copies of Brannon's prints which he had done for the foyer of the new Abbey National branch office at Ryde. Each picture measures 2ft 6 ins by 1ft 6ins and depict 'the Needles' 'Osborne House' Ryde looking East from the pier' — with the innumerable houses climbing up the hill — and old Ryde pier itself. This was his first commission although several of his pictures have already been shown on the BBC and IBA networks. They photographed his bolder pictures, like a life-like close up of the head of a tiger, as well as more delicately wrought portraits such as a copy of George Romney's Mrs Davenport, for Brian does not confine himself entirely to pictorial scenes on the Island but 'paints' what interests him making use of his sand media.

Although the pictures have a mat non-reflecting surface, their tactile quality is quite extraordinary, giving the rich effect of velvet to a dress or the smooth ripple to a tiger's skin. One of the most striking ways he has used the pure white sand, only obtainable at Alum bay, is in a three-quarter length portrait of a bride. Her face is just visible through the filmy white veil while her hands rest demurely on the flowing folds of her dress. In complete contrast is the 'Battle of Lepanto' where red, grey and white sand with its soft powdery outline represents the smoke and fire of battle most realistically. For his small daughter's bedroom, Brian has 'painted' a picture of two kittens, one black and white and the other tortoise-shell, and here again the sand has been skilfully used to suggest the soft texture of the fur and its ruffled appearance.

Japanese pictures of birds and trees have also attracted Brian Pike and he-has managed to catch the simplicity and sense of balance of the Japanese artists with surprising skill in his sand medium. One of the most satisfying is a simple spray of gold and brown leaves against a white background faintly touched with pale amber. Sand pictures produced by Indians in New Mexico have also aroused Brian's interest. He not only studied books on the folk lore and the religious culture of the Navaho tribe but he has been in touch with the Navaho Indian Museum at Santa Fe, New Mexico, where some of the beautiful primitive designs have been preserved, either painted on buckskin or woven. Brian explained that the Navaho tribe made their symbolical pictures on the ground, supposing them to have certain magical qualities. A sick person would be placed upon a sand picture, then the sand would be blown away along with the evil spirits causing the person's illness. Brian showed me his copy of a 'pollen boy'. This picture when made in sand on the ground would have been sprinkled with pollen and seeds of corn to ensure the fertility of the crop.

It is impossible to describe all of Brian's pictures but he gave his first show in the picture gallery at Ryde library during August so that the public were able to see how splendidly this old art form has been revived. It was the first exhibition of sand pictures for over 200 years. Besides displaying his own pictures, Brian had borrowed all available early pictures. These included a collection from Carisbrooke castle, mostly views of the castle itself. One depicted the window through which Charles I attempted to escape. Other pictures had been lent by the library including a rather quaint one showing the minute figure of a man suspended by a rope collecting eggs from the cliffs at Freshwater bay. But perhaps the most interesting of these pictures were those lent by Mrs R Spragg. There were two pictures in heavy gilt frames by Benjamin Zobel; one was of sheep and the other pigs in a barn. Both were dated circa 1780. Six miniature Victorian sand pictures dated 1853 were also lent by Mrs Spragg. They were only the size of cigarette cards and, although mounted on the same backing, each had its individual lace-like frame. All were of well-known Island scenes exquisistely wrought in every minute detail.

Other cases contained old books and papers giving details of the art of 'sand painting', books on the Navaho Indian sand pictures, samples of rock and coloured sand with a geological map marking their location. It was altogether a unique exhibition. No less unusual was Brian Pike's method of offering his pictures for sale. No picture was reserved but bids for each picture in a sealed envelope were accepted against its catalogue number. The envelopes were not to be opened until the closing day of the show so that everybody had a chance of buying a picture. Presumably, if there was more than one bid the picture went to the highest bidder. It will be interesting to see how this method of selling pictures works. Meantime, Brian is not short of commissions. His own firm has asked him to 'sand paint' the latest two patrol boats they are making. These pictures are to be exhibited in Johannesburg and Tokyo,so the work of a modern marmortinto artist will eventually return to the country where the idea of making pictures with sand first originated.

picture of sand painting