Director: Diana Taylor
Writer: Diana Taylor
Running time: 60 minutes
You wait for a documentary about the Cornish art scene for an age and then two come along almost together. Last month I reviewed Zennor: Spirit of Place and now our editor has handed me Circles in the Stones. Both works were directed by Diana Taylor, and both come in at 60 minutes running time. Zennor had Bob Osborne as writer while Taylor has the sole credits for the latter. For Zennor, the director focused on a particular locale – a village just outside St Ives; whist for Circles, they home in on the work of a particular St Ives artist – Helen Feiler.
For readers outside the UK, Cornwall is a region in the far south-west of England. The area’s rugged coastline and relatively benign climate has given rise over the 20th century to a growing tourist industry, with an associated growth in numbers of holiday homes. As a service industry, tourism pays relatively low wages – Cornwall has lower pay rates than any other part of England. St Ives has had a burgeoning art scene since the 1930s and has had an outpost of the prestigious Tate Art Gallery since 1993.
The Tate has a symbiotic relationship with the local tourist industry and has promoted the work of a group of elite artists who interpret the landscape for the benefit of the Common People. The Tate director’s powers of patronage in the regional art world must be like those of a Medici princeps – to have their work on show at the Tate adds to an artist’s status and increases the prices they can charge for their art.
Feiler, the daughter of a celebrated artist, has been an integral part of the St Ives art world since childhood in the 1950s. Feiler works in conventional Fine Arts (landscapes and portraiture) as well as in fabrics, jewellery, and wallpaper. The film’s publicity material makes a big deal of the fact that Feiler was given a show at the Tate and that, in a first for the museum, it was composed of jewellery made by Feiler.
Taylor uses a similar technique to the earlier film by using archive footage to illustrate the storyline. In the case of Circles, they also make extensive use of still photos from Feiler’s personal collection. Taylor takes things chronologically and traces Feiler’s story, often in quite laborious detail, from birth to the present day. When we get to the now, the director sets up meetings between Feiler and various of Feiler’s friends and colleagues where the conversation aims to illustrate key developments in the artist’s life and work.
It was a bold decision of the director to devote an entire film to one artist. However, in order to succeed, they need to accomplish one of two tasks. Either the artist can talk so engagingly about their craft, that the viewer comes to understand the artist’s aims and appreciate what they are up to. Or the filmmaker can try to capture the essence of the artist’s craft – and why the viewer might conclude that the artist’s work has meaning and value.
Disappointingly, for your reviewer, Circles in the Stones failed to make it on either count. Feiler comes across as curiously downbeat about their own work; there is little passion or even enthusiasm in their delivery and as they are on screen for the majority of the time this makes the movie decidedly hard going. On a couple of occasions, the director manages to conjure up something of interest about Feiler’s technical approach – there is a brief but intriguing take on a piece of granite rock used as a fabric design and a short scene with Feiler painting in the open air – but overall, it is pretty thin stuff.
Feiler’s discussion of their artistic philosophy and motivation is in the main based on platitudes about working with natural substances and harnessing the energy of the ancient landscape as represented by Holy Wells and the Neolithic stone circles referenced in the title of the movie. With grim inevitability, Taylor wheels out a local antiquarian, who tells us about the cosmic energy imbued in the stones, and connects the feeling of reverence towards the forces of the landscape with the need for sustainability and mitigation of Anthropocene climate change.
All well and good. It is certainly a terrific way to add distinction to what you are selling and increase your prices, if you can persuade your customers that the rather nice painting that they will hang on their wall or the jewellery they will be wearing is somehow numinous and connected to the Wisdom of the Ancients. And you will be helping to save Mother Earth.
However, the sensibility that I took from Feiler’s work is not of reverence but of exploitation. Feiler runs a gallery in St Ives, and works in the world of possessive individualism; making high status objects which aim to distinguish their owners and act as a store of monetary value. Later in the movie, we learn that they also set up a beach hotel on the island of Lamu, off the coast of Kenya. Feiler confides to us that they have spent a part of the UK winter there for the last 20 years – not an option readily available to many of the wage-earning workforce of the Cornish tourist industry.
Two of the set-up meetings take up a large part of the first half of the movie. Feiler is shown visiting the house where her childhood friend used to live. The present-day owners, a man and woman receive their visitor politely but with an air of stilted attention, while Feiler monopolises the conversation in order to tell us the audience the story of the house back in the day. The couple nod and agree at appropriate points – the scene feels supremely odd and uncomfortable. The feeling is heightened when Feiler describes her friend’s mother – Momma – in Feiler’s telling a charismatic individual. We learn that Momma ran some sort of children’s home on the premises. Feiler in the course of the description makes an extraordinary statement: she looked after four small black children. The fact that Feiler gives no qualifier as to why the children’s ethnicity is relevant, for me added to the sheer weirdness of the scene.
The second meeting is equally awkward. We see Feiler in Bristol where their father was head of the arts school. Feiler visits an agreeable Georgian terrace house to meet an old acquaintance, but the real purpose of the visit is to enable Feiler to revisit some wallpaper in the hallway with its depiction of peacocks that they saw as a child, and which left a deep impression on a young mind.
Again, there follows an awkward wooden conversation in the living room with the acquaintance, a woman of Feiler’s age, and, in mute attendance, a young man who is not introduced to us. The subject of the conversation – the wallpaper. Imagine someone coming to your house to talk about your wallpaper, and you will get an idea of the atmosphere in the room.
Both scenes are irredeemably bad cinema and go on for what seems an age. Neither should have made it into the final edit, and I am reasonably certain that Taylor would have lost any uncommitted viewers by the end of their inclusion.
Taylor is on surer ground when they come to the historical narrative sequences sketching out Feiler’s formative years. As with Zennor, the use of archive footage of 1960s/70s St Ives and of Feiler’s photo collection is well achieved and well edited. However, possibly because of their failure to explain credibly why we should attach any importance to Keiller’s art, Taylor seems somewhat desperate to establish the artist and their family background as a paradigm of bohemian counter-cultural subversion. We are introduced to a series of LARGER-THAN-LIFE characters. In one instance, we are shown black and white footage of someone driving the roads of Cornwall in a white Mercedes convertible with a white dog and a white cockatoo – what jolly japes that must have been. And so on. What is meant to be a celebration of wild exoticism, I am afraid, came across to me as a litany of bourgeois boomer entitlement.
For the archive footage, Taylor provides a soundtrack which is well chosen. During the 1960s shots of St Ives, there is a delicious instrumental take on an early Beatles number. As a sonic backdrop to some of the landscape scenes, there are some rather beautiful piano pieces. But irritatingly, none of the music is credited in the version of the film as submitted – this is bad practice, is disrespectful to the artists whose work has been featured and should be avoided in any future work.
The latter part of the movie is in essence an advertisement for Feiler’s jewellery business and features two key talking heads. Firstly, Chris Jagger, billed as a journalist and musician, recalls the beginning of their friendship with Feiler.
Jagger had been commissioned by a national newspaper to write an article on famous artists working in Cornwall, whose offspring had also gone on to work in the arts. Jagger gives us a long list which includes Feiler and their father – apparently the elite arts in Cornwall are very much a dynastic affair. Jagger is incongruously wearing a heavy silver medallion over their sweatshirt and tells us they commissioned it from Feiler. Jagger notes they saw the pattern on the roof of a palace in Tibet and asked Feiler to recreate it – an exquisite act of cultural appropriation (though to your reviewer’s untutored eye, the piece is a pretty standard universal knot design, similar to those found in Celtic Art pattern books, and readily available at a more reasonable price from the jewellery stall in Norwich market).
Latterly, we meet Susan Daniel-McIlroy, who was the director of Tate St Ives when Feiler’s jewellery was exhibited there. Daniel-McIlroy says that they bought a piece of Feiler’s jewellery but, for a museologist, is curiously woolly when trying to explain the qualities of the work. We are told to admire the fact that Feiler uses natural materials, as though this was somehow revolutionary – the thought occurred that it would be far more innovative for an artist to have crafted high-status objects out of polyvinyl cordite rather than boring old silver and gold.
In the end, the biggest open question surrounding Circles in the Stones seems to be: who is this actually for? Maybe there are enough rich pensioners in the St Ives area with Feiler paintings on their walls, or wearing Feiler jewellery – who would want their good taste and distinction confirmed as they wait for darkness to fall – to make up some decent numbers if the film is uploaded to YouTube. But I cannot imagine anyone unconnected with the Cornish arts world actually watching it to the end.
I realise that the above review has focused at length on the negative aspects of Circles in the Stones – this reflects my disappointment that such a gifted filmmaker as Taylor could have come up with a piece of work that is so flawed. My disappointment was compounded by the fact that there are occasional glimpses in Circles in the Stones of how good a filmmaker Taylor can be. The scene where Feiler is shown painting by the St Ives quayside is beautifully shot and has a feel of transcendence. I would hope that in future Taylor might escape from vanity projects for celebrity artists, and give us their own take on the remarkable Cornish landscape and its people. They, hopefully, have the vision, and they certainly have the technical ability, to accomplish great things in their own right. It would make for a much more engaging and thought-provoking watch than this.