Sunday, January 31, 2010

I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles

Talking of William Gilpin (as I was in my previous post), I remember years ago looking in vain for his books in various second hand bookshops and eventually giving up (I still don't own any).  Now it is possible to read them all online in digitised form:
I was thinking of him this week because I've been listening to Sense and Sensibility on my iPod and it includes a well-known exchange on the Picturesque.  I've mentioned Jane Austen's satire of Picturesque taste here before, but it's worth noting that, according to her brother's memoir, she was "at a very early age enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque; and she seldom changed her opinions either on books or men."  
Edward returned to them with fresh admiration of the surrounding country; in his walk to the village, he had seen many parts of the valley to advantage; and the village itself, in a much higher situation than the cottage, afforded a general view of the whole, which had exceedingly pleased him. This was a subject which ensured Marianne's attention, and she was beginning to describe her own admiration of these scenes, and to question him more minutely on the objects that had particularly struck him, when Edward interrupted her by saying, "You must not enquire too far, Marianne—remember I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give. I call it a very fine country—the hills are steep, the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and snug—with rich meadows and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility—and I dare say it is a picturesque one too, because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque."

"I am afraid it is but too true," said Marianne; "but why should you boast of it?"

"I suspect," said Elinor, "that to avoid one kind of affectation, Edward here falls into another. Because he believes many people pretend to more admiration of the beauties of nature than they really feel, and is disgusted with such pretensions, he affects greater indifference and less discrimination in viewing them himself than he possesses. He is fastidious and will have an affectation of his own."

"It is very true," said Marianne, "that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Every body pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was. I detest jargon of every kind, and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning."

"I am convinced," said Edward, "that you really feel all the delight in a fine prospect which you profess to feel. But, in return, your sister must allow me to feel no more than I profess. I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight, and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower—and a troop of tidy, happy villagers please me better than the finest banditti in the world."

Marianne looked with amazement at Edward, with compassion at her sister. Elinor only laughed.
Gilpin would have preferred banditti to happy villagers, and on aesthetic grounds favoured a landscape peopled by those not actively interfering with it.  As he wrote in his tour of the Lakes, 'in a moral view, the industrious mechanic is a more pleasing object than the loitering peasant.  But in a picturesque light it is otherwise.'

    Friday, January 29, 2010

    Grongar Hill

    So how do you describe a landscape?  Normally by selecting the most interesting features to which the reader's attention should be drawn, and this after having selected that particular view in the first place. Plus there's the time dimension - describing the landscape at a particular time on a particular day, describing temporal phenomena like the wind in the trees, referring to the landscape's history and future.  But what if your aim is more restricted or objective - to try to describe literally what is in front of you, like a photograph?  Where do you start?  How much detail do you include?  Do you give each arbitrary section of the visual field equal weight?  How do you convey relative distance?  Do you include ephemeral effects?  How much time is encapsulated in this 'snapshot'?

    In The Search for the Picturesque Malcolm Andrews describes some of the difficulties eighteenth century tourists encountered in trying to record in writing their impressions of the landscape.  He quotes one J. Grant, writing his 'Journal of a Three Weeks Tour, in 1797, Through Derbyshire to the Lakes': "About to enter on the most beautiful scenery, I shall, hereafter, in describing, fix one spot in a landscape, whence the best bird's eye view of the whole is to be had, and beginning in front, shall go round to the right hand, and returning by the left, make a complete sweep."  Andrews sees the influence here of advice for painters, e.g. William Sanderson's Graphice (1658), which recommended that the painter of landskip take his station on high ground, divide his tablet into three sections and then start drawing in the middle before turning first to the right and then the left.  But the extent to which a writer followed the practice of an artist would influence the choice of details in a landscape description.  Andrews provides an interesting case: William Gilpin's criticism of John Dyer's poem Grongar Hill (1726).

    Below me trees unnumber'd rise,
    Beautiful in various dyes:
    The gloomy pine, the poplar blue,
    The yellow beech, the sable yew,   
    The slender fir, that taper grows,
    The sturdy oak, with broad-spread boughs;
    And, beyond, the purple grove,
    Haunt of Phyllis, queen of love!
    Gaudy as the op'ning dawn,   
    Lies a long and level lawn,
    On which a dark hill, steep and high,
    Holds and charms the wandering eye!
    Deep are his feet in Towy's flood,
    His sides are cloth'd with waving wood,  
    And ancient towers crown his brow,
    That cast an aweful look below;
    Whose ragged walls the ivy creeps,
    And with her arms from falling keeps;
    So both a safety from the wind
    In mutual dependence find.

    In the extract above Dyer (who trained as a watercolourist under Jonathan Richardson) clearly describes the foreground trees and their colours, as you would expect in a landscape painting.  But Gilpin was worried about what comes next, the 'purple grove' in the middle ground - purple objects ought to imply distance - and criticised the detail apparently visible on the distant castle.  Instead of being fainter than the purple grove, 'you see the very ivy creeping upon the walls.'  He contrasts this with a famous couplet from Milton's L'Allegro, 'Towers, and battlements he sees / Bosomed high in tufted trees', where the colouring is indistinct and 'we do not see the iron-grated window, the portcullis, the ditch or the rampart.  We can distinguish a Castle from the tree; and a tower from a battlement' (Observations on the River Wye, and several parts of South Wales, &c. relative chiefly to picturesque beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770, 1782).  For Gilpin the picturesque description was not a simple inventory of what was before the tourist, it had to express the character of the place.  But rather than make use of the power of language to shift focus and capture the view in three or four dimensions he aimed to emulate the effects of landscape painters. 

    Nobody has cracked the problem of describing a landscape in words, but it's a challenge that can lead to interesting experiments.  Colin Sackett made a book last year called Spate in which a panoramic photograph is translated into text - simple words (Field, Trees, Submerged Fence) placed on the white page in place of their image, with successive pages tracking the progress of the floodwater near Exeter.  A picturesque version might have more detail down in the foreground with vague phrases at the top of the page (not to mention variations in typography with faint purple text in the distance...)  Grongar Hill could be rewritten in all sorts of ways.  As a text picture it might look something like this (Gilpin may have been right about the purple grove which seems a bit hard to place...)

                                          ancient tower
                                              dark hill
                                      dark hill   dark hill
                             dark hill    dark hill    dark hill
                a             long              and         level        lawn
                                        the purple grove
    gloomy pine poplar blue yellow beech sable yew slender fir sturdy oak
    gloomy pine poplar blue yellow beech sable yew slender fir sturdy oak
    gloomy pine poplar blue yellow beech sable yew slender fir sturdy oak

    Thursday, January 21, 2010

    1,244 real Views of Great-Britain

    In 1772 Catherine the Great wrote to Voltaire, saying that she loved gardens in the English style: ‘the curving lines, the gentle slopes, the ponds in the forms of lakes, the archipelago on dry land, and I scorn straight lines and twin allées.’  Catherine invited John Busch to Russia to work at Pulkova and then on Tsarskoye Selo, near St Petersburg, where he collaborated with the architect Vasily Neyelov.  It must have been quite a  leap from Hackney, where Busch owned a nursery off Church Street that he sold on to Conrad Loddiges in 1771 (it became famous for its rare plants in the early nineteenth century).  Another landscape architect who went to Russia and contributed to the design of Tsarskoye Selo was Charles Cameron, who later worked for Alexander I and became Architect-in-Chief to the Admiralty.  But perhaps the most extraordinary example of Catherine's anglophile taste in landscapes was the order she placed with Josiah Wedgwood, for a 'Table and Dessert Service, consisting of 952 pieces and ornamented in enamel with 1244 real Views of Great Britain'.

    Now 1,244 is not a trivial number and Wedgwood was understandably concerned: 'why all the gardens of England will scarcely furnish subjects sufficient for this sett, every piece having a different subject'.  How he did it is explained by Alison Kelly in 'Wedgwood's Catherine Services', an article for The Burlington Magazine (August 1980).  Wedgwood and his partner Thomas Bentley started with the famous landscape gardens that Catherine was particularly interested in, basing designs on published engravings like Beauties of Stowe, by George Bickham (1750-56) and Chambers's Description of the Gardens and Buildings of Kew (1771), as well as views sent in by sympathetic friends, like Mr Anson of Shugborough.  Stowe, unsurprisingly, provided more views (43) than any other landscape garden.

    In addition to the nation's most celebrated gardens, Wedgwood and Bentley used images of famous country houses, although Bentley wrote that 'we have purposely omitted to represent the most modern buildings, considering them unpicturesque'.  Picturesque landscapes accounted for a good number of the designs: ruined abbeys, castles (150 of these) and even some early remains: Stonehenge, Kit's Coty House, a Cornish Dolmen and the Roman ruins of Silchester.  Wedgwood and Bentley were also up-to-date with tastes in the Sublime, including various views of the Lake District, the Peak Cavern, the Giant's Causeway and Fingal's Cave.  There is a letter from Wedgwood to Bentley in 1773 asking about Richard Wilson's landscapes: 'Pray have you Wilson's Views from different places in Wales? If you have not, Mr. Sneyd will lend them us'.  Alison Kelly writes that 'after reading this letter it is pleasant to recognise on a dish the unmistakable outlines of Wilson's Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle.'

    Richard Wilson, Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle, c1766

    Given their role in the Industrial Revolution it is interesting that a few of the pieces feature such scenes as Papermills at Rickmansworth, a Colliery and Pump near Bristol and the Dock at Plymouth.  However, urban views are largely absent, with the notable exception of London.  You can see a plate from the dinner service showing Somerset House on the Hermitage website (there don't seem to be any non-copyright images available to put up here).  Other obvious London highlights included Kensington Palace, the Mall and Horseguards Parade but there were also a few views from the fringes of the city - Erith, Sunbury, Shepperton.  Mention of Shepperton made me wonder what a contemporary 952 piece Ballardian dinner service might look - traffic islands, car parks, terminal beaches, abandoned hotels...

    Eventually Wedgwood and Bentley had got together all 1,244 views and the completed service went on show in London before being sent to Russia.  Apparently this was a great social success, as people were came to see whether one man's country estate featured more prominently than another's.  When it arrived, Catherine the Great was satisfied and used it for state occasions in the Chesmenski Palace. But after her death it was eventually forgotten about and only rediscovered at the beginning of the last century, when nearly 800 pieces were found to have survived.

    Saturday, January 16, 2010

    The Garden Room at Prima Porta

    Detail of the south wall, 'Garden Room', Prima Porta

    In my recent post about Roman landscape painting I mentioned the 'Garden Room' at Prima Porta, near Rome. In their 2001 OUP survey of classical art, Mary Beard and John Henderson describe this space as 'an impossibly utopian mixture of bright flowers beside laden fruit trees, tidy shrubs before a receding woodland vista, planned garden display within a surround of Italian trees, as if in their natural habitat.'  It is 'an exercise in blue and green. And a celebration of naturalistic technique ... But this is not nature reproduced; instead, a world specially made for us - yet made to do without us. Beyond the balustrade, as no wild birds ever could, these pay not the slightest attention to anyone in the room, impossibly ignoring our proximity. Emblematized by the songbird in its golden cage, art here creates nature, beyond anything you could find in the real world.'

    Detail of a pine tree, 'Garden Room', Prima Porta

    An interesting June 1994 Art Bulletin article by Barbara A. Kellum, 'The Construction of Landscape in Ancient Rome: The Garden Room at the Villa ad Gallinus' describes this painting in the wider context of Augustan Rome, where 'the emperor was quick to establish an arboreal mythology' and the city was punctuated with plants and trees that 'were as protean and mulitvalent in their structures and meanings as the contemporary poetry of Virgil, Horace and Ovid.'  The article's title refers to the villa's ancient name, ad Gallinus; the chicken in question was one which an eagle dropped into Livia's lap, holding a laurel branch in its beak.  This was seen as a good omen for Livia and her new husband Augustus, and they planted the branch, which grew into a laurel grove.  According to Pliny the Elder, subsequent emperors continued the tradition of planting trees in the grove and just before the death of each emperor it was observed that the tree they planted had begun to whither.  Laurel features prominently in the Garden Room, both as trees and low shrubs.

    Detail of a spruce tree, 'Garden Room', Prima Porta

    The room is structured around regularly placed oak, pine and spruce trees, but with a profusion of wild plants in between, order and disorder complimenting each other in a way reminiscent of Virgil's Georgics. According to Kellum, this mixture represents on the one hand the fertility and prosperity of the Augustan state, and on the other 'the underlying order that was an essential part of it ... harmonizing the beneficent world of nature and that of the state under a common rule of organic order.'  The individual plants and trees could all of course be associated with symbolic meaning, not to mention the birds.  For example, laurel, pine and cypress trees, nightingales, partridges and magpies all appear in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and the process of metamorphosis itself was, as Ovid knew, central to the mythology of Augustus.  Thus the design of this garden room can be read in terms of the wider symbolic landscape of Augustan Rome.

    Sunday, January 10, 2010


    August Strindberg, Coastal Landscape II, 1903

    In the midst of all this snow and cold weather I feel in the mood to write about some Nordic landscape art and August Strindberg fits the bill.  His paintings have always fascinated me and there was an excellent exhibition of them, along with his experiments in photography, at the Tate in 2005.  It's a pity his novels are hard to get in English translation (his plays are much easier to find), but this post concerns his visual art, starting with a chronology of Strindberg the landscape artist (based on Per Hedström's survey in Strindberg: Painter and Photographer, Yale, 2001):

    1849 August Strindberg born.

    1872 Strindberg, in a state of crisis (not for the last time!), turned to painting - a few landscape sketches survive from this year.  In his novel Son of a Servant Strindberg compared the painting of a ruined as making him "indescribably happy - as if he'd just taken hashish."

    1873 Having tried and failed as a journalist, Strindberg again turned to art, painting relatively unoriginal landscapes in the Stockholm archipelago.  He then concentrated on writing until the early 1890s.

    1876 In Paris Strindberg saw Impressionist paintings for the first time.

    1889 The novel By the Open Sea from this year includes passages that could be describing some of Strindberg's subsequent paintings, e.g. the "awful volcanic formation of Svartbåden" with its navigation mark, depicted in The Vita Märrn Seamark II (1992).

    1890 Strindberg travelled through Sweden and some sketches survive that he made on the island of Runmarö.

    1892 In the spring and summer he was sketching on Dalarö in the Stockholm Archipelago and this year he painted many of his best landscape paintings.  Strindberg had his first exhibition of paintings (a reviewer thought his depiction of Pack Ice resembled a plate of bread and margarine, or a dish of grilled veal trotters in veal sause). In the autumn he went to Berlin and fell in with a group of painters and writers who included Edvard Munch.

    1893 Night of Jealousy (1893), a stormy seascape, was given by Strindberg to his future second wife (the marriage did not last...)

    1894 Strindberg published 'The new Arts! Or the Role of Chance in Artistic Creation' (see below) and moved to Dornach on the Danube where he painted further works.  He moved to Paris and continued painting seascapes, possibly influenced by Turner.  For the rest of the decade he concentrated on writing and experiments in science.

    1901 Another crisis and another return to painting - he continued sporadically until 1905.  This year he also collaborated with Arthur Sjögren on a book Sveriges natur (Sweden's Countryside), with Sjögren's illustrations based on thirteen sketches by Strindberg.

    1902 His short story 'Fairhaven and Foulstrand' refers to the kind of landscape seen in his paintings of shores with isolated plants: "the long, shallow creeks with the finest of writing-sand ... a home for purple Loosestrife, golden-yellow Pimpernel, mauve Asters and white Sea Radish."

    1906 As part of his scientific interest in meteorology, Strindberg photographed cloudscapes and wrote about his theory of recurrent cloudscapes.

    1907 The sets for Strindberg's experimental theatre in Stockholm were based on pictures by one of his favourite artists - Böcklin's Island of Death and Island of Life.

    1912 Death of Strindberg.

    Some of the most striking landscapes painted by Strindberg in the later period show the view from a cave (or, a variation, the view of a landscape framed by leaves).  These derive from an earlier work, Wonderland, which was composed, in proto-Surrealist, proto-Abstract Expressionist style, in accordance with the principles of randomness that he described in his 1894 essay.  Beginning with a 'shaded forest interior, from which you see the sea at sunset', the painting evolved until the forest looked like a cave and cliffs in the foreground appear to be covered in lichen.  The cave motif interested Strindberg, who was fascinated by a landscape I wrote about here last year, Fingal's Cave.  One of the scenes of A Dream Play is set there and it also features in his short story 'The Romantic Sexton on Ränö', where Strindberg likens the cave to a natural organ.

    August Strindberg, Wonderland, 1894

    Friday, January 08, 2010

    Rainbows, showers, partial gleams of sunshine

    Peter Paul Rubens, Philemon and Baucis, c1630

    In 1822 William Hazlitt compared Rubens with Claude: 'I imagine that Rubens's landscapes are picturesque: Claude's are ideal. Rubens is always in extremes; Claude in the middle. Rubens carries some one peculiar quality or feature of nature to the utmost verge of probability: Claude balances and harmonises different forms and masses with laboured delicacy, so that nothing falls short, no one thing overpowers another. Rainbows, showers, partial gleams of sunshine, moonlight, are the means with which Rubens produces his most gorgeous and enchanting effects: there are neither rainbows, nor showers, nor sudden bursts of sunshine, nor glittering moonbeams in Claude. He is all softness and proportion: the other is all spirit and brilliant excess. The two sides (for example) of one of Claude's landscapes balance one another, as in a scale of beauty: in Rubens the several objects are grouped and thrown together with capricious wantonness. Claude has more repose: Rubens more gaiety and extravagance.'

    Claude Lorraine, Landscape with Acis and Galatea, 1657

    According to Kenneth Clark, 'no great painter ever lived so completely within his resources as Claude.  Unlike such prodigals as Rubens, his pictures always suggest a tactful and far-sighted economy.'  In Landscape into Art, Clark praises the earlier writing on Claude of Hazlitt and of Roger Fry, whose essay on the artist appeared in the Burlington Magazine in 1907.  Fry also praised Claude (rather faintly), whilst comparing him with more vital, colourful artists and writers.  For example, he says that 'Robert Bridges, in his essay on Keats, very aptly describes for literature the kind of beauty which we find in Shakespeare : "the power of concentrating all the far-reaching resources of language on one point, so that a single and apparently effortless expression rejoices the aesthetic imagination at the moment when it is most expectant and exacting." That, ceteris paribus, applies admirably to certain kinds of design. It corresponds to the nervous touch of a Pollajuolo or a Rembrandt. But Claude's line is almost nerveless and dull. Even when it is most rapid and free it never surprises us by any intimate revelation of character, any summary indications of the central truth. But it has a certain inexpressive beauty of its own. It is never elegant, never florid, and, above all, never has any ostentation of cleverness.'