Laura's new book illustrates her love of our natural heritage

AS A little girl growing up in the Kent countryside, Laura Balston was encouraged by her artist and draughtsman father to draw whatever she saw.

What became a lifelong passion for painting and the natural world has now culminated in a major new book and exhibition which have captured the beauty and magic of a part of the Borders which Laura and her family have been lucky enough to call home for almost three decades.

The Rulewater Valley is one of the most unchanged parts of the region, remaining much as it did more than a century ago.

And it was to here that 27 years ago, Laura and her husband Simon Blackwood, came to build a new life, which included setting up a studio and picture restoration business in nearby Hawick.

Since then, the Blackwoods have become well known for their support of the visual arts, holding regular exhibitions showcasing their own work and that of invited local artists.

They have also worked closely with local schools over the years, organising events for pupils to meet artists and hear them talk about their work.

Laura is a graduate of Canterbury College of Art and has earned her living as a freelance illustrator and painter.

For the past four years she has been working on paintings for the new book based on the changing seasons of the Rulewater Valley and the woods surrounding her family home.

Still a work in progress, more than 60 of the book's hand-painted illustrations are currently on show in the new exhibition in The Scott Gallery at Hawick Museum, entitled, A Celebration of Art, and which also features work by Simon.

The exhibition marks the couple's recent move from their studio at Bourtree Terrace in Hawick to a new purpose-built, environmentally friendly eco-studio near their home at Bedrule.

Simon is an established artist with many commissions and exhibitions under his belt, both in the UK and around the globe from the USA to Japan and Turkey.

A graduate of Colchester School of Art, he initially came to the Borders in 1979 to study at the Beshara School in Chisholme House near Roberton.

For her part, Laura has undertaken various private and commercial commissions, and exhibited in London, the Cotswolds and in the Borders.

But her latest project is one very close to her heart. It was initially triggered by the long battle she and her husband, together with many others, successfully fought to halt plans to build a large wind farm at the Dunion, close to Jedburgh.

The Blackwoods and their fellow campaigners were convinced if the scheme went ahead, it would blight one of the most unspoilt parts of the Borders.

"That four-year campaign was a kind of catalyst for this book," Laura explained. “It concentrated my mind on what makes this part of the Borders so special and so important, and why we cannot allow such places to be ruined.”

Coming from a family of papermakers, Laura had inherited some handmade watercolour paper dating from 1911 from her father.

She decided to use this for the book, which features her illustrations and paintings of local plants, trees, birds and animals, many new, and some from her 27-year career in the Borders.

Accompanying the artwork is handwritten text, with each chapter covering one month in a year.

Laura added: “The Rulewater Valley is still relatively untouched with fantastic collections of birds and plants. My hope is that the book shows why this area and others like it are such extraordinary places.”

Interest from a London publisher may eventually see her latest work reaching a wider audience and Laura says if it makes people look a little bit closer at their surroundings, she will have done what she set out to do.

Painting everything from life where possible, she would often rise at 4.30am during the summer months to paint creatures such as a red squirrel which now feeds from her hand.

And she was determined that, while something she had viewed as negative – the wind farm development – had been the catalyst for the book, she would not imbue her project with negativity.

“I did not want to be constantly saying ‘beware, we’re about to lose all this’. Faced with this huge development, I wanted it to be the spark for something positive.

“That development would have changed the nature entirely of this part of the world. So I decided early on I wanted to counteract that negative action with a positive one.

“My wish was to express why such unspoilt places, relatively free of development and industrialisation, are so important to value and to illustrate the magic and significance of what nature can show us.”

Elizabeth Hume, Scottish Borders Council’s visual arts officer, described Laura’s work as amazing – not least because of the painstaking attention to detail, but also her powers of observation.

“Her talent reminds us of the skills of artists and crafts people from another age long before the introduction of computer-aided artwork,” Elizabeth commented.

The Borders has captivated the Blackwoods and many artists, one result being a succession of exhibitions held at Simon’s studio.

To accompany them in their Celebration of Art, the Blackwoods have invited six fellow artists from their Bourtree Terrace days to exhibit at the Scott Gallery.