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.

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