Saturday, December 31, 2005

Water and windmills

Richard Holmes’ anthology of Samuel Taylor Coleridge poems is notable for its inspired thematic arrangement and the inclusion of some of Coleridge’s more obscure but intriguing verse and fragments. These lines were written in 1828 when Coleridge, reconciled with Wordsworth, toured through Germany and Holland with him:

Water and windmills, greenness, Islets green; -
Willows whose Trunks beside the shadows stood
Of their own higher half, and willowy swamp: -
Farmhouses that at anchor seem’d – in the inland sky
The fog-transfixing Spires

The MS. contains two more lines, which appear to be the false start of a second stanza, “Water, wide water, greeness and green banks…”

Holmes thinks “this fragment of Dutch landscape is an almost perfect imagist poem”. This is interesting given the Imagists’ dislike of Romantic poetry; it is true that Coleridge’s poem achieves a direct treatment of the Dutch landscape and has none of the “magnificent and sonorous” generalisations that Imagism rejected. The Imagists were interested in the idea of fragments (as in Sappho for example) and here it feels as if the poem's incompleteness preserves Coleridge’s experience of the landscape intact, giving it a similar modern appeal to that of the vivid oil sketches made by contemporaries like Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes and Thomas Jones.

Thursday, December 29, 2005


Here is one of Gerhard Richter’s ‘romantic’ landscape paintings, Meadowland (1985).

Source: Mark Harden

Do such images offer the viewer any consolation in the beauty of nature? Richter acknowledges the influence of Caspar David Friedrich, as Michele Light says in an on-line article about Richter:

‘The contrast between Friedrich's brittle, sharply focused views and Richter's diffused portrayals of landscape, (without a stand-in for the viewer), are nevertheless linked by Richter's need to express his right to paint as he wishes, like Fredrich if necessary, and to prepare to re-interpret the type of landscape painting which he has revived. Richter plainly states opinions which ring with Romantic sentiments: "I believe that art has a kind of rightness, as in music, when we hear whether or not a note is false. And that's why classical pictures, which are right in their own terms, are so necessary for me. In addition to that there's nature which also has this 'rightness.'" Characteristically, Richter also stresses an awareness of the "wrongness" of nature (unlike the great Romantics whose focus was harmony) of nature, with its utter disregard for human needs, wants and fears.

Bucolic "Barn," (1984, Collection Massimo Martino Fine Arts and Projects, Mendrisioo, Switzerland) and "Meadowland," (1985, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), are beautiful, but they shut the viewer or the admirer of nature out. The longing to merge harmoniously with Richter's scenes will never be fulfilled; they are not intended as "retreats" into the sublime, or escapes. His paintings make it clear that these nirvanas exist only in the "longing" mind of the viewer: "My landscapes are not only beautiful, or nostalgic, with a Romantic or classical suggestion of lost Paradises, but above all 'untruthful.' By 'untruthful,' I mean the glorifying way we look at Nature. Nature, which in all its forms is always against us, because it knows no meaning, no pity, no sympathy, because it knows nothing and is absolutely mindless, the total antithesis of ourselves." Richter also notes matter-of-factly that his landscapes lack the spiritual basis that underpinned Romantic painting but they offer solace to those who still yearn for the comfort of nature, even those who do not believe in an omnipresent God.’

Despite that last statement it seems clear that there is little comfort to be had in these highly artificial paintings, based on photographs or picture postcards. In a journal entry (18/2/86) (which the article extract above draws upon) Richter explained that our ‘untruthful’ (verlogen) projection of beauty onto a landscape can always be switched off, so that we become aware of the terrible unfeeling reality underneath.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Sycharth Castle

One of the simplest manifestations of landscape and power is the description of a landscape as property. An interesting early example is the description of Owain Glyn Dwr's castle at Sycharth by his court poet Iolo Goch (1320-98), encompassing not only the building but the surrounding landscape. This landscape includes a rabbit warren, deer park, meadows and hayfields, a mill on a "smooth-flowing stream" and a fish pond abounding in "pike and splendid whiting" (see O.H.Creighton's Castles and Landscapes). These features were not only useful, they had aesthetic appeal and symbolised the Prince's authority. The orderly landscape may be an expression of the gentry poet Iolo Goch's conservative outlook (as noted in in this Welsh literature site). Although some of the poet's description may be idealised, there is some archaeological evidence of the mill and the fishponds (a relevant BBC news report is here).

Monday, December 26, 2005

Bodiam castle

O. H. Creighton's Castles and Landscapes notes that the study of medieval ornamental landscapes is "still in its infancy", with numerous difficulties in interpreting sites that have been altered extensively over time. However, progress has been made at several locations, for example in understanding the extent to which the grounds of Bodiam castle in Sussex (illustrated with my photographs here) could have been designed for aesthetic effect. The castle is at the centre of a series of small lakes which give the approaching visitor a sequence of imposing views. It may be that the 'Gun Garden' on a 300m high ridge was used as a viewpoint. The castle, licensed in 1385, was later abandoned as a principle residence and thus has retained its general layout. It is now sometimes seen as the ideal of a picturesque castle.

The evidence at Bodiam and at the castles of Kenilworth (with extensive waterworks), Hereford (with a detached water garden) and Ravensworth (with diverse evidence of landscaping) suggest a medieval attitude to landscape that is more often associated with the eighteenth century aristocracy. Creighton concludes by posing three questions for future research. First, how far back in time were castles associated with landscapes designed for pleasure? Second, to what extent would aesthetic considerations have helped determine the siting of a castle? And finally, how widespread was the phenomenon?

Saturday, December 24, 2005


One of the landscape features discussed in Oliver Rackham's book A History of the Countryside is the holloway. Holloways are sunken shady lanes, overhung with trees, "their cavernous shade the home of delicate plants like hart's tongue fern, shining cranesbill and moschatel." In Anglo Saxon charters they are recorded as hola weg (hollow path). Whilst a few holloways have been built in ravines (the grundles of East Anglia for example), most are the result of centuries of erosion. Rackham thinks a well-developed holloway requires at least 300 years' erosion - he has noted an incipient holloway in Massachussetts that has experienced only 200 years of traffic so far...

Examples of holloways in England are near Flatford Mill in Essex (the site made famous by John Constable), Midhurst in Sussex and in the Lower Greensand of Urchfont in Wiltshire. There are canyon-like holloways in the loess of Kaiserstuhl in Germany. At the other extreme there are examples of foot holloways created purely from walking, like the coast path north of Cadgwith in Cornwall.

Postscript, 2015
When I wrote this brief early post I was not yet sure where to draw the boundaries and thought of the blog as a kind of notebook where I might put brief entries on different landforms.  Instead I have focused on landscape and the arts.  Now there exist a whole cluster of writings on holloways stemming from the walk Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin made in July 2005.  I will therefore add here Robert's description of what they found, published in Orion Magazine and adapted from The Wild Places (2008), and then a Youtube clip of the recent film inspired by Holloway (2013).
'DOWN IN THE HOLLOWAY, the bright hot surface world was forgotten. So close was the latticework of leaves and branches, and so tall the sides of the holloway, that light penetrated its depths only in thin lances. Roger and I moved slowly up the bed of the roadway, forcing a way through the undergrowth, through clumps of chest-high nettles, past big strongholds of bramble, and over hawthorns that had grown together, enmeshing across the roadbed. Occasionally we came to small clearings in the holloway, where light fell and grass grew. From thorn thickets, there was the scuttle of unseen creatures. Any noise we made thudded into the banks and was lost. A person might hide out undetected in such a place for weeks or months, I thought.
Lines of spider’s silk crisscrossed the air in their scores, and light ran like drops of bright liquid down them when we moved. In the windless warm air, groups of black flies bobbed and weaved, each dancing around a fixed point, like vibrating atoms held in a matrix. I had the sense of being in the nave of a church: the joined vaulting of the trees above, the stone sides of the cutting that were cold when I laid a hand against them, the spindles of sunlight, the incantations of the flies.'


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Heidelberg castle

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Walter Benjamin writes of Heidelberg Castle in One Way Street: “Ruins jutting into the sky can appear doubly beautiful on clear days when, in their windows or above their contours, the gaze meets passing clouds. Through the transient spectacle it opens in the sky, destruction reaffirms the eternity of these fallen stones.”

One might compare the effect of the statues of the apostles, lining the façade of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. As I remember it, the vast blue sky renders them life-like, stepping out of time, with nothing to connect them to the modern city beneath. In contrast the ruined walls of Heidelberg and the passing clouds seen by Benjamin signal the presence of time, slow and fleeting.

Stone and sky: both statues and ruins are temporary transformations of stone, but the sky itself, ever-changing, represents the fullness of time.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Locus amoenus

The Latin poet Tiberianus, who flourished about 335, composed a nature poem, ‘Amnis ibat inter arua ualle fusus frigida…” Called in English by various titles (‘A Woodland Scene’, ‘The River’) it is a classic depiction of the locus amoenus, a pleasant place. Its components are a broad river, flower-sprinkled grass, mossy caves, a shady grove, singing birds and a soft zephyr, all of which, the poet says, would delight whoever strayed there. The poem is given in Latin below. There is a translation in The Penguin Book of Latin Verse (ed. Frederick Brittain) - unfortunately out of print. I would have a go myself but sadly, despite calling myself Plinius here, I know no Latin.
AMNIS ibat inter arua ualle fusus frigida,
luce ridens calculorum, flore pictus herbido.
caerulas superne laurus et uirecta myrtea
leniter motabat aura blandiente sibilo.
subter autem molle gramen flore adulto creuerat:
et croco solum rubebat et lucebat liliis
et nemus fragrabat omne uiolarum suspiritu.
inter ista dona ueris gemmeasque gratias
omnium regina odorum uel colorum Lucifer
auriflora praeminebat, flamma Diones, rosa.
roscidum nemus rigebat inter uda gramina:
fonte crebro murmurabant hinc et inde riuuli,
antra muscus et uirentes intus myrtus uinxerant,
qua fluenta labibunda guttis ibant lucidis.
has per umbras omnis ales plus canora quam putes
cantibus uernis strepebat et susurris dulcibus; hic loquentis murmur amnis concinebat frondibus,
quis melos uocalis aurae musa zephyri mouerat.
sic euntem per uirecta pulcra odora et musica
ales amnis aura lucus flos et umbra iuuerat.
This ideal landscape is simply described: the poem has no gods, no singing shepherds, no wandering poet. Rather than provide an empty stage for us to project imaginary actions and encounters, it sketches a natural objective correlative for a sense of peacefulness and perfect happiness.
As far as I know there is still little biographical information about the poet Tiberianus. The Oxford Book of Latin Verse (1912) had five verses ascribed to him.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The rising of the wind

The landscapes of the enigmatic Portuguese poet Alberto Caeiro (1889-1915) are non-specific. He talks of the sun, wind and rain, of flowers and stars, the flight of birds, a pebble in a brook. Several critics have noted the Zen quality of Caeiro’s poetry, the desire to live at ease in the world without imposing ideas on nature. Many of his poems caution against the pathetic fallacy: he enjoys a stone simply for being a stone and thanks God that flowers are merely flowers. In poem 31 of his collection The Keeper of Flocks, he acknowledges that he might say that a flower “smiles” but explains that such expressions are directed at those who cannot understand nature’s real language, which is no language. Octavio Paz described him as “a man reconciled to nature”, someone free of the “ghosts and cobwebs of culture.” Caeiro wrote that his poems were natural “like the rising of the wind.”

Friday, December 16, 2005

Cook's Shipyard

Christopher Wood’s book In Ruins elegantly describes the various ways in which ruins have been appreciated. What could have been a rather well-worn subject is given a sharper edge by Woodward’s criticism of the urge to preserve; he has an unashamedly Romantic view of the pleasures of decay. He contrasts Shelley’s excited pleasure in the overgrown Baths of Caracalla with the disappointments of today’s carefully managed tourist site, kept clean of encroaching vegetation. The culprits are not just the tourist authorities, they are the archaeologists who strip sites of their poetry. Of course such a view may seem extreme to some. However, I think he is right that we continually underestimate the importance of natural processes and hidden mystery in ruins.

Cook's Shipyard in 1999

The picturesque takes many forms. As an occasional visitor to Wivenhoe in Essex I have always enjoyed walking through the old disused sheds of Cook’s Shipyard. They have all the usual poignancy and rusting beauty… ‘had’ I should say, because on a recent visit I found that the area is being developed. The eighty-four houses going here will I suppose be tasteful versions of the old fishermen’s cottages: ideal for commuters into Liverpool Street, designed not to spoil the riverside views... The old ruined sheds were probably dangerous. Even without all the facts I can see how difficult it is to argue against this development. But I still feel a residual sadness that the processes of transformation have been stopped before the shipyard’s final decay into the river mud.

In her excellent recent photo essay for Slate, Caitlin DeSilvey argues that some structures should be allowed to “melt instead of remaining frozen.” The process of decay can reveal more meaning than a historical preservation. But this may only be acceptable in remote locations – as was made clear when Detroit turned down Camilo José Vergara’s proposal for a ‘ruins park’. Entropy has to be reversed in areas of regeneration and kept eternally at bay in famous historical sites. It is increasingly hard to find real ruins...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

House by a pond

Albrecht Dürer, House by a Pond,  c.1496

In about 1496 Albrecht Dürer painted a House by a Pond on the outskirts of Nuremburg, after returning from his first trip to Venice. The tall house in the painting may have been a look-out post or a summer retreat.

Dürer re-used this landscape in an engraving, The Madonna with the Monkey (c1498). In his book on Landscape and Western Art, Malcolm Andrews uses these two images by Dürer to discuss the issue of independent landscape painting and the distinction between landscape as setting or subject. The artist’s introduction of religious figures gives the landscape a new mood as well as a new meaning. It also illustrates the usefulness of the sketch, and the fact that it would have been difficult to conceive of a landscape like House by a Pond as a work of art in its own right.

However, the story doesn’t end there. I came across this house once again (when I was looking for images of flight) in Giulio Campagnola’s engraving The Rape of Ganymede (ca. 1500–1505). Here the Neoplatonic symbolism of the subject seems to imbue the house with a strange significance.

But this simple German landscape was not infinitely adaptable. There is a maiolica plate in the British Museum that uses Dürer’s Madonna and Monkey. However, it replaces the landscape of House by a Pond with an Italianate ruin (see Plate 19 in Dora Thornton’s article ‘The Use of Dürer Prints as Sources for Italian Renaissance Maiolica’).

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Mount Pan

The Qianlong Emperor, Panshan, 1745
In the Royal Academy’s Three Emperors Exhibition (discussed last month) there is another inscribed landscape: a hanging scroll, painted by the Qianlong Emperor in 1745, depicting Mount Pan. The Emperor had built a mountain villa there the previous year and his painting shows some of the renowned beauty spots of the area, with a place name written next to each one. The scroll was added to over time. It includes 34 poetic inscriptions dated between 1745 and 1793. The Emperor added these on each visit to the villa and they cover all the blank spaces in the original painting. The poems record thoughts inspired by the landscape. For example, one poem composed in 1791 records the apricot blossoms opening in the warm weather, and the Emperor’s conclusion that a benevolent ruler can produce a similar transformation in his people.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Inscribed landscapes

'Inscription for a Fountain on a Heath', the Coleridge poem I mentioned here in my last post, echoes the practice in China of carving short inscriptions (ming) at beautiful natural sites. For example, Yüan Chieh (719-772) found a pretty but overlooked stream, dredged it and planted trees, and then inscribed a ming to alert people to its presence. This ming no longer survives. On another occasion he composed a ming drawing attention to a scenic terrace and cliff, recommending it to those weary of the city:

The Hsiang River's chasm is clear and deep; My Own Terrace is steep and precipitous. I climbed up and gazed afar; not a thing escaped my sight. To whomever is wearied of court and city, or feels harnessed and confined, I offer the use of this terrace to instantly relax your mind and eyes. The cliff on the south has been polished smooth, like a gem, like alabaster. I have written this inscription and had it engraved to make this known to all to come.

In both cases the act of inscription seems like a form of appropriation. But would the physical presence of a ming have had a very different effect to the circulation of a poem describing the same scene?

By way of contrast, one could consider the practice of medieval Arabic poets who added words to a wide range of objects, including buildings, like The Alhambra. According to Robert Irwin, there was a sub-genre of nostalgic poetry scratched onto the walls of ruined palaces. But it is one thing to write on walls, another to inscribe a landscape.

The ming of Yüan Chieh are described in Richard E. Strassberg’s wonderful anthology of Chinese travel writing, Inscribed Landscapes. It is an apt title for a survey of Chinese writing about nature and suggests the various ways in which the words of writers could directly or indirectly alter the landscape.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Fountain on a heath

In September 1801 Samuel Taylor Coleridge noted in his journal “The spring with the little tiny cone of loose sand ever rising and sinking at the bottom, but its surface without a wrinkle.” The following year he published a poem inspired by this site Inscription for a Fountain on a Heath. “Here Twilight is and Coolness: here is moss, / A soft seat, and a deep and ample shade…” Thus the poem describes a lovely spot for the weary walker.
Drink, Pilgrim, here; Here rest! and if thy heart
Be innocent, here too shalt thou refresh
Thy spirit, listening to some gentle sound,
Or passing gale or hum of murmuring bees!
It is a pleasant poem, but what if there really was a fountain with this inscription? What if Coleridge himself had carved these lines beside the spring or on the “jutting stone” of the "fountain" itself? Would this have enhanced the landscape? I don’t think many of us would want there to be a real inscription, even by the hand of Coleridge.

We tend to want the 'real' landscape kept pure, with text and poems confined to our gardens. Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta is the most celebrated modern example, but he acknowledges the influence of poet-gardener William Shenstone. Shenstone compiled a book of Inscriptions, mostly in Latin, many of which were used in his garden The Leasowes. Shenstone was also an inspiration for the garden at Ermenonville, designed by Rouseau's friend the Marquis de Giradin, where the poem in the grotto of the naiads, for example, is derived from one of Shenstone’s inscriptions.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The dark river

Roni Horn, Still Water (The River Thames for Example), 1999
low-resolution photograph taken at MOMA, New York

There is a brief clip of Roni Horn talking about her river Thames photographs on the PBS site. In the full interview she discusses the paradoxical nature of water, to which her art often seems to be drawn. Water is mutable, depending on its surroundings, and yet always basically the same. Fixing an image of the constantly changing surface of the Thames is like making a portrait. It has hidden forces – strong tides – and dark undercurrents: she notes its popularity with suicides. Ultimately the river can embrace many presences and yet still retain its essential nature as simple water.

Postscript: it is now possible to embed a video clip from the Whitney Museum

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Currents of air

John Ruskin, Matterhorn, 1849

The cleansing power of mountains was described in an inspiring purple passage by John Ruskin:
Mountains “cause perpetual currents of air to traverse their passes, and ascend or descend their ravines, altering both the temperature and nature of the air as it passes, in a thousand different ways; moistening it with the spray of their waterfalls, sucking it down and beating it hither and thither in the pools of their torrents, closing it within clefts and caves, where the sunbeams never reach, till it is as cold as November mists, then sending it forth again to breath softly across the slopes of velvet fields, or to be scorched among sunburnt shales and grassless crags; then drawing it back in moaning swirls through clefts of ice, and up into dewy wreaths above the snow-fields; then piercing it with strange electric darts and flashes of mountain fire, and tossing it high in fantastic storm-cloud, as the dried grass is tossed by the mower, only suffering it to depart at last, when chastened and pure, to refresh the faded air of the far-off plains.” - Modern Painters, Part V, ch. VIII, Section 8 
Something to think about whilst breathing the faded air of the city…

Monday, December 05, 2005

The great plane-trees

To what extent are cityscapes defined by their trees? Seville has its orange trees, Berlin its linden trees, London its plane trees…

In London: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd notes that the London plane tree is a hybrid, like many Londoners, and that an ability to shed its bark makes it ideal for the city’s polluted climate. Ackroyd describes the famous old plane tree on the corner of Wood Street and Cheapside as an emblem of the city. It has existed for centuries while buildings around it have changed. It once inspired a poem by Wordsworth. It is protected and cannot be cut down.

Not every London plane tree has been so fortunate. In her poem The Trees Are Down, Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) wrote
They are cutting down the great plane-trees at the end of the gardens.
For days there has been the grate of the saw, the swish of the branches as they fall,
The crash of the trunks, the rustle of trodden leaves,
With the 'Whoops' and the 'Whoa', the loud common talk,
the loud common laughs of the men, above it all.
 The poem concludes:
It is going now, and my heart has been struck with the hearts of the planes;
Half my life it has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains,
In the March wind, the May breeze,
In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs from the great seas.
There was only a quiet rain when they were dying;
They must have heard the sparrows flying,
And the small creeping creatures in the earth where they were lying -
But I, all day, I heard an angel crying:
'Hurt not the trees.'
Charlotte Mew also wrote another shorter poem on the same theme:
Domus Caedet Arborem
Ever since the great planes were murdered at the end of the gardens
The city, to me, at night has the look of a Spirit brooding crime;
As if dark house watching the trees from dark windows
Were simply biding their time
According to the Charlotte Mew on-line chronology, the trees were cut down in 1922 as part of work to build new buildings on the south side of Euston Square Gardens.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Ice lens

Artists and writers are starting to respond to the challenge of climate change. For example, Rachel Whiteread, Antony Gormley, Ian McEwan, Max Eastley and Gary Hume have all been involved in the Cape Farewell project:
"Cape Farewell is a series of expeditions into the Arctic, through a route previously icebound but now passable. The journeys explore the very seas that hold the key to understanding the health of the worlds' ocean currents. By physically sailing to the heart of the debate and drawing together scientists, teachers, and renowned artists, Cape Farewell aims to illustrate the workings of this crucial part of the planet and engage the public and schools in the debate about climate change - drawing people's attention to the role ocean currents play and the effect changing weather patterns and rising seas could have on us and our climate."
Examples of the art projects are at the Cape Farewell site site, including a luminous Ice Lens created by Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey. There will be an exhibition of artworks from the project, The Ice Garden, in December at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. This will be followed by a bigger exhibition, The Ship – The Art of Climate Change in June next year at London’s Natural History Museum.

I see that yesterday’s demonstrations against climate change warranted just a few brief lines in today’s Observer

Friday, December 02, 2005

Moonlit lake

There is a lot to say about the history of landscape in theatrical scenery, especially the way it has influenced painting. Examples would include the stage-like compositions of classical landscape painters like Nicolas Poussin, the use of theatrical models by Thomas Gainsborough, the early work of David Roberts as a scene painter...

One thing that struck me recently reading Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull was how interesting it would be to collect together the various ways set designers have interpreted a landscape in the play: the lakeside setting of Kostya Treplyov’s ‘decadent drama’. (One could do this for a scene in any play that has been performed repeatedly – I pick this because Chekhov uses an interesting symbolic landscape). At the start of The Seagull, the lake is blocked by a stage, but it is revealed when the play-within-the-play commences, with the moon on the horizon and Treplyov’s actor, Nina Zarechnaya, sitting on a white rock. The whole thing reads like an Edvard Munch painting.

Some outdoor versions of The Seagull have used real lakes. In the theatre there must be many approaches to this landscape, partly depending on the director’s view of Treplyov and the comedy of this particular scene. However, a search on the internet yields almost no production stills, so this interesting survey of theatrical recreations of a writer’s lake must remain imaginary for the time being.

Postscript June 2015
I was reminded of this post seeing that the play is currently being staged at Regent's Park's Open Air Theatre. 'In the first half, John Bausor’s scenery builds on the stage’s natural backdrop of trees and foliage to create an Arcadian vision befitting both the setting of rural Russia and Konstantin’s own vision for theatre. This contrasts with the set for the final acts whose prosaic wooden floorboards proclaim the total sterility of society' (The Londonist).  But what of the lake?  There is no actual lake to be utilised, but reading the reviews I see that there was an artificial one on stage and, in a departure from Chekhov, at one point some servants go skinny dipping in it.

On the subject of landscape and theatre design, I've written more recently about two early examples of environmental scenography: the open-air Theatre of the People in France and the performances of the Ben Greet Players in Britain and America.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Wharfe and pool

 Roger Fenton, Wharfe and Pool, Below the Strid, 1854

An excellent exhibition of photographs by Roger Fenton (1819-69) is currently on display next to the Turner prize nominees at Tate Britain. Fenton himself was compared to Turner and this is most evident in the picturesque landscape composition and hazy sunlight of Wharfe and Pool, Below the Strid (1854). Like Turner, he depicted ruined abbeys - timeless and almost uninvolving - the eye is drawn instead to the people giving the buildings scale. Rocky landscapes also have an air of permanence, but the rivers running through them are a smoky blur. In Derwentwater, Looking to Borrowdale (1860), Fenton managed to preserve the mist hovering over the lake and in Up the Hodder, near Stonyhurst (1859) there is an extraordinary silver sheen to the river.

Fenton’s scenes of stately homes continue this dialectic of permanence/transience: the brief lives of the owners, the old stones. A favourite of mine is The Long Walk (1860) taken at Windsor. I remembered it from the cover of Rebecca Solnit’s book Wanderlust but now I’m rather saddened to realise that the cover photograph must have been digitally altered. The two images look the same but on Wanderlust there is just a solitary figure, sharply defined, rather than the less distinct figures of a woman and a girl.

Fenton’s photographs of the Crimean War avoid the conflict itself but tell a moving story through landscapes. Valley of the Shadow Death (above, 1855), for example, shows a nondescript track, littered with cannon balls.  Elsewhere Fenton captured the empty plain at Sebastopol, another bleak vista, with just a few isolated figures gesturing towards the distant town.