On Lindisfarne



Portrait of the Artist as an Island Flower


However much it loves history, a poem

is not an interpretation panel, in a frame.


There are many things it cannot do in a time

at odds with itself.  Gather up, as she did –


field garlic, brookweed, sea campion, beaked parsley,

water plantain, knotted trefoil, tufted centaury.


Pluck them where they hide on whin or dune to take

home (imagine crossing the sea-soaked causeway


by horse-drawn carriage) then paint – purple and white,

yellow and pink, the common language of green.


Not scented or seductive, each one’s a modest plant,

at risk from slipshod steps, or simple disregard.


Conjure the woman in a watercolour mirror

of flowers as tenderly as if from her own bones


sealed in a box; her secrets – thank god – encrypted.

Heed the silence, most eloquent against the tide.



In 1874, Margaret Rebecca Dickinson made seven watercolours of plants found on Lindisfarne, many rare and endangered.  These images are among the 468 botanical paintings in the Margaret Rebecca Dickinson Archive in the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Library at the Great North Museum, Newcastle.  2018 marks the centenary of her death, aged 98, at Norham on Tweed. To our knowledge, no portrait of her exists.



I wrote this poem for Newcastle Poetry Festival’s Waves & Bones project, based on Lindisfarne, tying it in with my PhD research.  In my critical essay, I’m connecting various threads and Margaret Rebecca Dickinson is one of them.



One flower she didn’t paint is the Lindisfarne Helleborine, which I’m going in search of next month.  Also a good chance to see the 650 sweet peas coming into bloom they’d just finished planting in Gertrude Jekyll’s garden last time I was there.  






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4 thoughts on “On Lindisfarne

  1. Mandy Wilkinson says:

    thank you for introducing me to this wonderful botanical artist! I shall go and see her drawings one day soon. xx

  2. Deborah says:

    I like the modest plants hiding and at risk – I hope you find the Helleborine.

  3. ashbydesign says:

    Love the rightful-seeming simplicity of this, of her or us, encrypted secrets tempting, but self-preserved, modesty prevails. Is the archive viewable?

    • I’m so pleased folk seem to get this – her work is really remarkable, and possibly even more intriguing as we know so little about her. Mel, I’ve added a link to the Archive, which is available online and can be viewed in the Library by appointment. Definitely worth a look – completely different from seeing it on a screen.

      I’m reading the poem and speaking a bit about Margaret Rebecca Dickinson at an event at the Museum/Library sometime over the summer, when they’re celebrating some of the women naturalists connected with the Society. No date confirmed yet but I’ll put a post up here when I know. Lx

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