Still another idea from a book

Quick gouache sketches, inspired by medieval images, of the birds described in the text. They aren't in scale with each other.

January’s Book of the Month for the Elizabeth Goudge Bookclub on Instagram was “Gentian Hill”, and that reminded me of an episode in that book that I’ve long wanted to depict in some way. In the book, the heroine, Stella, and the Abbé visit a local church where Stella has been entranced by some carved panels and asks the Abbé to explain their significance. The carving show birds, one eating a grape, one killing a caterpiller, one with beak open in song. The Abbé explains:

Another attempt at the bird feeding on a grape, with something below that even I can't recognise!

The bird with the grape in its beak is the penitent soul of man feeding on the true vine. The bird attacking the caterpillar is the strengthened soul of man fighting evil. The singing bird is the soul that has overcome praising God. You take them in that order, Stella.

Elizabeth Goudge, Gentian Hill
More attempts at birds. These have more energy, but they still look the wrong sort of awkward.

(And, for those twitching at the non-inclusive language, Gentian Hill was written in the 1940s and set during the Napoleonic War. One of the themes of many of Elizabeth Goudge’s books is that there are many forms of struggle and many forms of service, none less than another, even if some may be less spectacular!)

Vine leaves and sketches of the birds, trying to surround the birds with bunches of grapes.

Now, as I’ve been adding final details to the Excavation, I’ve been reminded of how much I enjoy working in the hand, and I would like to devise a way to depict the images, singly or as one panel, in a way that is strongly textured, surface embroidery, that I can work in the hand as a rest from underside couching or attaching spots to border panels with invisible stitches.

A branch with vine leaves and bunches of grapes, and the three birds in different aspects. Still not balanced or successful, but it shows how I have been thinking.

So I’ve been thinking of basing the ideas and stitch choices on Mountmellick work, which is not entirely unsuitable when you consider that one of the other main characters, Zachary, is of Irish parentage, and the shapes of the birds on medieval images, because the church, of course, is a very old one.

Alas, thus far my playing with pens, paints and ideas hasn’t got me very far. It’s hard to balance three creatures that aren’t all looking the same way, and it doesn’t feel right to me to make them face the same way!


  1. Mam says:

    I think your birds on a branch is worth developing. At the moment, the branch is too evident so leaves or grapes or tails crossing it and breaking it up might be a way forward, How about doing it vertically? The birds would be linked by the branch but doing their own thing separately. A frame replicating the panel would keep things together.(Hi, Sue!)

  2. I, too, think it would look nice if the three characters were sitting on the same branch. The grape eater and the caterpillar killer can be placed back to back and the singer can be looking upwards. That way they are in the same place but not connected.

  3. Sue Jones says:

    Yes, I think it would be a very workable idea in Mountmellick. The bold, almost raised, stitches in pale, stone-coloured thread on heavy fabric of a similar hue would give a good impression of carving. I have never really done any, but it should be okay in the hand or in a light clip-frame.

  4. Karen says:

    What a lovely idea

  5. Linda C says:

    Or your branch could branch out with other branches so they could have a branch each. The other comments are worth thinking about.

  6. I too like your horizontal bough of birds. It echoes the sense of progress inherent in the tale and the upsweep of the branch embodies the celebratory nature of the rejoicing bird at the end.
    Thank you for the reminder about Elizabeth Goudge. I just love her novels, though I’m not sure I’ve read all of them. I wonder if I can squeeze a little bit more space on my shelves ……. hmmmmmm, perhaps I need a tardis!

  7. Sheryl says:

    Interesting new project. I like the idea of a branch for each bird but this needs thinking about and planning. Look forward to seeing the development of this new embroidery.

  8. Alex Hall says:

    I love the idea of Mountmellick and relying on the shapes and textures of the stitches to really showcase the embroidery. What about the branch being vertical, like the side of a page of an illuminated manuscript, with the birds at different levels?

  9. Susan says:

    An interesting project. I’d like to find the original drawing, presuming there is one, not just a description? I can see that you’re putting much thought into this, and I know you will come up with a great plan.

  10. Carolyn Foley says:

    I like to idea of using this in Mountmellick work and the subject matter is interesting.