Bede and the Shipbuilder’s Wife

Title: ‘Bede and the Shipbuilder’s Wife’

By Arvon Wellen

Publisher: Arago Press

Re-released: 2013

Following an unassuming cover, Wellen’s work inside the book is especially stunning. The book consists mostly of painted abstract images. Alongside these images is a detailed commentary on the legendary figure of Saint Aethelthryth.

Although Aethelthryth is an obscure figure, she was written about by Bede in one of his many books. Her story is a worthy subject for modern reinterpretation, as she was one of the first strong women to be represented in writing. Wellen contrasts her legendary status with a commentary on early female shipbuilders in Sunderland. These shipbuilders filled positions that were usually held by men, and were found to often work just as hard, or harder than the men.

Writing, however, is definitely not the main focus of the book. Instead Wellen’s artwork takes precedence. His art has a raw, emotional presence. Wellen displays this with use of colour, and scratched shapes. He constructs delicate images from lines and layers of ink. A couple of them remind me of when I was a child, and how magical it felt to spot a rainbow, made of refracted light, in a pool of oil. Some of the neatly cross-hatched areas also reminded me of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Her earlier work focused on huge abstract paintings of criss-crossed shapes, which she called ‘Infinity Nets’.

One of the images in the book strikes me particularly hard. It shows broad brush strokes of orange and red in the foreground; whilst in the background a black hand seemingly reaches down. The running colours, makes it appear that this hand-shaped mass is either bleeding or melting. It is a chilling image.

The current edition of the book is limited to twenty-five copies, and includes a beautiful, hand printed, lithograph. It is fascinating both as a series of images; and as part of a female-orientated alternative history.


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