Friday, April 23, 2010

Toward the Sea

I've only just spotted an excellent article published in January on 'Music and Landscape' by Tom Service. It discusses some of the composers connected with particular landscapes, but cautions against seeing a direct link with the form of their music.  'You can find the musical things that supposedly tie Elgar to the Malverns in thousands of other pieces of music: if it's undulating melodies and harmonic lushness you're after, then Richard Strauss or Gustav Mahler might as well be composers of Worcestershire as of Bavaria or Austria.'  Music inspired by landscape tends to be personal and derived from experience, rather than straightforwardly illustrative.  Connections between music and landscape are ultimately based on 'their shared temporality. To walk in a landscape – or even to drive through it – is not just to physically place yourself in it, it's to imagine it, as well; to listen to a piece of music isn't just to experience the vibrations of frequencies and overtones, it's to imagine what the music is, how it makes you feel.'  

The article centres on the description of a walk on the beach at Sanday, the island in Orkney, with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.  Just as Wordsworth composed poetry while he walked, Maxwell Davies ('Max') uses the beach as a three-dimensional stave.  'Looking at a dune a mile or so ahead of us, he explained that he says to himself: "OK, I need to get from B major to A flat major in the time it takes me to walk there." In his musical imagination, Max slows time down, and a harmonic transition that might take only seconds in performance is extended exponentially so that he can analyse and experience the notes from any angle, ironing out any infelicities he hears with the tread of his feet in the sand. The beach, its forms and its flotsam, are also part of his pieces. He told me that if a seagull mews overhead, or if he sees a sea-sculpted piece of kelp on the beach, they may nudge his imagination in a direction he hadn't considered and be written into the fabric of the music.'  I see I included a similar quotation from Maxwell Davies in a post I did on him here three years ago (if you look back you'll see I was frustrated that his website wasn't working - I'm glad to report it is now.)

Tom Service also wrote about his visit to Maxwell Davies on The Guardian's music blog in September last year, and in the following post, 'Composing the Sound of the Sea', he mentioned him again, speculating that the composer's second symphony, 'inspired by the wave-forms he saw in the sea beneath him' on the cliffs at Hoy, 'is up there with music's most successful evocations of the sea.'  His other contenders are:
  • Debussy - La Mer ('Debussy paid a fisherman to take him out in a storm off the coast of Brittany as part of his preparation for this piece; like Turner before him, he wanted to experience the violence of the sea before he represented it')
  • Sibelius - The Oceanides ('A seductive round-dance of waves, nymphs, and orchestral colour')
  • Britten - Peter Grimes ('The sea as psychology')
  • Bax - Tintagel ('The sea as big tune – nothing wrong with that')
  • Xenakis - Kyania  ('Without risking your own life in the teeth of a Mediterranean storm, listening to Kyania puts you at the centre of a sonic surge of massive, implacable intensity')
There are not many alternative suggestions in the comments underneath the article, although one person mentions Takemitsu's Toward the Sea ('moonlit sea, suggestion of bloody great whales beneath' - this is a reference to the fact that it was written for Greenpeace's Save the Whales campaign).  Nice also to see someone refer to Ocean by my favourite band, The Velvet Underground.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Prospect of Vapourland


Sir Joshua Reynolds, Horace Walpole, c. 1756-7

You have to love Horace Walpole - aesthete, antiquary, art historian, man of letters, man of enthusiasms, inventor of the Gothic novel and designer of the extraordinary house at Strawberry Hill.  Simon Schama has a good story in Landscape and Memory about the young Walpole seeking out picturesque scenery in the Alps.  Walpole wrote, "I had brought with me a little black spaniel of King Charles’s breed, but the prettiest, fattest, dearest creature! I had let it out of the chaise for the air, and it was waddling along, close to the head of the horses, on top of one of the highest Alps, by the side of a wood of firs. There darted out a young wolf, seized poor Tory by the throat, and before we could possibly prevent it, sprung up the side of the rock and carried him off."  As Schama says, 'Walpole was the son of the formidable Whig prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, and until the lamentable encounter with the wolf had obviously enjoyed having a silk-eared, sycophantic ‘Tory’ in his lap.'

Tory wasn’t the only pet of Walpole’s that met a sticky end. When his cat drowned in a goldfish bowl it prompted Thomas Gray, Walpole’s traveling companion in the Alps, to write his ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat’ (1748):

‘Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers, that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima reclined,
Gazed on the lake below…

When Selima reached out for a fish she ‘tumbled headlong in. Eight times emerging from the flood / She mewed to every watry god, Some speedy aid to send.’ But all in vain. And thus Gray warned ‘ye beauties’ (women!) ‘not all that tempts your wand’ring eyes / And heedless hearts is lawful prize; Nor all that glisters gold.’

This Chinese vase can be seen in a wonderful exhibition currently showing at the V&A, along with other items from Walpole's collection: Renaissance maiolica, medieval coins, a French suit of armour, an Italian shield, old master paintings, portait miniatures (he was an expert on these), a sixteenth century book of swan marks, Cardinal Wolsey's hat, Dr Dee's mirror, a lock of Mary Tudor's hair and a carved limewood cravat which Walpole wore, together with the 'gloves of James I', to greet a party of guests to Strawberry Hill in 1769.  Some exhibits reminded me of objects I've considered on this blog before.  For example, there were two views of Strawberry Hill by Paul Sandby, part of a Sheldon tapestry, and a cup and saucer in the style of Wedgwood's Green Frog Service with delicate painted views of Richmond Castle, the Mausoleum at Castle Howard and Stoke Gifford in Gloucestershire.  Walpole, like Bruce Chatwin, loved the stories connected with objects.  It's easy to see how desirable, for example, he would have found Alexander Pope's own copy of The Iliad, the very book used to make Pope's celebrated translation.  This small volume has a sketch on the flyleaf drawn by the poet himself, showing Twickenham seen from Pope's Grotto.

Last week I wrote about landscapes viewed from a specific house, where the real subject of the painting is the house itself.  Walpole commissioned sketches of this kind, including a striking View from the Holbein Chamber by Joseph Charles Barrow, in which two figures are seen approaching through a strange tunnel of trees, like characters in a Gothic novel.  However, the most unusual painting in the exhibition is a dream landscape in which a distant hill takes on the form of a lion and a nearby tree is full of snakes. Painted in 1759 by Walpole's friend Richard Bentley, who helped design the Gothick rooms of Strawberry Hill, its title is A Prospect of Vapourland.


Johann Heinrich Müntz, Strawberry Hill, c. 1755-59

Friday, April 16, 2010

The bright sun was extinguish'd



With flights grounded following the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull and a cloud of volcanic ash covering the country, causing spectacular sunsets, it seems a good moment to recall Jonathan Bate's account of the impact another eruption had on Romantic poetry.  In 1815, the volcano of Tambora, in Indonesia, blasted dust into the stratosphere and cooled global temperatures.  'The effect lasted for three years, straining the growth-capacity of life across the planet. Beginning in 1816, crop failure led to food riots in nearly every country in Europe. Only in 1819 were there good harvests again'. (The Song of the Earth, 2000 p97).  It 'rained in Switzerland on 130 out of the 183 days from April to September 1816. The average temperature that July was an astonishing 4.9º Fahrenheit below the mean for that month in the years 1807-24'.  And it was during that gloomy summer that Lord Byron composed his poem ‘Darkness’ on the shores of Lake Geneva: 

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went--and came, and brought no day...

John Keats wrote his 'Ode to Autumn’ in September 1819.  Jonathan Bate argues that this poem celebrates the end of the failed harvests caused by the eruption of Tambora. In August Keats wrote to his sister Fanny:  "The delightful Weather we have had for two Months is the highest gratification I could receive--no chill'd red noses--no shivering--but fair atmosphere to think in..."  And here's the famous opening stanza of Keats' poem:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'erbrimmed their clammy cells.

1819 was Keats' great year, when he composed his other major odes, finished 'The Eve of St Agnes' and wrote 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci.'  He also fell in love with Fanny Brawne.  Wentworth Place, where Keats lived next door to the Brawnes, has been newly restored.  We paid it a visit last week and found its grey rooms, lit by the spring sunshine, less melancholy than might have been expected.  After such a long bleak winter it was a relief to enjoy the garden in "delightful Weather" that would have gladdened the poet.  This garden is a lovely spot to sit in and read, or play hide and seek, or admire the old mulberry tree that Keats himself would have seen as he looked out on the orchard. 


The old mulberry tree in the garden at Keats House,
photographed last week

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The North Gate of the Citadel

Back in 2007 I wrote briefly here on my return from Copenhagen about the landscapes of Christen Købke. On Sunday I was able to see more of the artist's work at an exhibition here in London, Christen Købke: Danish Master of Light.  In the context of the National Gallery it was easy to draw parallels with oil sketches on show there by other once-underrated artists: Thomas Jones, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes et al.  Købke followed in the footsteps of Jones and others, making the trip to south to Naples, but his best work was done in and around Copenhagen.  Wherever he worked, he seems to have followed the advice of his artistic mentor, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg: "paint from nature, no matter what it might be."


My earlier post included his painting Frederiksborg Palace in the light of evening, 1835, which shows a famous national landmark full on.   In contrast, the view below is dominated by just one of the palace towers.  The tower is a synecdoche for the palace which is a synecdoche for Denmark itself (the Danish kings and queens were crowned there).  Another larger painting, Roof Ridge at Frederiksborg, is mostly empty sky, making it seem almost abstract.  Again it shows the landscape outside the palace, rather than the palace itself, but the location is clear from the presence of one of these signature towers in the bottom left.  I suppose the owner of such a painting would be able to imagine themselves living in and looking out from the palace itself.  Købke's paintings reminded me of the view we used to have from our old flat (although this was hardly a palace and the tower outside was nineteenth century decoration).


Christen Købke, One of the Small Towers on Frederiksborg Castle,
c. 1834-5


View from the window of our old flat, Tufnell Park

Many of Christen Købke's paintings depict the Citadel - the kind of unusual, politically charged landscape that would draw the interest of contemporary artists (not to mention BLDGBLOG and Pruned).   The Citadel (Kastellet) is a series of fortifications near Copenhagen originally designed in 1626 for King Christian IV (who was also responsible for building most of Frederiksborg palace). In Købke's time it was a barracks with its own church, mill and bakery, a self sufficient community that included both soldiers and prison labourers.  Købke doesn't devise idealised scenes - the view below with its cropped figures and precise lighting looks like a photograph - but the paintings all feature his warm palette and soft Vermeer lighting. Købke grew up in the Citadel (his father was a master baker there) and these views of gateways, bridges and embankments clearly had a strong personal significance for him.


Christen Købke, The North Gate of the Citadel, 1834

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Paddle to the Sea

I have written here before about David Nash's Wooden Boulder which took twenty-five years to be carried from a Welsh river to the open sea.  Nash documented its slow progress through the landscape, but has now lost sight of it.  "The wooden boulder was last seen in June 2003 on a sandbank near Ynys Giftan. All creeks and marshes have been searched so it can only be assumed it has made its way to the sea. It is not lost. It is wherever it is.”

I've just been watching with my three year old son the short film, Paddle to the Sea, made in 1966 by Bill Mason. It follows the journey of a small wooden canoe, carved by a lonely boy in the woods of west Ontario, as it is carried by currents through lakes and rivers until eventually being found at the sea by a lighthouse keeper.  He releases it back into the Atlantic Ocean where, like Nash's boulder, its ultimate destination is unknown.




How different they are - a huge wooden boulder that Nash was unable to transport, slowly pushed to the sea when the currents are powerful enough to move it, and a light model canoe floating at the mercy of the elements.  One makes its way down to the Atlantic through the river Dwyry, the other is carried across twenty-two thousand miles of the vast Canadian landscape.  Paddle to the Sea was immediately lost to its creator, whilst the Wooden Boulder became a constant presence for Nash over a period of twenty five years.  Nash's work was accidental and its narrative unfolded by chance, whilst Mason's film is fictional, based on an original picture book by Holling C. Holling, published in 1941.

On the Criterion site Michael Koresky gives a good description of the film and describes the efforts Mason went to, taking 'the exact route through the Great Lakes and down the Saint Lawrence River illustrated in the book—both a visualization of Holling’s work and a pilgrimage. ...  The most dangerous part of the shoot was, unsurprisingly, at Niagara Falls, where Mason dropped his 16 mm camera, secured by a line anchored to a telephone pole, eighty feet down the fierce waterfall.  The filmmaking adventures notwithstanding, Paddle to the Sea is perhaps more remarkable for the patience and contemplative silences of its storytelling, beautifully typified in the placid exterior of its impervious main character. Though it’s never fully anthropomorphized by the film’s narration, the piece of wood becomes a character in its own right. Even when threatened by curious wildlife, including sea snakes, gulls, and frogs, or the looming machinery and pollution of mankind, Paddle simply smiles, an oasis of serenity amid nature’s unstoppable, alternately merciless and merciful, flow. In one of Mason’s most extraordinary moments, the tiny carved figure floats, still and upright as ever, silhouetted against a sky of blooming Fourth of July fireworks in Detroit harbor; he’s either oblivious to these odd, man-made pleasures or watching intently with alien awe, but the narrator refuses to impose a reading.'

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Harbour and Room

There is a beautiful watercolour from 1935 in the Dulwich Picture Gallery's Paul Nash: The Elements, called Empty Room.  It shows an ordinary space with a wooden floor, simple skirting board and a Victorian door, just like the room in which I'm writing this.  But a tree stump rises from the floor, cliffs make up the wall to the left, the ceiling merges into a grey sky and a cold sea is visible in the distance.  It is one of several paintings Nash did in which a landscape appears like a dream inside an empty room.  The opening out of an enclosed space seems to imply escape and release, although in this case, as James King has observed, the dead tree and white cliffs are a premonition of death.

In an earlier watercolour shown in the exhibition, Harbour and Room (1931), part of the floor is made up of water and again we are looking not at a blank wall but at the view out to some stationary boats and beyond them the sea.  Nash's wife Margaret recalled that this harbour was Toulon and the idea came from the reflection of a ship in a large mirror in front of their hotel bed.  Andrew Causey has associated this image with a kind of death: 'the waters of unconsciousness invade the room; they are the kind of death that happens at night when the conscious self is resigned to sleep and dream' (1971, quoted in this exhibition catalogue).

A third example, Three Rooms (1937) depicts, sky, forest and water in the midst of three different rooms.  The symbolism in Nash is never straightforward - Andrew Causey sees the top room, with its ceiling open to the sky as having 'a sense of liberation' and the claustrophobic wooded room in the middle as 'a point of birth' - the lowest room, in which the floor leads out towards a setting sun, links to the other two.  James King has also had a go at explaining it: 'the dominant force is the rising sun. ... the sea can invade and bring destruction to any human life; the presence of the sun here, nevertheless, suggests that such forces can be conquered. ... there is a realm of existence beyond the forest depicted in the interpenetration of room and sky; the emphasis on the aerial in the top image points to a realm 'beyond' - the forces of undoing can be conquered' (1987, quoted in this exhibition catalogue).

Is there a wider subgenre of landscapes merging with interior space?  Surrealists like Max Ernst and René Magritte combined interior and exterior elements in a similar fashion to Nash.  They and Nash were working in the wake of Giorgio de Chirico, whose Wooded Interior (1926) can be likened to the second of Paul Nash's Three Rooms.  You can see Wooded Interior at the Christie's website, where they describe it thus: 'the setting of the room contains detailed architectural moldings and patterned wallpaper; a mysterious, densely wooded landscape, rooted in the floorboards and pushing upward into the ceiling intrudes on one side of the room; yet most amazing of all are the sea waves that roll in from some unseen horizon.'  However, for me the difference is that de Chirico's painting deploys landscape elements in a surreal interior collage whilst Nash's rooms seem to open onto abstract dream landscapes.

It was a short step from collages on canvas to collages in actual rooms and one of the Surrealist exhibitions prefigures later installation art by including what appeared to be part of a landscape.  For the 1938 'Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme' in Paris, Marcel Duchamp ('generator-arbitor' of the exhibition) designed part of the room as a pool with water-lilies and reeds (Wolfgang Paalen was put in charge of 'water and brushwood').  Looking backwards from the Surrealists, there is an engraving mentioned as an influence by de Chirico, a Symbolist precursor to the convergence of room and seascape in Nash: Max Klinger's Accorde, from his Brahmsphantasie (1894), a set of illustrations inspired by the music of Brahms.

The idea that a room could become a landscape has inspired trompe l'œil wall paintings since Roman times (see my recent post on the Garden Room at Prima Porta).  I gather mural painting has come back into vogue recently, although modern building technology has created glass walls with the potential to 'bring the landscape' into a living room.  But looking at Nash's paintings I wasn't really imagining these architectural landscape rooms.  The images that came immediately to mind immediately were from Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, where a forest grows in hero Max's bedroom.  The idea that a world might lie behind a room is found in other children's literature - who hasn't fantasised about a snowy wood reachable by entering their wardrobe?  But I'll end here with Ray Bradbury's chilling reversal of the idea in his story 'The Veld', where a high-tech children's nursery is installed with 'crystal walls' showing a three dimensional view of the African landscape, its ceiling 'a deep sky with  hot yellow sun'.  The simulation is enhanced with realistic heat, smells and sounds, and in the distance can be seen a pride of lions... 





Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Ascent of Mount Ventoux

Ten years ago we spent a pleasant few days in Avignon and I remember wandering around trying to picture the city in the time of Petrarch - not easy with Jeff Koons' giant floral puppy installed in the middle of the Papal Palace.  We had rather cloudy weather but on the last day the sky was somewhat clearer and we suddenly became aware of Mount Ventoux, its summit visible, floating in the hazy distance.  Then it was easy to imagine Petrarch's desire to climb the mountain, a feat he apparently achieved one day in 1336, his only motive 'the wish to see what so great a height had to offer.'

Petrarch's letter describing the ascent draws moral lessons from his tendency to vacillate and climb by the easiest paths: he who ascends by the most direct route will reach the spiritual heights more quickly.  Nevertheless, there is a moment at the summit where Petrarch, like a modern climber, stops to admire the landscape.  He gazes far off towards the mountains around Lyon, the bay of Marseilles, and 'the sea that beats against the shore of Aigues-Mortes'.  It is at this point, however, that he reaches for his trusty copy of Augustine's Confessions and opens it by chance at a passage that makes him feel ashamed and decide to start down the mountain again.  'And men go about admiring the high mountains and the mighty waves of the sea and the wide sweep of rivers and the sound of the ocean and the movement of the stars, but they themselves they abandon.'


Francesco Petrarch, Justo de Gante, C15

Petrarch's Italian poems, the Canzoniere, show in certain images a real feeling for landscape - certainly this is the impression I get from Mark Musa's translations (which were read through before publication by Charles Tomlinson, the author of many landscape poems.)  The most notable example is number 129, ‘Di pensier in pensier, di monte in monte’ which begins 'From thought to thought, mountain to mountain top / Love leads me on.'  A full translation by A. S. Kline is given below (as the website says it "may be freely reproduced"). Note the way Petrarch projects an image of Laura onto the landscape: 'Many times I have seen here vividly / (now, who will believe me?) in clear water / and on green grass, and in a beech trunk, / and in a white cloud...'  This is a good example of the phenomenon I've mentioned a few times recently in connection with the Deleuze/Guattari theory of faciality.

Love leads me on, from thought to thought,
from mountain to mountain, since every path blazed
proves opposed to the tranquil life.
If there is a stream or a fountain on a solitary slope,
if a shadowed valley lies between two hills,
the distressed soul calms itself there:
and, as Love invites it to,
now smiles, or weeps, or fears, or feels secure:
and my face that follows the soul where she leads
is turbid and then clear,
and remains only a short time in one mode:
so that a man expert in such a life would say
at the sight of me: ‘He is on fire, and uncertain of his state.’

I find some repose in high mountains
and in savage woods: each inhabited place
is the mortal enemy of my eyes.
At every step a new thought of my lady
is born, which often turns the suffering
I bear to joy, because of her:
and, as often as I wish
to alter my bitter and sweet life,
I say: ‘Perhaps Love is saving you
for a better time:
perhaps you are dear to another, hateful to yourself.’
And with this, sighing, I continue:
‘Now can this be true? And how? And when?’

Sometimes I stop where a high pine tree or a hill
provides shade, and on the first stone
I trace in my mind her lovely face.
When I come to myself, I find my chest
wet with pity: and then I say: ‘Ah, alas,
what are you come to, and what are you parted from!’
But as long as I can keep
my wandering mind fixed on that first thought,
and gaze at her, and forget myself,
I feel Love so close to me
that my soul is satisfied with its own error:
I see her in many places and so lovely,
that I ask no more than that my error last.

Many times I have seen here vividly
(now, who will believe me?) in clear water
and on green grass, and in a beech trunk,
and in a white cloud, so made that Leda
would surely have said her daughter was eclipsed,
like a star the sun obscures with its rays:
and the wilder the place I find
and the more deserted the shore,
the more beautifully my thoughts depict her.
Then when the truth dispels
that sweet error, I still sit there chilled,
the same, a dead stone on living stone,
in the shape of a man who thinks and weeps and writes.

I feel a sole intense desire draw me
where the shadow of no other mountain falls,
towards the highest and most helpful peak:
from there I begin to measure out my suffering
with my eyes, and, weeping, to release
the sorrowful cloud that condenses in my heart,
when I think and see,
what distance parts me from her lovely face,
which is always so near to me, and so far.
Then softly I weep to myself:
‘Alas, what do you know! Perhaps somewhere
now she is sighing for your absence.’
And the soul takes breath at this thought.

Song, beyond the mountain,
there where the sky is more serene and joyful,
you will see me once more by a running stream,
where the breeze is fragrant
with fresh and perfumed laurel.
There is my heart, and she who steals it from me:
here you can only see my ghost.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Stony ground and trees, with a pool

The heroines of nineteenth century novels are often seen drawing - a desirable accomplishment of course, but also one that could be used to symbolise or demonstrate important attitudes and character traits.  Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, whom I mentioned here recently, is one example.  In addition to being sceptical of picturesque landscape, her admirer Edward is criticised for being insuffiiently appreciative of Elinor's sketches: 'I am afraid, Mamma, he has no real taste. Music seems scarcely to attract him, and though he admires Elinor's drawings very much, it is not the admiration of a person who can understand their worth.'  Then there is Margaret Hale in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (1855), a book which I think reads like a Jane Austen novel until the moment Margaret travels from London to her home in the New Forest in a train. Here we see her out sketching with an admirer, the lawyer Henry Lennox, who surreptitiously introduces figures into his picturesque landscape:

Margaret brought out her drawing materials for him to choose from; and after the paper and brushes had been duly selected, the two set out in the merriest spirits in the world.

'Now, please, just stop here for a minute or two, said Margaret.  'These are the cottages that haunted me so during the rainy fortnight, reproaching me for not having sketched them.'

'Before they tumbled down and were no more seen. Truly, if they are to be sketched--and they are very picturesque--we had better not put it off till next year. But where shall we sit?'

'Oh! You might have come straight from chambers in the Temple,' instead of having been two months in the Highlands! Look at this beautiful trunk of a tree, which the wood-cutters have left just in the right place for the light. I will put my plaid over it, and it will be a regular forest throne.'

'With your feet in that puddle for a regal footstool! Stay, I will move, and then you can come nearer this way. Who lives in these cottages?'

'They were built by squatters fifty or sixty years ago. One is uninhabited; the foresters are going to take it down, as soon as the old man who lives in the other is dead, poor old fellow!  Look--there he is--I must go and speak to him. He is so deaf you will hear all our secrets.'

The old man stood bareheaded in the sun, leaning on his stick at the front of his cottage. His stiff features relaxed into a slow smile as Margaret went up and spoke to him. Mr. Lennox hastily introduced the two figures into his sketch, and finished up the landscape with a subordinate reference to them--as Margaret perceived, when the time came for getting up, putting away water, and scraps of paper, and exhibiting to each other their sketches. She laughed and blushed. Mr. Lennox watched her countenance.

'Now, I call that treacherous,' said she. 'I little thought you were making old Isaac and me into subjects, when you told me to ask him the history of these cottages.'

'It was irresistible. You can't know how strong a temptation it was. I hardly dare tell you how much I shall like this sketch.'


Elizabeth Gaskell's friend Charlotte Bronte, who died two months after the final installment of North and South was published, also created a heroine accomplished at drawing.  However, Jane Eyre's life is more constrained and she cannot simply walk out and paint picturesque scenes.  Her powerful Romantic imagination is evident in drawings that Mr Rochester asks her to show him.  He finds them 'for a school-girl, peculiar.  As to the thoughts, they are elfish':

These pictures were in water-colours.  The first represented clouds low and livid, rolling over a swollen sea: all the distance was in eclipse; so, too, was the foreground; or rather, the nearest billows, for there was no land.  One gleam of light lifted into relief a half-submerged mast, on which sat a cormorant, dark and large, with wings flecked with foam; its beak held a gold bracelet set with gems, that I had touched with as brilliant tints as my palette could yield, and as glittering distinctness as my pencil could impart.  Sinking below the bird and mast, a drowned corpse glanced through the green water; a fair arm was the only limb clearly visible, whence the bracelet had been washed or torn.

The second picture contained for foreground only the dim peak of a hill, with grass and some leaves slanting as if by a breeze.  Beyond and above spread an expanse of sky, dark blue as at twilight: rising into the sky was a woman’s shape to the bust, portrayed in tints as dusk and soft as I could combine.  The dim forehead was crowned with a star; the lineaments below were seen as through the suffusion of vapour; the eyes shone dark and wild; the hair streamed shadowy, like a beamless cloud torn by storm or by electric travail.  On the neck lay a pale reflection like moonlight; the same faint lustre touched the train of thin clouds from which rose and bowed this vision of the Evening Star.

The third showed the pinnacle of an iceberg piercing a polar winter sky: a muster of northern lights reared their dim lances, close serried, along the horizon.  Throwing these into distance, rose, in the foreground, a head,—a colossal head, inclined towards the iceberg, and resting against it.  Two thin hands, joined under the forehead, and supporting it, drew up before the lower features a sable veil, a brow quite bloodless, white as bone, and an eye hollow and fixed, blank of meaning but for the glassiness of despair, alone were visible.  Above the temples, amidst wreathed turban folds of black drapery, vague in its character and consistency as cloud, gleamed a ring of white flame, gemmed with sparkles of a more lurid tinge.  This pale crescent was “the likeness of a kingly crown;” what it diademed was “the shape which shape had none.”'

This is getting to be quite a long post, but I can't resist ending with one final heroine, Dorothea from Middlemarch, who we see early in George Eliot's novel in a situation that reverses the gender roles of Sense and Sensibility.  It is the occasion of her first meeting with the attractive Will Ladislaw, who will end up as Dorothea's husband, though for now she is still under the sway of dry old Casaubon, and professes not to understand the art of landscape sketching.  Ladislaw is self deprecating about his efforts but Mr Brooke, admires the drawings in Ladislaw's sketch book: 

"Oh, come, this is a nice bit, now. I did a little in this way myself at one time, you know. Look here, now; this is what I call a nice thing, done with what we used to call brio." Mr. Brooke held out towards the two girls a large colored sketch of stony ground and trees, with a pool.

"I am no judge of these things," said Dorothea, not coldly, but with an eager deprecation of the appeal to her. "You know, uncle, I never see the beauty of those pictures which you say are so much praised. They are a language I do not understand. I suppose there is some relation between pictures and nature which I am too ignorant to feel—just as you see what a Greek sentence stands for which means nothing to me." Dorothea looked up at Mr. Casaubon, who bowed his head towards her, while Mr. Brooke said, smiling nonchalantly— 

"Bless me, now, how different people are! But you had a bad style of teaching, you know—else this is just the thing for girls—sketching, fine art and so on. But you took to drawing plans; you don't understand morbidezza, and that kind of thing. You will come to my house, I hope, and I will show you what I did in this way," he continued, turning to young Ladislaw, who had to be recalled from his preoccupation in observing Dorothea. Ladislaw had made up his mind that she must be an unpleasant girl, since she was going to marry Casaubon, and what she said of her stupidity about pictures would have confirmed that opinion even if he had believed her. As it was, he took her words for a covert judgment, and was certain that she thought his sketch detestable. There was too much cleverness in her apology: she was laughing both at her uncle and himself. But what a voice! It was like the voice of a soul that had once lived in an AEolian harp...


No doubt somebody has written a thesis on the role of outdoor sketching in nineteenth century fiction - there must be many other interesting examples...