When is Ash Wednesday? Wikipedia tells me it’s the first day of Lent, which is 46 days before Easter. This means it can be as early as February 4 or as late as March 10.

George Shaw’s ‘Ash Wednesday’ was on show at the Wilkinson Gallery (Anthony now being in partnership with his wife, Amanda) in the East End of London from May 12 to 26 June, 2005. So it’s likely that the paintings, if they were based on photographs taken on the day in Tile Hill - which I imagine they were - were taken on February 25, 2004, especially since the paintings are all dated 2004/5.

Shaw writes in the press release for the show:
‘I fill the hours and days with work that lengthens the twilight of the day by minutes. Thus I can find myself years later in the same place on a day with the same name and for a half-moment it is as though time was never born.’

Lots of musing about units of time in that quote: from half-moments to years. It reminds me to take my time as I go through this fascinating work. Perhaps I should say that I began to research this page towards the end of December, 2012, but chose to break off for the holiday season. I’m actually writing these words on January 25, 2013, and will carry on doing so for as long as it takes.

February 25, 2004, George was up early that day, because the seven paintings that make up ‘Ash Wednesday’ are based on photographs taken at half-hour intervals from 6am to 9am. Here is the six o’clocker. Taken when the sun was still to rise and George must have felt he had the estate - indeed the whole world - to himself.

Screen shot 2012-12-20 at 16.04.07
George Shaw. Ash Wednesday: 6am, 2004/5: Humbrol enamel on board. 92x121cm

Grass, tree, wall, house, window, sky. Given what I quoted from the press release above, the artist may be thinking of this spot as he’d known it in earlier years. Looking at a map, I guess this tree/wall combo would have been on his route to primary school, and he’d have passed it dark like this throughout the winters of his childhood while ‘creeping unwillingly to school’. He wouldn’t have been here at this time in the morning though. Why is adult George up so early again? ‘I fill the hours and days with work that lengthens the twilight of the day by minutes.’ Perhaps for that reason.

The wall and tree spot is just around the corner from the Shaw household. Here is how it looked to the Google camera in August 2008. Though it’s not the same thing without the ghost-blue sky:

Screen shot 2013-01-25 at 08.54.44
©2013 Google

The Google camera did not take that picture on Ash Wednesday, not with all the foliage on the trees. Is there such a thing as Sycamore August? Well, there is now.

From the tree/wall in 2004, the adult George Shaw did not walk to school. I’m pretty sure the 6.30am picture is taken on Hawthorne Lane looking north. Still not much light around. Sunrise on February 25, 2004, would have been at about 7am. The single light that does shine from a window draws the eye towards it. Somebody is up, making themselves a cup of tea, bracing themselves for the day...

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George Shaw. Ash Wednesday: 6.30am, 2004/5: Humbrol enamel on board. 92x121cm

‘These few paintings began their life as a memorial to one day lost amongst many. Ash Wednesday began for me with a dirty smudge of ash placed on my forehead by the serious thumb of a Catholic priest.’

I don’t think the priest of Tile Hill is up yet. Unless he lives in that house whose gable end shows a light. I expect he’s sighing at the thought of the number of kids he’s got to put the fear of God into that day. Though to be fair, I mean the fear of death.

It was the tradition to remain marked until mid-day. It was not strange to find these paintings stuck in the morning of that day unable to shake off the words of that priest telling me that I was dust and unto dust I would return.’

So how did George feel about this?

‘For Christ’s sake, it seemed as if I had only just started. It was to be a day off school, thinking of the end of days. I never had myself down as Dracula caught in daylight and crumbling to nothing in real time. But then a very bright day begins with hardly an inkling of its journey into darkness.’

Is that what today (the day I’m writing) is destined to be - a journey towards darkness? At this point in my analysis, it seems like a journey
out of darkness. That may prove illusory, but the exercise is going to end with a seventh painting, based on a photograph taken at noon, so I remain optimistic.

I can’t quite get to the exact viewpoint of the 6.30am painting on Google, because (as mentioned in the ‘Of Innocence’ page) Hawthorne Lane carries on as an unmade up track which Google Street View can’t follow. So the house with the light is a bit further up the track, tantalisingly out of sight. But that’s all right. I feel Google’s ‘Ash August’ and my ‘Ash January’ is following doggedly in the tracks of George Shaw’s ‘Ash Wednesday’. I hope the reader feels that too.

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©2013 Google

I said I’m going to take this slowly, and I meant it. I’m going to tease this out every step of the way. The commitment that George Shaw has shown towards his Ash Wednesday deserves no less.

So here is a map of Tile HIll. The yellow house symbol shows George’s starting point. Follow the blue line to where he took his first photograph at 6am (he faced west when taking it). Keep following the line until you get to the figure facing north on Hawthorne Lane.

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Imagery ©2013 GeoEye, Getmapping plc, Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, The Geoinformation Group, , Map data ©2013 Google

And from there? Ah, that is a good question. The third painting, the one based on a photograph taken at sunrise, is the one I had great difficulty in locating. Here it is:

George Shaw Ash Wednesday 7 am
George Shaw. Ash Wednesday: 7am, 2004/5: Humbrol enamel on board. 92x121cm

A calm composition showing suburban Britain full of space and light. Not sure why two houses should be linked with red screens at first floor level as this pair are, and I will seek an explanation. But the screens were instrumental in my locating this site, which I thought I did shortly before my Christmas lay-off:

Screen shot 2012-12-16 at 19.19.14
©2013 Google

Actually, I was never happy with this as being the actual site for Ash Wednesday: 7am. Why are the screens that are linking the houses blue? (Perhaps because they’d been painted in the four-year interval between George Shaw taking a photograph and Google taking one.) Where is the magnificent tree? (Perhaps chopped down.) Why has the artist simplified the layout of windows in the houses? (Perhaps for aesthetic reasons.) But deep down I knew this couldn’t be the actual site for one simple reason. The sun doesn’t rise in the west, which is the implication of where the light is falling on those houses joined by the red screens. True, George’s original photo could have been taken in the evening, at sunrise. But if so Shaw’s Tile Hill project really would dissolve on the spot: ashes to arbitrary ashes; dust, to pointless dust.

So last night, I scoured Tile Hill with an eastern sunrise in mind, seeking the right conjunction of streets and houses. And I found it. Yes, I came across a view of houses at the top of Jardine Crescent (the ‘banana flats’ that were painted for ‘Of Innocence’). If I was right, the tree has been cut down (there is a stump in the right sort of place) and the road layout has changed (a mini-roundabout has been added; a piece of road grassed over). Because of the road change, it wasn’t possible to give the visual tie-in to the painting with a single Google photo. Then, in searching around for a more distant view that would show the essential layout I came across
another road junction which gave me exactly the set-up I was looking for, though the screens have been painted yellow. Even the tree was there in all its glory. Ash August! (I think it’s an oak, actually.)

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©2013 Google

What’s neat about this site is the connection to the pub paintings that I finished the ‘Of Innocence’ page by making a meal of. George Shaw was standing between those cars on the right when he took the photograph that Christmas Eve was based on. And he was standing in the left background when taking the snap that would become The Black Prince. In other words, the pub is situated just out of shot, left foreground.

Of course, in painting
Ash Wednesday: 7am, George didn’t fiddle with the window layout of the houses. (Why the hell would he? ‘Aesthetic reasons’ indeed!) Nobody has chopped down that tree (not yet anyway). And all is right with the world.

Let’s map these precious findings:

Screen shot 2013-01-25 at 15.55.23
Imagery ©2013 GeoEye, Getmapping plc, Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, The Geoinformation Group, , Map data ©2013 Google

Just to clarify, George did not walk the red route and record the scene looking west onto Brazil Street, where two houses are connected with blue screens. He continued on the blue line. Well, no I don’t know his exact route, I’m simply indicating the most direct way by foot between photo stops.

He took the photo that would become the timeless
7am painting while standing on Faseman Avenue looking east towards Jardine Crescent.

Time for a break, I think. Something by The Fall would seem to be apposite since the band used two of the
Ash Wednesday paintings on the sleeve of their 2007 album Post Reformation TLC. What about the enigmatic ‘How I wrote Elastic man’? Though it’s much earlier work, it’s what I’m familiar with and it’s what, in my mind’s ear, is blasting out of The Black Prince? Here it is on Youtube:

“How I wrote plastic man
How I wrote plastic man
How I wrote plastic man
How I wrote PLAS-TIC MAN!”

George Shaw. Ash Wednesday: 7.30am, 2004/5: Humbrol enamel on board. 92x121cm

I may think I'm pretty clever in my own anal way, but I'm not clever enough to follow George into the woods. Well, I’ll give it a go...

If the shadows in the above
Ash Wednesday: 7.30am painting are falling from bottom left to right (and there is almost as much evidence to suggest that they're falling the opposite way, from top right to left) then the artist is facing south. But is he in Tile Hill Wood or Limbrick Wood?

The best clue would be to locate where the Ash Wednesday: 8am picture was taken and see what that suggests. So that's what I've done in the map below, extending George's travels with the use of a green line. All very conjectural, of course. What's for sure though, is that George was close to home by the time he took photograph five, very close to where he took his first photograph on Ash Wednesday. Let’s face it, he probably popped into the house for some breakfast at this point. Or at least a mug of tea.

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Imagery ©2013 GeoEye, Getmapping plc, Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, The Geoinformation Group, , Map data ©2013 Google

I suppose I’d better prove that the site I’m suggesting for painting five is where I’m claiming. Below is the picture, the eastern sun casting the shadow of a magnificent tree onto an eastern-facing wall.

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George Shaw. Ash Wednesday: 8am, 2004/5: Humbrol enamel on board. 92x121cm

Not so magnificent a tree come August 2008, as the photo below demonstrates. I wonder if Tam cut the tree down. Your day will come too, Thomas Hardy!

Screen shot 2012-12-16 at 18.06.50
©2013 Google

This is the second of three occasions that George Shaw zeroes-in on the ‘tree-in-front-of-a-wall’ motif that Ash Wednesday morning. And on each occasion the tree/wall combo was close to his home. Could this be another hidden motif in the work? If so, what’s behind it?

A conversation between George Shaw and Gordon Burn which took place in London, May 2007, found its way into the 2011 catalogue of Shaw’s work,
The Sly and Unseen Day. Here’s an extract from it:

GS: “I think that’s how my dad spent a lot of his time, not fitting in.”

GB: “Chatting to the plumber?”

GS: “No, he couldn’t do any of that. If there’d be a knock at the door he’d be like ‘Oh, my God!’ He would be projecting my mum forward to deal with it. Sometimes I think my mum was kind of a conduit between him and the real world. All these thoughts about my home, about my family, about where you come from, and the relationship that I had with my dad, were part and parcel of what I was doing in my work.”

GB: “So you were thinking about them all the time...”

GS: “Yeah, I mean they’re not literal, the paintings become like empty vessels, something I do when I’m daydreaming around in my head really. They’re almost like an equation that comes out of the series of complex workings-out about where you fit in, and what your relationship is with your family background. You’ve got an art education and you’ve got all these things and then what pops out is a drawing of a tree.”

Gordon Burn tells us that George Shaw senior worked in the British Leyland factory in Coventry until he was made redundant in 1979. Being laid off coincided with a heart attack and he didn’t work again. Young George would have been 13 when his father stopped going to work, so he would have had to get used to his father being around the home as he moved into his teens. Father, mother and three younger children all shared the one terraced house. Still, it seemed to work for them, perhaps because the parents were fair-minded and managed to give George enough space to grow. And I can imagine it still worked that day in 2004 when George embarked on his Ash Wednesday adventure, not sweet 13 any more, but a solid 38 years-old.

George’s route that day brought him close to his home at least twice and I can imagine him popping in to have a tea break with his father on both occasions:

GS (snr): “Here, George, you’ve got a bit of soot on your forehead.”

GS: (jnr) “No, I don’t, Dad. The Ash Wednesday service isn’t until nine.”

GS (snr): “Oh, aye. Sorry.”

GS (snr): “Off again, lad?”

GS (jnr): “I’ve a schedule to keep. See you later.”

George Shaw. Ash Wednesday: 8.30am, 2004/5: Humbrol enamel on board. 92x121cm

With this unforgettable image in mind, let’s return to the press release for ‘Ash Wednesday’ where Shaw quotes Shakespeare. No less than the famously moving verse from Cymbeline, Act 4 scene 2:

‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task has done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers, come to dust.’

As the road markings in the painting indicate, we’re a yard or two from the gates of a school, George’s Catholic primary. Come ‘Our Lady of the Assumption’, shine for the children!

Golden kids and skies all musk
As brothel creepers, come to dusk.’

Oh yes - bloody good idea - mess with two of the strongest lines in Shakespeare. Made even stronger for me when I read recently, that ‘golden lads’ used to be a Warwickshire term for dandelions in full bloom and ‘chimney-sweepers’, a local term for dandelions at the ready-to-blow stage.

The tree on the right looks as if it's been blown. But the sky is a reminder of how the plant looked in its prime.

I will try to move on.

Screen shot 2012-12-21 at 17.21.54
©2013 Google

Wow - better still! - invite comparison between George Shaw’s jewel of a painting and a particularly insipid (and, towards the bottom, blurred) snap of Google’s.

The last painting comprising ‘Ash Wednesday’ was made from a photograph that George took when he was nearly home again. Just along from his house is this wall connecting two houses. And in front of the wall grows a silver birch.

George Shaw. Ash Wednesday: 9am, 2004/5: Humbrol enamel on board. 92x121cm

A character in Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders makes himself ill thinking that an elm tree - which was a sapling when he was a boy, but is now a mature tree that sways in the wind - is going to fall on his house. The woodman, John South, takes to his bed and, though he is only 55, it seems that his continued existence is in danger. In the quote that follows, he’s been visited by his neighbour, Giles Winterborne:

‘He looked out of the window in the direction of the woodman’s gaze. The tree was a tall elm, familiar to him from childhood, which stood at a distance of two-thirds of its own height from the front of South’s dwelling. Whenever the wind blew, as it did now, the tree rocked, naturally enough: and the sight of its motion, and sound of its sighs, had gradually bred the terrifying illusion in the woodman’s mind. Thus he would sit all day, in spite of persuasion, watching its every sway, and listening to the melancholy Gregorian melodies which the air wrung out of it. This fear it apparently was, rather than any organic disease, which was eating away the health of John South.’

I’m imagining that things were not quite as bad in the Shaw household on Ash Wednesday, 2004. George dropped by for a second cup of tea with his father:

GS (snr): “Got this out of the library yesterday.”

GS (jnr): “What is it?”

GS (snr): “Lawrence on Hardy and painting.”

GS (jnr): “DH Lawrence on the paintings of Thomas Hardy?”

GS ((snr): “No. Separate essays. A study of Thomas Hardy. And an introduction to some paintings by Cezanne.”

GS (jnr): “I must read that book when you’re done, Dad.”

GS (snr): “You know the system, son. When I’m finished with it, it goes back to the library so that it’s available to anyone and everyone in Tile Hill. Of course, I’ll give you the nod so that if you get in quick it’ll be yours for a month.”

GS (jnr): “Fair enough.”

As the photo below shows, there is no sign of the silver birch of Ash Wednesday: 9am come August 2008. I’ll say more about this at the right time, which is in the following page called 'Woodsman'.

Screen shot 2012-12-20 at 18.05.49
©2013 Google

Looking at the above photo, thinking about the dead-and-gone tree, takes me back to the press release for the show at the Wilkinson Gallery. The quote from Cymbeline is at the top of the page, this from Coventry-born Philip Larkin’s Aubade is at the bottom:

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse -
The good not done, the love not given, the time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.’

Why is 9am the last painting in the series? Partly because that is the time of the Ash Wednesday service. In a way, the paintings are of the golden period in the day before the priest put the mark of death on George Shaw’s forehead.

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Imagery ©2013 GeoEye, Getmapping plc, Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, The Geoinformation Group, , Map data ©2013 Google

So that (yellow line) completes the circuit that George Shaw may have taken early on Ash Wednesday, 2004, in search of innocence and immortality. What about the way that the paintings were set out at the Wilkinson Gallery the following year? Was the chronological order or the shape of the walk conserved? Not directly. The seven paintings were divided between three galleries. The main front space contained the first painting (6am), the third (the one I had difficulty tracing) and the sixth (blinding yellow light); in other words, the strongest possible set of three. The back space on the ground floor contained the second painting and the final one. While the upstairs room contained the fourth and the fifth paintings (in the woods; plus shadow of tree on wall). Now I think about it, each room contained one of the pictures set close to home. That may or may not have been the rationale for the arrangement.

There is a poem called
Ash Wednesday by TS Eliot, written in 1930. Apparently it was his first long poem after converting from Unitarianism to Anglicanism in 1927. Did George have it in mind when he put together the otherwise atheistic notes for his own ‘Ash Wednesday’?

I have this vision that on Ash Wednesday of each year, the Eliot poem is recited by certain citizens of Tile Hill while standing on those funny little screened-off platforms between houses of which there are several. Ash Wednesday falls on February 13th, 2013, so it’s not quite here yet, as I write. Nevertheless, here is a snippet of what’s in store if you’re lucky enough to be walking the streets of Tile Hill at noon that particular day, or on any Ash Wednesday thereafter:

‘Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice.’

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©2013 Google

After the Ash Wednesday recital, the Eliot scholars descend from the red, yellow or blue-screened platforms (or ‘pulpits’ as they’re known locally), and make their way to the Black Prince where a free pint of lager awaits all those who present either a Faber & Faber copy of Ash Wednesday, a Penguin edition of The Woodlanders, or a potlet of Humbrol red gloss enamel paint.


July 12, 2019. I'm updating this page after having read chapter 4 of Mark Hallett's catalogue essay in George Shaw: A Corner of a Foreign Field.

Hallett identifies the fifth picture (8am) as being of special significance, The excellent reproduction of it on page 155 of GS:ACFF shows clearly that the shadow of the tree thrown on the wall of the house is referencing Christ's crucifixion, with the wound in his side being particularly strongly suggested. From there Hallett suggests that in each of the pictures, a tree represents Christ on the Cross. As can be picked up if the sequence is shown all together.

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One might ask: which is the Christ tree in picture 4? Perhaps the image suggests it's not just Christ on the cross but humanity in general.

Christ's agony seems to come to a crescendo - the point of death? - in picture six.

And the silver birch in the last picture? Christs's pale lifeless body hangs in the full light of what is just another day on an ordinary housing estate.

'Ash Wednesday', then: The coming of the sun on a daily basis - what a triumph. But there is no escaping what happened on particular day in our collective history.

Anyone born in the UK after 1990, say, would surely wonder about this religious emphasis. I was brought up in the sixties and the story of the crucifixion was all pervasive. It was the main story, the metaphor above all others, the fable that was drummed into our heads via religious instruction and church services. That Christ suffered
. And died on the cross. And that he died to save our souls. Heavy, heady stuff. But did it mean that every time we looked upon the bare branches of tree between the months of November and May we were reminded of his suffering and our debt to him? Well, yes, I suppose so.

I suspect I've stopped seeing the world through the lens of this one all-powerful story. I'm not sure George Shaw has. I say that on the day I'm about to start researching in earnest the essay I intend to finally write about 'My Back to Nature'.

Acknowledgement: The images of George Shaw’s works on this site are copyright the artist. Many of them appear courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, photography by Peter White.