In December of 2021, just prior to the effective cancellation of Christmas due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic plagued times we now live in, long-time friends and fellow artists Danny Fox and Kingsley Ifill set off on an eight-day road trip across the length and breadth of the British Isles. The pair, both well-world-travelled, had returned to their native United Kingdom in those panicked moments prior to the onset of the now nostalgic first lockdown and shared a recognition that perhaps a youthful wanderlust had left them overlooking the beauty in their own back garden. This book, and the artworks displayed within, documents their subsequent staycation. A non-traditional travelogue, it records the sometimes stark reality they discovered following a rudimentary route whilst remaining open to the occasional diversion or detour triggered by a particularly peculiar or appealing road sign. From the Isle of Sheppey to the Isle of Skye, through Sudbury, South Shields, Scunthorpe and Skegness, they travelled in Kingsley’s renovated campervan up the east coast of Britain, breaching Scotland, before a return journey to Cardiff by way of Morecambe Bay, Merseyside and Manchester.
Holy Island also serves as the third instalment in the artists’ trilogy of collaborative publications, which firstly featured Haze, a collection of polaroid photographs by Ifill capturing their time spent self-isolating at Eastern Hill, Cornwall, and the makeshift speakeasy-cum-installation, complete with murals and sculptural interventions, created by Fox. It follows Eye For A Sty, Tooth For The Roof, a series of figurative studies, produced during their time in pre-lockdown Los Angeles, originally intended as an interpretation or continuation of art history’s fascination with the naked human form, that instead evolved into a sensitive story of the shared connection and affection between an artist and their subject.
Here, a set of fifty studies captures Britain’s green and pleasant land, each constituting a black-and-white photograph by Ifill and another painted over by Fox in enamel nail polish picked up at roadside pharmacies or rural convenience stores as an on-the-move alternative to oils, occasionally with alongside artistic annotations. Often depicted as divided, downtrodden and despondent by an unnerving 24-hour news cycle, what with recent recessions, referendums and now the results of both exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the artists’ were keen to see the United Kingdom for themselves. They took on the role of artists as explorers, as documentarians of each condemned county, laying out their own honest diagnosis of the nation.
These studies, as well as a selection of larger mixed-media artworks that incorporated their accumulated travel apparatus such as tarpaulins, blankets and pillowcases subsequently screen printed or painted, are no hagiography. Fox and Ifill do not shy away from presenting a warts and all portrayal of Britain’s boarded-up doorways and broken windows; shuttered shopfronts and deserted high streets; overgrown allotments and graffitied alleyways or netless goalposts and razor-wired topped prison walls. However, along the way, they began to appreciate the beauty of provincial cities’ civic architecture, of Southend-on-Sea’s Hope Hotel, Stretford’s Sharon Church or Skinidin’s Black Shed. Throughout the duration of their grand tour, the two observed the ‘brick or bush’ layout of the British landscape, a term coined by the pair to describe an initially jarring, but soon soothing, juxtaposition of the manmade and the organic. Each hamlet, village and town would give way to vast expanses of verdant nature, seemingly uninterested or unperturbed by the struggles, successes or expansion of mankind. It was there, amongst the plentiful flora and fauna, that Fox and Ifill truly sought solace, embracing feelings of optimistic insignificance.
To me, this publication, the artworks within, and indeed the devout connotations of the collaborations’ title, bring to mind a much-shared meme from mid-lockdown life. The following witticism, which I originally encountered in relation to Yorkshire but have since seen rewritten to reflect Cornwall, Cork, Scotland or Wales, seems fitting in relation to the content, context and concept of Fox and Ifill’s documented endeavour, and, in light of their aforementioned findings, could aptly apply to the British Isles as a whole:
Jesus looked across the table and asked, “So, where have you been these last few months?”.
God replied, “I’ve been all around the British Isles”.
Jesus was shocked, “There’s been a pandemic raging for a year now and you’ve been in Britain! What were you doing there?”.
God smiled and quietly replied, “Working from home son, working from home”.