Saturday, April 07, 2007

Visions of little dells

In The Guardian today Andrew Motion writes about the exhibition ‘Poets in the Landscape: The Romantic Spirit in British Art’, at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. In discussing William Blake’s illustrations to Virgil’s Eclogues, he cites a beautiful description by Samuel Palmer, who saw the woodcuts as "visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise; models of the exquisitest pitch of intense poetry. I thought of their light and shade, and looking upon them I find no word to describe it. Intense depth, solemnity, and vivid brilliancy only coldly and partially describes them. There is in all such a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the innermost soul, and gives a complete and unreserved delight, unlike the gaudy daylight of this world."

However, Andrew Motion wants to emphasise the darkness lurking in these pastoral visions, many of which were made in time of war and political uncertainty. They are ‘not so much escapist as defended’, a ‘form of opposition to the threats that circle them’. He cites, for example, John Piper’s set designs for the ballet Job (1948), which on the surface seem to be simple pastoral landscapes, but in which he sees ‘an optimism that is too determined to be entirely convincing.’ These set designs are, incidentally, a nice example of the interconnectedness of the English Romantic landscape traditions. The ballet is based on Blake’s illustrations to the Book of Job and composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams, following a proposal by Geoffrey Keynes (essayist and brother of the economist) and wood engraver Gwen Raverat (who was related to both Keynes and Vaughan Williams, and whose prints, including various landscapes, can be seen on-line here).

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