Saturday, July 25, 2020

Industry on the Riverside

Thomas Bewick, Industry on the Riverside, 1804
'The unframed scene casts landscape into a new kind of subject.  The view is not given an off-the-peg edge, independent of and indifferent to its contents.  It is given a bespoke edge that responds to and defines the character of the scene.'

Tom Lubbock makes this interesting observation in his essay 'Defining the vignette', written to accompany a 2009 exhibition Thomas Bewick: Tale-pieces and reprinted in his posthumous collection, English Graphic. You can see in the image below of a thirsty traveller how the vignette's edges are defined by branches, leaves and tufts of grass. Lubbock saw this as 'place-portraiture', with Bewick isolating a site's distinctive features, 'those elements by which you would know it again'.
Thomas Bewick, Tail-piece - apparently of Thomas Bewick himself
as a thirsty traveller drinking from his hat, 1797

In his essay Lubbock includes a vignette of a hunter in the snow and then, underneath, the same image with a rectangular frame added.  Without the frame, the snow's whiteness feels stronger, drawing into itself the whiteness of the surrounding page. Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner had previously described the way light in Bewick's landscapes 'changes imperceptibly into the paper of the book, and realises, in small, the Romantic blurring of art and reality.'  Unfortunately I cannot convey the effect here because the background of the JPEG is a different white to the computer screen and thus creates its own frame.  

Thomas Bewick, Hunter in the Snow, 1804

When Bewick drew something like the sea, he had no clear border to give the vignette its outline and so his lines seem to fade and blur at the edge of the image.  Bewick's soft and hard edges draw attention to the ontology of perception, the distinction between things that can be delineated, like a tree, and things that cannot, like the sky.  Sometimes the sky is given shading, as in the view of sea-cliffs below, and sometimes it is left blank, to give a feeling of clear open air.  
Thomas Bewick, Bird's Eggs from Sea-Cliffs, 1804

Lubbock concludes his essay by drawing attention to the way vignettes differ from traditional window-like landscape views.  Their figures cannot pass out of view, they are rooted in their scenes. You cannot imagine the man below ever coming to the end of his piss and walking away - if he did, he would 'start to dematerialise or break up'.  (NB: this pissing figure is my example - Lubbock has a much more idyllic scene of a man on a grassy bank looking up at the sky!)  Bewick's vignettes remind us how the world shrinks to what we are conscious of at a particular moment. 'They communicate what it's like to be in the middle of something, to feel things in the now, to be entirely absorbed in your sensations.'

Thomas Bewick, That Pisseth Against a Wall, 1804
All images from Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Garden of Eusebius

Eusebius: 'Now that the whole countryside is fresh and smiling, I marvel at people who take pleasure in smoky cities.'
Timothy: 'Some people don’t enjoy the sight of flowers or verdant meadows or fountains or streams; or if they do, something else pleases them more. Thus pleasure succeeds pleasure, as nail drives out nail.'

This exchange can be found in The Godly Feast, one of the Colloquies written by Erasmus (first published in 1518 and then added to over the years; the Craig R. Thompson translation is available at the Catena Archive). Erasmus has Eusebius argue that "nature is not silent but speaks to us everywhere and teaches the observant man many things if she finds him attentive and receptive."  To prove his point he suggests a visit to his "little country place near town, a modest but well-cultivated place, to which I invite you for lunch tomorrow."  Timothy is worried he and his friends will be putting Eusebius out, but Eusebius reassures him: "you’ll have a wholly green feast made, as Horace says, 'from food not bought.'"

When they meet at this villa, Eusebius shows Timothy his statue of Jesus at the entrance to the garden: "I’ve placed him here, instead of the filthy Priapus as protector not only of my garden but of everything I own; in short, of body and soul alike." Eusebius stresses the utility and lack of luxury in his garden. What appears to be marble is merely painted concrete - ''we make up for lack of wealth by ingenuity".  There is a lesson for life in this: appearances can be deceptive, he warns Timothy.  A delightful stream is not all it seems either.  It is used to drain kitchen waste to the sewer, like Sacred Scripture cleansing the soul.  Elsewhere there are herbs for cooking and medicine, exotic trees, an aviary, orchards and bee hives.

In addition to the garden itself, Eusebius has had frescoes painted showing views of nature. This second, painted world even extends beneath their feet: "the very ground is green, for the paving stones are beautifully colored and gladden one with painted flowers".  He explains to Timothy that:
"One garden wasn’t enough to hold all kinds of plants. Moreover, we are twice pleased when we see a painted flower competing with a real one. In one we admire the cleverness of Nature, in the other the inventiveness of the painter; in each the goodness of God, who gives all these things for our use and is equally wonderful and kind in everything. Finally, a garden isn’t always green nor flowers always blooming. This garden grows and pleases even in midwinter."
Eusebius is proud of his garden but he is just as keen to mention his library, globe and paintings.  I like the fact that place names have been added to his religious paintings, "to enable the spectator to learn by which water or on which mountain the event took place".  It is clearly the ideal of a Renaissance scholar, and the garden is a highly artificial landscape.  Indeed, John Dixon Hunt has pointed out that it is 'substantially architectural: walled, with galleries and pillars, it may be seen as much as a city as a garden.'

Sunday, July 05, 2020

A Room with a View

"I wanted so to see the Arno..."   

Disappointed Lucy Honeychurch gets her wish when Mr Emerson and his son George kindly offer to swap rooms ("women like looking at a view; men don't").  The next morning she wakes and leans from the window, 'out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and close below, the Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.'  Forster spends a paragraph describing the scene below - river men, children, soldiers, a tram temporarily unable to proceed.  'Over such trivialities as these many a valuable hour may slip away, and the traveller who has gone to Italy to study the tactile values of Giotto, or corruption of the Papacy, may return remembering nothing but the blue sky and the men and women who live under it.'  Eventually, over the course of the novel, Lucy chooses life over culture, George over the aesthete Cecil (memorably played by Daniel Day Lewis in the film), and A Room with a View ends with the newlyweds in Florence again, looking out over the Arno from the same window.

It is landscape - the desire for a good view - that leads to the novel's decisive moment, placing Lucy in the situation where George is compelled to kiss her.  Along with the other English travellers in Florence, they are invited by the chaplain, Mr Eager, to make an excursion into the hills.
"We might go up by Fiesole and back by Settignano. There is a point on that road where we could get down and have an hour’s ramble on the hillside. The view thence of Florence is most beautiful—far better than the hackneyed view of Fiesole. It is the view that Alessio Baldovinetti is fond of introducing into his pictures. That man had a decided feeling for landscape. Decidedly. But who looks at it to-day? Ah, the world is too much for us.” 
 Alesso Baldovinetti, Nativity (detail), between 1460 and 1462

And so they set off on the excursion and stop on the hillside with its view of the Val d'Arno. The group separate and Lucy finds herself at a place where 'the view was forming at last; she could discern the river, the golden plain, other hills.'  But then she slips and finds herself on a terrace covered with violets.
From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.
Here, unexpectedly, she encounters George who sees 'the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves'.  He steps forward and kisses her.

In the Merchant Ivory film there are no violets - presumably they couldn't find any on location. Instead there is long grass and poppies and a rather overwhelming Puccini aria sung by Kiri Te Kanawa. The second kiss, which again takes Lucy by surprise, takes place after a tennis match some months later, when they are back in England. As she observes George playing in the fading sunshine, she imagines the landscape of Italy overlaying the familiar surroundings of Surrey.
Ah, how beautiful the Weald looked! The hills stood out above its radiance, as Fiesole stands above the Tuscan Plain, and the South Downs, if one chose, were the mountains of Carrara. She might be forgetting her Italy, but she was noticing more things in her England. One could play a new game with the view, and try to find in its innumerable folds some town or village that would do for Florence. Ah, how beautiful the Weald looked!
Everything in Forster is tinged with irony (see my earlier post on Howards' End) and of course these lines are there to show how Lucy is unaware of her own feelings, for George and the place he first kissed her.  But having grown up on the edge of the South Downs, I would love to believe that they are capable of becoming the hills of Tuscany.