Saturday, May 30, 2009

Ditchling Beacon

In Landscape and Western Art, Malcolm Andrews mentions 'The People's Choice' project in which Alex Melamid and Vitaly Komar have created the world's 'most wanted' paintings from a set of responses to a questionnaire. Andrews notes that 'of the 15 countries whose results appear on the Internet pages, 11 produce, as their most wanted painting, a landscape. In these 11 landscapes the proportion of water surface to mountainside to trees to level ground is remarkably consistent... Could it be that these results vindicate Kenneth Clark's convictions about the consensus over a good view? They demonstrate a striking consistency, not only in the proportioning of the fundamental landscape components, but also in their disposition.'

This seems a bit of a leap from the results of a simple survey - the artists themselves have, after all, designed the resulting paintings. I've reproduced below (hope this is OK) the image Melamid and Komar came up with for the USA and one of their charts showing responses by Americans to the questions about their preferences for 'outdoor scenes'. It's good fun, but it would be interesting to test aesthetic preferences out a bit more scientifically (focusing just on landscape). You could have more categories of 'outdoor scene' or landscape feature and a range of fuller descriptions. You could also look at the results overall and then control for particular characteristics of the respondents, e.g. whether they live in a city, in suburbia or somewhere amid lakes and mountains.

Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, America's Most Wanted Painting, 1994

I was reminded of the Melamid and Komar experiment while looking round the opening exhibition at Eastbourne's newly relocated Towner Gallery, The People's Choice. To celebrate the gallery's relaunch, people were asked to vote on their favourite works from a selection of 200 in the permanent collection, with the winners being displayed. Landscape is 'one of the collection's gretest strengths' and the winner in the landscapes category was Charles Knight's Ditchling Beacon (c1930s), a Cotman-like painting of a local landmark, bringing out in soft sunlight the planes and curves of the South Downs. The Towner has a large collection of Eric Ravilious paintings and I wouldn't disagree with the popular vote for Cuckmere Haven (1939), another famous Sussex view where the natural forms seem well suited to the 1930s modernist style.

Melamid and Komar haven't included the UK in their 'People's Choice' project. However, Radio Four found that Britain's greatest painting (as voted for by their listeners) is Turner's The Fighting Temeraire. It is not a pure landscape, but a work in which the sun setting on the sea is just as much the subject as the old ship being tugged to its berth.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Wood

Much has been written about the return to comfort brands in this recession (promoted by retro advertising) and an increase in English holidays is forecast for this summer. Penguin's new English Journeys series can probably be seen in this light. The Stoke Newington Bookshop had a display of them when I popped in this morning, placed alongside Roger Deakin and other recent environmental / nature books. On a nearby table they had another nostalgic set of book designs, Faber Firsts (including rather bizarrely a 1950s-style cover for Orhan Pamuk's The White Castle which I own in its original 1990s cover). Despite my reservations I couldn't resist buying one of the English Journeys and sat down to read it in the garden this afternoon.

The Penguin blurb for The Wood says: 'An academic and writer, during the Second World War John Stewart Collis was put to agricultural work. Clearing and thinning an Ash wood, he found a meditative peace and an earnest pleasure in the use of axe and bill-hook. The Wood contains his beautiful, thoughtful writing on the joys of nature and of a life of activity, how a love of the sun affects a man, and the progression of nature that sees each plant - hawthorn, honeysuckle, larch, elder - have its hour.' From my garden chair it was easy to take vicarious pleasure in the author's account of his work chopping trees in the sun. His rhapsodic descriptions reminded me of that famous section of Anna Karenina where Levin sharpens his scythe and goes to help the peasants with their mowing, experiencing the intense joy to be had in manual labour. The Wood's author John Stewart Collis would later write a biography of Tolstoy.

There is a critical review of the series by Owen Hatherley in New Statesman which notes that 'there is only one of these slim books that has any obvious political axe to grind – From Dover to the Wen, a despatch from William Cobbett’s Rural Rides. Cobbett is a remarkable and odd writer, a sort of proto-blogger, whose notes veer suddenly from descriptions of landscape to cranky proofs of the existence of God, to satirical dialogues, to ferocious class war calls-to-arms.' The review concludes: 'we have a series of “journeys”, focused on a semi-mythical England, with no Pylon poet, no Ian Nairn or Iain Sinclair allowed to sully the view. The England we live in is largely uncharted. As a now mainly rural Conservative Party is likely to win the next election by default, the myths of rural England urgently need debunking, but these English journeys are more about escape from an urban country in deep crisis. Lie back and think of England.'

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reflected landscapes

Zora Palova, Virtual Reality, 1999

I took the photograph above at Goodwood Sculpture park a few years ago. The Cass Sculpture Foundation website describes Palova's sculpture thus: 'These five double-sided mirrors rotate around central pivots within their frames. They move in response to the wind or by being pushed or brushed against. The reflections render the form almost invisible when static, but in effect Palova has cut out sections of nature and framed them precisely. The framework remains the same but the pictures change almost continually.'

Anish Kapoor, C-Curve, 2009

I was reminded of Palova's work when shown a picture of Anish Kapoor's mirror, C-Curve, installed on the South Downs for the Brighton Festival. A relative of mine has noticed the similarity of this piece to optical display mirrors used on flight simulators and expressed concern in an email that "a huge amount of power can be concentrated at the focal point of the mirror – e.g. enough to boil a kettle full of water within seconds!" There don't seem to have been any singed spectators, but I see from the Evening Argus that the mirror itself was cracked by high winds.

This is not the first mirror sculpture Anish Kapoor has installed - his Cloud Gate for example reflects the urban landscape of Chicago. And artist-installed mirrors in the landscape go back at least as far as Robert Smithson's Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1-9) (1969). Here are some other recent examples:
  • Michel de Broin's Superficial (2004): 'Upon invitation to reflect on the notion of transparency, that led me into the forest to envelop the contour of a large stone with fragments of mirror. The large stone, tucked away deep in the woods, became a reflective surface for its surroundings. In this play of splintered radiance, the rock disappears in its reflections. Because it reflects one cannot be mislead by its presence, yet we cannot seize it, rather it is the rock that reflects us.'
  • Julia Davis's Meniscii (2008): 'Sydney artist Julia Davis' Meniscii is so uncomplicated that its materials are listed as "mirror, sky, landscape". ... The work was intended to float on a lake in the gardens, but the biting drought caused the lake to recede and necessitated moving the Meniscii on to dry ground. "Water restrictions have gone up," Davis recalled being told in a January telephone call from the organisers. "You're going to have to re-think your work."'
  • Steve Messam's Drop (2008): 'Drop will be moving about the Lake District, taking up residence at some of the "viewing stations" nominated by Thomas West in his 1778 book "Guide to the Lakes". Drop will act like another 18th Century device when inflated, the "Claude Glass" a small shaped mirror that early tourists would use to view the beauty of the Lakes through! But unlike the Claude Glass, which was held at arms length, this modern version can be touched and flexed allowing people to create their own reflected landscapes.'

Friday, May 15, 2009


I've talked before about the way the names of certain landscapes have particular resonance for poets and artists (e.g. Edward Thomas). In his poem 'Anahorish', Seamus Heaney says that this place name evokes the past - 'after-image of lamps / swung through the yards / on winter evenings'. In describing its physical characteristics, he refers to the meaning of Anahorish in Irish, a "place of clear water". But interestingly he goes further still, likening the structure of the word itself to the landscape it describes: 'Anahorish, soft gradient / of consonant, vowel-meadow...' There's an interesting post by Thomas O'Grady which discusses Heaney's use of place names. He mentions 'Anahorish' and highlights the poem 'Broagh' (riverbank), in which 'the shower / gathering in your heelmark / was the black O / in Broagh.'

The writer I most associate with place names is Proust. In Swanns Way his narrator remembers that 'I did not then represent to myself towns, landscapes, historic buildings, as pictures more or less attractive, cut out here and there of a substance that was common to them all, but looked on each of them as on an unknown thing, different from all the rest, a thing for which my soul was athirst, by the knowledge of which it would benefit. How much more individual still was the character that they assumed from being designated by names, names that were only for themselves, proper names such as people have... The name of Parma, one of the towns that I most longed to visit, after reading the Chartreuse, seeming to me compact and glossy, violet-tinted, soft, if anyone were to speak of such or such a house in Parma, in which I should be lodged, he would give me the pleasure of thinking that I was to inhabit a dwelling that was compact and glossy, violet-tinted, soft, and that bore no relation to the houses in any other town in Italy, since I could imagine it only by the aid of that heavy syllable of the name of Parma, in which no breath of air stirred, and of all that I had made it assume of Stendhalian sweetness and the reflected hue of violets.'

Monday, May 11, 2009

Kenilworth Castle's Elizabethan garden

I couldn't help being reminded a bit of Bouvard and Pécuchet (see previous post) while watching on Friday an entertaining documentary about the recreation of Kenilworth Castle's Elizabethan garden. In the Bouvard and Pécuchet role of enthusiasts determined to landscape a garden and ending with a bit of a mess were the head of English Heritage, Simon Thurley, and his wife Anna Keay. I felt a bit sorry for them because the documentary makers were clearly not there to provide a flattering portrait (just as Flaubert can be pretty merciless at times and one ends up having some sympathy for Bouvard and Pécuchet). Nevertheless, I'm worried that Bryan Appleyard is right in his view that mistrusting TV documentaries is 'all very well, but it is clear that the Kenilworth Garden is an EH folly. “The most ambitious garden restoration of its type ever to have taken place in this country,” says Thurley on television. But no restoration is involved. The garden is an invention based on a single contemporary letter.'

The English Heritage site has extracts from the Langham Letter which starts 'Unto this, his Honour’s exquisite appointment of a beautiful garden, an acre or more in quantity, that lieth on the north there: Wherein hard all along by the Castle wall, is reared a pleasant terrace, ten feet high, and twelve feet broad, even under foot, and fresh of fine grass; as is also the side thereof towards the garden: In which, by sundry equal distances, with obelisks, and spheres, and white bears, all of stone upon their curious bases, by goodly shew were set...' The documentary showed the English Heritage team building the 'pleasant terrace' but finding the dimensions in the letter made it too steep to grow grass without the aid of some plastic stuff buried in the turf. Similarly an aviary was due to be built in wood but had to be reinforced with steel to comply with health and safety (the extra cost was the subject of legal dispute). The whole project raises lots of familiar questions about authenticity, not least because Lord Robert Dudley's original garden was itself a piece of artifice, designed as a temporary display for a royal visit.

Perhaps I should suspend judgement until I've visited the new gardens, although I talked a bit about it to my neighbour Nick Higham, who went for the rainy press launch, and it didn't sound terribly enticing to me. Now the garden has been finished, I just hope, as Nick says in his report, that the £2.1million of public funds will be recouped by increased visitor numbers.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

The garden of Bouvard and Pécuchet

Encouraged by Geoff Manaugh's defence of the practice, I have followed the example of some of my favourite blogs and started a Some Landscapes twitter (not sure I've mastered the idiom yet, can the word be used as a noun like 'blog'?) The idea is to include a few quick quotes and links and comments as they arise - some will get incorporated in later posts here, others won't. The 140 character constraint is a challenge to write with almost Flaubertian concision. Here's the sort of thing I've twittered: One of Flaubert's 'Accepted Ideas' - 'Landscapes (painted): always look like a mess of spinach.'

This quotation comes from a newly translated edition of Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet. Among the numerous projects of these two misguided enthusiasts, Flaubert describes a disastrous attempt at landscape gardening. After reading Boitard's The Garden Architect (see above) they consider the various options: the Melancholic or Romantic garden with its ruins and tombs; the Dreadful garden with hanging rocks, shattered trees, and burnt-out shacks; the Exotic garden 'to inspire memories in the colonist or traveller'; the Pensive garden with 'a temple to philosophy, as at Ermenonville'; the Majestic (obelisks); the Mysterious (moss and grottoes); the Meditative (a lake); or the Fantastic garden - a hermit, wild boars, 'several sepulchers, and a skiff departing from the banks on its own power to bring you into a drawing-room, where spurts of water drench you as you recline on the sofa'. They decide to adopt an eclectic approach...

The garden had previously been devoted to vegetables. Bouvard and Pécuchet 'sacrificed the asparagus and in its place built an Etruscan tomb', erected 'a kind of Rialto' over another part of the vegetable garden and contrived to evoke a Chinese pagoda by placing a tin cap with its corners curled up over six squared-off trees. 'In the middle of the lawn rose a boulder that looked like a giant potato.' The finishing touch was a linden tree, felled and lain across the entire length of the garden, 'making it look like it had been washed away by a flood or struck down by lightning'. But the garden fails to impress their neighbours, whose disparagement Bouvard and Pécuchet see as being due to 'the blackest envy.' "They barely even noticed the pagoda!" "Saying the ruins aren't clean is plain idiotic!" "And the tomb inappropriate! Why inappropriate? Don't we have the right to build one on our own property? I'd even like to be buried there!"

Friday, May 08, 2009

River Axe Crossings

One more riverine post before I leave the subject for a bit...

Colin Sackett has kindly sent me his River Axe Crossings, a visual survey that pairs photographs taken up and downstream at each of the river's forty-one crossings - from two wooden sleepers laid across the stream near the river's source, all the way down to Axmouth Bridge, near where it meets the sea. The book has a symmetrical design and each double page spread contains, in addition to the images, some text describing the crossing and what can be seen there. These texts resist the temptation to poeticise the landscape and are instead simple and factual, e.g. for crossing number four, Axe Ford:
  • downstream - 'As the name suggests, once a crossing by shallow ford, now a plain concrete slab across the stream.'
  • upstream - 'The river channel winding amongst the wooded banks and the small-scale meandering of erosion and deposition.'
As a set of river landscapes the photographs are not especially picturesque - they look as if they might have been chosen at random from the course of the river but are, of course, quite the opposite, marking the places people selected over many years to make their River Axe crossings.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The pale green Thames lies like a rod of rippled jade

Having mentioned last time Alice Oswald's poem for the Severn Project, I'm going to talk here about The River's Voice, a whole anthology that came out of another funded initiative: Common Ground's Confluence. They secured an Arts Lottery Arts 4 Everyone grant in 1998 for 'a three year project to help and encourage people to create new music for the River Stour. Confluence was a national project with a local focus. It offered participatory music projects, workshops, courses, concerts and events for people living in the catchment area, from Somerset and Wiltshire, where the Stour rises, through Dorset to the sea at Christchurch.'

The anthology has a beautifully written introduction by Roger Deakin, who had just recently published Waterlog. The cover is by Clifford Harper, the anarchist print maker whose appealing woodcut-like illustrations for The Guardian have been appearing over the last few years (many depict landscapes). The contents are a mix of old and new poems, with only one or two related directly to the Confluence project. This makes for a good anthology - it avoids the problem I found, for example, with Wild Reckoning: An Anthology provoked by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (2004), where the commissioned poems didn't match up to the older works collected for the anthology.

When is a river poem not a landscape poem? Almost always, I suppose, since it's rare to find a poet simply looking at a river without walking, charting or imagining its whole course, reflecting on its history, describing its wildlife, or simply relating an anecdote shaped by the river. Some of this anthology's rivers are abstract or unspecific, as in J. H. Prynne's 'Along Almost Any River'; eight of the poems are just called 'River', 'A River' or 'The River'. Still, here is a partial list of some real rivers and associated poets -
  1. The River Avon - David Wright
  2. The Charles River - Robert Lowell
  3. The Derwent River - William Wordsworth
  4. The River Duddon - Norman Nicholson
  5. The River Idle - Phoebe Hesketh
  6. The Liffey - William Oxley
  7. The Moscow River - Osip Mandelstam
  8. The River Otter - Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  9. The River Severn - Charles Tomlinson
  10. The Tay - Douglas Dunn
- and of course there are several poets who write about the Thames. In fact, some of the poems that come closest to landscape painting are London scenes, like Wordsworth's 'Composed Upon Westminster Bridge' or this one by Oscar Wilde:

Symphony in Yellow

An omnibus across the bridge
Crawls like a yellow butterfly,
And, here and there a passer-by
Shows like a little restless midge.

Big barges full of yellow hay
Are moored against the shadowy wharf,
And, like a yellow silken scarf,
The thick fog hangs along the quay.

The yellow leaves begin to fade
And flutter from the temple elms,
And at my feet the pale green Thames
Lies like a rod of rippled jade.