Sunday, December 30, 2012

Far in the wild His steps were driven

 William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858 (1858-60)

The development of landscape art in the margins of Italian and Northern Renaissance religious paintings was assisted by the convention of depicting Biblical scenes in recognisably contemporary settings.  Fast forward four hundred years and landscape has long since become an independent genre, with the a capacity for views depicted with extreme naturalistic precision.  William Dyce's Pegwell Bay, for example, accurately delineates every strata in its chalk cliffs.  But in the same artist's Man of Sorrows (first exhibited alongside Pegwell Bay in 1860) the old idea of using a recognisable local landscape for religious art is resurrected.  The results is a curious hybrid of two types of Pre-Raphaelite Painting (both of which can be seen at the current Tate Britain exhibition): detailed studies of material nature, as advocated by Ruskin, and religious scenes inspired by the Italian primitives. 
William Dyce, Man of Sorrows, 1860

'Far in the wild His steps were driven', according to the quotation by John Keble that Dyce used to accompany the painting.  The 'wild' here is the Scottish Highlands.  But, as Kathleen Jamie has argued, that landscape is not really 'wild' - the lone figure of Christ would have found it less like a wilderness if the landlords had not evicted its inhabitants.  It is poignant to imagine that the Man of Sorrows (who, with his auburn hair, might almost be Scottish like William Dyce) is actually thinking here about the Highland Clearances, which only came to an end in the 1850s.  In the Bible, Christ spent forty days in the Judaean Desert, a place that remains largely empty of permanent habitation, despite the growth of Israeli Settlements in the West Bank.  Tempted by the Devil to assuage his hunger, Jesus refused to turn the stones around him to bread: 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God'.  This ambition to rise above material things, shared by us non-Christians, finds an outlet in the desire to explore and meditate upon desolate but beautiful landscapes, where the stones themselves provide a kind of spiritual sustenance.


Gavin McL said...

Thanks for the post and I enjoyed the link to the interview with Kathleen Jamie. Reading Sightlines was one of the highlights of last year.

Ken Worpole said...

Another very thoughtful posting, so thanks for that. You may not know but the Crown Estate has published two rather handsome, glossy books of historic and genre paintngs of the English coastline, including Pegwell Bay. A terrific resource and aide-memoire. They are Art as a tool for the understanding of Coastal Change in East Anglia and A coastal historical resources Guide for England both by Dr Robin McInnes and Hope Stubbings.

Plinius said...

Thanks Ken, no I didn't. They are really interesting. And they're available online: Art as a Tool; Coastal Resources.