Sunday, March 01, 2015

When I behold a stream...

 The river at Pyrford Place,
where John Donne lived at the start of the 17th century

John Donne's sixth Elegy contains a remarkable landscape metaphor in which his inconstant lover is compared to a river that makes for itself a new course.
When I behold a stream, which from the spring
Doth with doubtful melodious murmuring,
Or in a speechless slumber, calmly ride
Her wedded channel's bosom, and there chide,
And bend her brows, and swell, if any bough
Do but stoop down to kiss her upmost brow;
Yet, if her often gnawing kisses win
The traitorous banks to gape, and let her in,
She rusheth violently, and doth divorce
Her from her native and her long-kept course,
And roars, and braves it, and in gallant scorn,
In flattering eddies promising return,
She flouts her channel, which thenceforth is dry;
Then say I; "That is she, and this am I."
There is another reference to erosion in Donne's most famous prose passage.  'No man is an island entire of itself,' he wrote in Meditation XVII.  'Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were.'  It is tempting now to misread these words in ecological terms, as temperatures rise and our coasts retreat.  We are all diminished by this process, even if we live far from the sea.  'Any man's death diminishes me,' Donne continued, 'because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.'

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The evergreen forest seethes and roars

There are still a couple of weeks to see From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia, an exhibition I have already referred to here.  It was her paintings of trees that most impressed me and their qualities are well described in Laura Cumming's review:
'Carr paints young pine trees aspiring tall but fragile in the silvery light of dawn, the air scintillating around them like St Elmo’s fire. She paints clearings in the forest where the sunlight is tinged with the deep green of the trees, which spread across the canvas like an all-over Jackson Pollock. An astonishing painting of windswept trees shows the painter’s arm moving round the scene like the wind itself, the forest branches shivering and roaring, the air made visible in a sort of spectral transparence that appears to lie both in and on top of the painting.  As the painter Peter Doig remarks in the catalogue, you don’t just see Carr’s trees, you hear them too.'
This auditory quality is evident in Emily Carr's prose description of the Canadian forest in The Book of Small (1942):
'The silence of our Western forests was so profound that our ears could scarcely comprehend it. If you spoke your voice came back to you as your face is thrown back to you in a mirror. It seemed as if the forest were so full of silence that there was no room for sounds. The birds who lived there were birds of prey -- eagles, hawks, owls. Had a song bird loosed his throat the others would have pounced. Sober-coloured, silent little birds were the first to follow settlers into the West. Gulls there had always been; they began with the sea and had always cried over it. The vast sky spaces above, hungry for noise, steadily lapped up their cries. The forest was different --she brooded over silence and secrecy.'
The Canadian composer and acoustic ecologist  R. Murray Schafer quotes this passage in his book The Natural Soundscape.  Every type of forest, he suggests, produces its own keynote. 
'Evergreen forest, in its mature phase, produces darkly vaulted aisles, through which sound reverberates with unusual clarity – a circumstance which, according to Oswald Spengler, drove the northern Europeans to try to duplicate the reverberation in the construction of Gothic cathedrals. When the wind blows in the forests of British Columbia, there is nothing of the rattling and rustling familiar with deciduous forests; rather there is a low, breathy whistle. In a strong wind the evergreen forest seethes and roars, for the needles twist and turn in turbine motion.  The lack of undergrowth or openings into clearings kept the British Columbia forests unusually free of animal, bird and insect life, a circumstance which produced an awesome, even sinister impression on the first white settlers. ... The uneasiness of the early settlers with the forest, and their desire for space and sunlight, soon produced another keynote sound: the noise of lumbering.'
Emily Carr, The Remains of a Forest, 1939
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Louvre of the Pebble

We were at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge last weekend to see Beauty and Revolution: The Poetry and Art of Ian Hamilton Finlay.  You can read a review of this in the FT and I also recommend a post on Ken Worpole's excellent blog which concludes that Finlay’s great and original achievement was 'the re-inscription of the landscape.'  The exhibition has its origins in the early sixties when the future art historian and promoter of concrete poetry Stephen Bann got to know both Finlay and the owner of Kettle's Yard, Jim Ede.  His catalogue essay makes it all sound rather wonderful...
'I am not able to pinpoint exactly the period when I began to wend my way not infrequently from my room in King's College, University of Cambridge, across the Backs to Kettle's Yard, and to spend the late afternoon drinking tea from Jim's silver bullet teapot.  Certainly by the summer of 1963, this pleasant habit was well entrenched.  Jim wrote to me from Derbyshire to congratulate me on my success in part two of the History Tripos exam, and then surprised me by giving me a small self-portrait by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915) as a twenty-first birthday present.  It was in August of the following year that I made the journey up to Edinburgh to meet Ian Hamilton Finlay...'
Bann traces the subsequent connections between Finlay and Ede: Finlay was interested in Kettle's Yard despite being unable to visit it in person, Ede corresponded with him and went up to visit Stonypath, the garden Finlay began to develop in the late sixties.  Their mutual admiration seems to have been tempered with some aesthetic differences.  In 1972 Bann offered a Finlay piece that he owned to Kettle's Yard but it was politely declined.  He thinks Finlay's use of text may have been a barrier for Ede, although looking round the house I was reminded that it includes a text piece by another artist-poet, David Jones.  Ede rather tactlessly filled one of Finlay's bowls with pebbles, obscuring the inscription, and a few years later Finlay wrote one of his detached sentences: 'Kettle's Yard, in Cambridge, England, is the Louvre of the PEBBLE'.  This was later inscribed onto a flat pebble and acquired for Kettle's Yard, where it can has been placed artfully on a table the colour of driftwood, an ambiguous compliment to a collection Bann believes Finlay always did admire.

Ian Hamilton Finlay and Ron Costley, schiff, 1975
Max Planck institute, Stuttgart

That bowl obscured by pebbles was a version of schiff, in which the German word for ship is reflected to suggest the presence of water. The lettering was designed by Ron Costley, one of Finlay's long-time collaborators, who sadly died earlier this month.  His work in the exhibition includes Prinz Eugen, a print of a ship that is also a tribute to the concrete poet Eugen Gomringer, Sheaves, which I referred to in a post here six years ago, and Spiral Binding, in which a sketchbook is converted into a yacht with such simplicity that it is tempting to try to make a version oneself.  Costley was one of the many designers and makers who helped Finlay develop his garden - the exhibition includes a poetic early film Stonypath Days, showing the garden as it was in 1973 (although the sound was turned so low it was impossible to hear Stephen Bann's occasional comments on the soundtrack).   It would be fascinating to write a book about the independent artistic lives of all Finlay's collaborators, ranging from Patrick Caulfield, subject of a major exhibition at the Tate last year, to my friend Colin's father, who helped Finlay print his poems in the late sixties. 

On returning from Cambridge I read an interesting essay on Ian Hamilton Finlay by Marjorie Perloff, published online in the latest edition of the Battersea Review.  Her discussion of 'Finlayan Translation' refers to several texts that can be read as minimal landscape poems, such as 'Kennst Du', a version of Goethe that I think was in the Kettle's Yard exhibition (it is not listed in the catalogue so I may be misremembering). 'Kennst du daß Land?' (1795), 'notoriously difficult to translate', expresses a longing for the South with its lemons and oranges, where 'a soft wind blows in the blue sky, / The myrtle silent and the laurel high'.  Finlay's 'translation' is a seascape as desirable as Goethe’s Mediterranean landscape, with lemon-shaped fishing boats, orange nets, a salt wind and a fountain of spray.  Goethe ends his poem with the lover's desire to fly south, whereas Finlay asks 'Beloved did you know this sea? / Did you know it well?'  This seems to Perloff more appropriate for Finlay’s late twentieth-century Scotland, 'a cooler, less idealistic form of longing.'

Friday, February 13, 2015

Of Walking in Ice

A few days before Bruce Chatwin's death in January 1989 he asked Werner Herzog to visit him.  They shared a belief in the restorative powers of walking and Chatwin was convinced that Herzog had healing powers.  Too weak now to rise from his bed, Chatwin nevertheless longed to be out on the road again.  Herzog's account of their conversation appears in Nicholas Shakespeare's biography Bruce Chatwin (1999).  'He looked down at himself and he saw the legs were only spindles and he looked at me in this very lucid moment and he said: "I'm never going to walk again." He said: "Werner, I'm dying." And I said, "Yes I am aware of that." and then he said: "You must carry my rucksack, you are the one who must carry it."  And I said: "Yes, I will proudly do that."'

In 1978 Herzog had published a short book, Vom Gehen im Eis (Of Walking in Ice) that had particularly impressed Chatwin.  'At the end of November 1974', Herzog wrote in its preface, 'a friend from Paris called and told me that Lotte Eisner was seriously ill and would probably die.  I said that this must not be, not at this time, German cinema could not do without her now, we would not permit her death.  I took my jacket, a compass and a duffel bag with the necessities.  My boots were so solid and new that I had confidence in them.  I set off on the most direct route to Paris, in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot.'  Herzog set off from Munich and arrived twenty days later, exhausted, to sit by her bedside.  Lotte Eisner made a recovery and lived on until 1983. 

I have created a map that tries to give a visual impression of this elemental journey, through snow and ice (white), rain and water (blue), mist and fog (grey) and the occasional burst of sunshine (yellow).  You can click on each square for a short quote from the book and imagine them read in Herzog's familiar voice: 'The snow lies wet on the fields, darkness comes, all lies barren...'  The black circles record the places he found to sleep: a barn, a stable, a few inns, abandoned buildings and empty holiday homes.  It would of course be possible to derive many alternative maps from the text, marking, for example, moments of physical pain and exhaustion, or fleeting, strange encounters with Herzogian characters, or those points in the narrative where the account of his walk dissolves into descriptions of dreams.

'A rainbow before me all at once fills me with the greatest confidence.  What a sign it is, over and in front of him who walks.  Everyone should walk.'
- Werner Herzog, Thursday 5th December, 1974

Monday, February 09, 2015

Picturing Sheffield

When I first started coming regularly to Sheffield in the late nineties it was to work in a building described in Owen Hatherley's The New Ruins of Great Britain (2010) as a 'thrillingly paranoid Cold War megastructure.'  In those days I still carried around strong memories of the traumatic TV drama Threads (1984) in which Sheffield is devastated and plunged into a nuclear winter, a conclusion to the Cold War that seemed a very real possibility then.  The local Town Hall officials in Threads, people like my work colleagues, end up buried alive.  Such extreme fears for the future have come to seem unreal, an old bad dream that is becoming hard to recollect.  Our office moved some time ago to a fresh site at St Paul's Place, built over what had been the New Town Hall extension.  This structure -'the Egg Box', as it was not very affectionately know - had been erected in 1977 with concrete designed to last five hundred years, but only lasted until 2002.  I didn't witness its demolition... but then I had already seen it in ruins, blown apart by the bomb blast in Threads.

Jonathan Wilkinson, The Egg Box, 2007
© the artist

Jonathan Wilkinson's print The Egg Box records the design of this lost building, simplified and extracted from its surroundings and the people who used to work there.  It can be seen on display in the Millenium Gallery, another new building by the Town Hall in the 'Heart of the City' redevelopment. The current exhibition, Picturing Sheffield, includes many such reminders of the city's vanishing architecture.  Next to a painting and photograph of the Kelvin Flats - streets in the sky built in 1967 - there is a case containing artifacts retrieved before the building was pulled down, displayed like archaeological finds: keys, newspaper clippings, an old sign. Castle Market, subject of another Wilkinson print, as well as a painting called Elvis at Castle Fish Market, was still open but under threat when The New Ruins of Britain came out. 'The recession has given it a stay of execution likely to last a couple of years.  Get there while you can: nothing like it will be built again.'  It was demolished in 2013.

Henry Rushbury, Snig Hill from Angel Street, 1941
© the artist's estate

Sheffield always seems to be in a state of flux.  William Boden's watercolour snapshots painted in 1903 record views that no longer exist: Gilbert Street - 'these houses and this passage way have been demolished'; steps leading to Arundel Lane - 'this area has since been redeveloped and looks markedly different'; the Sheffield Canal Basin - now 'converted into luxury flats looking out over the water.'  Even as he worked Boden knew the city was ever-changing; painting the Pheasant Inn Yard he noted that it was about to be demolished.  The Sheffield Blitz, just two nights of bombing in December 1940, left 78,000 houses damaged.  Henry Rushbury's Angel Street from Snig Hill, Sheffield shows its aftermath, a scene of smouldering rubble hosed down by a group of soldiers. Derrick Greaves' painting of the city is a composite portrait in industrial greys and austerity browns, executed at a time when the war damaged areas were being cleared for the new housing and offices that have now been removed and replaced again.

Derrick Greaves, Sheffield, 1953
© Derrick Greaves, courtesy James Hyman Gallery, London

This sense of constantly forging a new urban environment resonates with the image of a steel industry which began here in the eighteenth century, at around the same time as the first images of the city.  However, alongside work with titles like Men Seated Around a Fire in a Grinding Shop and Rebuilding a Blast Furnace the exhibition includes several paintings where traces of industry are hard to discern.  In early views Sheffield is still relatively small - in Turner's watercolour it could almost be a rural village, dominated by its church.  In the nineteenth century it could still be painted as a rural idyll with green pastures flanking the river Don and cattle drinking from a pool at Hillsborough. But as the city grew it seems to have been harder to find vistas and scenes that would appeal to prevailing tastes.  Bill Brandt's photograph Misty Evening in Sheffield is no more than an abstract detail, and its 'mist' is probably industrial fog. 

J.M.W. Turner, View of Sheffield from Derbyshire Lane, 1797
© Guild of St George & Museums Sheffield

Is Sheffield Ugly? asked Harold Coop in his 1926 painting. Owen Hatherley argues that post-war architecture here made great use 'of the thing that makes Sheffield truly special - its landscape.  Practically any view here provides you with a photogenic picture of either a cityscape or the Peak District.'  Looking around this exhibition on my most recent trip to Sheffield I got a real sense of this - it would be hard for this city, framed by its green hills, to be 'ugly', even though Hatherley finds little to admire in its newer buildings.  Back across the square from the Gallery, I looked out from our office over the city at the patterns of buildings stretching away beyond the Town Hall.  On the distant high ground beyond, patches of snow shone in the afternoon sun.

Friday, January 30, 2015


Emily Carr, Kitwancool, 1928

'Emily Who? Outside Canada, no one’s ever heard of Emily Carr, the iconic landscape painter whose remarkable career spanned the first half of the 20th century.'  This is the Telegraph's Richard Dorment introducing the Dulwich Picture Gallery's current exhibition, 'From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia'.  If, as he and other reviewers have pointed out, her paintings are underappreciated here in Britain, her award-winning memoir Klee Wyck (1941) may be even less well known.  This book brought Carr belated public attention at the end of her life and helped shape the image of her for Canadians: 'the intrepid pioneer woman who fearlessly travelled into the wilderness, lived among the native people, recorded their lives and, more to the point, portrayed the spirit of the land they inhabit.' (Karen Wright).  Its text is freely available at Project Gutenburg and I am including below an extended quotation from Chapter 13 which shows how prose allowed Carr to capture the sounds and smells of the landscapes she went out to sketch.    
'Jimmie, a Haida Indian, had a good boat, and he agreed to take me to Cha-atl, so he and his wife Louisa, Maria and I all started off in the boat. I took my sheep dog and Louisa took her cat.

We made a short stop at a little island where there were a few totem poles and a great smell because of all the dogfish thrown up on the beach and putrefying in the sun. Then we went on till we got to the long narrow Skidegate Inlet.

The tips of the fresh young pines made circles of pale green from the wide base of each tree to the top. They looked like multitudes of little ladies in crinolines trooping down the bank.

The day was hot and still. Eagles circled in the sky and porpoises followed us up the Inlet till we came to the shallows; they leaped up and down in the water making a great commotion on both sides of our boat. Their blunt noses came right out of the water and their tails splashed furiously. It was exciting to watch them.

It took Jimmie all his time in the shallows to keep us in the channel. Louisa was at the wheel while he lay face down on the edge of the boat peering into the water and making signals to Louisa with his arms.

In the late afternoon, Jimmie shut off his engine and said, "Listen."

Then we heard a terrific pounding and roaring. It was the surf-beat on the west coast of Queen Charlotte Islands. Every minute it got louder as we came nearer to the mouth of the Inlet. It was as if you were coming into the jaws of something too big and awful even to have a name. It never quite got us, because we turned into Cha-atl, just before we came to the corner, so we did not see the awfulness of the roaring ocean. Seamen say this is one of the worst waters in the world and one of the most wicked coasts.

Cha-atl had been abandoned a great many years. The one house standing was quite uninhabitable. Trees had pushed the roof off and burst the sides. Under the hot sun the lush growth smelt rank.

Jimmie lowered the canoe and put Billy, the dog, and me ashore. He left the gas boat anchored far out. When he had put me on the beach, he went back to get Louisa and Maria and the things. While I stood there that awful boom, boom, seemed to drown out every other thing. It made even the forest seem weak and shivery. Perhaps if you could have seen the breakers and had not had the whole weight of the noise left entirely to your ears it would not have seemed so stunning. When the others came ashore the noise seemed more bearable.

There were many fine totem poles in Cha-atl - Haida poles, tragic and fierce. The wood of them was bleached out, but looked green from the mosses which grew in the chinks, and the tufts of grass on the heads of the figures stuck up like coarse hair. The human faces carved on the totem poles were stern and grim, the animal faces fierce and strong; supernatural things were pictured on the poles too. Everything about Cha-atl was so vast and deep you shrivelled up.

When it was too dark to work I came back to the others. They were gathered round a fire on the beach. We did not talk while we ate; you had to shout to be heard above the surf. The smell of the ocean was very strong.'
The 1941 edition

Friday, January 23, 2015

From pastoral ruin to pastoral ruin

The amphitheatre, Caerleon, August 2014

In Wales last summer we visited the remains of Caerleon, the City of the Legions.  Charlotte Higgins stopped there too in her journey round Roman Britain, Under Another Sky, and describes it in a wonderful chapter on 'Wales and the West' that she structures around the life of archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler.  His illustrious career began at Wroxeter, working in the summers before the First World War on the old Roman town of Uriconium.  Wilfred Owen, who wrote 'Uriconium: An Ode' in 1913, was fascinated by these ruins and probably saw Wheeler digging there.  Higgins wonders if the poet might have done something related to archaeology himself if he had survived the war.  Owen missed out on UCL where he would have been an undergraduate contemporary of Tessa Verney, who married Wheeler in 1912 and became a prominent archaeologist in her own right.  It was she who led the excavation of the impressive amphitheatre at Caerleon.  Ten years later, in 1936, the Wheelers were at Maiden Castle (which is where, years ago, I took the photograph of a line in the grass that I has served as a background for this blog).  Mortimer Wheeler left temporarily for a trip to the Levant and on his way back, flicking through a paper in Paris, came upon his wife's obituary.  The shock of her sudden death is described out of sequence in Wheeler's memoirs, alongside an account of his traumatic experiences at Passchendaele.  Of the five student archaeologists at Uriconium, Wheeler had been the only one to make it home from the war.  Back at Maiden Castle he resumed work and uncovered a collection of graves.  It seemed to him that he had found an ancient war cemetery.  Surely, he wrote, 'no poor relic in the soil of Britain was ever more eloquent of high tragedy.'

This chapter of Under Another Sky traces other connections between war and poetry and ruins: through A. E. Housman for example, Wheeler's classics tutor at UCL, whose book A Shropshire Lad was popular with soldiers in the trenches.  In his poem 'On Wenlock Edge' the wind blows over the land, indifferent to history, while the Romans who once stood there 'are ashes under Uricon.'  The Romans themselves saw that time would eventually leave nothing behind but shattered walls.  Charlotte Higgins quotes Book 8 of The Aeneid in which Aeneas and his companions, survivors of the Trojan War, encounter a king who shows them the ruins of ancient buildings and the wooded hills on which Rome will one day rise.  In these lines, 'Virgil is giving the topography of Augustan Rome a numinous aetiology, suffusing its everyday modernity with the mythical.'  The king leads Aeneas through what will be, in Virgil's time, the centre of the city. ''Everywhere they saw herds of cattle lowing in the Roman forum and the smart Carinae'. Virgil lets time collapse here, such that for a moment his contemporary readers would have been given the head-spinning image of cattle roaming the streets of their own busy city - a kind of double exposure, past and present in the same frame.  Reading these lines in the twenty-first century, there is a different frisson again: the oleander- and cypress-fringed Forum of our day is once more empty but for tourists and old stones ... Time has come full circle: from pastoral ruin to pastoral ruin.'

The Forum, Rome, April 2014