Richard Luckett

The red hill

The drawing was by Elisabeth Vellacott, a landscape, red charcoal on paper. Typical of her style, spidery, gentle strokes; from a distance, it had the quality of a sepia photograph. It depicted the curve of a hill (possibly in Wales, I was told later) with some trees at its slope and a house just visible within them, slightly hidden by the hill’s ridge. I think it was signed in pencil, but not dated. I don’t remember if it had a title. The drawing belonged to Richard Luckett, the Pepys Librarian at Magdalene College; Vellacott had been a friend and had given it to him many years ago. I can’t remember how he came to offer it to me, on loan for the duration of my residency, but I suspect it was during a conversation over lunch, and I’d happened to mention seeing some of Vellacott’s beautiful drawings in Kettle’s Yard. The drawing was in storage (although Richard had two more in his rooms, both charcoal portraits); at one time it hung somewhere else in the college, but had since been replaced by another picture, possibly of an old Master or benefactor. Richard arranged for it to be brought out and left in the porter’s lodge for me to collect. It was larger than I’d expected, and the glass was covered in a solid layer of dust. I was unable to see the picture properly until I dragged it back to my rooms and wiped the surface with a towel.

And there it was, the red hill.

A previous occupant had left a single nail in the wall above the desk, the perfect location on which to hang it. I remember staring at it for a long time, then wondering how I would ever be able to part with it when the time came to give it back. For the whole of the autumn, I stared at that picture, which I imagined was itself a autumnal scene, the trees sparse and spindly. Near the end of my residency, I took a photograph of it, possibly on my phone, but the image and the memory card that it was on have somehow been misplaced. So much for technology. The image here is another drawing of hers, one which is equally haunting.

What remains is this poem. I always knew it would be the only way I could preserve the drawing in memory; the poem itself is about memory, written in a place where I was a temporary resident. I have never been able to explain how the hare crept into the poem; he was there from the very first draft, and stayed, although he was not in the drawing. I gave the poem to Richard as a parting gift for his kindness. His face altered as he read it, and I wondered if perhaps he felt I had taken liberties in placing my own emotional landscape into the one that I’d been loaned. But when he finished reading he looked up in amazement and told me that he had once given Elisabeth a hare’s skull which had remained in her studio until her death.

I don’t know if the drawing has gone back into storage. If so, I hope someone will bring it out again and dust it off and hang it on the wall. I’d like to see it again.


The Red Hill

(after Elisabeth Vellacott)


The midmorning ridge, dreaming

fields. Harvest. A harvest moon

last night, and today, a hare

balanced on the edge, briefly.


Remember this. It may not

come again, the razor sky,

the trees, rust and leaves

in the air. Perfect stillness.


Commit it to yourself

so that it enters your blood,

returns as a heartbeat

the second before you move


forward, and it is shattered.

Your mark will be erased

by wind, hard rain,

by the way you race


from one place to another,

wanting so to lie down,

to fit the earth around you,

taste the ferrous clay.


Remember this, before

it shifts to brick, asphalt,

to a white curtain, a bare room;

many rooms will clutter your head.


Beyond the ridge, the little house,

the fire lit. In it are people

you love. They are waiting.

You close your eyes


and the field breaks into lines,

a sketch of a field, it blurs

and aches, gives way

to white. You fill in the rest.