By John Simmons

Earlier this year I was looking forward to a new Dark Angels course. The plan was I’d run it with the artist Jenni Wallace and we’d explore the connections between visual and verbal art at a country house in Sussex called Tilton. We had a group signed up, filling the house that was once the country retreat of John Maynard Keynes. With Vanessa Bell’s Charleston nearby, it was a Bloomsbury Set meeting place nearly a hundred years ago.

I’d looked forward to it because it was going to be in April – what better way to welcome in the Spring than with a new kind of Dark Angels course, all new exercises, writing and drawing (probably with painting, photography and more)? Well, you know what came next…with lockdown in March we had no way to run the course in April.

We thought quickly and asked Tilton if we could rearrange the timings for the autumn. The group enthusiastically agreed to the new date in October. But I felt we needed to do more, so we asked if everyone would be open to fortnightly creative exercises. Jenni and I would set them, people would have two weeks to respond (or not).

I came up with the name Doolally Gallery because all my favourite museums and galleries had been announcing their closures. So we would create our own gallery, virtually, and we would hang our work on the digital walls, room by room.

Why Doolally Gallery? Well, I had said to Jenni that enforced isolation at home for any period of time would drive me Doolally. It’s a word I knew from my childhood, I think my nan used to say it. But what does it actually mean? And, pursuing my belief that every word has a story to tell, where does it come from?

Google provided the answer:


From deolali, India, former site of a British Army transit camp – meaning to lose one’s mind from the boredom felt at the camp.

It seemed to fit perfectly. So we set the first brief – choose an artwork from your own home to hang on the gallery wall and write a piece to go alongside it. We filled the room in the next two weeks, with words and images, then we went onto the next brief. Each brief has stretched the group creatively – Jenni and I join in too – and we show no sign of running out of ideas. Every fortnight the work is gathered into a pdf that we circulate to the group and that’s a joyful moment of sharing. We’ve just done the David Attenborough room (about animals) and now we’re responding to a brief about ‘time’ that will become Room 7 in the gallery.

We will continue until we meet for the first time in late October at Tilton. By then we’ll all know each other’s creative potential better than perhaps any previous Dark Angels group. It’s going to be quite a gathering. But for now, to sum it up, I can only cite the description by Rebecca, one of the group, who wrote: “the best course I’ve (n)ever been on”.

Beautiful still life image by Mark Noad