The Size of a Cow

Insights into the practice of MFA student Philippa Clarke 

My ongoing research focuses on the areas where art and agriculture come together. By paying attention to this intersection, I aim to prompt questions about farming, food production, and the way we regard rural life.

From the earliest times, art has depicted food production and landscape management: Palaeolithic cave paintings show the foodstuffs of a hunter-gathering society; ancient Egyptian burial chambers were adorned with images of oxen-drawn ploughs, hoes, rakes and irrigation technology. These themes have persevered. I’m intrigued by Thomas Weaver’s fat cows and well-covered sheep, from a time when selective breeding was first being pioneered. And, of course, Damien Hirst achieved fame and notoriety by preserving cows and sheep in formaldehyde. Hirst claimed: ‘What’s sad is that if you look at my cows cut up in formaldehyde, they have more personality than any cows walking about in fields’¹. I think he couldn't be more wrong, but don't get me started.

At a time when three quarters of the world’s land-based environment have been ‘significantly altered’ by human actions, how we use land has never been more crucial ². 70 percent of the UK is farmland, so farms play a pivotal role in achieving our climate change and biodiversity goals. With soaring costs of production and pressures on the industry such as labour availability and the post-Brexit environment, this is a complex and ongoing challenge. I want to see for myself what farming is like today. To see what is possible and what needs to be done. And as an image maker I want to document my findings in a series of images.

Jade in the milking parlour (Digital Photograph by Philippa Clarke)

On the Farm

Earlier this year I began a series of visits to my local dairy farm. Despite having been to agricultural college in the early 1990’s, I realised I knew very little about milk production and dairy farming. And for someone who doesn't like milk, I consume a lot of it. I have it on cereal, I drink it in coffee and I use it in cooking. I am one of the 96 percent of UK adults who buy milk³. I’m also rather partial to cheese.

Meonstoke Dairy is a fourth-generation family dairy farm in the Meon Valley in the South Downs National Park, UK.  It is one of 12,000 dairy farms in the UK that produce almost 15 billion litres of milk each year. The farm runs a cross-breed herd of 300 dairy cows who are raised on a rotational grass system. The farm breeds all their own replacement heifers on the farm and they are outdoor reared.

The farm recently received a grant from the South Downs National Park to install a ‘Milk Station’ at the village shop. The cows are milked at 3.45am, whereupon the milk is gently pasteurised, (not homogenised) and delivered straight to the village shop by 7.30am. Because the milk hasn’t been highly processed, it retains its flavour and couldn't be much fresher. The cows are milked for a second time at 2.30pm.

I have been given free rein to access all areas of the farm. I wander about taking photographs, chatting to the workers – many of whom are women – making notes and trying to find interesting perspectives to capture daily life there. The main operational area of the milking parlour is beneath the cows, leaving you rather vulnerable when they choose to defecate! I have learned to wear suitable clothing and be quick to dodge cowpats. I’ve been present for daily milking, for TB testing, for new calves being born, and veterinary checks. There is always something going on.

Work in progress on the studio wall in the Edward James Studios (a former barn)

In the Studio

When I get back into the studio, I spend a lot of time sorting through my photographs. My aim is to find images that are visually interesting, contain a narrative, and balance abstraction with realism. Sometimes I manipulate the images on the computer, blocking out areas or cropping sections. Then it is time to begin drawing.

For this dairy farm series, I have chosen to work in charcoal on paper at a large scale that reflects the size and physicality of the cows. The average Holstein Friesian is 1.45 metres high at the withers so I’m using rolls of 200 gsm Fabriano paper which are 1.5 metres wide and up to 10 metres long. I have learned that when I work on this scale, I need to use a grid system to prevent me from getting lost as I translate my source imagery to the drawing. I haven’t worked in this way before – and I normally work more loosely – but in a time of great uncertainty in the world, I find it reassuringly methodical. Once the work is mapped out, I can depart from pure photo-representation and indulge in the mark making and expressive qualities of the charcoal. For the entirety of this series of drawings I have used Coates Willow Charcoal which is made from family run renewable willow beds on the Somerset Levels. Working at this scale can be physically challenging. I stand on a variety of stools or tables to reach the upper parts of the drawing, or lie down on the floor to do the lower parts. At the end of a day’s drawing, my arms often ache, but in a good way. I thoroughly enjoy the way drawing is an outlet for my energy.

Paying Attention

Drawing is a way for me to pay attention to a subject. Charcoal is an adaptable material, one which leaves traces of what was there before but one that can be continuously shaped. It is something from nothing. It is tonal and nuanced. It can be fragile and precarious. To me this is a useful analogy.

I hope that my work might initiate conversations about farming, food production, and rural life. We’ve had some good discussions in our Critique sessions already. I am looking forward to showing the drawings at our Summer Shows in July when we clear out the West Dean studios entirely, turning them into pristine gallery space to display all the work. I’m giving plenty of thought as to how I’ll hang the work. Framing won’t be an option because of the size and expense and the inability to transport it to our other exhibition, ‘Any Day Now’, which follows soon after at Copeland Gallery, London.

West Dean Fine Art summer shows

Philippa’s drawings will be on show as part of the Fine Art Summer Show at West Dean College, 2-8 July 2022, Edward James Studios, West Dean College of Arts and Conservation, PO18 0QZ, 10am-5pm. Preview: Friday 1 July, 5-7pm. ALL WELCOME.

‘Any Day Now’ runs from 15-17 July 2022 at Copeland Gallery, Unit 9I, Copeland Park, 133 Copeland Rd, London SE15 3SN, 12-6pm. Late Opening: Thursday 14 July, 6-8pm


¹ Quoted in Stuart Morgan, No Sense of Absolute Corruption, exhibition catalogue, Gagosian Gallery, New York 1996

² IPBES, May 2019

³ Dairy UK