Sunday, June 28, 2015

Groombridge Place

'The origin of the plot of The Draughtsman's Contract is autobiographical ... I discovered a house on the border of England and Wales not far from Hay-on-Wye, where I attempted to draw a fairly modest early Victorian house. The weather was unusually fine. For about three weeks, I did some drawings ...  But also, since I was on holiday and enjoying myself, there were constant interruptions that I made no attempt to avoid: playing with my children, doing a piece of gardening, going to the shops, having meals, simply falling asleep in the sun. And this is the premise for the film. It's a story about a draughtsman who draws a country house and is constantly interrupted. ... It is also a fictional evocation of a long-vanished age in which draughtsmen and painters were employed by country-house owners in England to draw or paint their estates, their property, their houses and gardens. They commissioned such works to show off to their neighbours, or maybe even simply to delight themselves with their prosperity and status ... The whole film is very much a landscape film, which would relate to the traditions of Claude Lorraine and Poussin, two Frenchmen who spent most of their lives and their painting careers in Italy and had an enormous influence, not only on French landscape but on English landscape. The three predominant colours of this film are black, white and green. The black and white essentially of the costumes, and the green of the English countryside.' - Peter Greenaway quoted in the Guardian, 1 August 2003

Yesterday, in 'unusually fine' weather, we travelled to Groombridge Place in Kent, the setting for The Draughtsman's Contract (1982).  The house was built in 1662 by Philip Packer, with assistance from Christopher Wren, and the gardens designed by John Evelyn (all three were fellows of the Royal Society).  Writing about this period at the beginning of his gardening history The Arcadian Friends, Tim Richardson regrets that 'there is a tendency today to view this kind of seventeenth century 'formality' - what a strange term for it! - as sterile and lifeless.'  The same has been said of Peter Greenaway of course: 'for every person who reveres his work, there are many others who regard it as arid, cerebral and insular. "It's a big criticism of Greenaway films that they are far too interested in formalism and not enough interested in notions of emotional content," he says. "It's a criticism I can fully understand from a public that has been brought up by Hollywood movies that demand intense emotional rapport."'  The Draughtsman's Contract exemplifies Greenaway's belief that 'the form and the content should ideally be brought closely together.'  It is designed like a Baroque garden and its plot links the ideas of framing for a drawing and framing for a crime.

Michael Nyman, Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds

The game of formal constraints that structures the film carried over into Michael Nyman's conception for its music.  Nyman's website explains that he went back to the complete works of Purcell (who died in 1695, a year after the film is set) 'and rooted out ground basses' to provide repetitive harmonic schemes. These 'could be interpreted as making a musical parallel with the organisational and temporal constraints that the draughtsman Neville imposes on the Herbert household as he goes about his task of completing the 12 commissioned drawings of the house and the grounds. The initial plan for the score was to assign a different ground bass to each of the two sets of six drawings (to help with the ‘reading’ of each of Neville’s designated viewpoints) and allow each piece to grow and develop as each drawing progressed over six days. This fine plan was shot to pieces by the practicalities of film length, the editing process and the invariable problems of balancing the demands of dialogue.'

Hyacinthe Rigaud, Hans Willem Bentinck, c. 1698-9
(those wigs in The Draughtsman's Contract were not completely exaggerated)

One aspect of the film I particularly like is that for all its postmodern artifice in design, dialogue and music, there is a very specific historical context.  It is 1694, year of the Married Woman's Property Act (which is crucial for the plot) and, as Greenaway explains, 'the Dutch Protestant aristocracy is now firmly in place in England.'  At Groombridge the canal, where a body is found in The Draughtsman's Contract, certainly gives the garden a Dutch feel.   It is Tim Richardson's contention that this period of Dutch influence, rather than the eighteenth century, gave birth to the English landscape garden.  Formality gradually began to give way to naturalness in the form of looser planting and serpentine walks.  Richardson writes about the friendship between Sir William Temple and Hans Willem Bentinck, 1st Earl of Portland, both diplomats and garden designers who worked to secure the throne for William and Mary.  Bentinck 'proudly commissioned a series of forty-four engravings of his garden at Zorgvliet in the 1690s', a fact which makes me wonder whether Greenaway had them in mind when he wrote his film.  Eventually Bentinck married a niece of Temple's, with whom he had six children.  There is a Dutchman too in The Draughtsman's Contract, but he is unable to provide his wife with an heir.  Which is why she strikes up her own private contract with the Draughtsman, for rather more than he could deliver with a pencil...

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