Art, alchemy and a museum full of noisy ghosts


Simon Costin of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Cornwall talks to painter Deborah Westmancoat about landscapes, the elements and occult objects. Lead photograph by Charlie McKay

Art, alchemy and a museum full of noisy ghosts

Somerset-based artist and RWA Academician Deborah Westmancoat creates paintings that are closer to rituals and magical spells than they are straightforward landscapes. She has a long-standing relationship with the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall, whose custodian is her friend Simon Costin. Costin, who also founded the Museum of British Folklore, is one of the most celebrated art directors in the fashion industry, as well as an artist in his own right.

Simon Costin: I became custodian of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic by way of trauma. After the floods in 2004, I got in touch with the Museum and offered to help with a donation of display cabinets to replace all the smashed ones.

I waded out into the harbour with a jam jar, barefoot, eyes half-closed, trying to get a sense of where the river meets the sea

Deborah Westmancoat: I first got involved in the mid-1980s. I remember a car journey into the valley and finding it by accident. I was with friends and I think we just wanted to get an ice cream. I remember a piercing blue sky, the sound of waves in the harbour and then walking into this museum full of shadows. It was the most unlikely place to find in a Cornish fishing village. There was no natural daylight, it was dark and exciting, and I remember it smelled strange – a labyrinthine collection of tableaux and rooms and corners. Your heart started racing when you went in there. It was odd and wonderful but not particularly visitor-friendly. There was a chap at the front who I later discovered must have been Cecil Williamson [the Museum’s founder].

At The Edge of Where We’d Like To Be #1 (2015) 
Handmade oak gall ink, black writing ink and stream water collected
from a tributary of the Larriggan River, Newlyn, Cornwall, on board

SC: When I first came to visit, I had a sense of expectation – I had wanted to come for years, but I can’t drive so it took a long time to get here. But yes, it felt labyrinthine. Each time I came, I wasn’t sure if a certain object had been there before. There’s so much to see, your brain goes into overload. It made my heart race too. The place feels so different from other museums, because the objects here aren’t dormant as they are in other institutions: they’ve been used within rituals, so they’re still fizzing. I felt overwhelmed when I first came, because of all that. I find that with ethnographic museums, like the Pitt Rivers in Oxford and the quai Branly in Paris, I can only take it for so long before I have to take a break and go outside. The objects are so potent and work on so many levels, not just the physical. Which brings me to what interests me most about your work, which is the process. You work with the natural environment. And you have made pieces of work in Boscastle, haven’t you?

Deborah Westmancoat at BV Studios in Bristol, by George Cole

DW: Yes. There’s one piece in particular I remember. It was 2014 and I had travelled down to the Museum to stay for a few days and help out in the library. There was a big old storm brewing in the harbour – the shape of the coastline there makes it a kind of amphitheatre, and the sheer force of the wind hitting the front window of the library made me feel like it was going to smash. I couldn’t concentrate, all I could do was look out of the window as it got darker and the storm got more and more fierce. And then, as often happens with the weather there, it suddenly dissipated. There was the sweet water of the River Valency flowing down from the valleys, going right past the front door of the Museum, and at some point hitting the cold salt water of the ocean. I started to think about how those energies might meet, with the swirling freezing Atlantic smashing against the mouth of the river, and I was curious to see how using that particular water as a material might affect a painting. The next day at low tide I waded out into the harbour with a jam jar, barefoot, eyes half-closed, trying to get a sense of where the river meets the sea. It was bloody cold, and I was there for some time, but I felt at a certain point I had found it – the fizzing of energy. It felt like an alchemical shift happening right then and there around me. We tend to see only the sparkling surface of water, we rarely think under that. Recalling this experience has reminded me of something the artist Christopher Neve wrote about the problem of “painting the scenery rather than the play”. That really made sense to me. I’m often more interested in the play of energies within a landscape than the view, which is perhaps why there are few familiar landscape features in my paintings but intuitively, perhaps, some aspects are still recognisable.

Observance 11 (2014)
Black writing ink and water collected from where the river meets the sea

SC: Do you know intuitively when a work is finished? When to stop creating those layers that sweep across your canvases?

DW: Yes, I can stop it when it feels right. I actually usually use heavy board, rather than canvas, as it takes the liquids so well. I create floods and waves over the board, and then sometimes put natural objects in the way of those floods. If I’m using hailstones or icicles they will each write their own story as they wash across the surface.

SC: So would you go and collect the hailstones, or do you put the piece out and let them fall?

DW: Sometimes I’ve been lucky and have had a board ready to take outside into a hailstorm. If I know it may happen, I will ink a board and catch it. But quite often I collect the hail in huge great trays and bring them inside to work with. There is a shelf full of jars of weather in my studio as we speak. That’s one of the reasons I love Boscastle so much – the weather is such a key part of the setting. I remember Cecil used to talk about the women on the edges of the harbour up high, on the hills, “working with the wind”.

White Field and Hailstorm 2 (2015)
Black writing ink, hailstones (collected during hailstorm in
Bishops Hull, Taunton, October 2014), and white acrylic ink on board

SC: Yes, they would literally sell the wind. They would hold a length of rope up and knot those elemental forces together. Then sailors would buy the rope, so if there was no wind when they were out at sea, they could untie a knot to release some wind.

Some of your work is stained with oak gall ink – how do you do that? They are those balls – oak apples – that you find growing on the side of a branch, aren’t they?

DW: It’s a pretty pragmatic approach – I collect them, smash them with a hammer and put them in a saucepan with water. I use collected water from specific locations or weather, such as melted hailstones, so I am adding the water of a certain place into the mix. I simmer it down by half, strain it and put in some wire wool and rusty nails which turns the brown ink black.

Simon Costin in the museum library, by Crista Leonard

SC: It’s essentially alchemy, then, this process.

DW: Yes, I do see it as a form of alchemy. Oak gall ink is the fastest ink in existence: the first banknotes were written with it, and many ancient manuscripts were written in iron oak ink, as it was then called. I like that you can make it yourself. It’s a democratic medium.

SC: Whenever I work in the landscape, there is often that genius loci, the spirit of a place in the idea – elemental forces you can placate if you work in a space. That “tuning in” to an area sounds similar to what you were doing in the harbour.

DW: Absolutely. I don’t think it’s conscious process, sometimes you just know. Where do you go when you want to work in the landscape?

Minster Church, by Simon Costin

SC: Well, I’ve been making all kinds of discoveries about that! I came down from London in February to get the Museum ready to reopen, and then the COVID-19 lockdown happened, so I’ve been here for nearly 11 weeks. I’d never been here this long before, so I’ve never had the opportunity to observe the seasonal changes. It’s so dramatic. Things like wild flowers I would previously only see periodically, always missing the interconnecting periods, and seeing the chain of change has been incredibly energising. The untamed is quite terrifying. The walk to St Julitta’s Church is incredible – it’s in a relatively isolated spot, about an hour away. I’ve also been going to St Minster Church nearby, which is quite a trek. You go down into the valley, which is bathed in swathes of white garlic flowers at this time of year. When we went recently, the smell of wild garlic was incredible.

DW: It’s very exciting – I remember walking there and collecting a jar of water from the St Merteriana’s holy well, and making a powerful piece with it. Like a lot of parts of the Museum, there are whispers there. It doesn’t take much to come off the A30 and suddenly find yourself engaged in conversations that are hundreds of years old.

The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

SC: It reminds of me the Powell and Pressburger film A Canterbury Tale, when the local magistrate is giving a lecture, and he is haloed by the magic lantern projector, as he is talking about the landscape and spirit of place and how, just by closing your eyes and tuning in, you are so close to the past and in his case the Canterbury pilgrims. The first time I saw that section of the film I was streaming with tears. It is the perfect explanation of that moment – of what happens in ancient landscapes, and how easy it is to tap into it if you just let yourself.

DW: I really hope people who visit the Museum – and everyone should – stay and spend some days in that landscape. The collections stand alone in terms of their stories, but when you put them into that landscape they really sing.

Thrown Back On A Few Elementary Nouns (2016)
Writing ink, handmade oak gall ink and seawater collected from the Penzance coastline during Hurricane Isobel, on board

SC: They resonate. Cecil was so interested in “cunning folk”, and the “wayside witch”, and a lot of the collection is gleaned from Cornwall and Devon, so you can really picture those leather strokers being used to cure sick animals in a way you couldn’t if you saw them in a city somehow. The first time I came, there was a sense of entering something liminal – your mobile phone connection died as you drove down into the valley. Sadly that’s no longer the case, so you aren’t cut off anymore. But there used to be a sense of travelling backwards. I can see why Cecil thought this place would be perfect. As far as I know, this is the largest collection in the world of objects related to cunning folk practice.

The one thing the Museum does is give you back that sense of wonder

DW: Our local museum in Taunton has a collection of charms. And we actually have the national collection of English 17th century cauldrons. You must come and see them one day. Including the biggest one in the country!

SC: How big is big?

DW: Well, you could easily fit into it. So, Simon, where are you sleeping currently while you are at the Museum?

SC: I’m in the attic space, right above where all the curses are displayed.

Boscastle, by Simon Costin

DW: I used to sleep in the same space when I visited, and it was a wonderful thing to be in there, but the noise from the objects was incredible. I used to go down into the top gallery and shout: “For goodness’ sake, keep it down!”

SC: They need telling! I experienced that initially. One thing that has happened recently is something that conjures up Cecil: there’s been a very strong smell of 1970s aftershave, like Old Spice or Brut – gentleman’s cologne of a certain time period. And our dog reacts the same way each time, to the space that was Cecil’s bedroom, and her hackles go up. The other day I was reading some old Talking Stick magazines, in which Cecil was discussing the so-called “father of modern witchcraft” Gerald Gardner. I heard the downstairs door open and some footsteps coming up to the flat. I thought it was the postman, but when I went out, no-one was there at all. There are often footsteps and doors opening. But it’s not malignant.

The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, by Charlie McKay

DW: I reread Alan Garner’s novel The Owl Service last year when you had an exhibition on Isobel Gowdie, the witch of Auldearn. I remember the shadow pictures on the wall which moved, gently and quietly. There was a model of a mound – a hollow hill, with windows, and within, the lights and the tables laid out for the little folk who inhabited it. That show took me back to being young and having something capture your imagination. I remember reading some Arabic folktales when I was a child in Solihull, aged about seven or so, and being fascinated by the idea of the bezoar stone. I had no idea what it was. But the thought that it grew naturally inside an animal or a person, like a pearl in a shell, and could then be taken out and used magically, was incredible. I remember finding a bezoar stone in one of the cabinets at the Museum, and it was such a joy to see something that had only previously existed in my imagination.

Society Needs Wonder

SC: The one thing the Museum does is give you back that sense of wonder. And to let you know that there is a magical realm that anyone can tap into.

DW: The sense of wonder is crucial. I started at art school in 1984, and quickly decided I loathed it. When I went back in my 40s, part of that first year was concerned with postmodernism, and I have never felt so much a fish out of water while others discussed its merits. We had to make something in response to it. I went around the Museum and took a picture of absolutely everything I loved, put them together in a book and made a metal plaque for the front inscribed with “society needs wonder”. I think we probably both feel a love of the sense of wonder beats postmodern cynicism every day. C