Friday, October 19, 2018

Ground Work


Tim Dee has edited a new collection of place writing called Ground Work.  His introduction recalls an earlier version of the same idea, Ronald Blythe's Places (1981), which featured people like John Betjeman, Susan Hill, Alan Sillitoe and Jan Morris; it's mood was 'wistful and elegiac'.   few years later, Richard Mabey's Second Nature (1984), made for Common Ground, included big names like John Fowles, Fay Weldon and John Berger alongside art by Henry Moore, Richard Long, David Nash and others.  It too was predominantly backward looking.  Ground Work aims to look beyond the picturesque and pretty, at places that are not famous but mean something special to the authors.  However, this degree of attachment means that you will still encounter idylls of various kinds, though some have disappeared or have come under threat.  It is a little hard not to envy some of these writers their childhoods out in nature or the time they have to spend in agreeable places (the Bodleian Library, a wilderness retreat in Finland, an old garden in the Cevannes...)  There are authors who have been able to beautify a ninety-acre Sussex farm, buy a thirty-one foot sloop 'for a book project', or acquire a wood in order to restore it from neglect.  I have to say though that this last example, in an essay by Richard Mabey, was a highlight of the book: his reflections on the moral quandaries of landscape management are fascinating.


Richard Huws, Piazza Waterfall ('Tipping Buckets'), 1967
Photograph taken on my phone, earlier this week.

Given my interest in art, I particularly enjoyed 'Tipping Buckets', the contribution by poet and edgelends explorer Paul Farley, which finds different metaphors in a piece of urban sculpture.  The work in question can be found in a small square near the waterfront in Liverpool.  As I was in Liverpool on Monday I popped down to see it, but sadly there was no sign of life - the buckets were not even 'chugging away in their backwater', they were still and the 'piazza' was empty.  A lot of the writing in Ground Work focuses in on small sites like this - an allotment plot, a bridge, a back garden, a bird hide.  However, in order to justify mentioning the book on this blog I will end here by highlighting an essay that features both landscape and poetry.  'At the Edge of the Tide' is by Michael Viney, a journalist and nature writer originally from Brighton, where I grew up, but resident in Ireland since before I was born. It describes the beach by his home, 'an acre on the wilder coast of County Mayo'.

Viney has explored the strand in the company of two close friends, an ornithologist called David Cabot and the poet Michael Longley, who comes down from Belfast to 'immerse himself in the landscape'. Back in 1993 they even made a film together - sadly I can't find this online.  Over the years, watching birds and looking for rare plants, they have seen the place change - most recently in the interests of promoting tourism.  He quotes a poem by Michael Longley:
'Now that the Owennadornaun has disappeared
For you and me where our two townlands meet,
The peaty water takes the long way round
Through Morrison's fields and our imaginations.
The Owennadornaun was the little river whose ford near the bottom of the boreen was so rich in the spirit of place. A sill of rock made a shallow waterfall just above the crossing, with the sun above the mountain to catch each ripple and splash.  It was here I saw my first dipper, walking under water, and where, in summer, sand martins came to nest in holes in the bank.  There were pied and grey wagtails dancing at the edge and, once or twice, a sandpiper.
This has all gone. [...] A car park behind the strand, with a summer loo, was clearly essential to setting up the Wild Atlantic Way. It meant diversion of the little river and a road bridge built above its bed, this now remaining dry and quite birdless.' 

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Reading in the Wilderness

 Giovanni Bellini, detail from Saint Jerome Reading in the Wilderness, c. 1485
National Gallery. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I've not yet been to see the new Bellini-Mantegna exhibition although I see Jonathan Jones was unimpressed (this is not necessarily a bad sign, of course).  However, the Bellini exhibition I would really like to have seen took place in Los Angeles last year, and focused on his treatment of landscape. The Getty Museum's catalogue is excellent and highlighted for me how our understanding of this great artist is still changing as new facts emerge.  Here I want to focus on Bellini's paintings of Saint Jerome, which are the subject of a catalogue essay by Hans Belting.  Bellini depicts Jerome as if he is a humanist in a library rather than a penitent in the desert.  His paintings can thus be seen as versions of an ideal I have referred to many times on this blog: scholarly retreat to a secluded place, surrounded by nature. In the Uffizi version below, 'the saint's attentive look captures the scene's total silence, interrupted only by voices of birds and running water.'
 
Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, c. 1480
Galleria degli Uffizi. Source: Wikimedia Commons


What of the landscape behind Saint Jerome? Here is Belting's description:
'Alongside a river, a zone of barren land puts the fortification of a walled city into the farthest distance.  It is crossed by a long, winding path, which allows us to measure the journey to reach the solitary place.  A hind and a stag roam freely in this depopulated land, while humans appear only below the city walls. The river is flanked by settlements, the city or castello with a Venetian bell tower, and, on the other side, some sort of fortified monastery that resembles San Vitale in Ravenna. The topographical allusions have found various interpretations, since the cityscape is, in Felton Gibbons's words, "a curious potpourri of identifiable monuments".  Only the ruinous bridge over the river, connected to the city gates by wooden planks, seems to be a true portrayal of the old Roman bridge in Rimini as it looked in Bellini's time.  What matters is the realism of the Venetian settlements in the background and the contrasting view of solitary life in nature.'
 
Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome Reading in the Wilderness, c. 1485
National Gallery. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Here in London, the National Gallery has a very similar version of this composition (above), with the saint again intent on his book, but a different landscape behind him.  This painting was in the Getty Museum's exhibition, along with a later panel now in Washington (below), in which the saint sits by the entrance to a grotto.  A whole range of possible allusions have been found in its detailed landscape, which Bellini painted with the attention to detail we would associate with Flemish artists. As Susannah Rutherglen's catalogue essay points out, these are often contradictory...
  • A lizard is possibly a reference to the Garden of Eden's serpent or the concept of Resurrection, though in its darting motion it could equally be a metaphor for the saint's lively intellect.
  • A pair of rabbits facing each other could suggest either Christian meekness or sinful lust.
  • A squirrel may refer to intellectual pride or resistance to adversity.
  • A fig tree might symbolise temptation, but could also refer to the cross.
  • The water in a cistern could be associated with both 'demonic polymorphism and the rite of Baptism'    
  • And a bird of prey suggests either magnanimity or mystical contemplation, but also looms over the scene as a symbol of death.

Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome Reading in the Wilderness, 1505
National Gallery of Art, Washington. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Finally, there is an unusual altarpiece which Bellini painted as an old man. By this stage he had come under the influence of Giorgione (and outlived him).  Jerome is again shown reading, sitting on the trunk of a fig tree.  Belting quotes Roger Fry, writing in 1899, who found this 
'the strangest, most romantic enthronement ever conceived - an old hermit, who has grown by long years of secluded contemplation into mysterious sympathy with the rocks and plants and trees of his mountain solitude, sits in a scarlet robe, silhouetted against a golden sunset sky, across which faint purplish clouds are driven by the wind; and below him there spreads a vast expanse of valley and mountain ridges.  Bellini's intimate Wordsworthian feeling for the moods of wild nature finds here its remotest and sublimest expression.'
Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome with Saint Christopher and Saint Louis of Toulouse, 1513
Church of San Giovanni Crisostomo, Venice. Source: Wikimedia Commons