Friday, January 30, 2015


Emily Carr, Kitwancool, 1928

'Emily Who? Outside Canada, no one’s ever heard of Emily Carr, the iconic landscape painter whose remarkable career spanned the first half of the 20th century.'  This is the Telegraph's Richard Dorment introducing the Dulwich Picture Gallery's current exhibition, 'From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia'.  If, as he and other reviewers have pointed out, her paintings are underappreciated here in Britain, her award-winning memoir Klee Wyck (1941) may be even less well known.  This book brought Carr belated public attention at the end of her life and helped shape the image of her for Canadians: 'the intrepid pioneer woman who fearlessly travelled into the wilderness, lived among the native people, recorded their lives and, more to the point, portrayed the spirit of the land they inhabit.' (Karen Wright).  Its text is freely available at Project Gutenburg and I am including below an extended quotation from Chapter 13 which shows how prose allowed Carr to capture the sounds and smells of the landscapes she went out to sketch.    
'Jimmie, a Haida Indian, had a good boat, and he agreed to take me to Cha-atl, so he and his wife Louisa, Maria and I all started off in the boat. I took my sheep dog and Louisa took her cat.

We made a short stop at a little island where there were a few totem poles and a great smell because of all the dogfish thrown up on the beach and putrefying in the sun. Then we went on till we got to the long narrow Skidegate Inlet.

The tips of the fresh young pines made circles of pale green from the wide base of each tree to the top. They looked like multitudes of little ladies in crinolines trooping down the bank.

The day was hot and still. Eagles circled in the sky and porpoises followed us up the Inlet till we came to the shallows; they leaped up and down in the water making a great commotion on both sides of our boat. Their blunt noses came right out of the water and their tails splashed furiously. It was exciting to watch them.

It took Jimmie all his time in the shallows to keep us in the channel. Louisa was at the wheel while he lay face down on the edge of the boat peering into the water and making signals to Louisa with his arms.

In the late afternoon, Jimmie shut off his engine and said, "Listen."

Then we heard a terrific pounding and roaring. It was the surf-beat on the west coast of Queen Charlotte Islands. Every minute it got louder as we came nearer to the mouth of the Inlet. It was as if you were coming into the jaws of something too big and awful even to have a name. It never quite got us, because we turned into Cha-atl, just before we came to the corner, so we did not see the awfulness of the roaring ocean. Seamen say this is one of the worst waters in the world and one of the most wicked coasts.

Cha-atl had been abandoned a great many years. The one house standing was quite uninhabitable. Trees had pushed the roof off and burst the sides. Under the hot sun the lush growth smelt rank.

Jimmie lowered the canoe and put Billy, the dog, and me ashore. He left the gas boat anchored far out. When he had put me on the beach, he went back to get Louisa and Maria and the things. While I stood there that awful boom, boom, seemed to drown out every other thing. It made even the forest seem weak and shivery. Perhaps if you could have seen the breakers and had not had the whole weight of the noise left entirely to your ears it would not have seemed so stunning. When the others came ashore the noise seemed more bearable.

There were many fine totem poles in Cha-atl - Haida poles, tragic and fierce. The wood of them was bleached out, but looked green from the mosses which grew in the chinks, and the tufts of grass on the heads of the figures stuck up like coarse hair. The human faces carved on the totem poles were stern and grim, the animal faces fierce and strong; supernatural things were pictured on the poles too. Everything about Cha-atl was so vast and deep you shrivelled up.

When it was too dark to work I came back to the others. They were gathered round a fire on the beach. We did not talk while we ate; you had to shout to be heard above the surf. The smell of the ocean was very strong.'
The 1941 edition

Friday, January 23, 2015

From pastoral ruin to pastoral ruin

The amphitheatre, Caerleon, August 2014

In Wales last summer we visited the remains of Caerleon, the City of the Legions.  Charlotte Higgins stopped there too in her journey round Roman Britain, Under Another Sky, and describes it in a wonderful chapter on 'Wales and the West' that she structures around the life of archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler.  His illustrious career began at Wroxeter, working in the summers before the First World War on the old Roman town of Uriconium.  Wilfred Owen, who wrote 'Uriconium: An Ode' in 1913, was fascinated by these ruins and probably saw Wheeler digging there.  Higgins wonders if the poet might have done something related to archaeology himself if he had survived the war.  Owen missed out on UCL where he would have been an undergraduate contemporary of Tessa Verney, who married Wheeler in 1912 and became a prominent archaeologist in her own right.  It was she who led the excavation of the impressive amphitheatre at Caerleon.  Ten years later, in 1936, the Wheelers were at Maiden Castle (which is where, years ago, I took the photograph of a line in the grass that I has served as a background for this blog).  Mortimer Wheeler left temporarily for a trip to the Levant and on his way back, flicking through a paper in Paris, came upon his wife's obituary.  The shock of her sudden death is described out of sequence in Wheeler's memoirs, alongside an account of his traumatic experiences at Passchendaele.  Of the five student archaeologists at Uriconium, Wheeler had been the only one to make it home from the war.  Back at Maiden Castle he resumed work and uncovered a collection of graves.  It seemed to him that he had found an ancient war cemetery.  Surely, he wrote, 'no poor relic in the soil of Britain was ever more eloquent of high tragedy.'

This chapter of Under Another Sky traces other connections between war and poetry and ruins: through A. E. Housman for example, Wheeler's classics tutor at UCL, whose book A Shropshire Lad was popular with soldiers in the trenches.  In his poem 'On Wenlock Edge' the wind blows over the land, indifferent to history, while the Romans who once stood there 'are ashes under Uricon.'  The Romans themselves saw that time would eventually leave nothing behind but shattered walls.  Charlotte Higgins quotes Book 8 of The Aeneid in which Aeneas and his companions, survivors of the Trojan War, encounter a king who shows them the ruins of ancient buildings and the wooded hills on which Rome will one day rise.  In these lines, 'Virgil is giving the topography of Augustan Rome a numinous aetiology, suffusing its everyday modernity with the mythical.'  The king leads Aeneas through what will be, in Virgil's time, the centre of the city. ''Everywhere they saw herds of cattle lowing in the Roman forum and the smart Carinae'. Virgil lets time collapse here, such that for a moment his contemporary readers would have been given the head-spinning image of cattle roaming the streets of their own busy city - a kind of double exposure, past and present in the same frame.  Reading these lines in the twenty-first century, there is a different frisson again: the oleander- and cypress-fringed Forum of our day is once more empty but for tourists and old stones ... Time has come full circle: from pastoral ruin to pastoral ruin.'

The Forum, Rome, April 2014

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Imitations of the pasture

J. M. W. Turner, The Deer in Petworth Park, 1827
In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) Thorstein Veblen argued that different views of what is beautiful reflect a 'code of reputability' that varies between classes, and the leisure class will not value things on the basis of mere utility.  When it comes to landscape, the close-cropped lawn appeals on an atavistic level, 'beautiful in the eyes of a people whose inherited bent it is to readily find pleasure in contemplating a well-preserved pasture or grazing land.'  But it would lose its beauty for the leisure class if it were genuinely productive, or gave that impression.  In particular,
'the vulgar suggestion of thrift, which is nearly inseparable from the cow, is a standing objection to the decorative use of this animal. So that in all cases, except where luxurious surroundings negate this suggestion, the use of the cow as an object of taste must be avoided. Where the predilection for some grazing animal to fill out the suggestion of the pasture is too strong to be suppressed, the cow's place is often given to some more or less inadequate substitute, such as deer, antelopes, or some such exotic beast. These substitutes, although less beautiful to the pastoral eye of Western man than the cow, are in such cases preferred because of their superior expensiveness or futility, and their consequent repute. They are not vulgarly lucrative either in fact or in suggestion.
Public parks of course fall in the same category with the lawn; they too, at their best, are imitations of the pasture. Such a park is of course best kept by grazing, and the cattle on the grass are themselves no mean addition to the beauty of the thing, as need scarcely be insisted on with anyone who has once seen a well-kept pasture. But it is worth noting, as an expression of the pecuniary element in popular taste, that such a method of keeping public grounds is seldom resorted to. The best that is done by skilled workmen under the supervision of a trained keeper is a more or less close imitation of a pasture, but the result invariably falls somewhat short of the artistic effect of grazing. But to the average popular apprehension a herd of cattle so pointedly suggests thrift and usefulness that their presence in the public pleasure ground would be intolerably cheap. This method of keeping grounds is comparatively inexpensive, therefore it is indecorous.'

William Merrit Chase, View from Central Park, 1889

Friday, January 16, 2015

The North Cape

 Peder Balke, The North Cape, c.1840

There are still four months to see the fascinating Peder Balke exhibition currently on at the National Gallery.  I have written about him on this blog before - in Landscape from Finnmark I highlighted the trip he made in 1832 beyond the North Cape and in Gausta Peak I focused on the way his reputation has risen as critics and collectors have come to view his later work in the light of Modernism. This exhibition shows how often the artist returned to his memories of the North, adding strange light effects or reducing the motif to a bare abstract form.  As Christopher Riopelle writes in the catalogue, 'the cape's angular notched profile is as distinctive as Paul Cézanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire. The experimental side of Balke is also evident, particularly in a group of ghostly monochrome sketches lent by the Daniel Katz gallery (they recently donated a Balke to the Gallery's permanent collection).  With their thin washes worked over with fingers and comb such works have, according to Riopelle, particularly caught the attention of collectors, 'so intriguing are the processes of their making and so remarkable the powers of evocation they employ in such small compass.'

Peder Balke, Northern Lights over Coastal Landscape, 1870

Looking back at the notes I made at the exhibition in November I see I disliked some paintings that now look good to me in the catalogue - probably something to do with the thinness, dullness and age of the paint when viewed up close.  But I was particularly excited by the way some of Balke's coastal landscapes, with their high peaks floating over empty clouds, resembled Chinese ink paintings.  Riopelle refers to this in his essay: 'spared areas magically summon up complicated motifs like waterfalls, or receding mountain ranges, or trails through fields and up hillsides, along which the eye, like a Chinese scholar on a contemplative stroll through his garden, can freely roam.'  In his review of the exhibition Alastair Sooke complains that scholars haven't done more to find out whether Balke was aware of Chinese art, although Friedrich and Turner are a more obvious starting point for seas of fog and mountains shrouded in mist.

Anders Fredrik Skjöldebrand, Arrival at the North Cape (18th-19th July 1799), 1801-2

In addition to Riopelle's reflections ('Balke / London / Then / Now') the catalogue has a biographical essay by Marit Ingeborg Lange based largely on Balke's own memoirs, which it would be fascinating to read (they have not even been fully published in Norwegian). There is also a short piece by Knut Ljøgodt, Director of The Northern Norway Art Museum in Tromsø, which discusses Balke in relation to the 'artistic discovery of Norway'.  This began with the Danish painter Erik Paulsen, who travelled to Norway in 1788, and was followed by others, including the leading Norwegian painter Johan Christian Dahl, who would become a supporter of Balke.  Northern Norway first appears in an engraved travelogue (see above) and later became a recurring theme for a contemporary of Balke's, Knud Baade, who made the journey to Nordland in 1834.  Balke's journey two years earlier was the furthest north any Norwegian artist had gone.  In this paragraph quoted by Lange he has found respite from a storm-tossed sea at Vardøhus Fortress.
'The day after our arrival at Vardø I crossed the island for a good view of the sea breaking against the cliffs after the previous day's hurricane, and the magnificent sight that manifested itself to my scrutinizing gaze will never fade from my memory.  I had positioned myself on a rocky plateau some 100 feet above the sea, and I felt I had to hold on tight to the cliff when the backwash hurled itself against the rock face and with a deafening sound like thunder rolled out again into the heaving sea, only to repeat the same fruitless onslaught on the unshakeable wall around which swirled the mighty waves of the Arctic Ocean.'
Peder Balke, Vardøhus Fortress, 1870

Friday, January 09, 2015

Hunger Mountain

In the clip I've embedded above, David Hinton introduces his book Hunger Mountain (2012)The eponymous peak is in Vermont, where Hinton lives and works on the translations of Chinese poetry often referred to here (see for example this post from 2006: 'Lit dew shimmers').  Hunger Mountain uses walks on the mountain to frame a discussion of the 'spiritual ecology' he has found in the old poets and philosophers. It begins with the notion of 'sincerity', expressed as a character that combines a person standing and words rising from a mouth.  Although he doesn't mention it, this Confucian term is also the first Chinese character in The Cantos, where Ezra Pound applies it in praise of the sixth US president John Quincy Adams.  Hinton uses it to discuss 'a more fundamental sense of sincerity as an identification of outside and inside', a deep feeling of belonging to the cosmos.  This is evident, for example, in Tu Fu's poem 'Moonrise' (a different poem to 'Full Moon', which I quoted here in an earlier post on moonlit landscapes). 'Moonrise' doesn't simply project an emotion into the landscape, it describes a fundamental identity between the poet and the world. By the time Tu Fu wrote his poem, the character for 'friend' was being written as it still is as two moons side by side (below).  Hinton sees a form of 'friendship' in the way Tu Fu, his modern reader and the wider cosmos are united through contemplation of the moon.

The idea that consciousness is like a lake or mirrored pool is common in Chinese literature.  One of the four masters of southern Sung poetry, Yang Wan-li, wrote of the lake's 'mind': a gaze 'holding the mountain utterly.'   The character for mind is derived from the image for a heart, suggesting that thinking and feeling are deeply connected.  'Thinking' is written as this symbol for heart-mind underneath the character for 'fieldland'.  'Feeling' is a stylized version of the heart-mind symbol written next to the character for the blue-green of landscape.  In light of this it seems unsurprising that poets expressed themselves by writing directly about nature.  Hunger Mountain is quite dense in places with speculations on the connection between language and natural processes, something that has fascinated poets since Ezra Pound published Ernest Fenollosa's The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry in 1918.  It is a subject I have written about here before in connection with Cecilia Lindqvist's wonderful book China: Empire of Living Symbols.  The extent to which these ideas are widely accepted is something I am not qualified to judge, but they are certainly inspiring to read about.

It remains possible that even poetry drawn directly from the the rivers and mountains will be a kind of barrier.  Hinton talks about the risk that ultimately 'we can say nothing about the world without creating in some sense a breach between consciousness and landscape'.  In one of his many wine poems the poet T'ao Ch'ien, discussed in an earlier post here, wrote that whenever he started trying to explain Lu Mountain, 'I forget words altogether'.  Lu Mountain is the range of peaks that have been central to Chinese landscape poetry (the subject of another post here). Throughout the book Hunger Mountain stands in for Lu and Hinton tries to learn, like the poets, from his frequent walks to the summit. Su Tung p'o, who came to Lu seven centuries after T'ao Ch'ien, stayed at the East Forest Monastery, but said he learnt more from the mountain's streams and mirrored pools.
'Su Tung p'o established himself as a master of Tao's mental dimensions when he described flowing waters as the form of mind negotiating the exigencies of life, a spontaneous and crystalline responsiveness working its way through, taking shape according to whatever it encounters.  This is mind moving through the occasions of its attention like water through stones and branches and colourful leaves, adapting itself to the forms it encounters, becoming sometimes loud and othertimes silent, sometimes seething with light and other times lost in shadow.'
Attributed to Jing Hao, Mount Lu, c.900

Friday, January 02, 2015

River Man

I was given a handsome new book for Christmas, Nick Drake: Remembered for a While.  It is made up of miscellaneous writings, interviews, letters, diary excerpts and photographs from the Nick Drake archive. For me, the most charming essay is by Danish poet Gorm Henrik Rasmussen, who came over to England to interview Nick Drake's parents in 1979 and left with a tape of early unreleased recordings and an overriding impression of their kindness.  Rodney Drake went to the trouble of picking him up and driving him through the Warwickshire countryside under a cloudless November sky to the family house at Tanworth-in-Arden.  The first thing they did was to look round the garden that had been a source of solace to Rodney during Nick's depression, but which had also been the scene of happier childhood days.  Rasmussen describes the way this garden 'opens onto a hilly landscape, cut across with creeks; stubble fields, moss-grown stone fences, little copses and meadows as far as the eye can see.  I try to imagine what it must have been like to grow up here.  Boys need a lot of space to romp about in.  If I were a songwriter and my point of origin was this spot, the likelihood would be that words such as 'sky', 'sun', 'rivers', 'leaves', 'wind' and 'grass' would slip into my vocabulary with the same ease as moving one's feet or drawing a breath.'
'Black days of winter all were through
The blossoms came and they brought you' 
These simple lyrics are from the opening of 'Blossom Friend', one of the Nick Drake songs that Rasmussen had not heard before that day.  Leafing now through the handwritten lyrics reproduced in this book I see that the cycle of the seasons featured in three other early compositions, 'Rain', 'Blue Season' and 'Time Of No Reply.'  In his long essay 'Exiled from Heaven', the late Ian McDonald wrote of Nick Drake's literary influences and one of his speculations leapt out at me, as it mentions two of my favourite books.  'Drake may have derived this haiku-like simplicity from books on the shelves of every hopeful young writer in the mid-Sixties: The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse and Basho's The Narrow Road to the Deep North.'  It would be fascinating to know more about what Nick Drake had been reading when he composed his songs.  In another of the book's essays, Will Stone wonders whether he might have encountered in translation the visionary German poets Hölderlin and Trakl.  What we do know is that he was influenced by William Blake, a writer he studied at Cambridge and apparently came to regard as 'the only good English poet'.

As Ian McDonald says, 'it's crucial to recognise that Drake was not a poet and that it's misleading to treat his lyrics as verse.'  But the teenage Nick Drake did try his hand at poetry and there are a couple of examples reproduced from his days at Marlborough College.  The book also has a photograph of a school notebook in which he has written out Robert Southey's onomatopaeic waterfall poem 'The Cataract of Lodore' (1820).  I wrote about this poem here a couple of years ago and said 'if you converted the rhythms and rhymes of this poem to music, you might hear echoes of the way water sounds change as they cascade down the rocks'. Perhaps similar thoughts occurred to Nick Drake?  One of the most admired songs, on his first album, 'River Man', seems to evoke the flow of water.  Folk singer Robin Frederick puts it this way her contribution to the book.
'By writing a song about a river that is based on groups of five beats (5/4), Nick subtly conveys the feeling that there's an extra beat, one that spills over into the next group of beats, pulling you forward, like the momentum of a river current ... Everything is in wave-like motion, everything is flowing with a rhythmical, swaying feel that literally picks you up and carries you down the river.'