Sunday, November 19, 2006

Landscape mosaics of the Omayad Mosque

In The Road to Oxiana (1937) Robert Byron visits the Omayad Mosque in Damascus. 'Originally, its bareness was clothed in a glitter of mosaics. Some remain: the first landscapes of the European tradition. For all their Pompeian picturesqueness, their colonnaded palaces and crag-bound castles, they are real landscapes, more than mere decoration, concerned inside formal limits with the identity of a tree or the energy of a stream. They must have been done by Greeks, and they foreshadow, properly enough, El Greco's landscapes of Toledo. Even now, as the sun catches a fragment on the outside wall, one can imagine the first splendour of green and gold, when the whole court shone with those magic scenes conceived by Arab fiction to recompense the parched eternities of the desert.'

Images: Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Brighton in stitches

In a new exhibition, Running Stitch, Jen Southern and Jen Hamilton are 're-configuring Brighton & Hove by 'capturing' its space through the movement of its inhabitants'. Visitors are given a special mobile phone that tracks their movements and allow their paths through the city to be 'projected live in the gallery to disclose aspects of the city unknown to the artists. Each individual route will then be sewn into a hanging canvas to form an evolving tapestry that reveals a sense of place and interconnection.'

It will be interesting to see a tapestry mapping the sort of places favoured by the kind of people that visit Brighton's Fabrica gallery. However, when I saw it this afternoon, the pattern of stitches was already starting to look like conventional maps of the city. I was hoping visitors would deliberately subvert the city's network of main roads and shops, or employ the kind of chance procedures used in situationist dérives. So will Brighton be re-configured or end up stitched in a conventional pattern? We'll probably know before the exhibition finishes on 17 December.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Hudson River Landscape

Hudson River Landscape (1951) can be seen in the excellent David Smith retrospective at Tate Modern. A 'drawing in space', it has affinities to those abstract landscapes made by painters in the fifties, in which a place is suggested through some recognisable elements that merge with more mysterious expressive gestures, suggesting the difficulty of capturing time, memory and the different views that make up any space. Smith said it 'came in part from drawings made on a train between Albany and Poughkeepsie. A synthesis of drawings from ten trips over a 75 mile stretch...' On one of these drawings displayed in the exhibition you can read the words 'spring snow partially settled.' For a moment the whole sculpture becomes a set of contours in a white landscape, the walls of Tate Modern standing in for the snow and the sky. Then you remember that the sculpture evokes travel in different times and weather conditions, but there lingers an impression that aspects of the sculpture (like the oval with an irregular centre resembling the edge of a snowdrift in a hollow) arise from the memory of early spring referred to in the drawing.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Decorative landscapes at Norbury Park

The Irish painter George Barret (1732-84) was a regular visitor to the house of William Lock of Norbury. As the Redgraves put it in their survey A Century of British Painters, this house 'situated on the summit of a hill in the midst of a park, commands a noble view both up and down the valley. On the slopes of the hill are giant trees, oak and ash and beeches, together with a grove of ancient yews, existing before the Conquest, which may have sheltred the dark rites of the pagan Druids. Around the base of the hill flows the curious river Mole, while distant hills close in the prospect. Such a country must ever be a paradise to the landscape painter.' The Redgraves note that Barret decorated one of Lock's rooms 'from the skirting to the ceiling with a series of scenes' and that this room (in 1866) 'is still in existence and, after some cleaning and repairing, seems to have stood well, and to retain much of its first brilliancy.'

There is a study for a scene in the room in the Courtauld: Decorative landscape - study for a room at Norbury Park. But are the actual landscape decorations mentioned by the Redgraves still there? I'd be interested to know. The house is privately owned and not open to the public...

Source: Wikimedia Commons, Vox Humana 8

The house and park at Norbury have an interesting history. An old guidebook called Picturesque England by L. Valentine that has been made into an e-book has the following to say:
Edward the Confessor found the remains of a Roman stronghold at Norbury. He converted it into a district lordship held direct from the Crown. At the Conquest it was given to Richard of Tunbridge, and from him was inherited by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester. He - the earl - may have taken hither the lovely little princess Joanna, when, after their marriage, she loved to visit his noble castles before settling down in their rural home of Clerkenwell. For many generations the Husee family were tenants of the Earls of Gloucester, and at length they purchased Norbury. A daughter received it as her portion when she married Wymeldon in the reign of Henry VI. Heirs male failing, Norbury passed to the Stidolphs, an old Kentish family. In time the Stidolphs also died out, and Norbury was sold to a man by the name of Chapman, who bought it to make money out of it, and cut down every saleable tree. Beautiful Norbury would have been destroyed had not Mr. Lock bought it of him in 1774.
He was a man of great taste, and restored and improved the place, building a fine house on the crest of the hill. The windows commanded an exquisite view, and the decorations of his saloon were so fine that they became the talk of the time.
He entertained here Dr. Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Burke and Gibbon, and all the most distinguished characters in England.
When the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror drove the noblesse of France into emigration the fame of Mr. Lock's house and hospitality, which had long before reached Paris, brought some remarkable exiles to Surrey. At Juniper Hill Madame de Stael established her menage with Talleyrand, the Comte de Narbonne, the Duc de Montmorency, Monsieur Sicard and General D'Arblay; they were all entertained at Norbury. Fanny Burney, the novelist, used to stay at the house, and there fell in love with General D'Arblay. They were both very poor, hut Miss Burney had a pension of a hundred a year from Queen Charlotte, in whose hard service she had spent the best of her life, and she made money by her pen, though not to any great amount. However, they married, and Mr. Lock gave them "a piece of ground in his beautiful park," she writes, "upon which we shall build a little neat and plain habitation." Her novel "Camilla" furnished the funds for building the house, which was finished in 1797, and called after the book, Camilla Cottage. It is now Camilla Lacey. Her diary contains amusing and graphic accounts of their residence here, of General D'Arblay cutting down asparagus with his sword, etc., etc.
At Norbury, in 1819, Mr. Lock's son died, and the property was sold to a Mr. Robinson, then to Mr. Fuller Maitland, who exchanged it with Mr. Speding. At length it was bought, in 1848, by Mr. Grissell, grandson of the builder of the new Houses of Parliament, who has greatly improved the grounds. There is a grove of yews here that are a perfect show, and Sir Joseph Paxton has been seen to embrace and kiss the bark of a magnificent beech here: he declared that the yews and beeches of Norbury were the finest in England.

Saturday, November 04, 2006


John Cage composed a series of works inspired by Ryoan-ji, the Zen garden in Kyoto, starting with a version for oboe and adding other versions for flute, double bass, trombone, voice and orchestra. For each composition Cage traced the outlines of stones onto staves, creating ascending or descending glissandi for the lead instrument. It is quite easy to hear the shapes of the stones after listening for a while, and the simple percussion accompaniment fills the surrounding spaces like gravel in the garden. The music thus outlines a kind of sparse landscape and the path taken on the page by Cage's pencil is like the flow of air pressing against and swirling around a group of rocks, turning them into a a wind instrument. Listening this morning to versions of Ryoanji for flute (played by Dorothy Stone) and trombone (James Fulkerson), I was also reminded of the sounds of birds and animals, heard in the depths of the forest or high among the mountains in Japanese poems.

I took the photograph of Ryoan-ji below in 1998. It shows how the rocks appear quite isolated in the sea of gravel. One of the things I remember being particularly moved by was the beauty of the old wall framing the garden.

Postscript 2015: Youtube clips come and go and so I have replaced the one I originally had with a new one.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Spiral Jetty

The Guardian has started an artsblog with a list of 20 artworks "to see before you die". It includes two landscape paintings - Vermeer's View of Delft (c.1660-61) (for which you need to visit the Mauritshuis in The Hague) and Cézanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire from Les Lauves (1904 - 6) (entailing a trip to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow). The choice of Vermeer reminds me of Proust's character Bergotte who makes the effort to see the View of Delft before he dies, and then dies looking at the painting. I think if I had to contribute to global warming with twenty flights to see landscape art I'd be tempted to visit more site specific works: gardens and landscape architecture, landscape-themed furnishings and frescos, environmental and land art.

Following the recent Robert Smithson retrospective in New York and the re-emergence of Spiral Jetty, there seems to be an ever growing number of people making the pilgrimage to Rozel Point. A quick search reveals several recent accounts of journeys: Jerry Saltz, Contemporary-Pulitzer, Mike Owens... I can imagine going all the way to Utah and finding the place full of land art Grand Tourists (next stop De Maria's Lightning Field). Already the trip Tacita Dean made in Trying to Find Spiral Jetty (1997) seems to belong to another age. In the artsblog Jonathan Jones says "I think a work of art worth travelling to see has to be a really great statement about serious things. Something not just to fill your life but deepen it." Perhaps Spiral Jetty doesn't really fulfil these criteria, but I wouldn't really know as I've not yet seen it...

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970
Source: Wikimedia Commons