Blog

2nd Oct 2020

City Art Reader 36: Burying the Poet – Kathryn Madill

The paintings and prints of Dunedin artist Kathryn Madill are imaginative and haunting, traversing landscapes both identifiable and mythic. Under these wide skies isolated figures journey through the grey of day or dark of night in an age-old progression through the natural world, the lost world, the world of literature and cultural tradition. Intimate in their fine detail, strong in their composition and evocative in their rich hues, the result is a compelling but often portentous evocation of poetry and passage.

‘Burying the Poet’, Kathryn Madill, framed acrylic on board, 121x161mm, 2020

[These] are not delicate or frail works. These are resilient, weathered and worldly-wise images. They are also deeply romantic and sometimes tragic images. They are the sorts of images that are capable of tapping a deep emotional core and liberating the imagination… these small scale images ask us to stop and to stare…. to turn our gaze in on ourselves, on our own souls, memories, desires
– Rob Garret, Oamaru Mail, 1999

The figures in these works… leave no footprints. Their presence is temporary, a moment of withheld emotion caught by the artist and made more fragile by the permanence of the quiet and ancient landscapes
– Stella James, 2002

In Burying the Poet Kathryn Madill draws on the hauntingly strange burials of early women British poets and the ancient promise – and threat – of sea-faring exploration.

The ‘Burying the Poet’ series follows the progression of a woman – white-haired, blue-dressed, hands tied behind her back – as she is escorted from her earthen abode to her death. It is a quiet, slow, progression across a raw and muddied landscape that could be hours or days or centuries. She is led by a group of figures, mainly men, a single woman a friend perhaps witnessing a trial and punishment – to where she is buried face-down in her grave.

‘Burying the Poet’, Kathryn Madill, framed acrylic on board, 180x230mm, 2020

So they buried her, and turned home,

a drab psalm

hanging about them like haar

not knowing the liquid

trickling from her lips

would seek its way down

(from Meadowsweet, by Kathleen Jamie, in Jizzen, Picador, 1999)

When I first read that poem by Kathleen Jamie, I really liked it. I hadn’t known anything about the burials but I was always interested in the punishments used for witches –  it is that fear of powerful women, really. And a fear of their words? Yes – yes, I think it is. Since I read the poem I kept trying to do a cross-section of underground but that never worked. Then I came up with the idea of a series and the whole trial and punishment thing
– Kathryn Madill, 2020

‘Burying the Poet’, Kathryn Madill, framed acrylic on board, 180x230mm, 2020

Usually recognised as some form of punishment, burials face down have been recorded across time and place, from 1000BC in Mexico to medieval Ireland and Britain to a World War I grave in Flanders. There have been a number of theories to explain this practice: face-down or ‘prone’ burials could be a way of preventing spirits from walking the earth, stopping songs rising from the grave or blocking the light of the sun in the eastern sky at the time of resurrection.

The reasons for such a form of burial can only be guessed at and may have been many. The practice may have stemmed from a fear of the deceased, the character or behaviour of the individual. There may have been superstitions about the manner of the death itself, be it through disease or as a result of punishment. Again, one can only speculate about the myriad of folk and religious beliefs prevalent at the time
– ‘Early medieval settlement and burial outside the enclosed town: evidence from archaeological excavations at Bride Street, Dublin’, Mary McMahon, Royal Irish Academy, 2002

In the Scottish Gaelic tradition, accounts of women poets, or bardesses, buried face down are not uncommon. Mairi nighean Alasdair Ruaidh (c. 1615-1705) was a semi-professional poet of the clan MacLeod. Her history is threadbare. She appears to have been exiled from MacLeod territory to Scarba, where she lived in exile for a period after offending her employer, Sir Norman Macleod of Berner. She was allowed to return only on the condition that she stop composing.

‘Burying the Poet’, Kathryn Madill, framed acrylic on board, 180x220mm, 2020

She was known as Mairi Seud, Mary the Jewel. She used to wear a tartan tonnag and carry a silver headed staff, and she was much given to whisky and snuff. She herself directed that she should be placed face downwards in the grave (a Norse mode of burying witches, adopted into Hebridean culture, and used for the burial of at least two early modern woman poets, Mairi and Mairearad nighean Lachainn), and her burial place is known: in the south transept of Tur Cliamain, St Clements church in Rodel
– Early Modern Women Poets (1520-1700): An Anthology, ed. Jane Stevenson, Peter Davidson et al, Oxford University Press, 2001.

Mairearad (or Maighread) nighean Lachlainn (c. 1660-?) was an eighteenth-century Scottish Gaelic poet. Both women were popular and prolific poets. Mairi never married; nor, according to some traditions, did Mairearad. This in itself would have been considered unusual in at that time. Both of them, it is said, had a female assistant, one of whose functions, writes Anne Catherine Frater, ‘was to make up choruses of vocables, or to set her mistress’ song to a melody.’

….both Mairi nighean Alasdair Ruaidh and Mairearad nighean Lachainn are said to be buried in a manner which, in Norse times, was reserved for those believed to have been witches. Why they should have been treated this way, when the only traditions which have come down to us about them concern their song-making, is a mystery. Perhaps they were considered to have infringed on the domain of the bards, especially by daring, as women, to compose panegyric verse. The hereditary bards are thought to have been the descendants of the druidic order 55, and certain types of verse were credited with having magical powers; so the idea that these two bardesses had some kind of supernatural influence may have arisen from their composing the same kind of poetry as that produced by the bards
–  (Anne Catherine Frater, Scottish Gaelic Women’s Poetry Up To 1750, thesis, University of Glasgow 1994)

Whatever the reason, researchers tend to agree that being buried face down, lying in the grave in a position ‘like a frightened spider’, writes Caroline Arcini of Sweden’s National Heritage Board, is not culturally acceptable: ‘Buried face upwards, on the side, or sitting was accepted, but face down was unthinkable.’

‘Landfall’, Kathryn Madill, framed acrylic on board, 508x1010mm, 2020

In the second series of works Madill tracks the promise – or threat – of the sea journey. This is a dark or twilight world, a place of oppressive skies reflected in the unstill seas and hill-shrouded waterways. In Landfall nine men, their white shirts flaring in the darkness, travel across a rough and inky sea. There are no oars, their destination is unclear, their faces unemotive as the boat traverses like a ghost ship across the board. In other works, young girls in Victorian dress stand uncertainly in their small boat, vessels float empty on the ocean, women wade out to a waiting craft.

The ‘land of the blessed’ is, as we have noted, quite universally separated from the abode of mortals by some body of water, now by a gulf, now the stormy sea, or again by a river which must be passed beyond the grave… The primitive beliefs relating to the location of paradise, the river or gulf separating it from the present, and the difficulty of passing this water still survive in poetry and hymnology
– Granville Stanley Hall, ‎Edward Bradford Titchener, ‎Karl M. Dallenbach, The American Journal of Psychology, Vol 10, 1899.

With titles such as Landfall, Shoal (in this case an area of shallow water or submerged ridge) and The Crossing, these paintings are mysterious, irresolute, inviting questions as to their departure, their destination, their hope of arrival and their journeys across an ancient landscape.

These are memory landscapes, storehouses, not specific landscapes. I saw a photograph in a magazine of an antique boat model, a cross-section – I am sure you have seen them in a museum – and it was mounted on dark red. I immediately thought of Victorian men in a dark sea. It is quite prosaic – you know when you have an idea like that and you think yes, there are possibilities here. For me, I am happy for any excuse to do figures in the landscapes
– KM, 2020

‘Shoal’, Kathryn Madill, framed acrylic on board, 265x255mm, 2020


Born in Ruatahuna in 1951, Kathryn Madill spent her childhood in Taupo and Dunedin. She graduated from the University of Canterbury School of Fine Art in 1971 with a major in printmaking. She has lived in Nelson, Waikouaiti and Auckland and has since returned to Dunedin. She exhibits widely throughout New Zealand and has works in private and public collections here and in Australia.