Sunday, September 25, 2016


I only recently got round to reading Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies and can highly recommend it to readers of this blog.  A book like this will cover some familiar ground – Gawain’s winter journey, Lear goading the storm, Turner’s light, Constable’s clouds, Dickens’ fog – but it is written so well that you never feel like you’re just being told things you already know.  On the Wordsworths, to choose just one example, she points out that their appreciation of weather turned on ‘very specific moments of transformation – when the sun suddenly strikes through cloud, for example, or when a figure is glimpsed through fog.’  She quotes Dorothy noting ‘her favourite birch tree coming to life: “it was yielding to the gusty wind with all its tender twigs, the sun upon it and it glanced in the wind like a flying sunshine show […] It was like a spirit of water.” The earth-rooted tree takes flight in air, dissolves into a water spirit and, and glitters in the sun.’

The whole history of English literature seems to be contained in the book but it cannot of course be completely comprehensive.  There is no George Eliot for instance - just as I was finishing Weatherland, Mrs Plinius was rereading Middlemarch and reminded me that the love between Will and Dorothea finally surfaces during a thunderstorm.  This though is an example of ‘significant weather’, a novelist’s device deplored by Julian Barnes who, I learnt from Weatherland, originally intended his novel Metroland to be called No Weather, since he was determined to avoid using it as a symbol of anything.  The book's scope is restricted to England and there are moments when Alexandra Harris comes across as very English herself (as she did in Romantic Moderns - see my post on 'The bracing glory of our clouds').  She refers, for example, to Milton’s Paradise, where the seasons are fixed and bountiful and ‘Eve lays out a spread for the visiting archangel Raphael’, observing that Eve may have been ‘the only picnicker in history to remain completely free from concerns about the weather.’  Hard to imagine, say, a Californian academic writing this!

Abraham Hondius, The Frozen Thames, 1677
 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Weatherland takes inspiration at various points from Virginia Woolf's Orlando, a book I have referred to here before.  My favourite scenes in Orlando concern the icing over of the Thames, when birds suddenly freeze in the air and Orlando falls in love with a Muscovite princess.  Woolf herself had read an evocative account of the winter of 1608 in Thomas Dekker's The Great Frost: Cold Doings in London, which refers to a new 'pavement of glass' and fish trapped below a thick roof of ice.  Here, from Weatherland's chapter 'On Freezeland Street', are three more responses to those surreal transformations of the city, which only came to an end when the demolition of London Bridge made the river swifter, deeper and permanently liquid. 
  • Poetry: John Taylor, Thames boatman and self-styled water-poet, composed The Cold Tearme: Or the Frozen Age: Or the Metamorphosis of the River of Thames in 1621.  He compared the ice to a pastry crust and the freezing wind to a barber's razor, 'turning Thames streames, to hard congealed flakes, / And pearled water drops to Christall cakes.'  He describes visitors coming to the Frost Fair, 'Some for two Pots at Tables, Cards or Dice: / Some slipping in betwixt two cakes of Ice.'  Here he added a rueful note in the margin, 'Witnesse my selfe'.  
  • Painting: the view reproduced above is by one of the many artists who came over to England from the Low Countries in the seventeenth century.  'While Englishmen produced diagrammatic engravings of the Frost Fairs, labelling the attractions, Hondius produced an essay in atmosphere.  His expansive sky, worthy of the Netherlands, is flushed with the apricot pinks of a winter sunset.'  Alexandra Harris imagines the effect the frozen river would have had on his imagination.  At around the same time he painted a ship stuck in the pack ice of Greenland, Arctic Adventure.  'The Thames was a noisy, busy river, but in its frozen state it transported Hondius to the desolate edges of the world.'
  • Music: John Dryden may have been inspired by the Frost Fair of 1683-4 when he wrote the libretto for Purcell's King Arthur.  Together 'they wanted to freeze and melt the human voice, dramatising in the process the freezing and melting of the the heart.'  The evil Saxon magician Osmond strikes his wand on the ground and magically summons up 'a prospect of winter in frozen countries.'  Then the personification of Cold sings slowly in C minor, chosen as the coldest key, and is followed by a chorus of cold people, whose stuttering singing mimics the chattering of teeth.  The whole masque is conjured to demonstrate the warmth of love, but it is a deception played on Emmeline, who is betrothed to Arthur.  His plan is foiled though and at the end of the opera he is cast into a dungeon whilst Arthur and Emmeline are reunited.  

There are numerous versions of the 'Cold Song' online, some pretty strange.  I've chosen here a  concert version by Andreas Scholl; you can also see a video for this where the singer is dressed in a pale suit, looking lost near some tower blocks.  Incidentally, the Prelude to the Frost Scene was the basis for Michael Nyman's 'Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds' in The Draughtsman's Contract and was recently used again by the Pet Shop Boys in 'Love Is a Bourgeois Construct'.

Friday, September 23, 2016


Friedrich Georg Weitsch, Alexander von Humboldt, 1806
Images: Wikimedia Commons

Andrea Wulf has just won another prize for The Invention of Nature and I am not surprised as it is a really good read.  In addition to telling the life of Alexander von Humboldt, she has chapters on other great men who he influenced: Goethe, Jefferson, Bolívar, Darwin, Thoreau, Haeckel, Muir and America's first environmentalist, George Perkins Marsh.  Of course Humboldt was so protean and long-lived that she could have included far more people, at the risk of turning her own book into something the size of Humboldt's thirty-four volume Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent.  The one time I have referred to Humboldt's influence on this blog was in connection with Carl Gustav Carus and his notion of Earth-life painting - Carus doesn't make it into the book at all.  Here though are some of the artists, writers and composers she does mention, in connection with three of Humboldt's most widely read publications.
In 1808 Humboldt published Views of Nature in Germany and France, combining scientific facts with poetic landscape description.  Reading it, Goethe told him 'that I plunged with you into the wildest regions' and Chateaubriand said that 'you believe you are surfing the waves with him, losing yourself with him in the depths of the woods.'  Later it inspired Darwin, Thoreau and Emerson.  Jules Verne used passages verbatim in his Voyages Extraordinaires, particularly The Mighty Orinoco.  Captain Nemo owned the complete works of Alexander von Humboldt.
In 1814 Humboldt's account of his travels in South America, the Personal Narrative, appeared in England and started to influence writers like Wordsworth, who adapted a passage for his sonnet sequence on the River Duddon. Coleridge may already have read him in the original German; he had spent some time with Wilhelm, the 'brother of the great traveller', in Rome in 1805.  Byron had fun with the idea of Humboldt's cyanometer, a device for measuring the blueness of the sky which he had taken on his travels.  Here are the lines from Don Juan:
Humboldt, 'the first of travellers,' but not
The last, if late accounts be accurate,
 Invented, by some name I have forgot,
As well as the sublime discovery's date,
An airy instrument, with which he sought
To ascertain the atmospheric state,
 By measuring 'the intensity of blue:'
O, Lady Daphne! let me measure you!

Horace Bénédicte de Saussure, cyanometer, 1760
 Saussure (like Humboldt a scientist and mountaineer) originally devised the cyanometer

In 1845, after eleven years' work, Humboldt published Cosmos, a huge success with students, scientists, politicians and even royalty (Prince Albert ordered a copy).  Hector Berlioz declared him 'a 'dazzling writer; the book was so popular among musicians, Berlioz said, that he knew one who had 'read, re-read, pondered and understood' Cosmos during his breaks at opera performances when his colleagues played on.'  In America, Emerson got hold of one of the first copies, Poe was inspired by it to write his visionary last work Eureka, and Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass with a copy of Cosmos on his desk.
Frederic Edwin Church, The Heart of the Andes, 1859

On the day Humboldt died in May 1859, New Yorkers were queuing to see a painting he had inspired: The Heart of the Andes by Frederic Edwin Church.  Church had gone to South America and retraced Humboldt's route, returning to paint landscapes that united poetic feeling with scientific accuracy.  The New York Times described him as 'the artistic Humboldt of the new world.'  Church wanted his painting to travel to Berlin so that the old man could see again 'the scenery which delighted his eyes sixty years ago.'  When he heard the news of Humboldt's passing, Church said that it felt as if he had 'lost a friend.'

Alexander von Humboldt, Naturgemälde, 1807

The Invention of Nature begins on a high ridge of Chimborazo, the great extinct volcano that Humboldt climbed in 1802.  Nobody had ever been this high before, not even the early balloonists.  After descending to the Andean foothills, Humboldt began to sketch the first version of his famous Naturgemälde - an image of Chimborazo familiar to those of us professionally interested in infographics but more importantly, as Andrea Wulf emphasises, an encapsulation in one two-by three foot page of Humboldt's new vision of nature as a living whole.  She ends her book with a beautiful quote from his friend Goethe, who compared Humboldt to a 'fountain with many spouts from which streams flow refreshingly and infinitely, so that we only have to place vessels under them.'

Friday, September 16, 2016

The New West

Robert Macfarlane recently chose Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez as 'the book that changed my life'.  He says 'it struck me with the force of revelation the first time I read it, aged 21 and walking the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island alone over several days.'  Ten years ago he wrote an appreciation of Lopez for The Guardian which perceptively defines him as 'a postmodern devout. His prose - priestly, intense, grace-noted - carries the hushed urgency of the sermon.'  
'Throughout his writings, Lopez returns to the idea that natural landscapes are capable of bestowing a grace upon those who pass through them. Certain landscape forms, in his vision, possess a spiritual correspondence. The stern curve of a mountain slope, a nest of wet stones on a beach, the bent trunk of a wind-blown tree: these abstract shapes can call out in us a goodness we might not have known we possessed. "In a winter-hammered landscape," he writes, "the light creates a feeling of compassion ... it is possible to imagine a stifling ignorance falling away from us."' 
One thing this article doesn't mention, something you wouldn't necessarily realise if Lopez hadn't written about it in his 1998 essay 'Learning to See', is that for fifteen years from the mid-sixties, along with his writing and scientific pursuits, Lopez actually worked as a landscape photographer.  Why did he stop?  A combination of factors: the accidental loss of a portfolio of his best work, the problem of achieving the kind of detail and colour balance he was after, the realisation that he was too focused on focusing his camera to fully experience what he was observing.  He also became uncomfortable with the way nature photography was heading: dazzling images of animals that were no more realistic than the images in Playboy.  However, some wildlife photographers did manage to approach their work with integrity; he lists Frans Lanting, Michio Hoshino, Gary Braasch, Tui De Roy, Jim Brandenburg, Flip Nicklin, Sam Abell, Nick Nichols, Galen Rowell.

Cover of The New West by Robert Adams (1974)

'Learning to See' begins with a surprise invitation from the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth to write an essay on the photography of Robert Adams.  Lopez learns that Adams had suggested his name, despite the fact they'd never met, because he admired his writing.  They have subsequently become friends - an artistic relationship which is discussed in a new book  Other Country: Barry Lopez and the Community of Artists ('for both Lopez and Adams, a worthy artistic expression serves the cultural memory of a community, reminding us how to behave properly toward other people and the land.')  The short essay Lopez wrote for the Fort Worth exhibition suggests that Adams has tried in his images of the American West to get us to consider where we are, and whether we want to be here.  It is evident that we are in a difficult place.  But Adams 'urges us to overcome anger and bitterness, he urges us to be present in the present.  Not to be aloof, unseeing and uncaring.'  This writing certainly has what Robert Macfarlane called the 'hushed urgency of the sermon'.  And Lopez could be referring to his own writings when he says that 'to speak of Adams's work is to speak of faith, of hope, of compassion, of that which is sacred.'

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The open pit at Dannemora mine

We saw this tall clock a few weeks ago in Stockholm's Royal Palace.  It dates from the 1760s when ideal landscapes were painted onto all kinds of cabinets - there's no particular connection between the clock itself and the two views here.  Nearby though, in complete contrast, we saw something much more unusual: a mechanical landscape painting which actually incorporates a clock mechanism.  It wasn't possible to photograph without getting some confusing reflections but hopefully this gives you the idea.  It was made in Gothenburg in 1821 and signed 'J. G. Pettersson'.  Far from showing some dreamy Arcadian view, it depicts the Dannemora iron ore mine.

Sadly we didn't get to witness the movable elements of this painting in motion.  You can see one of these, the hoist used to bring up the ore, in the detail above.  This feature is also visible in a watercolour by Elias Martin (below), which was clearly the source for the painting.  Martin, Sweden's first prominent landscape painter, was best known for more Romantic landscapes.  Compare the two views and you will see that the clockmaker added a church as a new focal point, which gives the composition a slightly surreal quality. It contrasts with the black pit in the centre foreground, where we would normally wish to find a limpid pool or shady grove.  Perhaps it was put there to suggest the opposition of heaven and hell, or maybe it was there to strike a note of approval, blessing the labours of the miners and mine owners.  Dannemora mine was established in the Middle Ages and it is hard to imagine the countless hours of work that went into it, until eventually it was shut down in the early nineties.  Recently the mine was bought and reopened in a ceremony featuring King Carl XVI Gustaf but I see it has subsequently ceased operation again.
Elias Martin, The open pit at Dannemora, c. 1780-1800

This hybrid clock/painting made we imagine an alternative history for the cuckoo clock without the chalet or woodcutters or water wheels.   Each hour a bird would simply emerge from an attractive Black Forest scene to emit a melodious song.  A few examples of nineteenth century paintings with inbuilt clocks can be seen online, their faces placed where a sun or a flower might be.  You half expect them to start melting like the soft watches in Dalí's The Persistence of Memory.  Clocks within paintings were popular in Austria and Germany but rarely had moving parts. You can view one on Youtube though, in which two hammers beat on an anvil when the hour is struck.  It's a bit hard to make out what the figures in the foreground are doing - is there some nudity involved or is that my imagination?  Again the setting here is industrial - it must have been hard to imagine a clockwork mechanism without thinking of the machines used to channel and reshape nature.  For centuries artists have found ways to convey the diurnal cycle or capture a fleeting instant, but painting, fundamentally, is not a time-based medium.  A clock measures out the hours, a landscape painting should be timeless.  

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Bus de la Lum

In 'The Eeriness of the English Landscape' Robert Macfarlane wrote about a growing interest in landscape and the uncanny, with recent books, music and art all exploring places that seem to hide dark secrets.  But if, as he says, this relates to our anxieties about conflict and globalisation it would not be surprising to see non-English artists in other countries pursuing a similar path. In Italy, for example, there is Nico Vascellari, punk musician and visual artist (Macfarlane describes the field as 'a mutated cultural terrain that includes the weird and the punk').  Studio International's description of Vascellari's imagery reminds me of some of the artists referred to by Macfarlane, recent work by Richard Skelton for example: it 'draws on archaic folkloric traditions and animism. He layers both the chaotic and destructive elements of nature with their lush, more abundant counterparts. His pieces suggest or incorporate pelts, leaves, bones, animal parts, rocks, plants and fruits. Items may be charred or distorted, evoking the burning votive figures of his region’s enduring archaic folk rituals.'

I was in Manchester this week and visited The Whitworth where Vascellari has installed a forest of screens and projections based on an eerie landscape he knew as a child.  Here's the gallery's summary:
'Bus de la Lum (which means ‘hole of light’) is a natural cavity located in woodland of the Cansiglio plateau. Shrouded in mystery, the void emits a strange light that has long been associated with magic and satanic legend. During World War II it acquired a less mythical but equally terrifying reputation as a death pit for hundreds of prisoners and casualties of war.  Vascellari also connects us to another place, Darvaza (‘Door to Hell’) a vast, burning crater in the desert of Turkmenistan. The stories of these two magical places are interwoven by light, shadow and an extraordinary soundtrack created in collaboration with Turkish-born musician Ghédalia Tazartès.'
I had not heard of either of these places before and looking further into their history it is not hard to see why they might exert a dark fascination.  Bus de la Lum, a limestone sinkhole, may have gained its reputation for emitting fire from the vapour coming off the carcasses of dead animals thrown into the pit.  According to Vascellari, the people living outside the forest 'would see these flames and fantasise that a witch was living inside that hole and burning kids.'  In the Second World War it was the partisans rather than the fascists who pushed people to their death in this pit: civilians as well as German and Italian soldiers were killed - exactly how many is not known.  As for Darvaza, I have embedded a clip of it from Youtube below. Here's what Vascellari told Studio International about it.
'Around 40 years ago, they were drilling to look for gases and, all of a sudden, the ground under the drill collapsed, creating a large hole. And the gas that was coming out of the ground was found to be poisonous. They didn’t know what to do about this, so some geologists were contacted who suggested burning those gases. They expected that, if there was a lot of gas, most likely it would have burned out in four or five days. The reality is that the fire is still burning 40 years later. The name Darvaza, in the local language, means gate of hell.'