Saturday, March 24, 2007

Saint Anthony in a landscape

Hieronymous Bosch, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, c1500.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I remember once visiting the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels and enjoying the fantastic Bosch painting of the Temptation of Saint Anthony. Here the landscape is a backdrop to the usual Bosch scenes of weirdness and horror, although as can be seen below (in another version of the painting now in Lisbon), there are intriguing misty details in the distance, where modest windmills and strange temples exist side by side. But this isn’t the only Temptation in the museum. You also come upon another painting of the same subject by an artist of the ‘Southern Netherlandish School’, which is as different as could be: an intimate rustic landscape where St Anthony seems at first glance to be sitting have a quiet read. I’m just as interested (if not more interested) in this painting, but have never been able to find out anything about it, other than the basic fact that it is painted on wood and is 24 x 16.5 cm in size.

Hieronymous Bosch, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, c1500.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, March 17, 2007


A 1991 edition of the poetry magazine The North included a plea from Stanley Cook for the return of the prospect poem: ‘The writing of prospect poems reached a stage in the 18th century where one critic complained that there was hardly a molehill left that had not been celebrated; it could reach a similar stage again. In the meantime it is frustrating to see the perfect tool for so many jobs lie unused. There are so many Northern towns and cities where from the viewpoint of a nearby moor one could survey industrial dereliction and urban regeneration, shopping malls rising on the sites of satanic mills, across the valley to the nearest motorway, and the sad figure of a rate-capped councillor wending his weary way home.’

Cook’s favourite prospect poem is John Scott’s description of Amwell which I couldn’t locate on-line – maybe someone else can find a link? There are some other Scott poems are here. John Scott (1730–1783) was known for his pastoral verse and friendship with Dr Johnson, but he also dabbled in some fashionable garden design at the family home, now Amwell House – the grotto was recently restored. According to the Hertfordshire literary map, ‘the name Amwell is derived from 'Emma's Well', now a dried up hollow alongside the New River which broadens around two small islands there. The well has a stone enscribed with part of John Scott's poem "Emma" at the entrance.’ 

Postscript September 2015:

I have now found Scott's poem online.  Here is the moment when the prospect reveals itself:
By winding pathways through the waving corn,
We reach the airy point that prospect yields,
Not vast and awful, but confin'd and fair;
Not the black mountain and the foamy main;
Not the throng'd city and the busy port;
But pleasant interchange of soft ascent,
And level plain, and growth of shady woods,
And twining course of rivers clear, and sight
Of rural towns and rural cots, whose roofs
Rise scattering round, and animate the whole.
Scott's grotto now has a website.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The shapely figured aspect of chalk-hills

Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne is a cultural landmark in the development of English attitudes to nature, but it is a book of observations about animals (mainly birds) rather than a book about landscape. When he does occasionally looks at the scenery, White shows a pre-Romantic taste in the countryside of southern England. However, in this interesting description of the South Downs written in 1773 from Ringmer (near Lewes), admiration for the forms of the hills moves away from the conventional language of 'the beautiful' to something more ecstatic and bodily: naturalist John Ray is 'ravished', White himself senses an 'air of vegetative dilation and expansion':

'Though I have now travelled the Sussex-downs upwards of thirty
years, yet I still investigate that chain of majestic mountains with
fresh admiration year by year; and think I see new beauties every
time I traverse it. This range, which runs from Chichester eastward
as far as East-Bourn, is about sixty miles in length, and is called the
South Downs, properly speaking, only round Lewes. As you pass
along you command a noble view of the wild, or weald, on one
hand, and the broad downs and sea on the other. Mr. Ray used to
visit a family* just at the foot of these hips, and was so ravished
with the prospect from Plumpton-plain near Lewes, that he
mentions those scapes in his Wisdom of God in the Works of the
Creation with the utmost satisfaction, and thinks them equal to
anything he had seen in the finest parts of Europe.
(* Mr. Courthope, of Danny.)

For my own part, I think there is somewhat peculiarly sweet and
amusing in the shapely figured aspect of chalk-hills in preference
to those of stone, which are rugged, broken, abrupt, and shapeless.

Perhaps I may be singular in my opinion, and not so happy as to
convey to you the same idea, but I never contemplate these
mountains without thinking I perceive somewhat analogous to
growth in their gentle swellings and smooth fungus-like
protuberances, their fluted sides, and regular hollows and slopes,
that carry at once the air of vegetative dilation and expansion.... Or
was there ever a time when these immense masses of calcareous
matter were drown into fermentation by some adventitious
moisture; were raised and leavened into such shapes by some
plastic power; and so made to swell and heave their broad backs
into the sky so much above the less animated clay of the wild

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Le Paysage historique

Charles Baudelaire’s reviews of the Salons of 1845 and 1846 both have sections on landscape. In the 1845 review Baudelaire defends Corot against those who claim he cannot paint because his work looks unfinished. The 1846 review identifies different types of landscape painters:

il y a des paysagistes coloristes, des paysagistes dessinateurs et des imaginatifs; des naturalistes idéalisant à leur insu, et des sectaires du poncif, qui s’adonnent à un genre particulier et étrange, qui s’appelle le Paysage historique.

Baudelaire praises the modern landscape painters who have devoted themselves to the study of nature, but he has no time for ‘historical landscape’, where the aim is to rebuild nature in accordance with ‘healthier and purer rules’. A good tragic landscape is thus

un arrangement de patrons d’arbres, de fontaines, de tombeaux et d’urnes cinéraires. Les chiens sont taillés sur un certain patron de chien historique; un berger historique ne peut pas, sous peine de déshonneur, s’en permettre d’autres. Tout arbre immoral qui s’est permis de pousser tout seul et à sa manière est nécessairement abattu; toute mare à crapauds ou à têtards est impitoyablement enterrée.

an arrangement of stereotyped patterns of trees and fountains, of tombstones and funeral urns. The dogs are cut out on a certain pattern of historical dog; a tragic shepherd cannot, on pain of dishonour, have any other kind of dog. Any immoral tree which had the cheek to grow independently and according to its own nature is necessarily cut down forthwith; any pond full of toads and tadpoles is mercilessly filled in. (trans P.E. Charvet).

Baudelaire also had a section on landscape in his final 1859 Salon review and here he makes clear that the naturalistic depiction of landscape still needs to convey the artist’s feeling and provide a satisfying composition. This is something Corot achieves while Rousseau sometimes falls short, dazzling the critic with his effects but in his ‘blind love of nature’ mistaking a simple study for a finished painting:

M. Rousseau a le travail compliqué, plein de ruses et de repentirs. Peu d’hommes ont plus sincèrement aimé la lumière et l’ont mieux rendue. Mais la silhouette générale des formes est souvent ici difficile à saisir. La vapeur lumineuse, pétillante et ballottée, trouble la carcasse des êtres. M. Rousseau m’a toujours ébloui ; mais il m’a quelquefois fatigué. Et puis il tombe dans le fameux défaut moderne, qui naît d’un amour aveugle de la nature, de rien que la nature ; il prend une simple étude pour une composition.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Two rams fighting

In their survey The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800, Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom trace developments in the art of the book. Islamic manuscript illustrators may not have painted landscapes per se, but, as with Renaissance painters in the West, some of their work displays a definite interest in depicting nature and it is fascinating to trace the ways in which they incorporated landscape elements. Three examples spanning the fourteenth century:
  • From the late 1290s, a Persian translation of Ibn Bakhtishu’s Manafi’ al-hayawan, a book that describes birds, insects and animals and includes 94 illustrations. Some of the paintings integrate the animals into landscapes of ‘gnarled trees, convoluted clouds , and rocky mountains’ which suggest an awareness of Chinese painting. There are examples in the Pierpoint Morgan Library, e.g. Two Rams Fighting.

Two Mountain Rams Fighting, from Ibn Bakhtishu’s Manafi’ al-hayawan, late 1290s
  • Another manuscript with animal illustrations from the mid-fourteenth century is a copy of the animal fables, Kalila and Dimna (now in Istanbul University Library). There is an extraordinary illustration to the story of Kardana and the Tortoise, with a blue swirling twisted tree and lush green vegetation; in many of the paintings, ‘landscape elements spill out of the confines of the picture frame’.
  • Finally, in contrast to this densely painted image, there is a simple line drawing from 1406-10 showing a flock of geese flying over a Pastoral Scene (now in the Freer Gallery of Art). The illustration was made to accompany a poem by sultan Ahmad Jalayir, although the landscape does not seem to relate directly to the verse. It may well have been the work of ‘Abd al-Hayy who was particularly renowned for his line drawing.
'Abd al-Hayy, page from the Divan of Ahmad Jalayir, 1406-10

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Suo (The Marsh)

Einojuhani Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus: Concerto for birds and orchestra (1972) opens with a movement entitled Suo (The Marsh), in which solo flutes are joined by the recorded sound of marsh birds. You might think this would create a rather Japanese-sounding landscape, austere as the Arctic, but instead the flutes flutter up and down playfully and the orchestration becomes quite joyful. This is not surprising because Cantus Arcticus was commissioned for a celebratory occasion: the degree ceremony of the 'Arctic' University of Oulu. The second movement Melankolia starts more bleakly, with Rautavaara using the sound of the shore lark but "brought down by two octaves to make it a 'ghost bird'". Nevertheless this movement too is quite Romantic (a bit too lush for my taste at times) and the last movement, Joutsenet muuttavat (Swans migrating) matches the recorded sound of the swans with a crescendo of rousing strings and brass. And yet, at the end, the whole thing dies away into silence, as "the sound is lost in the distance".