Saturday, July 25, 2020

Industry on the Riverside

Thomas Bewick, Industry on the Riverside, 1804
'The unframed scene casts landscape into a new kind of subject.  The view is not given an off-the-peg edge, independent of and indifferent to its contents.  It is given a bespoke edge that responds to and defines the character of the scene.'

Tom Lubbock makes this interesting observation in his essay 'Defining the vignette', written to accompany a 2009 exhibition Thomas Bewick: Tale-pieces and reprinted in his posthumous collection, English Graphic. You can see in the image below of a thirsty traveller how the vignette's edges are defined by branches, leaves and tufts of grass. Lubbock saw this as 'place-portraiture', with Bewick isolating a site's distinctive features, 'those elements by which you would know it again'.
Thomas Bewick, Tail-piece - apparently of Thomas Bewick himself
as a thirsty traveller drinking from his hat, 1797

In his essay Lubbock includes a vignette of a hunter in the snow and then, underneath, the same image with a rectangular frame added.  Without the frame, the snow's whiteness feels stronger, drawing into itself the whiteness of the surrounding page. Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner had previously described the way light in Bewick's landscapes 'changes imperceptibly into the paper of the book, and realises, in small, the Romantic blurring of art and reality.'  Unfortunately I cannot convey the effect here because the background of the JPEG is a different white to the computer screen and thus creates its own frame.  

Thomas Bewick, Hunter in the Snow, 1804

When Bewick drew something like the sea, he had no clear border to give the vignette its outline and so his lines seem to fade and blur at the edge of the image.  Bewick's soft and hard edges draw attention to the ontology of perception, the distinction between things that can be delineated, like a tree, and things that cannot, like the sky.  Sometimes the sky is given shading, as in the view of sea-cliffs below, and sometimes it is left blank, to give a feeling of clear open air.  
Thomas Bewick, Bird's Eggs from Sea-Cliffs, 1804

Lubbock concludes his essay by drawing attention to the way vignettes differ from traditional window-like landscape views.  Their figures cannot pass out of view, they are rooted in their scenes. You cannot imagine the man below ever coming to the end of his piss and walking away - if he did, he would 'start to dematerialise or break up'.  (NB: this pissing figure is my example - Lubbock has a much more idyllic scene of a man on a grassy bank looking up at the sky!)  Bewick's vignettes remind us how the world shrinks to what we are conscious of at a particular moment. 'They communicate what it's like to be in the middle of something, to feel things in the now, to be entirely absorbed in your sensations.'

Thomas Bewick, That Pisseth Against a Wall, 1804
All images from Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Garden of Eusebius

Eusebius: 'Now that the whole countryside is fresh and smiling, I marvel at people who take pleasure in smoky cities.'
Timothy: 'Some people don’t enjoy the sight of flowers or verdant meadows or fountains or streams; or if they do, something else pleases them more. Thus pleasure succeeds pleasure, as nail drives out nail.'

This exchange can be found in The Godly Feast, one of the Colloquies written by Erasmus (first published in 1518 and then added to over the years; the Craig R. Thompson translation is available at the Catena Archive). Erasmus has Eusebius argue that "nature is not silent but speaks to us everywhere and teaches the observant man many things if she finds him attentive and receptive."  To prove his point he suggests a visit to his "little country place near town, a modest but well-cultivated place, to which I invite you for lunch tomorrow."  Timothy is worried he and his friends will be putting Eusebius out, but Eusebius reassures him: "you’ll have a wholly green feast made, as Horace says, 'from food not bought.'"

When they meet at this villa, Eusebius shows Timothy his statue of Jesus at the entrance to the garden: "I’ve placed him here, instead of the filthy Priapus as protector not only of my garden but of everything I own; in short, of body and soul alike." Eusebius stresses the utility and lack of luxury in his garden. What appears to be marble is merely painted concrete - ''we make up for lack of wealth by ingenuity".  There is a lesson for life in this: appearances can be deceptive, he warns Timothy.  A delightful stream is not all it seems either.  It is used to drain kitchen waste to the sewer, like Sacred Scripture cleansing the soul.  Elsewhere there are herbs for cooking and medicine, exotic trees, an aviary, orchards and bee hives.

In addition to the garden itself, Eusebius has had frescoes painted showing views of nature. This second, painted world even extends beneath their feet: "the very ground is green, for the paving stones are beautifully colored and gladden one with painted flowers".  He explains to Timothy that:
"One garden wasn’t enough to hold all kinds of plants. Moreover, we are twice pleased when we see a painted flower competing with a real one. In one we admire the cleverness of Nature, in the other the inventiveness of the painter; in each the goodness of God, who gives all these things for our use and is equally wonderful and kind in everything. Finally, a garden isn’t always green nor flowers always blooming. This garden grows and pleases even in midwinter."
Eusebius is proud of his garden but he is just as keen to mention his library, globe and paintings.  I like the fact that place names have been added to his religious paintings, "to enable the spectator to learn by which water or on which mountain the event took place".  It is clearly the ideal of a Renaissance scholar, and the garden is a highly artificial landscape.  Indeed, John Dixon Hunt has pointed out that it is 'substantially architectural: walled, with galleries and pillars, it may be seen as much as a city as a garden.'

Sunday, July 05, 2020

A Room with a View

"I wanted so to see the Arno..."   

Disappointed Lucy Honeychurch gets her wish when Mr Emerson and his son George kindly offer to swap rooms ("women like looking at a view; men don't").  The next morning she wakes and leans from the window, 'out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and close below, the Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.'  Forster spends a paragraph describing the scene below - river men, children, soldiers, a tram temporarily unable to proceed.  'Over such trivialities as these many a valuable hour may slip away, and the traveller who has gone to Italy to study the tactile values of Giotto, or corruption of the Papacy, may return remembering nothing but the blue sky and the men and women who live under it.'  Eventually, over the course of the novel, Lucy chooses life over culture, George over the aesthete Cecil (memorably played by Daniel Day Lewis in the film), and A Room with a View ends with the newlyweds in Florence again, looking out over the Arno from the same window.

It is landscape - the desire for a good view - that leads to the novel's decisive moment, placing Lucy in the situation where George is compelled to kiss her.  Along with the other English travellers in Florence, they are invited by the chaplain, Mr Eager, to make an excursion into the hills.
"We might go up by Fiesole and back by Settignano. There is a point on that road where we could get down and have an hour’s ramble on the hillside. The view thence of Florence is most beautiful—far better than the hackneyed view of Fiesole. It is the view that Alessio Baldovinetti is fond of introducing into his pictures. That man had a decided feeling for landscape. Decidedly. But who looks at it to-day? Ah, the world is too much for us.” 
 Alesso Baldovinetti, Nativity (detail), between 1460 and 1462

And so they set off on the excursion and stop on the hillside with its view of the Val d'Arno. The group separate and Lucy finds herself at a place where 'the view was forming at last; she could discern the river, the golden plain, other hills.'  But then she slips and finds herself on a terrace covered with violets.
From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.
Here, unexpectedly, she encounters George who sees 'the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves'.  He steps forward and kisses her.

In the Merchant Ivory film there are no violets - presumably they couldn't find any on location. Instead there is long grass and poppies and a rather overwhelming Puccini aria sung by Kiri Te Kanawa. The second kiss, which again takes Lucy by surprise, takes place after a tennis match some months later, when they are back in England. As she observes George playing in the fading sunshine, she imagines the landscape of Italy overlaying the familiar surroundings of Surrey.
Ah, how beautiful the Weald looked! The hills stood out above its radiance, as Fiesole stands above the Tuscan Plain, and the South Downs, if one chose, were the mountains of Carrara. She might be forgetting her Italy, but she was noticing more things in her England. One could play a new game with the view, and try to find in its innumerable folds some town or village that would do for Florence. Ah, how beautiful the Weald looked!
Everything in Forster is tinged with irony (see my earlier post on Howards' End) and of course these lines are there to show how Lucy is unaware of her own feelings, for George and the place he first kissed her.  But having grown up on the edge of the South Downs, I would love to believe that they are capable of becoming the hills of Tuscany.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Lark Ascending

A couple of days ago I read in The Guardian that 'police have warned young people not to attend illegal raves this weekend, promising a tougher approach after two “quarantine raves” attracted 6,000 people last Saturday.'  It made me think of the final chapters of Richard King's book The Lark Ascending which discuss the outdoor rave scene's emergence thirty years ago, followed by opposition that led to the introduction of the Criminal Justice Bill.  Jeremy Deller told a similar story last year in Everybody in the Place (although the participation of children in his film meant he left out some of the drug history).  King describes an early rave organised by Cymon Eckel and the Boys Own network which culminated in dawn breaking over a misty Sussex reservoir.  One of them would later describe seeing 'a flock of geese descend from the sky to make a perfect landing at the water's edge.
And here in the early hours of a perfect English summer's day, five hundred people sitting, or collapsed, on hay bales, grew energised by the dawn and looked out onto the water of Weir Wood Reservoir that borders Ashdown Forest, the location that inspired A. A. Milne's '100 Aker Wood', and the haven Eckel and his friends had created was experienced by all those present as their private Acid House Pooh Corner.'

Last year I saw Richard King give an interesting talk on his book at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival.  He began with his view that the popularity of Ralph Vaughan Williams' composition comes from the way it conveys musically a sense of freedom and at the same time connectedness to an unspecified British landscape.  The full subtitle of The Lark Ascending on my paperback edition is 'People, Music and Landscape in Twentieth Century Britain', making clear that this is not merely a study of music inspired by nature.  In fact there is little in the book about music written to convey a spirit of place - from Vaughan Williams he skips over British landscape composers like Ireland, Bax and Finzi, moving instead to Ewan MacColl's 'The Manchester Rambler' (in a discussion of the Kinder Scout trespass) and then forward to Stan Tracey's jazz suite inspired by Under Milk Wood.  Later chapters discuss the music of Donovan, Gavin Bryars, Kate Bush, Penguin Cafe Orchestra and Ultramarine.  It got me listening anew to some of this on Spotify, though I have to admit I find the late sixties Donovan albums pretty hard going...

The book ends in the 1990s, although there is a brief epilogue featuring Rob St John (it mentions Surface Tension, a piece of music I described here five years ago).  In the new century, issues of ownership and access to land have become ever more complicated, and now the age of coronavirus has raised a whole new set of questions.  The idea of assembling at a rave by a Sussex reservoir this summer would come up against ethical choices around social distancing, pitting hedonism and personal freedom against the interests of the more vulnerable in society.  It is however still possible to go for a ramble, and so, given the reference to Manchester in that piece about an illegal rave, I'll end here with the closing lines of Ewan MacColl's song:
So I'll walk where I will over mountain and hill
And I'll lie where the bracken is deep
I belong to the mountains, the clear running fountains
Where the grey rocks lie ragged and steep
I've seen the white hare in the gullies
And the curlew fly high overhead
And sooner than part from the mountains
I think I would rather be dead
-    'The Manchester Rambler', 1932

Saturday, June 13, 2020

A Vale of Tears

Literature and Nature in the English Renaissance: An Ecocritical Anthology edited by Todd Andrew Borlik was published last year and so far has a solitary one star review on Amazon.  "Frankly, if a book of out-of-copyright texts is THAT expensive, you may as well download the contents list to Kindle and go and find the texts yourself. Absurd pricing."  At £84, it is certainly out of reach of my pocket, but as this reviewer notes, the contents list is freely available.  Here are two sections:

In this post I wanted to highlight the first text above, Robert Southwell's poem 'A Vale of Tears'.  Here are its first four stanzas:
A vale there is, enwrapt with dreadful shades,
     Which thick of mourning pines shrouds from the sun,
Where hanging cliffs yield short and dumpish glades,
     And snowy flood with broken streams doth run.

Where eye-room is from rock to cloudy sky,
     From thence to dales with stony ruins strew'd,
Then to the crushèd water's frothy fry,
     Which tumbleth from the tops where snow is thaw'd.

Where ears of other sound can have no choice,
     But various blust'ring of the stubborn wind
In trees, in caves, in straits with divers noise;
     Which now doth hiss, now howl, now roar by kind.

Where waters wrestle with encount'ring stones,
     That break their streams, and turn them into foam,
The hollow clouds full fraught with thund'ring groans,
     With hideous thumps discharge their pregnant womb.
It is certainly a pretty bleak-sounding place, where pleasant landscape features we associate with pastoral poetry provide no comfort ('crystal springs crept out of secret vein, / Straight find some envious hole that hides their grace').  Surrounded by all this, the mind turns inward and dwells on sin and the need for repentance. 'Come, deep remorse,' the poet concludes, 'possess my sinful breast; / Delights, adieu!  I harbour'd you too long.'

Robert Southwell was a Jesuit Catholic martyr: canonised in 1970; hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1595.  A recent profile of him in The Tablet describes his training in France and Rome and return to England in 1586 to undertake clandestine missionary work.
'Southwell’s literature infiltrated the Catholic country houses of England. Though he was a priest without a pulpit and an outlaw, Southwell hoped that word of a Catholic revival would disseminate through the secret printing presses to the peasantry, yeomanry, and lesser gentry. [...] His great poem “A vale of teares”, issued in the year of his death, likens England’s perceived fallen state under Elizabeth I to a “dumpish” (melancholy) wasteland, “Where nothing seemed wronge yet nothing right”. In the absence of a settled spiritual solution to England’s break from Rome, the poem offered Catholics a negative solace.'    
In a 2018 article, Gary Bouchard cites critics who have explained the poem in terms of a prescribed Ignatian penitential framework or in psychological terms as a 'therapeutic scene'.  His own view is that it can be read as an anti-pastoral, contrasting it specifically with Spenser's 'The Shepheard's Calender' (1579).  But he also notes that some of the language and imagery is proto-Romantic - a landscape one could imagine 'Victor Frankenstein and his creature passing through'.  Southwell had crossed the Alps via the St. Gotthard Pass on his journey to Rome in 1578 and would have seen sights that later writers and artists would come to admire for their sublimity.

J. M. W. Turner, A Ravine in the Pass of St Gotthard, 1802 
Source: Tate

I will close here with one more stanza from the poem:
The pines thick set, high grown and ever green,
     Still clothe the place with sad and mourning veil;
Here gaping cliff, there mossy plain is seen,
     Here hope doth spring, and there again doth quail.
Reading Robert Southwell's poem prompts the obvious thought that in these dark times - of climate crisis, global pandemic, economic hardship and racist brutality - it is hard not to feel that we are all walking through a vale of tears.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Wrapped Coast

The passing of Christo has prompted various articles and obituaries - I have included some links below.  The Guardian published one about Wrapped Coast (1969), where Christo and Jeanne-Claude used 90,000 square meters of erosion-control fabric and 56 kilometres of polypropylene rope to transform a craggy shoreline south of Sydney into something that more closely resembled a chalk cliffscape.  I wrote about this work in my book about chalk cliffs, Frozen AirWrapped Coast had its own unique qualities, moving with the wind, creating a cliff surface in constant motion, but it also obscured and smoothed over the irregularities of real earth and rock. Something like this happens when we view cliffs at a distance, as a landscape composed of shapes and simple colours. I wondered how this fake coastal feature might have changed people’s experiences of being there.
For some it must have de-familiarised a place they had known for years. Perhaps in covering over the natural backdrop to their experiences it brought old memories back into focus. For others, with no prior knowledge of that coastline, the reality of the landscape could only be imagined, hidden under a vast dust sheet. 

Screenshot from the Kaldor Public Art Project film (below) of Wrapped Coast, 1969

The Guardian article quotes Australian collector John Kaldor, who released a statement following Christo’s death. “It wasn’t an easy task to find a coastline close to Sydney and get permission to wrap it,” Kaldor recalled. “The reaction was mostly disbelief and ridicule.”  One of the volunteers who helped assemble it, Ian Milliss, recalled how the artists seemed very glamorous. 
"They would fight all the time but she was the organiser. There was a very clear division of labour: he was up in the studio putting it all together in his mind, but she made sure everything happened on the ground.”
“Little Bay wasn’t just a beautiful object in the landscape. It was a total work. You looked at it like you look at the pyramids, as a huge piece of embodied labour and organisation. To me that was the thing that was most impressive about it – more than the scale of it, more than the beauty.”

Some additional Christo links:

Obituaries: The Guardian, Dezeen, BBC, LA Times, Vogue.

Christo's relationship with landscape and nature is not straightforward - Running Fence, the 44.5 mile-long white nylon fence they stretched across California in the mid-70s, required a 450-page environmental impact report.  I wasn't surprised to find a short notice of his death in Plastics News...

Here are three more appreciations.
  • Lynne Hershman Leeson: 'I worked in the office for the two weeks while Running Fence remained on view. (Meanwhile, Jeanne-Claude operated the secret decoy unit—something she learned from her father, who was a general in the French army, so that no one would interrupt her work.) On the very last day the work was up, I took a helicopter ride over the landscape. Only from that distance could I see its entire expanse. It was breathtaking.'
  • Adrian Searle:  'Surrounding a group of small islands near Miami with floating pink fabric in 1983, and extending floating, interconnecting piers or pontoons covered in yellow fabric across a huge Italian lake in 2016, the artists transformed these places, albeit briefly, into a kind of gorgeous abstraction.'
  • Jerry Saltz: 'Today, the week of his death, amidst the extended three and a half years of this terrible long American night, I wish we could enlist them to wrap the White House in black fabric shroud, a hyper-lucid mummified metaphor for the ghost ship of current pain and racism. Instead we can only mourn them, as we grieve for ourselves.' 

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Land | Sea | Sky

Autojektor, Basilisk, 2019

Well, the weeks drag on and I am starting to forget what hills, rivers and shorelines actually look like.  I keep wondering whether it is worth the health risk to hire a car or take a train to see something other than Victorian terraces.  But where would we go?  The virus has drawn attention to the way we pick destinations to experience and how much effort we are prepared to make to get to them.  Conversely it has shown how much interest there is in exploring the local streets - not exactly deep topography, but still a lesson in noticing previously overlooked details.  I'm sure I'm not alone in having made a short film based on these exercise walks - it seemed an obvious thing to do, even if I am no Jonathan Meades (despite insisting on posing in similar shades).

Lockdown walks near our home in London 

Mersea Island photographed by me in 2011

When I asked my wife where, in theory, she would most like to travel to outside London, she thought about it for a bit and then started reminiscing about Mersea Island.  I was thinking about this when I started reading a place-themed edition of the Moving Image Artists Journal, since Mersea Island is actually where the editors Danial & Clara have been living under lockdown.  How, I wondered, did these different filmmakers, with all the possibilities of mobility before coronavirus, choose particular landscapes to be the focus of their films?  A few examples from the thirteen articles:
  • Estrangement and escape: The Super 8 artist Autojektor lives in London but made Basilisk in the Black Forest.  They refer to the story of Hansel and Gretel, lost in the woods, and write of being an innocent abroad themselves: 'as someone that had only been out of the country once before as a kid, it was easy to lose myself.'  The landscape became a creative space to escape from our permanently connected world.  'I would purposely get myself lost – I’d let my phone run down and I’d walk into the thickest woods and heaviest fog until I started to panic. And then I would sit and write.' 
  • Memory and family history: 'Landscape is the lens through which I see the world, and the landscape of my lifetime is defined by loss,' writes Seán Vicary. His project, Chain Home West, involved 'active place-based research, that was often reflexive and sometimes even ritualistic or performative.'  The film's locations had personal associations and centred on his desire to seek out the site of a mobile radar unit that his father had been assigned to during the war.   
  • Hauntology and psychogeography: For Headlands, Yvonne Salmon and James Riley headed to a hauntologically-rich location in North Cornwall: setting for a 1981 BBC Series, The Nightmare Man, and linked to a 17th century maid who is recorded as having encountered fairies (or possibly aliens).  On their filming trip, 'things happened which we found difficult to explain' and they returned from Cornwall 'not the same people who started out on the journey.'   
  • Aesthetic choice: Peter Traherne's Atmospheric Pressure began with an attempt to make a film inspired by Gawain and the Green Knight.  In looking for locations he found a farm in Sussex with flooded fields and dead pigs.  'Needless to say, the location charmed me. Maybe not the carcasses but the texture of it all.'  The Gawain theme was dropped in favour of a film about 'The Farmer', although the real farmer's involvement was not straightforward: 'we could never shoot his scenes, for he must always be elsewhere.'  The film crew eventually left with 'dark images of a world of weather and animals; images that were densely uncommunicative yet surfeited with sense and matter'.
  • Residency: finally, some settings get chosen because they are readily to hand.  Daniel & Clara write about filming with old VHS cameras on walks near their former home in Hastings, or assembling footage taken on a daily basis in Portugal to form a composite landscape film (see below).  They have also taken the opportunity to film when invited to participate in exhibitions or other projects.  In another article, Amy Cutler (whose curating I have written about here before) discusses her recent filmmaking and refers to an artist residency on the Finnish fortress island of Örö last winter.  
Sadly such opportunities are no longer available in 2020 (we were actually due to go to Finland this summer but have now cancelled the holiday).  Experimental films will have to stay closer to home.  Fortunately there is a lot you can do without leaving the house at all - I've recently been looking through old VHS footage from the 90s, exploring the landscape of memory and family history.  And I know from her tweets that Amy, confined to her flat, has been interrogating and repurposing old nature documentaries.  If it is possible to head out of London soon, perhaps even to Mersea Island, I will take the time to record some footage and keep it ready, just in case we have to go into lockdown again...