Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Pink and White Terraces

Charles Blomfield, Pink Terraces, 1886
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this month news came in that the lost terraces of Lake Rotomahana had been discovered.  The Pink Terrace (Te Otukapuarangi - 'the fountain of the clouded sky') and the White Terrace (Te Tarata - 'the tattooed rock') were three quarters of a mile apart, each a descending sequence of pools formed by silica in the water that welled up from geothermal springs.  Having first been described by a European traveller in the early 1840s, they become a major tourist attraction for visitors to New Zealand; but in 1886, following an eruption of Mount Tarawera, they disappeared.  Two researchers now think the terraces may lie preserved under mud and ash and are assembling a “team of the willing” to explore the site.  However, in its report The Guardian cautions that another team thought they had found the terraces in 2011, and only last year GNS Science New Zealand concluded that most of them had been destroyed.

 Charles Blomfield, White Terraces, Rotomahana, 1903
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Some photographs were taken of the terraces (see below), but our main idea of what they looked like comes from the paintings of Charles Blomfield (1848-1926).  He began making landscape views in the North Island in the 1870s and the sketches he made of the Pink and White Terraces were source material for paintings long after the landscape had been buried.  Contemporary travel writers felt the inadequacy of words to convey the form and colours of what was before them.  In The Australian Abroad (1879) James Hingston was unequal to the task of describing Te Tarata: 'we had better stop until we get the shade of J. M. W. Turner, that great painter of the mystic, to assist us.'  However, as Lydia Wevers says in Country of Writing: Travel Writing and New Zealand, 'like many travel writers who apostrophise the indescribability of the terraces, Hingston proceeds to describe them for several paragraphs.'

Charles Spencer, Hot Water Cups, White Terrace, 1880
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1877 the prolific travel writer and painter Constance Gordon-Cumming visited Lake Rotomahana (her account can be read in Chapter XXV of At Home in Fiji).  The White Terraces were 'in nature what the Taj Mahal at Agra is in architecture, — a thing indescribable — a fairy city of lace carved in pure marble, — a thousand waterfalls suddenly frozen and fringed with icicles.'  The next day she took in Te Otukapuarangi and 'got a large very careful drawing from the ridge overlooking these terraces, with our tent and the white terraces on the other side of the lake.'  Lydia Wevers criticises the proprietorial birds-eye view Gordon-Cumming adopted in her sketches and the very Victorian attitude of colonial entitlement evident in her writing.  After painting the landscape she got into a dispute over whether a payment should be made to the local Maori (they had been asking £5 for a photograph and thought paintings would warrant a higher fee).

The Pink Terrace, New Zealand 
from Oceana, or England and her Colonies by James Anthony Froude (1886)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before this unpleasantness over money occurred, Constance Gordon-Cumming had been relaxing in the waters of the Pink Terraces.  You can see from a description like this why people would be motivated to try to find them again, though surely their original magic would be unrecoverable:
'Rock and water are alike smooth and warm and pleasant, and you can prolong the delight of the bath to any extent, passing from one pool to another, sometimes receiving a gentle shower as the sparkling drops trickle from the overhanging rim of a pool, perhaps eight or ten feet above you, or else lying still in passive enjoyment, and watching the changing lights that flit across lake and hill, and all the time the kindly water is coating you with a thin film of that silica which makes the bath so smooth and the bather so silky'
I will conclude here with another description of this experience from perhaps the most famous visitor to the terraces, Anthony Trollope.  He was there in 1873 and remarked on the shell-like appearance of these natural pools, in which 'four or five may sport ... each without feeling the presence of the other.'
'In the bath, when you strike your chest against it, it is soft to the touch. You press yourself against it, and it is smooth. You lie upon it, and though it is firm, it gives to you. You plunge against the sides, driving the water over your body, but you do not bruise yourself. ... I have never heard of other bathing like this in the world.'

Charles Blomfield, White Terraces, Rotomahana, 1897
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Great Forest

Jacob van Ruisdael, The Great Forest, 1655-60

Peter Handke's text The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire (1980) unsurprisingly focuses on Cézanne and the landscape of Provence, but it ends with a painting by Ruisdael, The Great Forest, which can be seen in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, and a detailed description of a walk to an unregarded stretch of woodland on the outskirts of Salzburg.  As Handke points out, the title of Ruisdael's painting may simply refer to its size (1800 x 1390cm) rather than the scale of the forest it depicts, which at first sight hardly appears 'great'.  Then again, perhaps in this picture we are only at the beginning of the forest.  The wayfarer may simply have 'turned to cast a look before going deeper into the woods.  The feeling of spaciousness is further intensified by a peculiarity of seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes: for all the minuteness of their forms, they nevertheless, with their patches of water, their roads over dunes, their dark woods (under spacious skies), begin to grow as one beholds them' (trans. Ralph Manheim).

The woodland Handke walks to from Salzberg is also nothing like a great forest, 'yet it is wonderfully real'.  Few in Salzberg know of this space, lying between the city and the castle of Hellbrunn: 'here there are only logging roads and irregular paths, and you seldom see a walker; at the most you may hear a jogger's panting and see the skin of this face, mask replacing mask, change from dead to alive and back again at every step.'  Handke's description of the forest is as detailed as Ruisdael's and as attentive to light and colour.  Trying to follow his route on Google Earth (see my aerial view of the woodland below) only emphasises the unreality of that medium as it currently stands and its inadequacy in comparison with Handke's prose.  But this is not an idyllic landscape isolated from the surrounding suburbs.  At the end of his walk, Handke stands looking at polystyrene floating on a pond and a woodpile covered in plastic tarp.  We know from earlier in the book that a woodpile has complex associations for Handke and here in the woods it stimulates a kind of epiphany, a brief Tree of Life-style cosmic reverie.  The forest opens onto a vast spaciousness that encompasses both space and time.  Then it is over and he takes a deep breath and sets off back along the path to return to the city.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Pure light flooding the rock walls

There is a new article on China and its rivers in Lapham's Quarterly by Philip Ball, author of The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China.  He says that Chinese culture is orientated along the course of its rivers, West-East, from the mountains of Tibet to the Pacific Ocean.  The sources of its two greatest waterways, the Yangtze and the Yellow River, were debated for centuries.  The Ming Dynasty writer Xu Xiake (Hsü Hsia-k'o, 1587–1641) thought the Yangtze had its ultimate origin on the Qinghai plateau.  Nobody, Ball thinks, 'better personifies the Chinese devotion to its great rivers' than the inveterate traveller Xu Xiake.  According to a contemporary he 'used towering crags for his bed, streams and gullies for refreshment, and found companionship among fairies, trolls, apes, and baboons, with the result that he became unable to think logically and could not speak. However, as soon as we discussed mountain paths, investigated water sources or sought out superior geographical terrain, his mind suddenly became clear again.'

Xu Xiake 400th anniversary stamps

In Richard E. Strassberg's anthology of Chinese travel writing Inscribed Landscapes there are two extracts from the Diaries Xu put together at the end of each day.  In the first, written in May 1613, he visits Tiantai Mountain, where the famous Tang Dynasty poet Hanshan and his companion Shide lived in retreat.  I have written here before about a more recent attempt to find the geographical source of Hanshan's poetry - perhaps there's a parallel with the search for the source of a great river.  Xu died before his writing could be polished up for publication, so the Diaries retain the freshness of direct observation.  According to Strassberg 'his descriptions include visionary perceptions of Nature as an ever-fascinating texture of interacting phenomena.  He incorporates lyric responses to the environment in short, poetic phrases'.  Here is a brief example (published online) from the journey to Tiantai Mountain. 
'Outside the cave were two crags to the left, both located halfway up the cliffs. On the right was a rock shaped like a bamboo shoot jutting upward. Its top was even with one of the cliffs and separated from it by no more than a hairline. Green pines and purple flowers flourished on top. It complements perfectly the crags to the left—it could certainly be called a marvel. Exited through Eight-Inch Pass, climbed up another crag, also on the left. I looked up at it as I approached and it resembled a cleft, but when I reached the top it was spacious enough to hold several hundred people. There was a well in the middle named "Transcendent's Well"—shallow and yet inexhaustible. Beyond the crag was a particularly unusual rock several tens of feet high with a forked top resembling two men. The monk described it as "Han-shan and Shih-te." Stopped at the monastery there. After a meal, the clouds dispersed and the new moon appeared in the sky. I stood on the summit of this undulating cliff and watched the pure light flood the rock walls.'
 
Dai Benxiao, The Strange Pines of Tiantai, 1687
Source: The Met

Xiake means 'mistlike traveler'.  According to the World of Chinese website, 'Xu Xiake is worshipped as the father of Chinese backpacking, and several of the routes he traversed some 400 years ago remain in use today.'  A couple of years ago Tony Perrottet retraced one of his routes for an interesting travel article in The Smithsonian.  I'll end here with a quote from this, but the whole piece is worth reading.  
'Traveling into the remoter regions of Yunnan is still a challenge. Squeezed into tiny bus seats on bone-jarring cliff highways and bartering for noodles in roadside stalls, I began to realize that few in the Chinese government can have actually read Xu Xiake’s diary. Despite his devotion to travel, he is an ambiguous poster boy for its pleasures, and as his diary attests, he suffered almost every mishap imaginable on his Yunnan journey.
He was robbed three times, contracted mysterious diseases and was lost and swindled. After one hapless mountain guide led him in circles, Xu questioned the whole effort: “I realized this was the most inauspiciously timed of a lifetime’s travels.” On another occasion, while waiting for funds after a theft, he became so broke he sold his clothes to buy food. He once recited poetry in exchange for mushrooms.

Sadly, Xu’s traveling companion, a monk named Jingwen, fell ill with dysentery on the road and died. He was an eccentric character who apparently carried a copy of the Lotus Sutra written in his own blood, but he was devoted to Xu, becoming injured while defending him from a violent robbery. Xu, devastated, decided to bury his friend’s remains at the ostensible goal of the journey, a sacred peak called Jizu Shan, which is now almost entirely forgotten by travelers. I decided to follow his footsteps there, too. [...]  The site felt like a poignant memorial to Xu Xiake himself. When he buried his friend here in 1638, Xu was uncharacteristically weary of travel. “Now with (my) soul broken at the end of the world,” he mourned, “I can only look alone.”

Friday, June 02, 2017

The ruins of Karnak

Paul Nash, The Wanderer (detail), 1911
Source: British Museum

The British Museum currently has an exhibition of British landscape watercolours which focuses on the period 1850-1950, the century after the Golden Age.  It includes familiar names that I have often featured here - Samuel Palmer, John Ruskin, James McNeill Whistler, Paul Nash (see above). There are also landscapes by artists more usually associated with other genres - John Singer Sargent (society portraits), Anna Airy (war workers), Hubert von Herkomer (depictions of the poor).  And there are the somewhat forgettable Victorian artists with their double names - Alfred William Hunt, George Pryce Boyce, Edward John Poynter - whose picturesque views are painted beautifully but don't stick in the mind very long.  One of the things you realise from this show is how many now-rather-obscure artists were renowned at the time and made a fortune from their paintings.  I made a note of one nice winter scene by William Russell Flint, who you would be forgiven for not having heard of, even though he was knighted in 1947 (according to Wikipedia he 'enjoyed considerable commercial success but little respect from art critics, who were disturbed by a perceived crassness in his eroticized treatment of the female figure.') 

William Russell Flint quote (after Thomas à Kempis) from 1924,
on display at the Places of the mind: British watercolour landscapes 1850–1950

The British Museum has been collecting watercolours for a long time - the exhibition includes one painting by Francis Towne that was part of his bequest in 1816.  Some parts of its collection have never been seen publicly before, including one work by an artist about whom very little is now known, Henry Stanier.  According to the Guardian, 'the long-awaited public showing comes 113 or so years after the death of the artist' (who was waiting for it they don't say - perhaps we all were, without knowing it).  Kim Sloan, this exhibition's curator 'discovered the huge watercolour in an obscure corner of the museum more than 10 years ago, when she was looking for the original frames for some Turner watercolours.  To her astonishment she found not just empty frames, but three paintings by Stanier, an artist she had never heard of. They appear to have been stashed away in the 1950s without ever being recorded in the museum’s collection.'  The unearthing of this view of the temple complex at Karnak sunds almost like an act of archaeology.  Karnak itself continues to yield new finds a century after Stanier was there and you wonder how much else there is to find in the recesses of the British Museum.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

The Gibberd Garden


We made a trip this week to see Sir Frederick Gibberd's garden, created between 1957 and 1984, and located just outside Harlow, the New Town for which he was chief architect.  Gibberd's best known design is probably Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (aka 'Paddy's Wigwam'), a building I've always rather liked although Gibberd himself was sued for £1.3m over leaks and defects in the tiling (which have had to be replaced).  He was also involved in some key post-War industrial buildings - the original Heathrow Terminal buildings, the recently-demolished Didcot A Power Station - and a few of his garden's metal and concrete sculptures and salvaged objects have the look of once-futuristic constructions that have seen better days.  As a private collector Gibberd wouldn't have had resources to buy sculptures by world-renowned artists, although there is a piece by David Nash (see below).  Nor can the artworks compete with those made by practising artists like Barbara Hepworth and Ian Hamilton Finlay for their own gardens.  But Gibberd, as a planner and landscape architect, made good use of the site, turning the hillside and stream into a sequence of spaces with some sculptures set to catch the eye and others that you almost stumble upon.


There is an article about Gibberd by his grandson that praises the moated castle he built for his grandchildren in one corner of the site using recycled pieces of wood - my sons certainly enjoyed this too.  The garden feature we liked best was also recycled - two mossy Corinthian columns shaded by trees with real acanthus growing at their base to echo the stone foliage above.  This 'temple' fragment could almost have come from that erotic Renaissance idyll, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili; in fact the pillars were designed in 1831 by John Nash for a commercial building on The Strand in London, and salvaged by Gibberd when his firm redesigned it in the 1970s for Coutts Bank.  I am sure they are more appreciated in this garden among the trees than they would be on what is now the eighteenth most polluted street in Britain.


The garden must have been a pleasant place to relax in, but whether it was possible to enjoy it as a classical retreat or hortus conclusus I rather doubt.  I tried to record a chaffinch singing over the bright sound of water in the brook but by the time I had my phone out all you could hear was the slow rumble of an aeroplane flying overhead.  The embankment at the end of the garden carries a busy train line into Harlow.  Sculptures are largely absent from the adjacent arboretum, making all the more noticeable some overhead wires crossing the space above and a line of warning signs (see above) marking the presence of a gas pipeline under the grass.  You suspect though that Gibberd would not really have minded all these reminders that the garden is not separated off from the modern world he was so active in designing

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Trees that in moving keep their intervals

A constant keeping-past of shaken trees,
And a bewildered glitter of loose road;
Banks of bright growth, with single blades atop
Against white sky; and wires—a constant chain—
That seem to draw the clouds along with them
(Things which one stoops against the light to see
Through the low window; shaking by at rest,
Or fierce like water as the swiftness grows);
And, seen through fences or a bridge far off,
Trees that in moving keep their intervals
Still one 'twixt bar and bar; and then at times
Long reaches of green level, where one cow,
Feeding among her fellows that feed on,
Lifts her slow neck, and gazes for the sound.
These lines describe a train journey from London to Folkestone on 27 September 1849.  It was the end of a decade of remarkable expansion, when railways had developed from isolated lines to a national network, and the novelty of moving at speed through the countryside is evident in this poetry.  Ironically though, the writer - twenty-one-year-old Dante Gabriel Rossetti - was heading into the past, to see the medieval architecture and paintings of Paris, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp.  He was accompanied on the trip by William Holman Hunt and addressed his verse letters home to the recently formed Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.   Among these are poems inspired by the places they visited - Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Field of Waterloo etc. - but they are interspersed by accounts of the journey itself and the embodied experience of moving through landscape.  Rossetti, as a painter, was also fascinated by the way the carriage windows framed what was visible, and how the railway line itself recomposed its surroundings.  The reference in the lines above to wires and clouds reminds me of what I wrote here last week about Fog Lines.  I will reproduce a few more examples of this landscape-in-motion poetry here.  The full set of poem can be read at the Rossetti Archive.

Having reached Folkestone and sailed the 'the iron-coloured sea' to Boulogne, the travellers took a train to Amiens and thence to Paris.
The sea has left us, but the sun remains.
Sometimes the country spreads aloof in tracts
Smooth from the harvest; sometimes sky and land
Are shut from the square space the window leaves
By a dense crowd of trees, stem behind stem
Passing across each other as we pass:
Sometimes tall poplar-wands stand white, their heads
Outmeasuring the distant hills.
From Paris they made an excursion by train to Versailles.
The wind has ceased, or is a feeble breeze
Warm in the sun. The leaves are not yet dry
From yesterday's dense rain. All, low and high,
A strong green country; but, among its trees,
Ruddy and thin with Autumn. After these
There is the city still before the sky.
Versailles is reached. Pass we the galleries
And seek the gardens...
At the end of their stay in Paris, they took the train to Belgium.  Rossetti struggled to sleep (insomnia would plague him in later life) and there were several stops at stations where he looked in some wonder at the train itself.  'The mist of crimson heat / Hangs, a spread glare, about our engine's bulk.'  The landscape they passed on this journey was anything but picturesque. 
A sky too dull for cloud. A country lain
In fields, where teams drag up the furrow yet;
Or else a level of trees, the furthest ones
Seen like faint clouds at the horizon's point.
Quite a clear distance, though in vapour. Mills
That turn with the dry wind. Large stacks of hay
Made to look bleak. Dead autumn, and no sun.

The smoke upon our course is borne so near
Along the earth, the earth appears to steam.
Blanc-Misseron, the last French station, passed.
We are in Belgium.

J. M. W. Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844
 
From Brussels they travelled to the old cities of Flanders.  In Bruges Rossetti felt himself close to Van Eyck and Memling, listening to the same bells that had rung through the city when they were at work in the fifteenth century (perhaps he was thinking of the passage in Victor Hugo that I quoted earlier this month?)  I will end this selection of quotations with lines that refer to the title of Turner's famous painting, first exhibited five years earlier.  Writing recently in the LRB, Inigo Thomas says that John Ruskin, the great champion of the Pre-Raphaelites, 'never wrote a word about Rain, Steam and Speed, and he was never convinced that any train, or any idea of the ‘scientific people’, as he scornfully described them, was worthy of artistic representation.'  In 1849 Ruskin was yet to meet Rossetti and you wonder what he would have made of these railway journey poems.  They were only published decades later, two years after Rossetti's death, and given by his brother the rather prosaic title, 'A Trip to Paris and Belgium'.
The country swims with motion. Time itself
Is consciously beside us, and perceived.
Our speed is such the sparks our engine leaves
Are burning after the whole train has passed.

The darkness is a tumult. We tear on,
The roll behind us and the cry before,
Constantly, in a lull of intense speed
And thunder. Any other sound is known
Merely by sight. The shrubs, the trees your eye
Scans for their growth, are far along in haze.
The sky has lost its clouds, and lies away
Oppressively at calm: the moon has failed:
Our speed has set the wind against us. Now
Our engine's heat is fiercer, and flings up
Great glares alongside. Wind and steam and speed
And clamour and the night. We are in Ghent.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Fog Line


A fortnight ago I was at the Wellcome Trust for an event curated by Amy Cutler in which artists, musicians and academics re-soundtracked nature documentaries by performing texts, improvising music and creating alternative soundscapes.  The ways in which animals are filmed and presented to viewers are continually changing (demonstrated vividly last year in the BBC's Zoo Quest in Colour) and this event included footage made with very different purposes in mind, from the scientific (Julian Huxley) to the surreal (Jean Painlevé).  As someone who grew up with Animal Magic and Johnny Morris doing amusing voiceovers to the 'antics' of zoo creatures, I've always viewed nature programmes with some suspicion and they clearly offer a rich field for academic enquiry, raising many more questions than the obvious ones around anthropomorphism.  The reason for mentioning the Wellcome Trust event here is that two of the performers, Justin Hopper and Sterling MacKinnon, chose not to soundtrack a nature documentary, performing instead to Larry Gottheim's seminal landscape film, Fog Line (1970). 



In introducing this performance Amy said that her students hate it when she makes them sit through Fog Line.  If this seems hard to believe, check out the hostility of the film's lone reviewer on IMDB.  In The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place, Scott MacDonald describes a kind of blindness in people who are asked to watch it.  'When I ask viewers immediately after a screening of Fog Line what they've just seen, a frequent response is a sardonic "Nothing!"'  Many are unaware that there are horses in the film, shadowy forms that become visible about two thirds of the way through.  It is as if the static camera, slow silence and gradual evaporation of the fog condition the viewer into thinking nothing at all will happen.  MacDonald suggests that an inability to notice the horses also reflects a refusal to see the filmmaker 'as the designer of the image'; in fact Gottheim chose his location partly because he had observed horses moving in and out of the space.

In his discussion of the film, MacDonald suggests that it presents the viewer with three conundrums: why did Gottheim include the wires, how is it that the horses appear so small compared to the trees, and what is that blurry grey disc, like a dark sun, that appears above the trees?  The answers illustrate Gottheim's interest in the way landscape vision is mediated through technology.  Those power lines offer a frame to measure the change in our field of vision, from blankness to a flat grey pattern and finally a three-dimensional space.  The depth of field that seems to distort what would naturally be seen by someone on the spot is the result of using a telephoto lens.  And that mysterious disc in the sky is simply a smudge on the camera that Gottheim did not remove - even if the film lasted longer than the last of the fog, we would never see the landscape perfectly.

I had only ever seen Fog Line in silence, though never of course in absolute silence, and as I watch it now the lifting fog is accompanied by the hum of my computer, a distant intermittent drill and the slow rumble of an aeroplane.  Nevertheless, the film itself projects a sense of quiet, and it is easy to imagine the fog muting any ambient sound.  At the Wellcome Trust, Fog Line was accompanied by a gradual amplification, with the emergence of recognisable landscape features echoed in the way a spoken fragment - 'Fogs also vary' - was repeated with more and more words until it became William Gilpin's complete sentence: 'Fogs also vary a distant country as much as light, soften the harsh features of landscape and spreading over them a beautiful, grey, harmonising tint.'

In preparing his piece, Justin discovered that Fog Line was filmed near the small town (Binghamton, New York) where he grew up.  So, after the Gilpin quote, he included words to evoke the 'physical and psychic landscape of small-town America: William S Burroughs, Walt Whitman and others. This telephone-wired and neon-lit landscape that dramatically appears from behind the fog's gauze, coming into focus just in time to snap back out again.'  It's strange, because to me those mist-covered trees and fields don't seem particularly American at all.  Instead they bring to mind the Sussex of my own childhood, although as I try now to recall that 'distant country' it slips slowly back into the fog.