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The Anxious Artist Sensory Celebration of Autumn

I am glad to say that I have now come out the other side of covid. By this I mean, I have had a negative lateral flow test, although it is still letting it’s previous presence be felt. One symptom which I am finding particularly troubling is that I have lost my sense of taste and smell. The realisation of this has had a profound effect on me and has left me feeling vulnerable and bereft.

The vulnerability I feel at such a loss reached the degree of panic, as my anxious, catastrophising mind tells me I would never get these precious senses back. I would be one of the 7% who would spend their remaining days deprived. I have also reflected that those who suffer from anxiety, particularly alongside PTSD are likely to be hypervigilant and rely on all of their senses to ensure they are safe. Having burnt the dinner a couple of times, I am now finding I am frequently checking I haven’t left the cooker hobs on, for fear the house might burn down and I would be oblivious.

Of course, I immediately consulted Dr Google to find out what could be done. The medical terms for these symptoms are Anosmia and Ageusia and it appears this is a poorly researched area, which is an unhelpful start. However, were it not for my current predicament, I have found learning about how this happens rather fascinating. I had not imagined that this was in fact a neurological response and a signal that the virus has interfered with my central nervous system (CNS). Or, I should say, my immune response to the virus has caused inflammation to my CNS. The good news is that these particular sensory neurons are unique in their capacity to repair themselves.

On further reading, I discovered that you can retrain your sense of smell by selecting 4 essential oils and spending time deeply inhaling each one twice a day, while thinking about a memory you would associate with that smell. I immediately reached for the lavender oil, as this is one I strongly connect with memories of my mum. Following this, I have citronella, eucalyptus and patchouli (reminiscent of my art student days). It has been interesting to notice that as I inhale the different fragrances, this seems to send a signal to my taste buds and saliva is produced. This would then explain why having a dry mouth seems to come as part of the package.

I feel empowered to have some sort of strategy to address the problem, as I now have a sense of agency. I refuse to allow covid to mess with my life any more than it already has! Now I feel less anxious and more indignant and resolute and I think this is progress.

Having been released from self-isolating, I am now able to able to step out into autumn and have enjoyed some gentle walks. Although I am enjoying the beautiful autumnal hues of reds, golds and ochres, I notice as I walk that I am keenly aware of the absence of the rich, earthy, musky aromas that fill the air when crunching through fallen leaves. Autumn is a favourite season of mine but I’m not sure exactly which essential oil to pick to bring this olfactory delight back to life. However (and this is where we get to the arty bit), I was prompted to research artists who have been inspired by autumn, with the hope that by spending time looking, remembering and meditating on some selected images, it may trigger a deeper sensory memory. Here is a selection of some of my favourite finds.

Autumn View (1912) by Pierre Bonnard depicts a vast landscape of fields and forest altered by the season. As I look, I can almost feel the warmth of that unique autumn sunshine, that feels like such a gift to soak in. Bonnard paints expressively, almost abstractly, so a sense of the rawness and immediacy of the artist’s experience can be felt. I get a sense of such joy when I look at this painting, it is full of life and presents us with the reverse of the idea of death, darkness and decay, some associate autumn with, but more a celebration of nature’s cyclical life.

Autumn Landscape with Four Trees (1885) by Van Gogh seems to contrast with Bonnard’s vibrant colours. An example of his early work, it might be difficult to recognise Van Gogh’s signature style. His more sombre palette had been influenced by the Dutch masters, such as Rembrandt, or his contemporaries; Corot and Millais. Painting on a darkened background, it might be tempting to consider it a gloomy painting. However, I am inclined to agree with the artist’s friend, Antoon Kerssemakers, who was an amateur painter who described the “soft, melancholy peacefulness of the combination of colours”. I am put in mind of being on an autumnal walk and anticipating returning home to a mug of tea and a slice of fruit cake (the mention of which definitely got my taste buds excited, a good sign!)

Trees being perhaps our strongest association with the colours of autumn, it isn’t surprising that artists were drawn to make their own representations of them. ‘Four Trees’, by Egon Schiele is a real favourite of mine. This Austrian hilly landscape perfectly captures the quality of early evening autumnal light. The strong use of line, as well as colour, put me in mind of stained glass. Schiele also captures the stages as the tree reveals its bare branches, which seem to reach into the red, gold and purple sky like networks of capillaries and veins absorbing the oxygenated blood.

I must also give Gustav Klimt a mention as I delight in the colours and use of vertical and horizontal line and pattern that almost create a sense of camouflage in his woodland scenes as it prepares to bed down and restore itself, enriching the earth for new growth. The background of my illustration (below) was inspired by The Birch Wood (1903), which has particular significance as I discovered it on a card my mum had sent to me back in 2005. She commented on how peaceful she found the scene and I very much agree.

Finally, a less familiar landscape, but the season equally recognisable is ‘Red Over the Mountains as if the Forests are Dyed (1963), by Li Keran. I love the way the title encapsulates exactly what we see all around us at this time of year. I get such an overwhelming sense of the utter resplendence of nature in this impressive, mountainous landscape. The painting has such a sense of warmth and peace, particularly as the eye follows the flow of the gentle waterfall, as it tumbles down into the rocks below.

Thank you for joining me on this painterly romp through all things autumn and for indulging me need to be rid of covid’s unwanted leftovers ASAP. I can’t wait to get out for a much-needed forest walk with all my senses alive. Perhaps I should bake that fruit cake to round off the perfect day. It’s interesting that as I have been writing I have become aware of the smell of my husband’s fish finger sandwich, which is an interesting beginning and by no means unwelcome.


Since the writing of this blog, I am very much overjoyed to let you know that my senses of taste and smell are very much back as they should be. I have had my walk in the forest and could inhale all of it's autumnal olfactory offerings. The fruit cake is yet to be baked, but not forgotten.

Epping Forest

By Naomi Elfred-Ross

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