Saturday, July 26, 2008

Brightening fields of ether fair-disclos'd

'From brightening fields of ether fair-disclos'd, /Child of the sun, refulgent Summer comes...' Hot sunny weather today beings to mind these opening lines of James Thomson's poem 'Summer' (1730).  In his enjoyable survey Lives of the Poets (1998), Michael Schmidt devotes a whole chapter to Thomson, but calls it 'Dead Pastoral'. Here are some of his arguments against Thomson:

  • He is now 'primarily read by scholars who prefer dust to living dirt'
  • His verse was once as ubiquitous in inns and cottages as Gideon bibles and was similarly 'reassuring and instructive but never taxing'
  • He was fashionably up-to-date on philosophy and science, but this modernity now dates him
  • His language is derived from Milton - he 'vulgarized Milton as he vulgarized the new science'
  • There is verbal exuberance but 'it is hard at times to see through the adjectival undergrowth to a subject'
  • He forfeits our attention by ascending to generalization. Gilbert White's prose conveys far more because he addresses a subject whereas Thomson addresses an audience
  • Although there are good lines there is 'want of method', in Dr Johnson's judgement
  • Nevertheless, Johnson admired Thomson, a misjudgment Schmidt puts down to his enthusiasm for the novelty of Thomson's subject matter
  • And yet Thomson's approach wasn't that new -he revived the georgic, but others had already done this
  • Thomson's countryside is recognisable rather than mythic, but it is still an optimistic, idealised view that celebrates commerce an enterprise - The Seasons is a Whig epic
  • The best thing he occasioned was William Collins' Ode on Thomson's death
Pretty damning. Of course Schmidt does credit Thomson with a few good moments, like these delicious lines from 'Summer':
'Bear me, Pomona! to thy citron groves;
To where the lemon and the piercing lime,
With the deep orange glowing through the green,
Their lighter glories blend. Lay me reclined
Beneath the spreading tamarind, that shakes,
Fanned by the breeze, its fever-cooling fruit.'
Schmidt argues that Thomson can only really be enjoyed in odd lines. 'He lacks Wordsworth's engagement. His is an enthusiasm of the various senses, but the whole man is withheld. Wordsworth's imagination is continuous with the experienced world, Thomson's tangential to it.' But Thomson has always been dipped into for the poetic fragments, like the quotations that artists like Turner appended to their paintings. Turner went so far as to paint a tribute to the poet, Thomson's Aeolian Harp (1809), showing an ideal memorial to the poet in which a harp placed on his tomb could respond to the cycle of the seasons. Turner wrote lines to accompany the painting: '... Let Summer shed her many blossoms fair, / to shield the trembling strings in noon-tide ray; / While ever and anon the dulcet air / shall rapturous thrill, or sigh in sweets away...'

The James Thomson memorial in Richmond

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef

Strange underwater landscapes are currently on display at the South Bank - the Institute for Figuring have brought their hyperbolic crochet coral reef project to England:
'The IFF reef has been inspired by the principles of hyperbolic crochet originally developed by mathematician Dr Daina Taimina. In 1997 Dr Taimina discovered how to make models of the geometry known as hyperbolic space using the feminine art of crochet. Until that time most mathematicians had believed it was impossible to construct physical models of hyperbolic forms, yet nature had been doing just that for hundreds of millions of years. It turns out that many marine organisms embody hyperbolic geometry, among them kelps, corals, sponges and nudibranchs. The IFF reef not only looks like an actual coral reef, it draws on the same underlying geometry endemic in the oceanic realm... Over the past two years, through increasingly freeform experimentation, we have discovered that tiny changes in the underlying crochet algorithms will result in major changes to the resulting forms. By exploiting this insight we have gradually evolved a wide taxonomy of hyperbolic crochet “species.” To our surprise, the range of possible forms seems to be endless, yet they all result from extremely simple instruction sets. Just as the teeming variety of living species on earth result from different versions of the DNA-based genetic code, so too a huge range of crochet hyperbolic species have been brought into being through minor modifications to the underlying code. As time progresses the models have “evolved” from the simple purity of Dr Taimina’s mathematically precise algorithms to more complex aberrations that invoke ever more naturalistic forms.'

The London reef exhibition is in two parts. The Hayward Gallery shows some of the earlier works from this project: 'the Bleached Reef, a new configuration of the Ladies Silurian Reef, the beautifully archaic Branched Anemone Garden, and the ever-growing Toxic Reef... the wondrously surreal Chicago Cambrian Reef (curated by IFF contributor Aviva Alter), plus a new formation of the Beaded Reef by master beaders Rebecca Peapples and Sue Von Ohlsen, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable Reef (with hot-pink sand by Kathleen Greco), and the Bottle Tree Grove (featuring works by Christine Wertheim, Evelyn Hardin and Nadia Severns)'. The Royal Festival Hall has a display of reefs made by UK crafters (see photograph above). Mrs Plinius, who is a dab hand with the needles, was one of the contributors.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Severn's ambient wave

The Book of English Rivers by Samuel Lewis (1855) contains brief descriptions of all the main rivers, noting down points of topographical interest: notable views, snippets of local history and literary associations. There are no extended passages of description, but the flow of place names as he tracks the course of each river has its own kind of poetry. There follows a kind of précis of Lewis’s entry for the river Severn which gives an indication of the landscapes along the river he found particularly interesting.
Lewis traces the course of the Severn from its source, past the village of Llandinam, the Roman station of Caer-Sws and Newtown from where it is possible to see Montgomery Castle, birthplace of George Herbert. (Herbert wrote religious poetry but you can imagine him looking at the river when he wrote in ‘The Storm’: ‘If as the windes and waters here below / Do flie and flow, / My sighs and tears as busy were above; Sure they would move / And much affect thee..’ )
From there, Lewis continues, the river passes Powis Castle and becomes navigable at Welshpool, flows by Llandrinio and the Breiddin Hills and then leaves Wales for the plain of Salop. He notes the striking landscape at Loton mansion, White Abbey and then describes the course of ‘Severn’s ambient wave’ through Shrewsbury. This memorable phrase comes from a poem by William Shenstone: ‘Admired Salopia! that with venial pride / Eyes her bright form in Severn's ambient wave, / Famed for her loyal cares in perils try'd, / Her daughters lovely, and her striplings brave.’
Near Shrewsbury is Meole Brook, a trout stream where the fisherman who taught Izaak Walton fly-fishing, Thomas Barker, grew up. Memorable buildings follow: Haughmond Abbey, Attingham Hall (designed by Athenian Stuart), the Roman remains at Wroxeter, Cound Hall, Leighton Hall and Buildwas Abbey. The industrial landscape of Coalbrook Dale comes next, followed by Apley with notable views to be had from the drive of Apley Terrace. Still in Shropshire, the Severn flows through Bridgenorth and past Quatford church on an eminence above the river. To Dudmaston woods, Alveley, Higley and then the river enters a small part of Staffordshire.
Flowing on into Worcestershire, at Stourport it receives the Stour. Lewis mentions Thorngrove villa, the seat of Lucien Bonaparte during his stay in England, and Hallow where the scientist Sir Charles Bell is buried. At Worcester there are picturesque views of the Malvern hills and more noteworthy views further downriver at Severn-Stoke church. Upton is ‘described in poetry by Mr Cottle “- Many stately trees, and many cots, / And villages, o’erspread the country round…’’'
The rocky scenery of Mythe is the next notable landscape feature on the river’s course. Then, after Tewkesbury, the Severn divides temporarily in two and forms the Isle of Alney, with Gloucester on the eastern channel. Having received another river, the Froome, it makes a horse-shoe bend with great views from Newnham to Cotswolds and Forest of Dean. Finally, Lewis brings his description to the estuary: Sharpness Point, Lydney, and the meeting place of the lower Avon, flowing from Bristol.
The Severn seen from Gloucestershire, 2008

Friday, July 11, 2008

The sea at Aldeburgh

Caspar David Friedrich, Bohemian Landscape, c. 1810

Back in June 1991 composer David Matthews gave the first Peter Fuller memorial lecture, discussing the link between music and art, with a strong emphasis on landscape. For example, Friedrich's paintings of distant mountains find their 'exact musical equivalent' in Bruckner's 8th Symphony, with its 'regligious apprehension of nature'. The 'Royal Hunt and storm' from Berlioz's opera The Trojans (1863) is similar in spirit to Claude's last painting, Landscape with Ascanius shooting the Stag of Sylvia (1682). And Wagner and Turner share a mastery of colour.

The talk was reported on by Boris Ford in the Autumn 1991 edition of Modern Painters. He quotes a section on 'Dawn', one of the Sea Interludes in Peter Grimes, which was compared to a Philip Wilson Steer seascape, Sunrise on the Sea, Walberswick (1889):

'... a high, unaccompanied, melodic line for violins and flutes. This is clearly the sky. If the violins had played the line by themselves, the purity of their tone might have suggested an unclouded blue, but the stage directions indicate 'a cold grey morning', and with the dulling of the violins' bright overtones by the flute doubling, we sense one of those high, wide, leaden skies so typical of the East coast: this is the sea at Aldeburgh... so Britten brings us in, through the clarinet and viola arpeggios, outlined by harp, which are perhaps the breaking of waves on the shore, to the great expanse of the sea itself: soft brass chords expressive of the sea's power and of its latent menace, which will explode later in the opera in a violent storm.'

In 1995 a new score of the Sea Interludes was discovered which had been closely annotated by the composer (and might therefore be seen as related tengentially to the 'annotated landscape' art discussed in my previous posting here). According to the BBC proms site 'it is not known when or why Britten marked up this copy of the score - was it perhaps to help him draft a programme note? - though the precise, albeit prosaic, nature of the annotations suggests that specific events in the music were related to specific visual images in the composer's mind. Thus, against passages in 'Dawn', we can read 'land (or sea scape)', 'slow wave', 'gulls' and 'a big wave', and in 'Storm', 'Seascape (whole sea)', 'waves', 'wind', 'spray blowing' and (rather more revealingly) 'still centre (Grimes' ecstasy)'.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Petra, 13 April 1858

In his essay 'Painters as Writers' Stephen Spender wrote:

'The meeting place of words and painting is those drawings in which painters have scribbled the names of colours as an aide-mémoire. The word "grey" written against olive trees by van Gogh or Cotman obviously means something different to the artist from that which it suggests to the reader. When one looks at a sketch and sees a written word, there is the suggestion of a leap from the word to the miracle of the paint, and this is itself an effect of poetry, which Apollinaire tried to exploit when he arranged the words of a poem in the form of sketches. Moreover, the painters who write most on their sketches themselves seem to be extremely open to the suggestion of words, an extreme example being the painter and humorous poet Edward Lear, who did many such sketches.'

The Edward Lear example below was the best I could find with a quick search - other sketches of his have a lot more words on them. I'm tempted to suggest that Lear's paintings in this vein belong to a rarely noticed subgenre of 'annotated landscapes', along with photographs like Roni Horn's Still Water, Chinese landscape paintings like Mount Pan, and even, at a stretch, geographical illustrations like those of Geoffrey Hutchings.

Edward Lear, Petra 13 April 1858

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Finished Housing, Lakewood, California

The Plow that Broke the Plains (see previous posting) is discussed in an essay by Denis Cosgrove, included in my friend Kathryn’s interdisciplinary archive BIPOLAR. Lorentz’s images of the Dustbowl are one of the examples picked by Cosgrove to consider five key moments in 20th century environmentalism. He also talks about photographs of atomic bomb tests in the fifties and the first images seen of the Earth from space. The other two examples are linked:

  • Environmental concern in the early twentieth century was focused on nature protection, as in John Muir’s campaign for the creation of Yosemite National Park, the singular ‘natural’ beauty of which had been established in the previous century through Albert Bierstadt’s paintings and photographs by Eadweard Muybridge and Carleton Watkins. Subsequently, the panoramic shots of Yosemite taken by Muir’s acolyte Ansel Adams would feature in a series of Sierra Club coffee table books. Their portrayal of a timeless wilderness untouched by human agency only started to be criticised by a new generation of environmentalists in the late sixties.
  • Mass suburbanisation after the War brought new fears of urban sprawl and, again, images were crucial in dramatising the issue. Cosgrove highlights William Garnett’s aerial photographs of new suburban homes, like Finished Housing, Lakewood, California, which were originally shot to celebrate the use of industrial building techniques in a period of high housing demand. However, re-titled and juxtaposed with Ansel Adams photographs in the Sierra Club’s This is the American Earth (1960), they were used to symbolise both the destruction of the wilderness and the restriction of freedom in an age of uniform mass housing.
Cosgrove ends his essay by discussing the way images of threatened polar bears are being used to give fears of global warming a sense of urgency. ‘The focus is on natural life, with topography and landscape reduced to a backdrop, no longer a space of deep time and infinitely slow evolution, but of accelerating change and catastrophic extinction.’

Friday, July 04, 2008

High winds and sun . . .

High winds and sun . . .
High winds and sun...
a country without rivers and with little rain.
Settler, plow at your peril!
Last week I watched the new Naxos DVD of The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), the Dust Bowl documentary described by its director, Pare Lorentz, as a ‘melodrama of nature’. The film is partly renowned for Virgil Thomson’s score, divided into six movements: Prelude, Pastorale (Grass), Cattle, Blues (Speculation), Drought, and Devastation. There is an excellent Pare Lorentz site with the full Whitmanesque script and an extract from the film. For me the most striking section of the film comes when the plains are transformed into a grey sea of dust and the sound of a pump organ is heard on the score playing what the notes to the DVD describe as a ‘bare, neo-medieval two part counterpoint.’ It is very affecting.

From a landscape perspective the next film Lorentz and Thomson made, The River, is even more interesting. The script was praised by James Joyce as "the most beautiful prose that I have heard in ten years", and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1938. It describes the Mississippi in its Eden-like state before the coming of industry, agriculture, ‘a hundred cities and a thousand towns’. It laments the poverty and destruction caused by poor land and floods, but holds out the hope of redemption through New Deal projects like the dams of the Tennessee River Authority. There are some beautiful images, although some of the most striking, like a moving river of logs, were apparently taken from footage made for other films.

The Lorentz site also has a page on The City, a film sponsored by The American Institute of Planners for the 1939 World's Fair. This was made by Willard Van Dyke and Ralph Steiner, who had worked on the earlier films. Lorentz wrote the script, Lewis Mumford narrated it, and the music this time was by Aaron Copland.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Moon Appearing and the Breeze Arriving

I have been reading rather enviously Gardenhistorygirl's recent posts about the gardens of Suzhou. The nearest I've got to seeing any of these is the Metropolitan Museum's Astor Court in New York - this was was modeled on the Late Spring Studio at Wang Shi Yuan, a Suzhou garden with particularly evocative names (e.g. The Pavilion of the Moon Appearing and the Breeze Arriving). If I ever get to Suzhou I'd love to see the rockery at Shi Zi Lin, the artificial hill at Cang Lang Ting, the cliff walk at Ou Yuan and the collection of miniature landscapes at Lin Yuan. I can imagine sipping tea in the Hall of Distant Fragrance in Zhuo Zheng Yuan, gazing out onto the water garden... I'm sure the reality is less poetic.

The Oxford Companion to Gardens describes Suzhou as ideally situated: plentiful water, pleasant hills, good climate and a local supply of finest garden stones. These stones came from an island in Lake Tai (Taihu). 'They are grey limestone boulders excavated from the water where waves, hammering against small, harder stones embedded in the rock, have eroded them into peculiar shapes and textures. Those that are wrinkled, emaciated, and full of jagged holes are considered the best and, in the Song dynasty, were some of the most expensive objects in the empire. Although, originally, Taihu stones lost value if improved by human hands, a local industry developed which encouraged the natural weathering process by placing in the lake suitable specimens of limestone for later harvesting. Books on rock collecting, like Du Wuan's Yun Lin Shi Bu (Stone Catalogue of Cloudy Forest) written c. 1125, constantly warned connoisseurs to beware of fakes.'