My mother’s ancestors were English, Welsh and Swedish. On my father’s side they were Norman French, via Jersey in the Channel Islands.
I have inherited a condition called Dupuytren’s contracture. Once called the cabman’s disease, from the belief that it came through holding the leather reins of the cab-horse day in day out, it affects one or more fingers that become increasingly impossible to straighten. I first noticed it in my early 30’s in my left hand, my painting hand, which I assumed came through spending most waking hours holding a brush. I have always made large scale oil paintings on canvas with brushes of a size to match. There is repeated re-painting; heavy work in other words. As a problem it has only briefly ever stopped me from working and during the necessary recovery after several operations I was introduced to the pleasure of watercolour, a much more light and amenable medium.
I prefaced this description with a brief ancestry because the condition is prevalent amongst the Viking peoples who settled Normandy and the Channel Islands. My brother-in-law calls Caen “Viking Central”. It feels somehow compensatory to think of them with battle-axe in hand, although more likely gripping an oar hour after hour in freezing seas.
It pleases me to know that both sides of the family are makers. This inclination runs strongly with us. My Welsh great grandfather was a cordwainer, meaning a shoemaker. The word originates from Cordova in Spain and is therefore associated with the use of new leather as opposed to the repairing work of the cobbler. My father was a master-printer in a trade he learned whilst in the Royal Marines. My maternal grandfather was a stoker on the heavy cruiser HMS Terrible.
As a painter I am accustomed to rely on what I think of as the hand’s intelligence. Custom and experience show the body making calculations too complicated for the mind alone. I regard the evidence of my handiwork as a trustworthy acknowledgement or truth of identity, just like a signature but carried and amplified through the highly woven repetitive structure of painting.
Touch is at the heart of the art of painting, which even today maintains its cultural sovereignty in the visual arts for conveying the utmost nuance of feeling. Whether sewing leather, shovelling coal, setting metal type or painting, it seems to me that this hand recalls a wisdom and memory that I barely grasp but certainly rely on.