Sunday, October 04, 2015

Summer nights and still water

My copy of Pan: the 1983 Folio edition with wood engravings by Fredrik Matheson

Knut Hamsun described to a correspondent in his imperfect English the theme of his novel Pan (1894): “Think of the Nordland in Norway, this regions of the Lapper, the mysteries, the grand superstitions, the midnight-sun, think of J. J. Rousseau in the regions, making acquaintance with a Nordlands girl — that is my book.”*  This 'J. J. Rousseau' figure is as strangely driven as Rousseau himself, living alone in a hut and exploring the surrounding mountains and forests whilst torturing himself over a young woman.  Looking back I see I have only mentioned Knut Hamsun's writing here once before and that was in connection with the poisoning of a dog (in his novel Mysteries) rather than in relation to landscape.  Regrettably another dog meets a similar fate in Pan but rather than dwell on that I will recommend here the novel's poetic descriptions of the Nordland landscape, as it emerges from the snows of spring into the heat of summer until eventually the sunlit nights are over and darkness returns. This for example, is the beginning of Chapter 13 (from a 1927 translation in the public domain), full of rapture but with an undercurrent of unease:
Summer nights and still water, and the woods endlessly still. No cry, no footsteps from the road. My heart seemed full as with dark wine.
Moths and night-flies came flying noiselessly in through my window, lured by the glow from the hearth and the smell of the bird I had just cooked. They dashed against the roof with a dull sound, fluttered past my ears, sending a cold shiver through me, and settled on my white powder-horn on the wall. I watched them; they sat trembling and looked at me—moths and spinners and burrowing things. Some of them looked like pansies on the wing.
I stepped outside the hut and listened. Nothing, no noise; all was asleep. The air was alight with flying insects, myriads of buzzing wings. Out at the edge of the wood were ferns and aconite, the trailing arbutus was in bloom, and I loved its tiny flowers... Thanks, my God, for every heather bloom I have ever seen; they have been like small roses on my way, and I weep for love of them... Somewhere near were wild carnations; I could not see them, but I could mark their scent.
But now, in the night hours, great white flowers have opened suddenly; their chalices are spread wide; they are breathing. And furry twilight moths slip down into their petals, making the whole plant quiver. I go from one flower to another. They are drunken flowers. I mark the stages of their intoxication.

Seascape from the 1995 Henning Carlsen film adaptation,
starring a young Sofie Gråbøl 

* Quote from a piece on Hamsun in the New Yorker

Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Hills, The Valleys, The River, The Sea

The summer's Barbara Hepworth exhibition may have been a bit underwhelming but one exhibit that caught my attention was a display of sketches for sculptures intended for Waterloo Bridge.  Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's design had incorporated four plinths but they were left empty after the bridge was completed in 1942.  When a competition was eventually held in 1947 Hepworth submitted four landscape-related designs: The Hills, The Valleys, The River, The Sea.  But the judges rejected her ideas and those of three other artists: 'the result of the competition was disappointing and we do not consider that any of the four schemes submitted can be adjudged suitable for the position that they are intended to occupy.' 

I won't add much more here because an excellent blog post on these designs has already been written by John Wyver at Illuminations.  You can also go to the Tate website for a detailed account of them by curator Chris Stephens and see the maquette and three sketches.  These images are under copyright so I can't include them here - instead I give you probably the most boring image ever embedded on this site.  My photo makes you wonder whether sculptures on this relatively small scale, attempting to project a sense of the whole landscape through which a river passes, would just have got lost among the cars and commuters.  But we cannot know as they were never made.  It is just possible that they could have caught something of the world beyond this unreal city and brought solace to all those weary people flowing over the bridge 'under the brown fog of a winter dawn'.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain

 James Norrie and Jan Griffier II, Panorama of Taymouth Castle and Loch Tay, c. 1733-9

I recently wrote here about Daniel Defoe's A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, focusing on his remarks about Derbyshire.  I mentioned the wealth of illustrations in the Yale Press edition and some of the colour reproductions are spectacular, a full page for example given over to one detail in the painting above, showing soft light on the distant Loch Tay.  It's a shame there aren't more because some of the book's small black and white images are equally remarkable, like Balthasar Nebot's painting of extreme topiary that looks like it has come from the imagination of Giorgio De Chirico.  As these two examples indicate, many of the artists represented in the book came from abroad, particularly the Low Countries: Johannes Kip, Herman Moll, Jan Siberechts, Peter Tillemans.  Other groupings of topographical artists might be made: antiquarians, professional painters and engravers, or artists associated with the military: Paul Sandby, Greenville Collins, John Slezer.  Slezer came over to Scotland from Holland in 1669 but was a supporter of James VII rather than William of Orange and went to prison for it.  Defoe, a great supporter of King William, was writing just after the Act of Union and subsequent uprising by James's son, the Old Pretender.  His observations on Scotland have a particular resonance today.
Balthasar Nebot, Garden View of Hatwell House, 1738

Defoe is not generally very expansive on matters of landscape, but here are ten miscellaneous quotes that I thought worth noting.  The final illustration below also appears in the Yale edition and shows the kinds of trading and commercial activities Defoe was really most interested in recording.
  1. Essex: the effect of the marshes on the people - 'all along this county it was very frequent to meet with men that had had from five or six, to fourteen or fifteen wives; nay, and some more ... The reason, as a merry fellow told me, who said he had had about a dozen and half of wives, (tho' I found afterwards he fibb'd a little) was this; That they being bred in the marshes themselves, and season'd to the place, did pretty well with it; but that they always went up into the hilly country, or to speak their own language into the uplands for a wife: That when they took the young lasses out of the wholesome and fresh air, they were healthy, fresh and clear, and well; but when they came out of their native air into the marshes among the fogs and damps, there they presently chang'd their complexion, got an ague or two, and seldom held it above half a year, or a year at most; and then, said he, we go to the uplands again, and fetch another...'

  2.  Harwich: a town paved with petrified clay - 'there is a sort of clay in the cliff, between the town and the beacon-hill adjoining, which when it falls down into the sea, where it is beaten with the waves and the weather, turns gradually into stone: but the chief reason assign'd, is from the water of a certain spring or well, which rising in the said cliff, runs down into the sea among those pieces of clay, and petrifies them as it runs ... The same spring is said to turn wood into iron: But ... I presume, that those who call the harden' d pieces of wood, which they take out of this well by the name of iron, never try'd the quality of it with the fire or hammer; if they had, perhaps they would have given some other account of it.'

  3. Bagshot-Heath: a desert in Surrey -  'Those that despise Scotland, and the north part of England, for being full of wast and barren land, may take a view of this part of Surrey, and look upon it as a foil to the beauty of the rest of England ... here is a vast tract of land, some of it within seventeen or eighteen miles of the capital city; which is not only poor, but even quite steril, given up to barrenness, horrid and frightful to look on, not only good for little, but good for nothing; much of it is a sandy desert, and one may frequently be put in mind here of Arabia Deserta, where the winds raise the sands, so as to overwhelm whole caravans of travellers, cattle and people together; for in passing this heath, in a windy day, I was so far in danger of smothering with the clouds of sand, which were raised by the storm, that I cou'd neither keep it out of my mouth, nose or eyes; and when the wind was over, the sand appeared spread over the adjacent fields of the forest some miles distant, so as that it ruins the very soil.'

  4. Surrey: the effect of chalk on a traveller - 'From this town of Guilford, the road to Farnham is very remarkable, for it runs along west from Guilford, upon the ridge of a high chalky hill, so narrow that the breadth of the road takes up the breadth of the hill, and the declivity begins on either hand, at the very hedge that bounds the highway, and is very steep, as well as very high; from this hill is a prospect either way, so far that 'tis surprising; and one sees to the north, or N.W. over the great black desart, call'd Bagshot-Heath, mentioned above, one way, and the other way south east into Sussex, almost to the South Downs, and west to an unbounded length, the horizon only restraining the eyes: This hill being all chalk, a traveller feels the effect of it in a hot summer's day, being scorch'd by the reflection of the sun from the chalk, so as to make the heat almost insupportable; and this I speak by my own experience.'

  5. London: swallowing up the surrounding villages - 'It is the disaster of London, as to the beauty of its figure, that it is thus stretched out in buildings, just at the pleasure of every builder, or undertaker of buildings, and as the convenience of the people directs, whether for trade, or otherwise; and this has spread the face of it in a most straggling, confus'd manner, out of all shape, uncompact, and unequal ... We see several villages, formerly standing, as it were, in the country, and at a great distance, now joyn'd to the streets by continued buildings, and more making haste to meet in the like manner ... That Westminster is in a fair way to shake hands with Chelsea, as St. Gyles's is with Marybone; and Great Russel Street by Montague House, with Tottenham-Court: all this is very evident, and yet all these put together, are still to be called London: Whither will this monstrous city then extend? and where must a circumvallation or communication line of it be placed?'

  6. The Fens: the ominous sound of bitterns - 'This part is indeed very properly call'd Holland, for 'tis a flat, level, and often drowned country, like Holland itself; here the very ditches are navigable, and the people pass from town to town in boats, as in Holland: Here we had the uncouth musick of the bittern, a bird formerly counted ominous and presaging, and who, as fame tells us, (but as I believe no body knows) thrusts its bill into a reed, and then gives the dull, heavy groan or sound, like a sigh, which it does so loud, that with a deep base, like the sound of a gun at a great distance, 'tis heard two or three miles, (say the people) but perhaps not quite so far.'

  7. Nottingham: its vaults and cellars - 'The town of Nottingham is situated upon the steep ascent of a sandy rock; which is consequently remarkable, for that it is so soft that they easily work into it for making vaults and cellars, and yet so firm as to support the roofs of those cellars two or three under one another; the stairs into which, are all cut out of the solid, tho' crumbling rock; and we must not fail to have it be remember'd that the bountiful inhabitants generally keep these cellars well stock'd with excellent ALE; nor are they uncommunicative in bestowing it among their friends. as some in our company experienc'd to a degree not fit to be made matter of history.'

  8. Yorkshire: magical springs - 'The country people told us a long story here of gipsies which visit them often in a surprising manner. We were strangely amused with their discourses at first, forming our ideas from the word, which, in ordinary import with us, signifies a sort of strolling, fortune-telling, hen-roost-robbing, pocket-picking vagabonds, called by that name. But we were soon made to understand the people, as they understood themselves here, namely, that at some certain seasons, for none knows when it will happen, several streams of water gush out of the earth with great violence, spouting up a huge heighth, being really natural jette d'eaus or fountains; that they make a great noise, and, joining together, form little rivers, and so hasten to the sea. I had not time to examine into the particulars; and as the irruption was not just then to be seen, we could say little to it: That which was most observable to us, was, that the country people have a notion that whenever those gipsies, or, as some call 'em, vipseys, break out, there will certainly ensue either famine or plague.'

  9. Dumfries: a fine palace in a hideous landscape - 'We could not pass Dumfries without going out of the way upwards of a day, to see the castle of Drumlanrig, the fine palace of the Duke of Queensberry ... Drumlanrig, like Chatsworth in Darbyshire, is like a fine picture in a dirty grotto, or like an equestrian statue set up in a barn; 'tis environ'd with mountains, and that of the wildest and most hideous aspect in all the south of Scotland; as particularly that of Enterkin, the frightfullest pass, and most dangerous that I met with, between that and Penmenmuir in North Wales; but of that in its place...' 

  10. Stirling: the meanders of the River Forth - 'The Governor's lady (who was the Countess Dowager of Marr, when we were there, and mother of the late exil'd Earl of Marr), had a very pretty little flower-garden, upon the body of one of the bastions, or towers of the castle, the ambrusiers, serving for a dwarf-wall round the most part of it; and they walk'd to it from her Ladyship's apartment upon a level, along the castle-wall.  As this little, but very pleasant spot, was on the north side of the castle, we had from thence a most agreeable prospect indeed over the valley and the river; as it is truly beautiful, so it is what the people of Sterling justly boast of, and, indeed seldom forget it, I mean the meanders, or reaches of the River Forth. They are so spacious, and return so near themselves, with so regular and exactly a sweep, that, I think, the like is not to be seen in Britain, if it is in Europe, especially where the river is so large also. The River Sein, indeed, between Paris and Roan, fetches a sweep something like these some miles longer, but then it is but one; whereas here are three double reaches, which make six returns together, and each of them three long Scots miles, or more in length; and as the bows are almost equal for breadth, as the reaches are for length, it makes the figure compleat. It is an admirable sight indeed.' 

Unknown painter, Broad Quay Bristol, early 18th century

Friday, September 25, 2015

A chromatic view of the Earth

In his history of ballooning, Falling Upwards, Richard Holmes mentions 'the first aerial drawings ever made from a balloon basket'.  He is referring to the engravings accompanying Airopaidia (1785) by Thomas Baldwin, an account of a flight from Chester to Warrington.  In addition to a map of the route there are three of these, each of a different kind.  The most traditional (above) shows a view of the balloon itself, heading over the the Crag of Helsbye.  But this landscape is very different from the flattened prospect Baldwin observed from above, where the 'lofty Summit was apparently reduced to a common Level with the Valley made by the River Wever, and with the adjacent Sea Marsh.  Nor could it have been distinguished by a Stranger, as an Eminence.’

The 'Specimen of Balloon Geography' below gives an idea of what Baldwin actually saw from the balloon.  Having taken a map with him, he was surprised to see how different the landscape appeared, revealing for example the ‘incredible Variety of most beautiful Curves, into which the Stream had worked the Bed of the River Wever in a Course of Time’.  Altitude and a new perspective transformed the colours of familiar landmarks: the River Dee was the ‘Colour of red lead’ and Chester, thanks to its roof slates, appeared blue.  Sunlight on pits or ponds of water gave the ground the appearance of an inverted firmament.  Distance lent clarity to the scene below and reduced the landscape to a simplified range of primary colours.  ‘This unmixed Coloration of Objects, from a vertical Situation only, to be seen without Refraction, is a new singular and pleasing Phenomenon.  A View, taken above the Level of the Clouds, may, from this Circumstance, without Impropriety, be called a CHROMATIC VIEW of the Earth: of which, the Print is an Example.’

The final engraving is a curious circular image, slightly reminiscent of Dante's Paradiso.  There are instructions to the reader for viewing this, which might still work if you are looking at this blog post on a mobile device.  Lay it flat on a table and view it through a small opening made by rolling a piece of paper into a tube whilst shutting the other eye.  You will then 'form a very accurate Idea of the Manner, in which the Prospect below was represented gradually in Succession, to the Aironaut; whose Sight was bounded by a Circularity of Vapour.' 

The balloonist has 360 degrees to contemplate in a state of perfect calm and soothing silence.  One can look down at the landscape or around and above at the cloudscape.  Thomas Baldwin saw these choices in terms of the Beautiful and the Sublime, well established categories by this point (Edmund Burke's book on the subject had appeared in 1757).  Early in the voyage he writes of being unable to 'withstand the Temptation of indulging his Eye with a View of the glorious and enchanting Prospect.  But the Beautiful among the Objects below was still more attractive than the Sublime among those around.’  Later though he concludes that a balloon ride offers a synthesis: ‘the BEAUTIFUL and SUBLIME were seen united, in a Manner perfectly novel and engaging.'

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The abandoned city of Prypiat

Not long ago, camping on the edge of a field, a passing child saw me reading Tim Dee's Four Fields (it's cover a flat grey landscape) and pronounced "that looks boring".  If he had stopped to listen I might have explained that the Fens are a lot more interesting than they appear and furthermore that the book's other 'fields' involve drowning wildebeest, Custer's Last Stand and the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.  At Chernobyl, Tim spends five days with scientists Tim Mousseau and Anders Pape Moller and is given the task of capturing grasshoppers in a bag ('the clicks of their legs against the plastic like the ticks of the radiation meter next to them').  He describes a forest so poisoned that for a time even microbial life was destroyed, a village where uncollected scrap metal, remnants of civilisation, slowly rots, an old military airfield which had been intended as a base for the Soviet space shuttle.  The journey ends in the abandoned city of Prypiat, where trees have engulfed everything and the roads are almost all impassable...
'The asphalt surface is split as if rotten, and welters around strapping trunks.  Every two- and three-storey building has been overgrown and is deep in tree shade.  Leaf ghosts camouflage grey concrete panels, where last year's emulsified foliage has printed itself on to the walls,  This year's leaves are adjacent and ready.  In other places the concrete is veined with green deltas of moss and water runs up as well as down.  The buildings seep...' 
Prypiat was the U.S.S.R.'s ninth nuclear city, built in 1970 to service the workers at Chernobyl.  Its ruins are increasingly well-explored and photographed and are possibly too rich in symbolism to offer much scope for artists.  They have appeared in music videos and TV programmes (an episode of Top Gear), fictionalised in novels, movies and video games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.  It is now possible to go on tourist trips to see the dead city but restrictions on access have allowed some non-professional artists to receive attention for their work.  The Daily Telegraph published a set of photographs by 'Michael Day, 29, an air traffic controller from London' who 'visited the disaster scene with a Ukrainian government escort to photograph the ghost town'.  The drone footage in Postcards from Pripyat (above) was put together in his spare time by a photographer working for CBS.  In a crowd-funded project, Prypyat mon Amour, Alina Rudya has returned to the city her parents left in 1986 to take ghostly photographs of herself in and around what remains of their old apartment block; a book is due out next year to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary. 

 S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat

Tim Dee mentions trying to record birdsong in the Zone, but it was so quiet in September that he gave up trying.  All he could hear on playback were the buzzes and clicks of the machine.  When I read this I thought of sound artist Peter Cusack: on his Sounds from dangerous places site you can listen to recordings like 'Cuckoo and radiometer, Pripyat'.  As I wrote here back in 2009, Cusack found nature thriving at Chernobyl: 'radiation seems to have had a negligible effect. The increase in wildlife numbers and variety means that the natural sounds of springtime are particularly impressive. For me the passionate species rich dawn chorus became Chernobyl’s definitive sound'.  Tim Dee, working with the biologists, saw things very differently: 'one in ten of all birds of all species are afflicted in the Zone.'  Research continues.  Tim Mousseau was interviewed in the New York Times last year about new research on adaptation in some bird species.  He still 'dismisses the idea that the Zone is some kind of post-apocalyptic Eden.  But the latest study has given him pause, he said, because it shows the kind of adaptations that may allow some creatures — chaffinches and great tits in this case, though not barn swallows or robins — to thrive in the Zone. However, it remains to be seen whether these species are truly thriving...'  Mousseau is broadening and deepening his research around Chernobyl, but he now has to divide his time.  Since 2011 he has made more than ten trips to Fukishima.

(Note: The name of the city is spelt differently by different writers: In 'Four Fields' it is 'Prypiat'.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


A few weeks back I got round to watching the excellent Mike Leigh film, Mr. Turner.  The clip I have embedded above shows him arriving at the Royal Academy on varnishing day and greeting various recognisable figures.  There is a warm greeting  for Sir John Soane - "As I live and breath", "My old friend!" - but a frosty one for John Constable.  There follows the oft-related incident of the red buoy.  This is how it was retold a few years ago in one of several newspaper articles on the artists' 'feud', prompted by an exhibition at the which put their their two paintings side by side again.
Back in 1832, Constable was at last exhibiting The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 'a painting on which he had been working for almost 15 years, at the Royal Academy.  In the final days, he laboriously put his finishing touches to the busy scene in the gallery.  But Turner stole the show with a single daub of red paint.  Seeing that in comparison his serene seascape, Helvoetsluys, was a little lacking in colour, he entered the room, painted a small red buoy in the middle of his canvas - which had only taken him a few months to compose - and left without saying a word.  Constable, mortified by Turner's deft touch, remarked: "He has been here and fired a gun."'
J. M. W. Turner, Helvoetsluys, 1832

Watching these two landscape artists portrayed on screen prompted me to wonder about other possible films.  Perhaps a prequel, like The Godfather Part II, concerning Turner's younger days could be made, with another actor brought in to play him - the De Niro to Timothy Spall's Brando.  I can imagine Martin Gayford's book Constable in Love, which I recently referred to here, being successfully adapted (but Google for films about this artist and you get Carry on Constable, which suggests a rather more irreverent approach to the subject).  There are numerous other possibilities...  humour, conflict and good scenery in films about artists abroad for example - John Robert Cozens on his travels with the eccentric William Beckford, or Thomas Jones and Francis Towne encountering bandits in the hills of Italy.  A drama based on the relationship between William Blake and his acolytes The Ancients would be fascinating.  With a big SFX budget, John Martin's cinematic paintings could somehow be translated into film, and his life story was not without incident (his brother set fire to York Minster).

There was an article in Sight and Sound last year by Michael Brooke about artists on film, but very few of them could be considered landscape artists.  Perhaps their lives have been relatively undramatic.  Van Gogh is an exception, of all artists probably the most frequently portrayed.  I recall enjoying two films which came out in fairly quick succession: Vincent and Theo (1990) with Tim Roth (long before his recent turn as Sepp Blatter in that FIFA-funded movie about FIFA), and Vincent (1987) which was particularly effective because it used the artist's wonderful letters, voiced by John Hurt.  Of course Paul Gauguin, another revolutionary painter of landscape, will normally have a prominent role in films about Van Gogh - Anthony Quinn won an Oscar for portraying him in Lust for Life (1956) - but there don't seem to have been major films featuring contemporaries like Monet or Cézanne.  Notwithstanding the success of Mr. Turner, more artist biopics would I think be less welcome than more oblique takes on their art - Michael Brooke mentions unusual treatments of Munch, Hockney and Picasso.  He also refers to The Quince Tree Sun (1992), a film perhaps reminiscent of Monet's experiments or the doubts of Cézanne, as it concentrates on a painter 'as he tries – and frequently fails – to capture the effect of light reacting to the leaves and fruit of the quince tree in his garden'. 


Friday, September 11, 2015

Tea at Furlongs

I have not had a chance to say anything here yet about the Dulwich Picture Gallery's Eric Ravilious exhibition.  Reviewers loved it: Laura Cumming described the paintings as 'exhilarating, enthralling and outstandingly beautiful', Martin Gayford thought them 'irresistible' and Richard Dorment found them 'a joy from start to finish'.  From a landscape perspective he is fascinating, with those subtle distortions, unusual textures and patterns, curious perspectives and framing devices all combining to give the paintings their unique and hard-to-define quality.  The exhibition included the full range of his war paintings - submarine interiors, fortified beaches, aircraft in flight and remarkable visions of ships illuminated by the Arctic sun which suggest what he might have gone on to paint if he had not been on the air-sea rescue plane that disappeared off the coast of Iceland in September 1942.  It was easy to turn from these and enjoy watercolours from the 1930s of fireworks, flowers and fields.  Tea at Furlongs seemed relatively uncomplicated, with its tasty-looking spread and view of the countryside: 'beyond the garden wall the wheat is almost ready to harvest , and Beddingham Hill rises to meet a sky as yet untroubled by hostile squadrons.'  However, as James Russell goes on to say in the catalogue, the oddities of light and perspective suggest a scene that was 'designed to be remembered - not any old tea at Furlongs but the last, the tea that must be preserved against all eventualities.'

Eric Ravilious, Tea at Furlongs, 1939

At Furlongs, Ravilious was a guest of Peggy Angus, whom he had met when they were students at the Royal College of Art.  She had left London in 1933 to teach in Sussex and found a tenant farmer willing to let her rent a cottage with a spare room, next door to a ploughman who appears in some of Ravilious's paintings.   Life there, Russell writes, 'involved a good day's work, scratch meals and long evenings of music and song.  Water had to be hauled out of a well and amenities consisted of a primitive stove for cooking and an earth closet in the garden.'  Furlongs is quite a long walk from any main road but my parents went to look at it this summer and have sent me the photographs below.  Apparently the current owners are building a new wall, perhaps prompted by the increase in visitors as Ravilious's popularity continues to grow.  This cottage has an important place in British art history as the inspiration for some of Ravilious's best known work, like Train Landscape and The Wilmington Giant.  'Furlongs', he wrote, 'altered my whole outlook and way of painting, I think because the colour of the landscape was so lovely and the design so beautifully obvious...'