Saturday, April 26, 2008

Greta Bridge

John Sell Cotman, Greta Bridge c1805

In 1980 Phaidon published a Companion to Art and Artists in the British Isles which divides the country into regions and discusses the places with which artists have been associated. I’ve used it here to consider the connections between art and landscape in one of the books’ nine regions, the North.
  • Many northern artists left to work in London and elsewhere, but there are artists born in the region of who seem to have been strongly influenced by the local landscape. There was John Martin, for example, for whom ‘the wild scenery around Haydon Bridge, especially Allendale Gorge, had undoubtedly helped foster his lifelong fascination for the terrifying and the spectacular.’ Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth were born in Castleford and Wakefield respectively – Moore later recalled the influence of a sculptural rocky outcrop called Adel Crag. The urban landscape also influenced artists, like Vorticist Edward Wadsworth, whom Wyndham Lewis described as a genius of industrial England just as much as John Crome was a genius of agricultural England. In its caption for View of a Town (c1918) the Tate says that Wadsworth ‘took Wyndham Lewis on a tour of some of Yorkshire’s cities including Halifax. Lewis recalled, ‘He stopped the car and we gazed down into its blackened labyrinth. I could see he was proud of it. “It’s like Hell, isn’t it?” he said enthusiastically’
  • Other artists stayed in the North and became associated with particular landscapes, the most famous I suppose being L.S. Lowry in Manchester. Lowry was taught by the Frenchman Auguste Valette whose ‘impressionistic canvases show loney, stylized figures set against a foggy gloom.’ Other notable local painters include Atkinson Grimshaw, who lived in Leeds all his life and specialised in moonlit scenes, the Liverpool pre-Raphaelites William J. J. C. Bond and William Davis, who painted Wirral landscapes, and Ethel Walker, based at Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire. But one of the most interesting is one of the first English landscape painters, Francis Place, who lived mostly in York. As the Tate site says, Place ‘made various sketching tours of the north of England. He often travelled on foot, and worked outdoors on the spot... Such activity was so unusual at the time that he was arrested as a spy, suspected of involved in a Catholic plot.’
  • Then there are artists who came to live in the north, like landscape painter Julius Caesar Ibbotson, who moved to Masham in Yorkshire in 1805, near the home of his patron William Danby. John Ruskin first visited the Lakes at the age of five and eventually moved north to live in Coniston Water in 1871. Another more surprising resident of Cumbria was Dadaist Kurt Schwitters who painted some local scenes to make money while working on his Merzbarn. The best known artists’ colony in the region was at Staithes, a fishing village ‘discovered’ in the 1880s by Gilbert Foster.
  • The Companion’s authors Michael Jacobs and Malcolm Warner note with some surprise that the Romantic landscape painters were more attracted to the Yorkshire landscape than the Lake District. Thomas Girtin, for example, was one of many to depict Kirstall Abbey, Turner used to stay at Farnley with his patron Walter Ramsden Hawkes, and James Ward painted the famous view of Gordale Scar now in the Tate. Another visitor to Yorshire was John Sell Cotman, who stayed at Rokeby Hall in 1805 (in 1814 the owner of this Palladian manor, classical scholar John Morritt, would purchase a Velazquez painting that’s now known as The Rokeby Venus). Here Cotman discovered the landscape around Greta Bridge and painted some of the most celebrated watercolours in the history of art.
  • Finally, there is the modern trend for sculpture parks and site-specific works. The Companion mentions David Nash’s carvings and constructions along the Silurian Way in Grizedale Forest. However, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park had only just been set up when the book was written and the Angel of the North wasn’t even a gleam in Antony Gormley’s eye...
James Ward, Gordale Scar (A View of Gordale, in the Manor of East Malham in Craven, Yorkshire, the Property of Lord Ribblesdale) c1812-14
The Tate exhibition A Picture of Britain had a similar aim to the Companion and it included a section on ‘The Romantic North’ which features some of the same artists.
I was wondering what a 2008 edition of the Companion would need to include. Not just landscape art of course – it would have to feature art about the people and history of the north, like Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave. But in terms of landscape, the safest bet would be Andy Goldsworthy, surely the best-known northern artist working in the diffuse modern field of 'land art'. Photographers like Fay Godwin and John Davies spring to mind too, but it occurred to me that there were hardly any photographs in the original Companion (no Roger Fenton, for example, whose image of Furness Abbey I have mentioned here). Photography now seems inseperable from art, but perhaps this was still not quite the case when the Companion was compiled.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Three Philosophers

The life and writings of Denis Cosgrove (1948-2008) are celebrated in some recent obituaries: The Telegraph, The Times and David Lowenthal’s in The Independent. Lowenthal was Cosgrove’s external thesis examiner back in 1976 and “had the privilege of upgrading this remarkable synthesis of architectural enterprise, land management and regional history from a BLitt to a PhD. He refined and amplified it in The Palladian Landscape: geographical change and its cultural representations in sixteenth-century Italy (1993).” The Times obit says: “If today it is much more common to find questions of geography - place, landscape, experience and imagination - treated within the arts and humanities, it needs to be recalled just how exotic this appeared in the academic world of the 1970s, when it was geography's utilitarian promise as a tool of planning or development that held sway. One of Cosgrove's principal achievements as a scholar was to provide a coherent rationale for geography as a humanities discipline, concerned as much with the emotional texture of places as with their spatial structure, with the worlds of the imagination as well as lived experience.”

Giorgione, The Three Philosophers, c1500
Source: CFGA

I see I referred to one of Cosgrove’s essays in an earlier post in the context of mapping and landscape art. The full title of the essay I quoted is ‘The geometry of landscape: practical and speculative arts in sixteenth-century Venetian land territories.’ His starting point is classic human geography: the fortification, irrigation, and agricultural development of Venice’s terraferma. He then describes the importance of practical geometry in surveying and mapping this territory. It is possible to link this with the Venetian vision of landscape, in the art of Bellini, Giorgione and Titian, in the architecture of Palladio, and in the pastoral poetry of Bembo and Tasso. However, to provide a fuller connection, Cosgrove goes further and describes the concurrent interest in ‘speculative geometry’, which along with number theory underlay the esoteric culture, mystic symbolism and cosmology popular with Venetian humanists. It was therefore the combination of ‘practical chorography and a speculative philosophy’ which influenced the iconography of landscape in Venice and its territories. Cosgrove ends the essay by describing Giorgione’s The Three Philosophers, which seems to portray the different seasons in one landscape, along with the setting sun, magi and a quadrant, ‘the archetypal geometrical instrument.’ It combines the obscure intellectual poetry of Venetian culture with ‘the practical world of survey and mapping then spreading a new rational order across the fields of the terraferma.’ Denis Cosgrove’s work similarly bridged ideas of landscape as art and landscape as terrain, an approach that has created such a fruitful field of enquiry in cultural geography.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The lost gardens of Richmond Palace

Those detailed scenes visible through a window behind the sitter in Renaissance portraits often seem like glimpses of lost landscapes. Here is a specific example, from the portrait of Henry Prince of Wales (1594-1612) by Robert Peake. The youthful heir to James I was a patron of the arts who sought to create a spectacular garden at Richmond.

In the words of James Maxwell:
To plant and build he had a great delight,
Old ruins his sole presence did repair;
Orchards and gardens forthwith at his sight
Began to sprout and spring, to flourish fair...
However, almost before these gardens had had a chance to flourish, Henry died, and work on it was halted.

Roy Strong, in The Renaissance Garden in England, discusses the evidence we have on the appearance of these lost gardens, which ‘must have constituted a remarkable spectacle, conceived as they seem to have been on a vast scale.’ The Works Accounts refer to the creation of three artificial islands, one of which may be discernable in the garden vista within Peake’s portrait of Henry. It is possible that one of the islands was created in the shape of a vast river god, modelled on Giambologna’s giant at Pratolino. A contemporary described the erection of a ‘great figure... three times as large as the one at Pratolino, with rooms inside, a dove-cot in the head and grottoes in the base.’ Salomon de Caus, the chief designer at Richmond, included a couple of illustrations of giants in his Les raisons des forces mouvantes (1615). The one here has an old bearded head like the giant of Giambologna and a rugged but strangely feminine body.

Like the vague and tantalising view in the portrait of Henry, there may be echoes and memories of the lost gardens at Richmond in the literature of the time. Roy Strong wonders whether Inigo Jones’ scenery for Ben Jonson’s Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue recalls an island giant: ‘The scene was the mountain Atlas, who had his top ending in the figure of an old man, his head and beard all hoary and frost as if his shoulders were covered with snow; the rest wood and rock.’ And then there is The Tempest, where we seem ‘to be wondering through a garden by de Caus where we are suddenly confronted by dreamlike monsters, or entering a wild grotto to be struck suddenly, at the turn of a stopcock, with surprise and wonder at moving statues and magical music, as gods and goddesses spring to life and enact an intermezzo.’

Friday, April 18, 2008

The sea's waves' sheaves

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Sheaves, 1970

Now showing at the V&A in London - Certain Trees: The Constructed Book, Poem and Object (an exhibition I discussed last year after it had been in Paris), which features artists engaged in a 'dialogue between the natural world and its classification and presentation through the idiom of language'. The approach is illustrated here by Ian Hamilton Finlay's poem-book, 'the SEA'S WAVES' SHEAVES' shown above, a 'small folder with 3 leaf concertina-folded card', published by the artist's Wild Hawthorn Press. Works like this and the kinetic poem below are easy to imagine in an exhibition entitled 'Certain Landscapes'. Some other Ian Hamilton Finlay pieces in Certain Trees are 'Stonechats', 'Wave', 'A Woodland Flute', 'A Butterfly Garden', 'Two Trees', 'Wildflower' and 'Landscape / Interior'.

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Canal Stripe Series 4, 1964

Writing in The Independent, Tom Lubbock has praised Certain Trees, contrasting it with the often 'vain and thoughtless' approach of the famous artists gathered together in the V&A's concurrent exhibition Blood on Paper – The Art of the Book. He writes that the Certain Trees artists 'never forget where books come from: there's natural gravitation toward the subject of wood and trees. The artists dwell wittily on their materials – on letters, typefaces, inks, paper, printing, the way books work. Steve Wheatley's Over the Hills and Far Away is a book whose leaves are cut in the shapes of dipping hills; overlapped, they become a receding valley. Thomas Clark prints the words "small grey bird of dusk" in deep blue letters, but the vowels are printed in grey, like birds in an evening sky. The five vowels, you notice, run a e i o u ... Stuart Mills' booklet The Bridle Path is Filled with Clouds has a photo of puddles, brimming with reflections. The page opens and reveals. There's a knack for making imaginative leaps from the physical world of the book to the larger universe.'

Stuart Mills, Three Swallows in the River Meadows, 1969

Thanks to Colin Sackett, whose books/poems/artworks feature in the exhibition, for alerting me to the arrival of Certain Trees at the V&A and pointing me to the Tom Lubbock article.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The stones and shadows sigh breaths of amorous fire

The Met has an exhibition at the moment called ‘Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions’. The excellent Ionarts blog has an article on it with links to other reviews. I learned from this that Poussin's Landscape with Three Monks (La Solitude) is showing 'outside Serbia for the first time since 1934. One of the curators of the exhibit claims to have seen it hanging in Tito's office'.

There is an interesting description of Poussin’s sensual style of landscape painting in a review by Andrew Butterfield. Poussin originally moved to Rome after the Italian poet Giambattista Marino, based in Paris at the court of Marie de Medici, recognised and encouraged his talent. In Poussin’s paintings in this early period, where the figures still dominate the composition, ‘landscape elements seem to smolder with intense ardor. He achieved this effect by applying the upper layers of paint in relatively thin and rough brush strokes that allowed the red-brown ground layer of paint to show through, giving the entire image a warm and sensual glow. In European poetry the tradition of describing nature with amorous metaphors was an ancient one going back all the way to the Homeric hymns.... Poussin was extremely familiar with this tradition thanks to his friendship with Marino, whose poem L'Adone is a rich repository of the same vein of imagery. The artist read the book with the author, even making illustrations of it at his request, and Marino and Poussin also discussed how to translate the power of poetic language into the visual forms of painting. In L'Adone Marino wrote descriptive passages such as "Even the stones and the shadows of the place/sigh breaths of amorous fire." In his early mythic landscapes Poussin sought to capture the same sense of pathos and inspiration as is conveyed by lush and elevated writing of this kind.’

Nicolas Poussin, Nymph Spied on by Satyrs, c 1627
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


So on he fares, and to the border comes
Of Eden, where delicious Paradise,
Now nearer, Crowns with her enclosure green,
As with a rural mound the champain head
Of a steep wilderness, whose hairie sides
With thicket overgrown, grottesque and wilde,
Access deni'd; and over head up grew
Insuperable highth of loftiest shade,
Cedar, and Pine, and Firr, and branching Palm
A Silvan Scene, and as the ranks ascend
Shade above shade, a woodie Theatre
Of stateliest view. Yet higher then thir tops
The verdurous wall of paradise up sprung:
Which to our general Sire gave prospect large
Into his neather Empire neighbouring round.
And higher then that Wall a circling row
Of goodliest Trees loaden with fairest Fruit,
Blossoms and Fruits at once of golden hue
Appeerd, with gay enameld colours mixt:
On which the Sun more glad impress'd his beams
Then in fair Evening Cloud, or humid Bow,
When God hath showrd the earth; so lovely seemd
That Lantskip...

Thus, in Paradise Lost Book 4, Satan arrives in Eden. I was going to talk about the rather Milton-like artist Nicolas Poussin today, but the comment left by Arcady on my earlier posting about Milton made me want instead to quote some landscape description from this great poem. In his book The Figure in the Landscape, John Dixon Hunt talks about the influence Milton’s portrayal of Eden had on eighteenth century gardeners and champions of natural landscaping like Stephen Switzer. From it, they ‘derived authority for serpentine lines, natural treatment of water, rural mounds, wooded theatres...’ In the passage below, for instance, it is Nature rather than ‘nice Art’ that orders the flowers. A ‘happy rural seat of various view’ would thus exhibit what Shaftsbury would later call ‘things of a natural kind; where Art, nor the Conceit or Caprice of Man has spoil’d their genuine order.’

Southward through Eden went a River large,
Nor chang'd his course, but through the shaggie hill
Pass'd underneath ingulft, for God had thrown
That Mountain as his Garden mould high rais'd
Upon the rapid current, which through veins
Of porous Earth with kindly thirst up drawn,
Rose a fresh Fountain, and with many a rill
Waterd the Garden; thence united fell
Down the steep glade, and met the neather Flood,
Which from his darksom passage now appeers,
And now divided into four main Streams,
Runs divers, wandring many a famous Realme
And Country whereof here needs no account,
But rather to tell how, if Art could tell,
How from that Saphire Fount the crisped Brooks,
Rowling on Orient Pearl and sands of Gold,
With mazie error under pendant shades
Ran Nectar, visiting each plant, and fed
Flours worthy of Paradise which not nice Art
In Beds and curious Knots, but Nature boon
Powrd forth profuse on Hill and Dale and Plaine,
Both where the morning Sun first warmly smote
The open field, and where the unpierc't shade
Imbround the noontide Bowrs: Thus was this place,
A happy rural seat of various view...

Friday, April 04, 2008

River Snow

There is a good account of landscaping, written 1200 years ago, in one of Liu Zong-yuan's 'Eight Accounts of Yong-zhou' (see Stephen Owen's Anthology of Chinese Literature). Liu Zong-yuan went exploring with two companions and found a beautiful spot near Gu-mu pond. Above a fish-weir, they saw a hill covered with trees and bamboo, and littered with a landscape of rocks that resembled strange animals. The whole site covered no more than an acre and, to his joy, Liu Zong-yuan found that it was available for purchase. Having bought it, the three companions 'went to get tools, scything away the undesirable plants and cutting down the bad trees, which we set fire to and burned. Then the fine trees stood out, the lovely bamboo were exposed, and the unusual rocks were revealed. When we gazed out from upon it, the heights of the mountains, the drifting of clouds, the currents of streams, and the cavorting of birds and beasts all cheerfully demonstrated their art and skill in performance for us below the hill. When we spread out our mats and lay down there, the clear and sharply defined shapes were in rapport with our eyes; the sounds of babbling waters were in rapport with our ears; all those things that went on forever in emptiness were in rapport with our spirits; and what was as deep and still as an abyss was in rapport with our hearts.'

Liu Zong-yuan goes on to reflect that were this splendid scenery situated within easy reach of the nobility, they would be fighting each other to buy it. Here in out-of-the-way Yong-zhou it's capability, as Lancelot Brown would have put it, went unnoticed until he came along.

This Chinese site has a bit of information on Liu Zong-yuan in slightly eccentric English, describing him as having "been stern in a manner of aloofness and arrogance though he was sad and depressed all his life. In his poem "River Snow", he drew a self-portrait by describing a lonely fisherman fishing in snow." There is a nice translation here of 'River Snow', which 'has been the subject of numerous landscape paintings. It is a terrifically imagist poem; the twenty characters of the poem create a whole landscape, sketch an intimate scene, and suggest a chill ineffable solitude. There is also a Buddhist element to the poem, and Liu Zongyuan's old man becomes like Wallace Stevens's “Snow Man,” with a “mind of winter”.

15th century landscape by Zhou Wenjing, 
featuring part of Liu Zongyuan's poem 'Winter Snow' in the upper right corner

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Heart of Old San Juan

As mentioned in an earlier posting, the Tate have a major Peter Doig retrospective at the moment. When I looked round last week I was interested to see some of the more recent paintings, having been to an earlier show at the Whitechapel in 1998. The Whitechapel exhibition leaflet, shown here, starts predictably by explaining that Doig is like Friedrich and Turner, but also not like them - it compares his attitude to nature and artifice with contemporaries Jeff Wall and Lari Pittman. Gerhard Richter is also referenced, along with Munch, Hopper and Magritte. Despite all these correspondences, it's impressive that Doig's art of the nineties remains so distinctive. All his work is interesting, although the exhibition at Tate Britain gives the impression of a fairly intense five-year burst of creativity at the start of the decade, encompassing landscapes inspired by, for example, the film Friday the 13th, Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation apartment, various Canadian winter scenes and an empty field at night.
The Tate leaflet here shows a detail of Country Rock (1998-99), with the painted archway under the Don Valley Parkway in Toronto, which it describes as a nondescript 'in-between' space. It quotes Doig: "A lot of my work deals with peripheral or marginal sites, places where the urban world meets the natural world. Where the urban elements become - literally - abstract devices." A similar kind of painting from the same time shows an empty basketball court, The Heart of Old San Juan (1999). However, these relatively people-free human landscapes have been replaced in Doig's more recent paintings with scenes that include figures derived from found postcards, snapshots or earlier art. Somehow, these simpler, more figurative paintings seem even more mysterious than his landscapes. As Adrian Searle has written "genuine disquiet pervades Doig's newest work. The man climbing a palm in one appears oblivious to the shadowy forms in the sky filling the rest of the canvas. The stories are dissolving, leaving only emptiness and murmurs."