Friday, February 24, 2017


If you have access to the BBC iPlayer you can see Andrew Graham-Dixon's latest series, an attempt to tell the story of the Art of France in three hours.  The first episode stretches over the centuries from L'abbé Suger to Chardin.  During the course of this, he visits Versailles and looks down on its gardens, with their panoptic design of paths radiating out from the palace of the Sun King.  But he also finds time for a visit to the basement of the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille where he wanders among 'a collection of extraordinary but largely forgotten' table-top landscapes, made at the behest of Louis XIV.
"They were all made for the king, these great tables.  Each one is a town - a representation of a town that he had fortified.  This is Ypres.  This is Tournai.  There were originally a hundred and forty-four of these objects.  They occupied 8,000 square meters of the Louvre - nearly a mile to walk past all of them.  And what they represented I think for Louis was a tangible demonstration of the extent to which he had expanded and secured France's borders.  They also served a very practical purpose because when he came here with his generals or his advisers he could plan strategy.  He could literally feel with his hand the lie of the land.  And he could enjoy, as no-one else in the world could do, a bird's-eye view of these strategically important cities.  I think the Plans-Reliefs as they are called (it's extraordinary - goodness knows how many man hours went into their creation) - I think what they represent is a making good of the promise that Versailles holds out.  That, yes, the king's eye stretches to the very end of the realm."
This collection of relief maps has a complicated history.  Having been only accessible to Louis XIV and his staff, they eventually came to be seen as works of art, on show once a month to the public during the nineteenth century.  A new set of relief plans were made for Napoleon, seventeen of which were taken by the Prussians to Berlin after his defeat.  These were almost all destroyed during World War Two, but one of them, the map of Lille, was restored and returned to France.  Of the original seventeenth century plans, some are still in Paris and some have been transferred to Lille, where Andrew Graham-Dixon saw them. 

Earlier, smaller relief plans were made in sixteenth century Venice and Bavaria.  The Bavarian plans were the work of Jakob Sandtner (fl. 1561-79) who seems to have made the first one himself, which then came to the attention of Duke Albrecht, who bought it and commissioned others.  But these were city plans - what I like about the French Plans-Reliefs is that they show the surrounding terrain.  The inclusion of woods and fields was consistent with their use as a military tool.  But their usefulness declined as technology 'improved'.  Eventually, as the director of the Paris musée des Plans Reliefs explains in an interview, the range of cannon fire was too great for maps on this scale.  It is tempting though to imagine modellers trying to keep up, at work on ever larger constructions, eventually covering the whole of France and fitting together like a jigsaw.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Under the trees, where the light air stirs the shadows

I once wrote for myself a guide to the trees and plants in Virgil's Eclogues, drawing on the Clarendon Press commentary by Wendell Clausen.  I won't bore you with the whole thing, but will give here a brief summary to indicate how these details help create a landscape for the ten pastoral poems. Virgil's Arcadia is more artificial than the Sicily in which Theocritus set his Idylls, but I think this makes it all the more rewarding to try to picture the details of his settings.  In the course of the poems Virgil refers to both Greek and Italian places; it could be said that the Eclogues are partly set in the North Italian countryside near Mantua, where the poet grew up, and partly, overlaid on this, in an ideal, pastoral Greece of the mind. 

Tityrus and Meliboeus in the 5th century Vergilius Romanus

Eclogue One

The first Eclogue begins under the cool shade of a beech tree.  Meliboeus, exiled from his farm after the land confiscations that followed the Battle of Philippi, encounters Tityrus, playing his reed pipe and teaching the woods to repeat his song 'Fair Amaryllis'.  I have described this scene before, in a post that goes on to talk about the reappearance of Tityrus in Paul Valéry’s ‘Dialogue of the Tree’ (1943).  Virgil's beech woods would not have been dense, since the hills would need to have allowed grazing to take place.  Meliboeus has been driving goats through the hazel thickets and cannot let them remain to graze on the bitter willow and clover.  He pictures Tityrus, recently freed, happy on his farm, with bees in the willow boundary hedge and wood pigeons and turtle doves in the tops of the elms.  Tityrus takes pity on Meliboeus and invites him to stay the night for a meal of apple, cheese and chestnuts.  The poem ends with the sun setting and the mountains casting lengthening shadows.

Eclogue Two

It is the heat of the day and the sun is driving cattle into the shade and lizards into thorn thickets.  The shepherd Corydon seeks the shade of a beech plantation to contemplate his thwarted passion for the handsome boy Alexis.  The harvesters enjoy a refreshing pottage but Corydon trails after Alexis in the heat, his hoarse voice accompanied by the cicadas.  He imagines a life together with Alexis, herding kids with switches of green mallow.  He offers him gifts: a reed pipe made of hemlock stalks, two roe deer, a garland created by the nymphs, a simpler offering of his own: quinces, chestnuts, plums and branches of laurel and myrtle.  The sun goes down and Corydon thinks of his own half-pruned vines.  He decides that if Alexis rejects him, he can always find another love.

Eclogue Three

The setting for this singing match is an old beech plantation.  The judge, Palaeomon, remarks on the beauty of the wider landscape: crops growing, orchards full of fruit and woodlands in leaf.  The two shepherds sing of various imaginary loves.  In the course of their songs, Menalcus likens his feelings for Amyntus to the way crops love the rain, goats love the arbitus tree and breeding herds love the willow; Damoetus describes a love-sick bull who is pining away even though he is surrounded by vetch to eat.  The contest is declared a draw and Palaeoman asks them to stop their songs, because the meadows have had their fill.

Eclogue Four

This fourth poem is not set in a landscape, its subject is politics - probably the Pact of Brundisium between Anthony and Octavian.  Virgil excuses himself for leaving his pastoral theme, saying that not everyone likes the 'tamarisk' and that he will now sing a 'forest'.  He evokes a Golden Age that will come with the birth of a child (possibly the future child of Antony and Octavia), when grapes will hang from thorn trees and honey will be secreted by the oak trees.  Soil will need no harrowing, vines will need no pruning and - a detail that sounds rather less appealing - sheep will grow their wool in various bright colours.

Eclogue Five

Menalcus, the older of the singing shepherds in Eclogue Three, meets Mopsus and suggests that they sit down in a grove of hazel and elm.  But Mopsus has an alternative to sitting 'under the trees, where the light air stirs the shadows,' and proposes a cave, its entrance hanging with wild vines.  He wants to share a song that he had inscribed onto a beech trunk (it has been pointed out that the song is rather long to have been written out in full on a tree...)  He sings of the death of Daphnis, mourned by Nature so that where once there were fields of barley there now grew only darnel and wild oats, whilst violets and narcissi were succeded by thistle and thorn.  Menalcus then sings his own elegy for Daphnis, saying that he will be praised as long as boars love the heights, fish love streams, cicadas drink dew and bees suck thyme.

Eclogue Six

In this poem the god Silenus sings to two shepherd boys so beautifully that the oak trees bow their heads.  Among the myths he recounts is that of Pasiphaë, wandering in search of the bull who rests under the ilex among soft hyacinths.  The bull is described as pale, pallentis, a word that may represent the greenish yellow of summer grass.  Silenus tells of Phaeton's sisters, transformed into tall alders after lamenting his death on the banks of the Eridanus.  He sings all the songs that Apollo once composed and made the laurels along the river Eurotus learn.  It was at Eurotus that Apollo mourned the loss of Hyacinthus.  Finally evening comes and the young shepherds leave for home to count their sheep.

Eclogue Seven

The narrator is Meliboeus, from Eclogue One, who remembers being approached one day by Daphnis when he was busy protecting his myrtles from frost damage.  Daphnis persuaded him to go down to the river, fringed with reeds and the sacred oak, a-drone with bees.  There they witnessed a singing contest between Corydon and Thyrsis.  Corydon longed for a nymph sweeter than thyme and fairer than pale ivy.  He sang of the beautiful pastoral landscape: springs, soft grass, arbitus trees, vines, chestnuts and juniper bushes.  He concluded by listing plants associated with the gods and heroes but saying that above these is the hazel, loved by Phyllis; Thyrsis in turn said that if only his lover Lycidas were with him more often, the ash and pine would mean nothing to him.

Eclogue Eight  

This is another singing match in which the shepherd Damon laments his lost love while leaning against the trunk of an olive tree (or possibly on an olive-wood staff, like the one owned by Polyphemus in the Odyssey).  He sings of a world gone awry, of alders that bear sweet narcissus and tamarisks that shed tears of amber.

Eclogue Nine

The landscape here is that of the first Eclogue, and the conversation is between Lycidas and Moeris, a dispossessed landowner who is suffering the indignity of looking after the new owner's goats.  Lycidas thought that the land, which stretches down to a river where beeches grow, had been saved by the poetry of Moeris's friend.  But poetry wasn't sufficient to spare this countryside; the beeches by the river have their tops broken off.  The two men recall various poems, including one addressed to Galatea, which I have referred to here before.  Seamus Heaney translated this and in his version the grotto of Cyclops is an undermined riverbank with swaying poplars and vines in thickets 'meshing shade with light.'  Lycidas wants to hear more but Moeris is in no mood to continue.

Eclogue Ten

In this last poem Virgil himself appears in Arcadia, surrounded by his goats.  He sings of his friend Gallus, who was lying love sick under a crag, while the laurels and tamarisks wept for him, when Pan, stained with the juice of elderberries, arrived with Sylvanus, wearing a coronet of fennel and Madonna lilies.  Pan told Gallus not to weep over his love, but Gallus, inconsolable, vowed to live alone in the forest or by wandering in the mountains.  Virgil says that he hopes this song will not displease Gallus, for whom he expresses a love that is growing hourly, like alders shooting up in the spring.  He notices a chill in the air, under the shade of a juniper tree, so he gathers together his goats and heads for home.   

Monday, February 13, 2017

The ebb-tide beach

Trees and rocks in the 1466 Maeda manuscript of Senzui narabi ni yagyo no zu (Illustrations for Designing Mountain, Water, and Hillside Field Landscapes), attributed to the priest Zoen.

The last words of this manuscript are these, 'You must never show this writing to outsiders.  You must keep it secret.'  I'm not about to reveal all its advice on landscape gardening here, if only because it would take too long and you can read the full text in David A. Slawson's Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens.  Also, the nature of the text is such that it can only be fully understood alongside advice that would have been provided directly by a master: it begins with the warning: 'If you have not received the oral transmissions, you must not make gardens.'  As Slawson points out, by the fifteenth century, when these Illustrations were written down, 'secret teachings' were being passed on in other Japanese art forms - Zeami's famous treatises on acting and Noh theatre only became widely known in the early twentieth century.  The precise origin of the Illustrations is unclear.  It includes advice that clearly predates the fifteenth century and it is attributed to a priest, Zoen, who lived before the eleventh century, which is prior to the first Japanese garden treatise we have, the Sakuteiki, written by Tachibana no Toshitsuna (1028-94).

The teachings in the Illustrations have much to say about the arrangement of different types of rock and how to choose appropriate flowers, herbs and trees (see the different varieties of pine branches above, providing diagonal, horizontal and vertical forms).  The treatise is mainly concerned with the design of a 'scroll garden', viewed from the house like a painting, rather than a 'stroll garden' which requires a walk to take in different vistas.  It therefore has interesting things to say about space, scale and perspective; for example, suggesting a 'narrow-and-widen' principle in designing winding paths or streams so that they appear closer or more distant, depending on the site.  Some elements of a garden can be imbued with religious symbolism or evoke the Eastern Paradise.  Cultural references are also possible: the Illustrations refers to 'Boat-concealing rocks' placed in water to 'convey the feeling of a boat vanishing behind isles in the bay of Akashi', an allusion to a poem in the Kokinshū in which the poet's longings follow a ship into the morning mist, which disappears behind a distant isle.  

The text gives advice on evoking various kinds of landscape - a river valley, a marsh pond, a seashore.  I will end here with a paragraph from Slawson's translation which describes the subtle ways in which simple materials can convey the impression of a landscape in motion.
'Another type of shoreline scenery is the ebb-tide beach, which has no striking features but simply creates the impression of the tide constantly ebbing and flowing.  Here, if just by spreading fine and coarse grains of sand and without setting any rocks you can visually re-create a single scenic ambience - that of a beach rising to a knoll where a pine or some such tree alternately appears at high tide to be out in the middle of the sea, and at ebb tide to tower as if suddenly borne high above the beach that is now exposed so far into the distance that one cannot tell where it ends and the sea begins - you have nothing more to learn.  The visual impression of an ebb-tide beach is produced simply by the way the tree is planted and the way the fine and coarse grades of sand are spread.'

Friday, February 10, 2017

Wind at Walden Pond

The artwork on the cover of this January 2008 edition of Art in America is by Spencer Finch: Sunlight in an Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004).  Emily Dickinson once famously wrote of 'a certain Slant of light' - 'when it comes, the Landscape listens...'  On his visit to her home, Finch took precise measurements of the level of sunlight and then tried to recreate the effect using a cloud of blue gels suspended in front of two rows of fluorescent lights.  Finch is fascinated with light and has made various similar cultural pilgrimages to record it: heading, for example, to Ingmar Bergman’s Stockholm residence at the ‘magic hour’ when the director did much of his filming, to Time Square, the inspiration for Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, and to Giverny where he was looking for a shadow similar to the one Monet captured in the painting reproduced below.  Things don't always go to plan: in 1996 he travelled to Rouen only to find that the cathedral Monet had painted in different lights was under scaffolding; undaunted, he did a piece instead based on the colours of his hotel room.  The artworks arising from these trips range from drawings to sculptures and installations.  Eos (Dawn, Troy, 10/27/02), for example, resembles a Dan Flavin light piece, but is designed to match the measurements Finch took at Troy during the hour of Homer's ‘rosy-fingered Dawn’.

Claude Monet, Grainstacks at Sunset (Snow Effect), 1890-91

The Art in America review by Stephanie Cash describes two works Finch had recently completed that were inspired by Thoreau.  The first of these concerns wind rather than light - I have drawn a diagram below to show how the gallery installation worked.  ‘For about two hours the fans periodically create a gentle, intermittent breeze from various directions and at various speeds, determined by Finch’s measurements using a digital anenometer and weathervane while standing on the shore of Walden Pond, where Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days.  Viewers standing at the work’s centre can experience the approximate breeze that Finch, and presumably Thoreau, did.’ Not having experienced this work I can only imagine it from Cash's description, another level of mediation which only goes to emphasise the impossibility of feeling the wind that rippled the surface of the water during the years 1845-7.  

Diagram showing Spencer Finch's
Two hours, Two minutes, Two seconds (Wind at Walden Pond, March 12, 2007)

The other work, Walden Pond (morning effect, March 13, 2007), sounds less appealing because it mixes together Thoreau and Monet, although it is hard to tell from photographs.  The finished work was  
'a wall collage comprising 139 reproductions, arranged in the shape of the pond, of aqueous paintings by Monet.  From 20 spots around the pond’s perimeter, Finch noted the hues of the water and ice, then located their matches in the Monet reproductions.  Each image bears a notation with an arrow pointing to the particular colour, and the time, location on the shore and direction he was facing.  It’s a rather complicated enterprise, and visually and intellectually engaging, but atypically for Finch, it doesn’t present a coherent, unified effect.’

There was a Spencer Finch show at Turner Contemporary in 2014, which regrettably I didn't get to see.  In the video clip above he talks about the influence of Turner and installs a sculpture which resembles the Emily Dickinson one, called Passing Cloud (After Constable).  [Incidentally, I did get to go to the previous exhibition at Turner Contemporary in 2014 - which was also inspired by clouds, including Constable's - and wrote about it here.]  Finch has done cloud studies himself, as well as drawings of ice, wind, sunlight and water.  The colours of the surface of the Hudson River were his raw material for The River That Flows Both Ways, an installation on New York's High Line that could be seen last year.  His website has some other examples of recent work but I will end here with a piece he made some time ago, described in the Art in America article.  It sounds preposterous but also rather magical.
‘Resembling an amateur science project, an early installation that also looks to the cosmos, Blue (One second brainwave transmitted to the star Rigel), 1993, comprises a tattered orange armchair, a TV set, an old Apple computer, electrodes, an antenna and a tripod-mounted transmitter.  Using these jury-rigged components, Finch recorded his brain wave for one second as he watched the huge blue wave in the opening sequence of the 1970s TV show Hawaii Five-O, a still of which appears on the TV screen.  His brainwave was then translated by the software and projected into space by the transmitter.  It should reach its destination, the bluest star in our sky, in the year 2956.  With the ‘real’ work supposedly somewhere in the cosmos, modern-day viewers are left with a scrappy installation that belies the beauty of the concept.’

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Cattle and their doubles in the lucid shallows of the bay

This little book, Letters on Landscape Photography, was published in London in 1888.  By then there were numerous such books dedicated to the hobby, but many people, like its author Henry Peach Robinson, were old enough to recall the days when photography was still in its infancy.  It would take almost another century for the question that underlies the book - can photography be art? - to be definitely settled by museum curators in the affirmative.  Robinson writes that ‘more than twenty years ago, when the opposition to art in photography was at its fiercest, there was a capital article on landscape painting in a now dead review.’  The author of this article had criticised the idea of the landscape photographer with an anecdote about a trip to the Highlands.  There, one day, he had settled down to paint en plein air, having found the perfect spot in a ‘wide open space of sea and sky, with a glorious foreground of cattle and their doubles in the lucid shallows of the bay.’  He was soon painting quietly...
'The ripple hardly broke louder than my pulse.  Presently a stoat bounds into the road, and I had time to observe what enjoyment of life there was in the unalarmed, untamed step of the creature.  The heron rose near me; and as I was beginning to take it all in with half-shut eyes, and to remark how the powerful tones of the cattle, fawn and flame colour, white and yellow, blood-red and black, seemed to give infinitude to space – a photographer walks briskly before me, and with an air and noise of satisfaction begins to open and adjust his box.  I give you my word that the look of quiet horror that came over the scene was unmistakable – not horror exactly – did you ever remark the face of a girl when she sets it?  It was precisely that.  Not only did the stoat disappear, but – I don’t know whether it was the creaking of the machine, or the business-like stare of the man – the cattle grew conscious and uncomfortable, and it was not without satisfaction that I saw a mist creep up from the sea, and steal away the shimmer and the charm.  I left him some cows lashing their tails, some blackthorn and Scotch fir, and the average coast formation.’
Robinson concedes that this is prettily written but thinks ‘this sort of tip-tilting of the nose at photography as an art is only possible now with fifth-rate painters, or, in the press, with their friends, or those who have failed in the art.’  It's a good example of the never-ending arguments about how to behave in the landscape and have an 'authentic' experience of nature.  These will return every time there is a new technological development that provides a novel means of 'capturing' the view.  I note that the title of Hamish Fulton's new exhibition, starting next week in Munich, is called 'Walking without a Smartphone'...  The paragraph is interesting too from a gender perspective, where the painter is permitted to see the view in its natural state, while the business-like 'stare of the man' with his camera prompts nature to set her face.  You half expect the photographer to be set upon by dogs like Actaeon.  And yet there remains an impression that the painter himself has not really been seeing what is before him, apparently and paradoxically able to 'take it all in with half-shut eyes...'

Thursday, February 02, 2017

The spousalls betwixt the Medway and the Thames

William Blake, Edmund Spenser, c. 1800
Source: Wiimedia Commons

In Book IV, Canto XI of The Faerie Queene (1596), Edmund Spenser describes the marriage of Thames and Medway.  I won't attempt to describe here how this fits into the plot, but it takes place in Proteus's house and the guests include many gods of seas and rivers.  Among these are Nile, Rhine, Ganges, Amazon and 'rich Oranochy, though but knowen late' (Spenser's friend Raleigh had explored the Orinoco a year earlier, hoping to find El Dorado).  English rivers are of course invited, but so too are the rivers of Ireland, where Spenser was living at the time.  Incidentally, there are occasional brief references to the Irish landscape in other parts of The Faerie Queene, e.g. the River Shannon (Shenan) whose battle with the ocean tide is a simile for the struggle between two knights (and perhaps the unequal struggle between Ireland and England too).  I have written here before about Spenser and Ireland and it is not really surprising that this wedding encompasses the Irish rivers, for 'why should they not likewise in loue agree'.

Thames, the bridegroom, arrives with his elderly parents Thame and Isis to the accompaniment of a harp played by Arion.  His bride arrives later with handmaids and sea nymphs.  I will quote here just one stanza, which comes as Thames processes in, dressed in a light blue robe and wearing a coronet in the shape of London.  Various tributaries to the Thames are mentioned, including the one nearest to where I live, the Lee.
And round about him many a pretty Page
Attended duly, ready to obey;
All little Rivers, which owe Vassalage
To him, as to their Lord, and Tribute pay;
The chaulky Kenet, and the Thetis grey,
The morish Cole, and the soft-sliding Brean,
The wanton Lee, that oft doth lose his way,
And the still Darent, in whose Waters clean
Ten thousand Fishes play, and deck his pleasant Stream.
I love that description of the Lee.  It would make a good quiz to match the epithet to the river in this Canto - stately Severn, storming Humber, speedy Tamar - or guess it from a brief description 'decked all with Woods / Like a Wood-God, and flowing fast to Rhy' (the River Rother).  In real life the Thames and Medway meet and merge at Rochester, where Spenser had worked as secretary to the Bishop in 1589.  A year later he mentioned in a letter a poem he was working on, now lost, called Epithalamion Thamesis, which prefigured this section of The Faerie Queene.  There was also a model for this Canto in another river-wedding poem, De Connubio Tamae et Isis, fragments of which appear in William Camden's great topographical work Britannia (1586).  In Camden, Isis is the male god, who comes from a cave in the Cotswolds to meet his bride, Tame, at Dorchester in Oxfordshire, where they retire to the nuptial chamber.  After the celebration they rise as one, Thamisis, and make their way downriver, past Windsor, Runnymede, Hampton Court and Richmond, towards the sea.   

Are there earlier examples of river-marriage poems?  In a an article on the subject ('Spenser, Camden, and the Poetic Marriages of Rivers', Studies in Philology, 1967), Jack B. Oruch notes that the Italian humanist Giovanni Pontano wrote a 'topographical pageant' into his poem Lepidina (1496), in which Sebeto, a river god, marries the patron divinity of Naples.  As for later writers, there is Michael Drayton, whose Poly-Olbion I have mentioned here before - his Fifteenth Song (1612) takes up again the theme of the marriage of Thame and Isis.  The rivers Walla and Tavy are wed in Britannia's Pastorals (1616) by a friend of Drayton's, William Browne of Tavistock.  Browne may also be the author of an anonymous poem in which the Torridge marries the Ock.  And there is a 1613 masque by Francis Beaumont in which the Thames marries the Rhine, part of the celebrations for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth (later called The Winter Queen) and Frederick V.

J. M. W. Turner, Union of the Thames and Isis ('Dorchester Mead, Oxfordshire), 1808
Source: Wiimedia Commons 

The poetic tradition seems to have faded out in the early seventeenth century.  In 1808 Turner exhibited a painting entitled the Union of the Thames and Isis, but this is not one of his mythological paintings.  Instead of Camden's magnificent bridal chamber, prepared for Tame by Grace, Concord, Hymen and the Naiads, we have a view of cows standing in brown water.  The Tate's curators describe this quiet landscape: 'The Thame, hardly more than a stream, is in the foreground while the Thames [Isis] is glimpsed beyond the wooden bridge on the right. Modest and direct, the picture also evokes the seventeenth-century painter Aelbert Cuyp in its lighting and pastoral imagery.'  Two more centuries on, it is hard to imagine a return to the extravagant topological wedding feasts of Spenser's time, though it would be fun to write one in which the river gods make small talk over glasses of fizz, watch the bride and groom trying not to giggle, sit through an inappropriate best man's speech and end up the dancing drunkenly to Abba on a slippery dance floor.