The studio of the artist Clare Woods gives a fascinating insight into her distinctive mode of image-making. An industrial scale workshop, you might expect it to be in East London, but instead it’s in rural Herefordshire where she relocated several years ago. The drive to the studio through the countryside must inform the organic forms in her paintings, which seem to have metamorphic qualities. Like the best of automatic Surrealism, these are sophisticated and ‘multi-evocative’ works, with their power and meaning located in between the definite forms that the viewer can identify. The studio reflects her way of working: photographs and drawings of source material are pinned to the walls- often unsettling images, or paintings and sculptures by artists she admires: these include Henry Moore, Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash and others. One of her paintings on the wall is her response to a Paolozzi sculpture of a Shattered Head - transformed in Clare’s hands into something suggestive of a weathered rock form.

The huge space has enabled her to work on large scale. She paints the works flat on trestle tables, often painting in series and reworking until a painting finds resolution. Drawing is evidentially an important aspect of her process, but so too spontaneity and taking pleasure in act of moving paint across the surface. It’s an inspiring space and a privilege to see new work taking form.

The star-spangled rood screen in St Andrew’s Church in Aysgarth is an extraordinary architectural element for a church in a small village of the Yorkshire Dales. Carved and gilded animals run along the top in a frieze incorporating foxes, elephants and castles, deer and mythical creatures. The screen wasn’t original to the church, but was removed from Jervaulx Abbey at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII and installed in the side of the chancel of St Andrew’s, which was owned by the abbey. Although just a fragment it gives a snapshot of the extraordinary artistic richness of England’s medieval abbeys which we now know mainly as ruins.

Embroidered kneelers in Pershore Abbey

Although known as one of Australia’s greatest modern artists Sidney Nolan (1917-1992) moved to England in 1951 and he spent his final years at The Rodd on the Welsh Marshes. This rural English idyll of farmyard barns and a beautiful house now forms the base for the Sidney Nolan Trust, which was formed in 1985 and exists to provide inspiration and education across the arts. When I visited last week with the artist Clare Woods, there was a display of striking late paintings by Nolan in the Tithe Barn, and they kindly showed us his final studio -still full of spray cans and paint pots - but over the course of the year the trust hosts residencies, courses and workshops for artists and musicians. It’s an inspiring place and for artists seeking opportunities it’s worth checking out: www.sidneynolantrust.org

Pershore Abbey can only be described as a complete surprise: a soaring Early Gothic chancel vault that you’d expect in a cathedral, but located in the parish church of a small town in Worcestershire. The abbey was dissolved in the 16th-century, but the chancel and tower remain: an interior described by Simon Jenkins as ‘superlative, one of the most beautiful in the country.’ Beneath a ceiling studded with bosses there is a remarkable series of arcades and a high clerestory, and below that some interesting tombs: together they form a fragment of what was clearly once a rich and powerful abbey.

Hand o’ graphs: this bizarre book of outlines of hands dates to the early twentieth-century. It was found by the artists Clare Woods and Des Hughes (who has a fascination in the macabre ‘hand of glory’). Hand o’graphs were presumably a kind of esoteric interpretive activity, like graphology, phrenology or palmistry, in which character traits would be read into the shape of the hand. There is something rather unsettling about the fact that these pages were touched by the hands of these long-dead people , including one that was murdered in the Russian Revolution. It’s the kind of object that could be used in a seance - eerie and macabre.

Edwardian book jackets: there was obviously a trend in the early twentieth-century for book titles to be ‘a thing’ or a person: an unpopular schoolgirl, Miss Baxter’s Bequest, A Puzzling Pair and so on. Invariably the covers are embossed and have simple bold outline illustrations, picked out in simple colours. Here are a few of my favourite covers from the collection of Edwardian books amassed by Liz, my partner’s mother.

Dolls for beard-lovers: American artist Mimi Kirchner has gained a cult following for her recycled cloth dolls of tattooed strongmen, moustached acrobats and bearded sailors. She works in Arlington, Massachusetts, USA and began making dolls in 2000 after a studio fire destroyed eleven years of her work which led her to embark on a completely new project. When dealing with the remains of fabrics from over fifty years of her mother’s fashion sewing a few years later she discovered all kinds of bolts of fabric, which she has reused in the dolls. Decorative historic prints are transformed into the tattooed bodies of her strongmen and scraps of other fabrics are reused - each doll is completely unique and draws on folk art inspirations. Usually Mimi does not undertake commissions, but for our birthdays a couple of years ago my partner Ed asked whether she might consider making a pair of dolls based on a photograph of two Victorian Staffordshire figures of a French soldier and an English sailor arm in arm that I’d photographed in the home of a potter we’d visited. She agreed and created these wonderful dolls. Unlike her usual dolls, George and Bertie have elbows so that they can link arms like the china originals. I love Staffordshire China and it’s great to see it continuing to inspire artists today.

The Edinburgh studio of the artist Angie Lewin gives a fascinating insight into her inspirations and working processes. Dried seed heads and feathers sit in jars on the windowsill, the mantelpiece is covered in Staffordshire figures and vintage mugs, and there are prints and collages on the wall by artists she admires such as Edward Bawden. When I stayed with Angie and her husband Simon (co-founders of St Jude’s - a company specialising in artist-designed textiles and wallpapers) in late March there were various newly printed colour wood-engravings hanging up to dry, and she showed me a proof of a new print featuring a Ravilious mug that she has just been printing in London. It was great to examine the surfaces of her detailed wood-engraving blocks in the studio, but also to see her much looser studies and sketches pinned to notice boards on the walls.

Angie Lewin and other St Jude’s artists (including Mark Hearld, Ed Kluz and Emily Sutton) will be a forthcoming show at the Towner in Eastbourne: ‘Designing the Everyday: from Bloomsbury and Ravilious to the present day’
17 May - 31 August 2014 (free).

Today I visited a man who has formed this remarkable collection of printing blocks and presses - a throwback to the glory days of commercial relief printing. In the trays of blocks there are all kinds of distinctive hand-cut fonts, not to mention pointing hands of all sizes, jam labels, lions, decorative borders and medical diagrams, to name but a few. The Columbian and Albion presses themselves are things of great beauty in their own right. How I would love to experiment with printmaking with all these, untouched for decades!

Capturing a poetic sense of longing, Agnes Miller Parker’s wood engravings for A.E.Housman’s anthology ‘A Shropshire Lad’ evoke the sense of doomed youth in the English countryside which characterises the poems. Published during the Second World War, Miller Parker’s images tap into the idea of both the landscape and a generation at threat due to war. Perhaps surprisingly for a woman artist they also capture the homoeroticism of Housman’s poems, particularly in the depiction of the young men and their interactions (the poems had first been self-published by Housman, who was homosexual, in 1896 at his own expense as he couldn’t find a publisher.) Miller Parker (1895-1980) was Scottish and studied at Glasgow School of Art. Her images have a tightly controlled sense of line and form, yet for some reason she is not nearly as well-known as her contemporaries such as Clare Leighton and Gertrude Hermes.

In search of lost houses: my partner, the artist Ed Kluz, is working on a book and exhibition of the theme of Britain’s lost country houses. Hundreds, if not thousands, of houses have been destroyed whether due to fire, reckless gambling, or death duties. The exhibition inevitably requires lots of research - finding antique prints, photographs, architectural plans and so on, and occasionally site visits. Whilst you need quite some imagination to recreate a vista that has long been demolished, there is undeniably a poetic beauty in the ruins, and in the traces that remain. It’s a kind of romantic archaeology rooted in the genius loci, or spirit of place. A couple of weeks ago we were staying in Dorset with our friend Ben Pentreath, an architectural and interior designer, when the sunshine came out after the storms and so it seemed like the perfect chance to visit a nearby ‘lost house’ by the architect John Vanburgh. Not much remains of the palatial Eastbury Park that would have stood at the end of the long drive, except the West wing and gate-posts. Yet there are enough traces to get a sense of the grandeur it once had, and passing time has created its own drama: such as the trees that grow out of the arch to the West wing courtyard. It’s great material for an artist so I’m looking forward to Ed’s exhibition at the Mascall’s Gallery in September which may well feature new work in response to our visit.

In the Booker Prize nominated novella ‘A Month in the Country’ by J.L.Carr the protagonist Tom Birkin finds refuge following the First World War in a Yorkshire village where he uncovers a medieval wall-painting in the local church. He comes to feel a sense of connection with the unknown artist who centuries before had painted the Judgement scene that he is tasked with revealing. It provides a sense of continuity down the ages following the trauma of the Great War. I couldn’t help but think of the book when I went into Easby Church, alongside the ruins of the abbey outside Richmond in North Yorkshire. The wall-painting there has undoubtedly been restored in some way by the Victorians, but nevertheless it presents itself as a survivor from the past, connecting us back to the belief-systems of our forebears. It is incredible to think that the invariably bare walls of village churches would once have all been decorated with such exuberant scenes. I’ve recently been working on an exhibition of Stanley Spencer’s cycle of paintings for the Sandham Memorial Chapel painted from 1927-32, which reflect the artist’s own experiences in the Great War in a modern idiom that is palpably influenced by the religious art of the past. To me, like the Easby paintings, they connect us to something deeper that goes beyond conventional faith. Perhaps it is only a stylistic thing, but even so it is hard not to find it incredibly moving.

The Japanese artist Shinichi Sawada makes creatures from clay: totemic figures that have a primal energy. Born with severe autism and barely speaking, these sculptures are his way of expressing himself. He began producing them in 2001 whilst in residence at the Ritto Nakayoshi Sagyojo, a facility for mentally impaired people in Ritto in Japan. They have since gained international attention. I saw the sculptures in the photos here at the 2013 Venice Biennale where I was utterly entranced by their rich personal mythology that somehow touches on archetypal creatures from ancient Noh theatre, to Manga, Anime, and horned tribal fetishes. He has been included in the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition of Outsider Art from Japan, and now the exhibition ‘Intuitive Folk’ at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester UK. In the words of Chris Wiley Sawada’s sculptures ‘stand as evocative and enigmatic testaments to his inner life, mute idols of a tribe of one.’ http://pallant.org.uk/exhibitions1/current-exhibitions1/delonghi-print-room/intuitive-folk

Martin Creed’s Work No.1059 transforms The Scotsman Steps linking Edinburgh’s Old Town and New Town in the most subtle of ways. Every step and landing is surfaced with marbles from around the world: 104 in all. It’s incredible simple, and yet complex, and both poetic and prosaic. Here’s what it says on the Fruitmarket Gallery website:

"Work No. 1059 is an exercise in adding and
 subtracting by degrees. To make it, Creed started from nothing, and added something. The process of addition, though immensely complicated, involving architects, planners, engineers, stone cutters, builders etc, results in an intervention whose deceptive simplicity seems almost to take the addition away (though extravagantly marble and chromatically beautiful, the steps are still only steps, after all)."