Saturday, September 27, 2014

How gloomily glaring!

'The Claude Glass was an optical device which took various forms, of which perhaps Thomas Gray's was the most typical: 'a Plano-convex Mirror of about for inches diameter on a black foil, and bound up like a pocket-book.'  The convexity miniaturised the reflected landscape.  Except in the foreground, details were largely lost, and something like a beau ideal emerged, freed from particularities and deformities. [...] Its 'complex view' helped the apprentice painter; and, for the non-painting tourist, its darker tinting and distortion helped to superimpose something like a Claudean idiom on British landscape.' - Malcolm Andrews The Search for the Picturesque
Claude Lorrain mirror, rectangular of black glass  
Claude Glasses in The Science Museum

I have been reading Arnaud Maillet's The Claude Glass: Use and Meaning of the Black Mirror in Western Art.  It originally appeared in France in an edition of just a hundred copies, but was translated and published as a Zone Book at the instigation of Jonathan Crary (whose Techniques of the Observer has been a key text in visual studies).  That small initial print run may reflect the surprising fact that, according to Maillet, 'in France, these instruments are virtually unknown, even by art historians'; whilst it is relatively easy to see them on show here (e.g. in the Science Museum), there are none in French collections.  The scope of Maillet's book goes well beyond the instrument used by Picturesque tourists and artists in the late eighteenth century.  In addition to covering earlier uses of convex mirrors in art, he considers the association of black mirrors with the dark arts and their use in catoptromancy and hypnotism.  He also finds black mirrors in more recent art (Boltanski, Richter, Perrodin) - abstractions and reflective surfaces that call into question what we are seeing - and he explores their association with loss, melancholy and mourning.

John Dee's scrying mirror in The Science Musuem

The term 'Claude Glass' has also been used for another viewing instrument sold to Picturesque tourists: a set of tinted viewing lenses.  These lenses could create the kind of tonal harmony we encounter only rarely in real life - in mist, at sunset or in the smoke of a fire.  Like the filters available now on photographic apps, they allowed the viewer to perceive the landscape in different lights.  For example, 'through the hoar-frost tinted lens, distant corn stooks become snow drifts.  The tourists could rationalise these fancies by claiming that such artifice was, after all, only a means of anticipating what Nature herself would be doing in a few hours' or a few months' time with the same landscape' (Andrews). The leading theorist of the Picturesque, William Gilpin, tried these Claude Glasses while riding in a chaise and saw a dream-like succession of 'high coloured pictures'.  Their usage was easy to satirise though, as Maillet points out, and I will end here with the quotation he uses from James Plumptre's comic opera The Lakers (1797).  Miss Veronica Beccabunga is looking through her 'Claude Lorraine Glasses' at the landscape between Derwent Water and Borrowdale.
'Speedwell, give me my glasses.  Where's my Gray?  (Speedwell gives glasses.)  Oh! Claude and Poussin are nothing.  By the bye, where's my Claude-Lorrain?  I must throw a Gilpin tint over these magic scenes of beauty.  (Looks through the glass.) How gorgeously glowing!  Now for the darker. (Looks through the glass.)  How gloomily glaring!  Now the blue.  (Pretends to shiver cold.)  How frigidly frozen!  What illusions of vision!  The effect is unspeakably interesting.'
Later Miss Beccabunga uses her glasses on her prospective husband.
 'I'll throw a Gilpin tint on him.  (Looks through the glass.)  Yes, he's gorgeously glowing.  I must not view him with the other lights, for a husband should not be either glaringly gloomy, or frigidly frozen; nor should I like to be haunted by a blue devil.'

Friday, September 19, 2014

Fort Process

Musical performance and sound art installation come together in site-specific festivals like the one I attended on Saturday at Newhaven Fort, 'Fort Process', or the TÖNE Festival in June, originally planned for Chatham Dockyard (the review in this month's Wire magazine explains that it ended up split over several venues).  From the perspective of this blog, what interests me in these is the way invited artists work with the structure and history of a site and the extent to which the wider soundscape is incorporated in the audience's experience.  Newhaven Fort is a defensive structure - one of Palmerston's follies, completed in 1871 - and as such it encloses you from the wider landscape.  Sound pieces were located underground and many of the performances took place in enclosed, bunker-like enclosed spaces.  The small main stage was set up on the parade ground in the centre of the fort, surrounded on all sides by grass embankments, giving a sense of containment and isolation.  To see out we had to climb these slopes and stand where the guns once pointed seawards, the vantage point where Eric Ravilious sketched Newhaven's coastal defences in 1940 (a few months after he had been stationed at Chatham).  

Eric Ravilious, Coastal Defences, 1940

John Butcher's contribution to Fort Process felt symptomatic of the way the site's remnants of fortification influenced the sounds we heard.  I wrote here eight years ago about an outdoor performance he did at the Standing Stones of Stenness, when the local sheep joined in with their bleating and the wind played tunes on his amplified soprano saxaphone.  Based on this I had imagined we might watch him perform on the ramparts of the fort, blowing his horn towards the English Channel while sea birds wheeled above.  Instead, while the sun set over the Downs on what had been a beautiful warm day, we gathered to listen to his improvisations on the cold concrete floor of a room once used to store gunpowder and shells.  Earlier, one of the artists (Sara Jane Glendinning) tried to entice seagulls to land on switch pads connected to sound samples, but they were strangely resistant to landing near the old gun emplacements.  At the end of the day we were in an old World War II hut, watching the start of an explosive set by Steve Noble and Peter Brötzmann (best known for his 1968 free jazz album Machine Gun). As the sound clattered off the corrugated iron roof it was easy to imagine the soldiers stationed here during World War II, listening to the bombers heading out to sea. 

As a collection of disparate artists linked only be location, this kind of event inevitably differs from an immersive theatre performance or the kind of multimedia environmental drama pioneered by Robert Wilson.  It was impossible to see everything - in addition to the sound art and performances there were talks and some interesting-sounding film works (sadly the projector broke down before we could see any of these).  The photograph below was taken during a performance of Fourfleckflock, a graphical score based on the motion of starlings.  I was interested in music like this with a landscape/nature connection (Thomas Köner showed that you don't need drums when you've sampled the sound of thunder) but was just as happy listening to Ex-Easter Island Head and Part Wild Horses Mane on Both Sides.  There was time to wander round and look at the art, installed inside tunnels and gun towers - some new, some versions of existing work so that the interest for the artist will have been in seeing how their pieces were transformed in this particular setting.  Sarah Angliss brought a collection of little mobile robots to the Fort's Laboratory, where live shells were once constructed.  Their bells, rung in alarm when they encountered walls and doorsteps, had a pleasing, gentle quality when heard from a distance.  Not something you could say of Noble and Brötzmann, whose gunfire followed us for some distance as we headed out of the fort during their set to get the train back to London... 

Friday, September 12, 2014

American Smoke

It was the season of autumn ghosts, a dampness in the soul.  November 2013.  I stopped outside the sea cadets building in Stoke Newington's Church Street, now re-purposed as an exhibition space: 'building-F'.  In the old bricks there were ghost traces of a painted sign: S S OKE.  The roof was an abandoned deck with white railings and a solitary flag pole.  Looking down at the street, a life-size photograph of J. G. Ballard.  In the new front window, a neat stack of Iain Sinclair's American Smoke.  Inside I was hoping to encounter the man himself, having heard that he would be selling off his old books for a limited period.  But there was no sign of him: just framed artwork and a bookcase filled almost entirely with his own publications, signed and annotated, with prices to match. Ridiculous, I now realise, to imagine he would be there in person, presiding over tables stacked with the remnants of his book selling days: paperbacks by overlooked London writers, pulp novelists, underground poets.  I lingered awhile - not buying anything felt like an affront to the couple from Test Centre who politely stood by as I looked at the shelves.  Eventually I left with a book of poems: Firewall.

American Smoke begins in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Sinclair went to deliver a lecture on Charles Olson, 'poet, scholar and last rector of Black Mountain College'.  There he met Henry Ferrini, whose film on Olson I included in a post here on the Maximus Poems back in 2010.  He visited Dogtown, where Olson came and walked in the woods 'to refine the art of getting creatively lost'.  He even booked a tourist whale-watching cruise (assuring us that 'the excursion was being made for my wife'). Olson's first book, published in 1947, was a study of Moby Dick.  The boat trip cancelled, he headed for the local library, looking for Olson's marginalia in books that had found their way onto the stacks after his death.  He says he found rough notes for a poem in the endpapers of one volume (much harder to decipher than the text Sinclair added to his own books for the pop-up shop in Stoke Newington).  Back in London he was pleased to have 'absorbed some of the weather of the place' but realised in watching Ferrini's film again that Olson can only be experienced in the energy field of his poems.

My landscape interest in American Smoke had been kindled by Sinclair's account of a journey to see Gary Snyder, published initially as an essay in the LRB.  Snyder evaded discussion of poetics but was happy to talk about logging, ecological threats and the day-to-day work needed to maintain the land he bought cheaply in 1966: 'a hundred acres of manzanita thickets, with open stretches of ponderosa pine, black oak, cedar, madrone, Douglas fir, bunchgrass...'
'Taking responsibility for a portion of Sierra ridge, once occupied, river valley to densely forested upper slopes, by Indian tribes, was a major statement of intent from Snyder. ‘We were cash poor and land rich,’ he said. ‘And who needs more second-growth pine and manzanita?’ Alexander Pope, in his upstream exile at Twickenham, laid out garden and grotto as a conceit, an extension of his work into the world, and a powerful attractor for patrons and lesser talents. To fund the Sierra reinhabitation, as Snyder saw it, he took on reading tours and an academic position at UC Davis, fifty miles down the road near the state capital, Sacramento. He called his land Kitkitdizze, after the Wintu Indian name for the aromatic shrub known as bear clover. ...  This Thoreau-inspired wilderness encampment, real as it appears, is underwritten by the requirement to represent itself as a topic for thesis writers, a reluctant paradigm.  A magnet for approved visitors, students, localists, or anyone needing to understand if this thing can be managed: a self-funding, functioning centre that is not a retreat, but a resettlement...'
The whole book is structured around these encounters with writers, living and dead: Corso in New York, Burroughs in Kansas, the grave of Malcolm Lowry in Sussex.  From Vancouver, Sinclair goes to the Burrard Inlet in search of the shack Lowry and his wife constructed from driftwood and sawmill lumber.  It was a kind of idyll - described as such in some beautiful passages in Under the Volcano - and Sinclair visits the spot on a crystalline morning.  He is led along a winding path through resinous woodland, down to the shore.  Lowry had enjoyed the view here, across the water to an oil refinery where the S had fallen from the word SHELL.  Sinclair is tempted to go in - 'I'd like to swim, the water is strobing gold' - but he paddles instead in the cold, sharp-stoned shallows.  There is an old bottle top glinting in the water - not Lowry's, but something to pick up and take away.

Friday, September 05, 2014

A Journey to Avebury

There are two days left on the iPlayer to listen to an episode of Stuart Maconie's Radio 6 show on 'West Country Freaks' which includes some music specifically inspired by the landscape of Southwest England.  A few days before the broadcast I was actually in the West Country myself, about to visit the Avebury stone circle on our way back to London.  We stuck to our plan despite forecast heavy rain because I had worked it all out in advance with pleasing symmetry, to echo the stop-off at Stonehenge on our earlier journey west.  There had been rain in the air then too, giving some dramatic skies over the old stones, as you can see in my photograph above. Ah, Sonehenge... 'where a man's a man and the children dance to the Pipes of Pan'.  Spinal Tap's classic song was included in 'West Country Freaks', along with Coil's soundtrack to the early Derek Jarman film A Journey to Avebury (embedded from YouTube below).

Another band featured on the programme were Neil Mortimer's Urthona, whose blog records various visits to stone circles.  'From The Godless Erme Valley' was an outtake from their 2008 release via Julian Cope's Head Heritage, 'I Refute It Thus.'  This comprised 'three long tracks of primitive noise guitar freakouts inspired by the windswept-tor landscape of mighty Dartmoor, and a retort to the doom-laden cultural landscape of 21st century Britain.'  It came 'packaged in a unique organic fold-out cover plus inserts and highfalutin liner notes with nods to William Blake, Richard Jefferies and Walt Whitman.'  Their latest album is inspired by the great storm of 1703 ('no pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it', according to Daniel Defoe).  In his review for Wire Joseph Stannard likens it to Flying Saucer Attack's 'Rainstorm Blues', which I mentioned in a post here a few years ago.

FSA were based in Bristol and their 'Sea Corpus', from the limited edition 1996 release 'In Search Of Spaces', was also included in 'West Country Freaks'.  Two other tracks on the show are worth highlighting: 'Somerset' by the prolific ambient composer and artist Rutger Zuydervelt (Machinefabriek) and 'Piperspool' from John Surman's 1990 ECM album The Road to St Ives.  I had not checked out this St Ives album before, despite having visited several times in recent years and written here about the town's art and landscape. However, after returning from the Lake District a few months ago, I was listening to Ambleside Days - another John Surman album where each track relates to a specific place. I think these gentle jazz tunes were insufficiently experimental to feature on an earlier place-themed Freakier Zone covering the North West, which included a great interview with Richard Skelton.  Given Stuart Maconie's enthusiasm for fell walking and landscape, it would be worth looking out for more of these programmes in the future.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014



When we arrived at our Somerset B&B en route to Wales I told the owner we had chosen to break our journey there to visit the landscape garden at Stourhead.  "That's it over there" she said, pointing out of our bedroom at a distant tower rising above the trees on the horizon.  While the garden itself was hidden from view on the other side of the hill, this outlying folly 'took dominion everywhere', turning the wider countryside in the warm evening light of late August into the kind of ideal Claudian landscape admired by the tower's creator, Henry Hoare II.  The following morning we drove the short distance to see it.  King Alfred's Tower was completed in 1772, having been conceived a decade earlier with multiple patriotic intentions: to mark the end of the Seven Year's War, the succession of George III and the place where Alfred rallied his Saxon army to defeat the Danes at the Battle of Ethandun.  I was not that surprised to find the door locked, preventing us climbing its 205-step staircase to admire the view - I mentioned here a similar experience at Hadrian's belvedere in Tivoli earlier this year.  It was frustrating though, and I fantasised about returning, kitted out like an urban explorer, to just break in and climb up anyway.  Perhaps I should start travelling the country at weekends, 'place hacking' other National Trust properties...?  Just as I was starting to imagine the possibilities I was subjected to urgent requests for coffee and cake, and so we drove off to find the tearooms.

In his book The Arcadian Friends Tim Richardson describes Stourhead in terms of the circuit one was expected to take in the eighteenth century.  The first viewpoint provided 'a vista across the lake to the circular, domed Temple of Apollo high above, its tall columns accentuating its height, with the medieval church and village of Stourton in the middle ground below, and to the left on smooth sward.'  The eclecticism of the landscape was therefore apparent immediately - Gothick and classical in one view.  Stourhead has no overriding narrative and while there clearly is symbolism in some of its statues and inscriptions, the design more closely resembles a painting - 'a charming Gaspd picture' in the words of Henry Hoare.  Setting off on my own circuit of the garden I found myself experiencing a gallery of views framed in foliage, like the one I photographed below, where the eye is drawn across the lake to the temple of Apollo and then beyond to the distant countryside.

After descending to the lake, the garden's original visitors would have continued over a mildly perilous fretwork bridge (no longer extant) and then through a woodland path to the grotto.  This rather dank 'house of the nymphs' inevitably recalls Dr Johnson's quip that a grotto was indeed am appealingly cool habitation in the summer, "for a toad".  Within it you can still admire the landscape, where gaps resembling the mouths of caves create views over the lake to the Temple of Flora.  Emerging from the semi-darkness you ascend to the Pantheon, a remarkably beautiful design that must have improved with age (all Stourhead's temples are mottled with patches of lichen - the example below is from the Temple of Apollo).  The Pantheon was shut up so we were unable to go in and see the statue of Hercules, whose biceps were modelled by sculptor Michael Rysbrack on studies of the eighteenth-century prize fighter Jack Broughton, but we were able to admire the Callipygian Venus in a niche outside.  This figure, the 'Venus of the beautiful buttocks', is derived from an old Greek story of two sisters who asked a man to assess which of them had the finer bottom.  It is a timeless story, recently replayed for the digital age in online newspaper reports of the competing 'belfies' posted on Instagram by Kelly Brook and Kim Kardashian.

Walking the garden circuit and then picnicking by the water, it was very apparent to me how important the lake is to Stourhead's landscape design.  You can see this in the first photograph below - a view taken from the convex slope leading up to the Pantheon - where my son seems to be watching the drama of the clouds play out on the screen of the lake.  Ripples break the reflections of trees into horizontal strokes, as if the planting had been arranged to create a painting in light on the lake surface.  In Arcadian Friends Tim Richardson says that eighteenth century visitors would have been able to experience the garden from the lake itself, an option not normally available now, 'presumably for reasons of health and safety.  I had the opportunity of boating on the lake at Stourhead and it does constitute a completely different way of seeing a garden, as you bob along at the lowest level possible, enjoying constantly shifting perspectives of the temples and landscape scenes around.'   

The only person out on the lake when we were there was a man on a small dredger, clearing the water of pond weed.  He seemed unwilling to take a rest and the relentless noise of the engine made me wonder what the soundscape would have been like in Henry Hoare's day, with nothing louder than birdsong, fountains and the faint strains of music and conversation emanating from one of the temples.  Every few minutes, or so it seemed, a plane flew overhead; it would be impossible now to think of designing an arcadia secluded from the wider world.  Coming to the end of my circuit I re-entered the woods where I had left the others, following the happy sound of children's voices.  It was 'Forest Friday' and my sons were queueing to climb up ropes into the canopy of the old trees.  Equipped with hard hats they slowly made their way up as I watched, a little enviously, from the 'soft mossy turf' (as novelist Samuel Richardson described the grass here in 1757).  And so, after finding ourselves prevented from ascending King Alfred' tower, the boys at least were permitted a privileged  prospect of the garden.