Friday, November 25, 2011

A Voyage Round the Coast of Great Britain

Three years ago the Folio Society published a new edition of William Daniell's A Voyage Round the Coast of Great Britain.  The original book came out in eight volumes between 1814 and 1825, contained 308 hand-coloured aquatints and sold for £60 ('one and a half times what a fisherman or sailor aboard a merchant ship could expect to earn in a year at the time').  A second hand copy of the Folio version (in the excellent Much Ado Books shop) cost me rather less than this.  It includes only 114 of the best aquatints and cuts out almost all of the rather dry commentary Daniell wrote, replacing it with extracts from the writings of contemporary travellers.  The original intention was for Richard Ayton, an aspiring writer and friend of the family, to accompany Daniell on his travels.  But the two of them parted acrimoniously after the first year, having got as far as southern Scotland (the Voyage commenced at Land's End). Daniell pressed on alone, returning to his coastal journey every summer, delayed only by famine in Scotland (1816) and economic crisis and fear of revolution in England (1819).  Ayton never did become a successful author and his short life came to a sad end the year Daniell finally completed his great project.  The cumulative achievement of the Voyage was recognised by the Royal Academy, who elected Daniell a full member in 1822 - as C. J. Shepherd notes in his introduction, 'the artist that he beat to secure his lifetime's ambition was John Constable'.

Among the texts assembled to accompany Daniell's aquatints in this edition, the most vivid impressions of the coastal landscape are provided by writers like Keats, Southey, Scott and Dorothy Wordsworth (whose travels in Scotland I have discussed here before).  But the book encompasses many other interesting voices - Joanna Schopenhauer at Lancaster, Jane Austen at Lyme, the 'exquisitely fashionable' Hermann von PĆ¼ckler-Muskau in Brighton, James Johnson, author of 'An Essay on Indigestion; or Morbid Sensibility of the Stomach and Bowels', in Liverpool, a gentleman called Charles Cochrane who for some reason went to Margate disguised as an itinerant Spanish gypsy guitarist, the ornithologist Charles Fothergill who visited Flamborough Head 'resplendent in 'white and green hat; a Belcher neckcloth with my short collar appearing over it; a dark green jacket with silver buttons; [and] sky blue pantaloons'', composer Felix Mendelssohn, who sent home a few bars of music which would become the Hebridean Overture, and the 'excitable young Polish tutor and future revolutionary' Krystyn Lach-Szyrma, who was so overwhelmed by Fingal's Cave, a 'glorious cathedral made by nature's hand', that he threw himself into the sea.

Cover by David Eccles,
after William Daniell's In Fingal's Cave, Staffa

In his Preface to A Voyage Round the Coast of Great Britain, Robert Macfarlane writes that seeing Daniell's aquatints leads us to imagine Britain only by its outline.  'The interior falls away, and all that is left is the frame.  And what a frame it is!  Some 7,500 miles of coastline, forming a continuum from storm-crashed headlands to beach-front amusements, from salt-marsh to heathland, from 400-million-year-old gneiss to endlessly recast mudflats.'  With this in mind it is clearly impossible to pick out a typical view - the two shown below I liked for the non-naturalistic regularity of their rock formations and the precisely distributed seabirds and grazing sheep.  Yet despite their variety all of Daniell's aquatints have the same harmonious, muted palette of slate blue, grey green and pale browns.  He may, as Macfarlane says, portray all kinds of meteorological conditions - 'a doldrummish sea day in Ilfracombe, sails drooping in the heat, gives way to a Force 7 off Holyhead' - but the weather somehow always looks British.    

 Near view of one of the Shiant Isles

Needles Cliff and Needles, Isle of White

William Daniell's journeys coincided with the rise of picturesque tourism and bathing resorts, the Napoleonic Wars, the Highland Clearances and the rapid development of industry and infrastructure.  Robert Southey, for example, toured the Highlands with Thomas Telford, whom he nicknamed Pontifex Maximus, the great bridge builder. In one of this book's extracts from Southey's Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819, the conversion of the Marquess of Stafford's estate's into extensive sheep-farms is criticised: 'a quiet, thoughtful, contented, religious people' forcefully transplanted from the glens to the sea coast.  At the other end of Britain, Dover had recently been scarred by vast new fortifications to keep out the French, a fact that William Cobbett found perplexing - 'what the devil should they come to this hill for, then?'  He concluded bitterly that 'more brick and stone have been buried in this hill than would go to build a neat new cottage for every labouring man in the counties of Kent and of Sussex!' Shakespeare's Cliff (which I have written about here before) was also visited by artist Benjamin Robert Hayden who stood looking at it, 'almost lost in the embruno tint of twilight'.  There he imagined 'a Colossal Statue of Britannia' built on top of it, 'surveying France with a lofty air.'

I could go on, but I'll end this post at Lulworth Cove, where Daniell painted the rocky outcrop of Stair Hole with its striking recumbent folds.  The book includes an extract from the recollections of the Irish playwright John O'Keeffe who spent a summer at Lulworth with his children.  As soon as he arrived, O'Keeffe set off with his son, called Tottenham, to explore the Cove itself and the craggy rocks above.  At the end of the day 'we returned to our abode with appetites sea-sharpened, and sat down to a roast loin of lamb, delicate boiled chickens, tongue, green-peas, young potatoes, a gooseberry pie, thick cream, good strong home-brewed ale and a glass of tolerable port-wine.'  Next morning they were off again, climbing Hanbury Hill where O'Keeffe recorded two of the local landscape terms - patches of land called 'knaps, larger or smaller, each divided from the other by a grassy rising, termed a launchet.'  Tired from the climb, he and Tottenham sat down to look at the view - 'before us, the great expanse; above, the blue serene; around, the melody of birds; scarce a breath from the still bosom of the deep, and the vertical sun shedding his glories on the scene.  Neither the scream of sea-gulls, crows, and puffins, could prevent me falling into a slumber, and, in a sort of sweet demi-dream, I could hear the rushing pinions of birds that must have flown by very near me, and felt the rabbits that I fancied ran over me.'

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