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Lil Neilson, ‘A Place for 4 Women’, 1989. Insert in ‘The Bitter Cup’, photographed by Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan, Catterline, April 2019.


‘Painting is the language of loss. The scraping-off of layers of paint, again and again, the rebuilding, the losing again. Hoping, then despairing, then hoping…

… Painting is like the handprint on the cave wall.’

Celia Paul [1]

Song of Pech Merle [2]

Step down, step down, through rock and oak roots

Breathe in, breathe out, my ancient air

Listen, listen, to my dripping, trickling, seeping bones

See my cave pearls glisten, tops spin, marbles roll

Feel my crystalline corals and translucent draperies vibrate

Smell my cold earth damp tang; clay and silt and sand

Take my hand and I will show you my dappled horses.

Follow my footprints, they will take you to the bison women

If you are lucky, they will tell you of their dreams–suspended

in calcite rings–of hieroglyph ceilings, bear scratches, bulls and lyres

Stroke my skin with hematite, red ochre, burnt sienna and red earth

Smear my ribs with goethite, limonite, raw sienna and yellow ochre

Stipple my eyes with pyrolusite, brown ochre, burnt umber and charcoal

Turn your gaze inwards and float through helictites and dripstones,

aragonite iridescences shifting and tilting. Emerge through scree,

past hair and bone, into soft green.

[1] Celia Paul, Self-Portrait, p.152. London: Jonathan Cape, 2019

[2] Pech Merle is a prehistoric cave in Cabrerets, France (

Valerie Norris is an artist and writer based in Dundee.

‘The Bitter Cup’ by Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan is published by Book Works in association with Hospitalfield, Arbroath, 2019.