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  • 05/26/14--07:03: Coniston Water

  • During our trip to the Lake District last week we stayed in Coniston and went to visit Ruskin's old home at Brantwood (above).  There was much of interest there, although Mrs Plinius expressed some disappointment that the decor, objects and furniture were not more beautiful.  Ruskin, it seems, cared little for interior decoration.  In the 1883 Preface to Modern Painters he wrote that he had often been asked 'by the æsthetic cliques of London' (maybe that's people like us) why
    'in the pictures they have seen of my home, there is no attempt whatever to secure harmonies of colour, or form, in furniture. My answer is, that I am entirely independent for daily happiness upon the sensual qualities of form or colour; that, when I want them, I take them either from the sky or the fields, not from my walls, which might be either whitewashed, or painted like a harlequin’s jacket, for aught I care; but that the slightest incident which interrupts the harmony of feeling and association in a landscape, destroys it all to me, poisoning the entire faculty of contemplation. From my dining-room, I am happy in the view of the lower reach of Coniston Water, not because it is particularly beautiful, but because it is entirely pastoral and pure. Were a single point of chimney of the Barrow iron-works to show itself over the green ridge of the hill, I should never care to look at it more.'
    Happily, as you can see in the photograph I took below from The Coniston Steam Yacht Gondola, the view from Brantwood is still 'pastoral and pure'.  There was even a cow posing obligingly for me at the edge of the lake.


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    Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Calm, 1650-1
    Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Alain de Botton's recent ideas for making art more popular have not gone down well with the critics: 'pointless''smarmy and banal', 'merely stupid or simply patronising'.  Perhaps an alternative to trying to engage with 'Art as Therapy', would be for more people to take a lead from T. J. Clark's unpromisingly-titled but highly rewarding book The Sight of Death.  The idea behind it was a simple one: to return repeatedly to an art museum (the Getty) and look at the two Poussin paintings I've reproduced here, engaging with them as paintings and writing down each day's discoveries.  Clark deliberately did not research them in advance, he just looked at them closely, in a way that any of us could.  The result, as writer/psychotherapist Adam Philips wrote in his 2006 review, is more than just a detailed account of these landscapes, it is a book 'about what having a good look might mean at a time when most contemporary imagery, by showing us everything, doesn't want us to see too much'. 

    Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, 1648
    Source: Wikimedia Commons

    When you attend closely to a painting you start to appreciate all the choices the artist made - in Poussin, for example, there are his tiny details, like the two figures talking on the brow of the hill in Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake.  This part of the painting is discussed in The Sight of Death (in the entry for 13 April 2000) and I will quote a few sentences to exemplify the way Clark writes about it.  Here he is thinking about the extent to which Poussin's details relate to the painting's overall structure:
    'Right in the middle of the crisscross of greenery here Poussin suddenly interjects a partial opening into the sky, and not content with the offer of a roofline and white light that this enables, he puts a marvelous tiny square of white into the architecture, as if finally we are looking at the sky through an empty (ruined?) window.  Or maybe somehow a pane of glass is glinting in the sun.  The blip of white connects with one or two others close by, picking out the sky higher up in the foliage.  But the window is essentially gratuitious - profoundly unnecessary, un-structural.  It is pure delight.'

    Clark's final entry in November 2003 is rather dispiriting.  Snake had been returned from the Getty, where it was on loan, to the National Gallery.  There he encountered it hung right near the exit, in the Yves Saint Laurent Room, under 'lighting apparently borrowed from an indoor swimming pool in Tooting Bec'.  He describes sitting, 'miserable and stupefied for an hour or so, listening to the songs played by the cell phones', along with the 'mild hysteria of twelve-year-olds' and their shushing teachers in the assembly area for school visits next door.  He estimates that thirty-plus people a minute stream past Poussin's painting, 'one or two of whom give it a passing glance.'  But, then, he reflects, this painting has suffered many indignities over the centuries, from the darkening effect of smoke to the pressure of a restorer's iron.  He ends on note of optimism: 'one of these days Snake will go on its travels again - back to Room 20 would be a start - daylight will catch it, and new viewers stop at the sight of death.'

    Although not a new viewer, I did go and have a long look at Snake on a rainy Bank Holiday afternoon this week, to see what new things I could see in it.  I am happy to report that it is no longer in the Yves Saint Laurent room -  that unfortunate spot now seems to be taken by Claude's Landscape with Cephalus and Procris reunited by Diana.  Instead it can be found in Room 19, surrounded by other Poussins and directly opposite the extremely sexy Nymph with Satyrs.  Of course I was not able to sit contemplating it undisturbed, but it was possible to ignore the groups of teenagers wondering through the room chatting.  At one point an insistent ring tone was finally answered by a woman standing right in front of Snake, but she was ushered away fairly quickly by an attendant.  The National Gallery may not be as tranquil as the Getty, but I still spent a satisfying half hour in the company of Snake.

    The longer I looked the more I found to think about, and despite having read T. J. Clark's 260 pages I came away convinced I had seen one or two things he doesn't mention (for instance, that the postures of the three fishermen seem to rhyme with the running man, the washerwoman and her bag).  Perhaps those visitors walking past me and ignoring all this would have been detained by a philosophical or therapeutic post-it note, like those Alain De Botton has had placed around the Rijksmuseum, although I like to think they really just needed persuading to stop for a while and look.  As Anita Brookner points out in her review of The Sight of Death, Poussin himself is usually seen as a ‘peintre-philosophe’, but Clark shows us how he was also a pure maker.  What the book demonstrates 'is that the best antidote to reading is looking.' This, she concludes, 'is the way to see pictures.'

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  • 06/06/14--01:41: Ea




  • We were at St Luke's on Sunday, the converted church near the Barbican which we last visited to hear Terje Isungset play his ice instruments.  This time we had come to see Richard Skelton and the Elysian Quartet perform music they devised together at Aldeburgh earlier this year.  I have described Richard's landscape-inspired music here several times before; live performance with a classical string quartet is a new departure for him.  The Elysian Quartet have a pretty cool CV, having performed Stockhausen's Helicopter Quartet and worked with people like Meredith Monk, Simon Fisher Turner and Damo Suzuki.  What I have included below are the programme notes describing the three sections of the St Luke's concert, along with a few brief reflections on what we heard.

    EA performed by Richard Skelton and the Elysian Quartet: Rivers have occupied much of Richard’s recorded work, including the fledgeling moorland streams of ‘Landings’, the narrow, quick Cumbrian rills and becks of ‘Limnology’, and the tidal-bore of ‘From Which the River Rises’. ‘EA’ continues this fascination with a study of Suffolk’s river Alde as it slows and widens past Snape on the final, estuarine portion of its journey to the sea. It is perhaps his most delicate and lyrical invocation of a waterway. The word ‘ea’ itself is Anglo-Saxon for ‘river’.
    Everyone I talked to afterwards found this slow, meditative piece particularly moving.  The string quartet, with Richard sitting beside them bowing an adapted bouzouki, gradually brought the music to an emotional pitch and gently let it fall again, before taking its themes up once more and finally bringing everything quietly to a close.  The riverine wash of the strings was punctuated by some insistent sounds like the cries of birds that at first I assumed were on a loop, until I realised everything was being produced by the five acoustic instruments.  As the references to his earlier work above suggest, Ea felt close in sound and feel to the music in Landings and other more recent releases.  The next piece was very different.
    Above / Below performed by the Elysian Quartet: During his residency at Snape last December, Richard spent much of his time wandering along the Alde and through the nearby marshland towards Iken. Over the ensuing winter he began writing a textual score based on the names of birds and plants he observed in-situ, found referenced in public information signage, or discovered during later research by consulting books such as W.M. Hind’s The Flora of Suffolk . The Elysian Quartet selected eight species from the score and began working with Richard to develop a musical vocabulary that engages with them, hinting at the diversity of plant and avian life in Snape and its surroundings. The result is a series of miniatures, shifting focus from one species to another, from the earth-bound and air-borne – a sensitively observed journey through a specific environment. The species they chose were: common sorrel, curlew, heron, nettle, oystercatcher, redshank, yarrow and yellow flag. 

    For Above / Below Richard left the stage and looked on as the quartet interpreted his score, beginning with an irregular patter of notes from one of the violins that sounded like rain but was, I think, an interpretation of the motion of an oystercatcher.  As the music progressed it was clear they were avoiding anything too obvious like the simple imitation of bird calls or other natural sounds.  Instead the four instruments, plucked and bowed, sometimes alone and sometimes in concert, were channelling elements of the Suffolk landscape in more subtle ways.  There is no recording available to listen again and try to identify any species, so the music will become a memory, like the recollections of impressions of a walk by the reed beds of the Alde.
    Mimesis performed by Richard Skelton and the Elysian Quartet: ‘Mimesis’ is informed by Richard’s experience of the intense tidal surges of early December 2013, during which Snape Maltings itself was nearly inundated. Intimations of this flood-violence are found in the following public information sign along the marshland boardwalk: ‘The River Fights Back: In places along the banks of the river Alde, land was once claimed from the river to create farmland. Defences were built to protect this claimed land. Over the centuries the river has broken through again. The remnants of the defences are still visible, stretching out into the estuary.’During his stay in December, Richard produced a collection of charcoal drawings, the majority of which seemed to describe the same river-like form undergoing a series of contortions. The ensemble have used these images as a kind of graphic score, producing a new work which evokes a river undergoing violent transformation.
    Richard returned to the stage for this final piece.  By now the light outside was fading but still strong enough to illuminate the natural backdrop of leaves, visible through the large church windows behind the musicians and stirring softly in the wind.  Mimesis started softly too, but grew louder and more turbulent, becoming a roiling torrent that had the kind of surging force that reminded me of seeing Godspeed back in the day.  Richard's bow took some punishment and towards the end there were fine broken hairs curling from it, illuminated in the stage lights like electrical filaments or the spiralling seed heads of rose bay willow herb.  It was over all too soon: the music drained away, the musicians left the stage and we all remained in silence for a minute, until the lights came on and it was time to make our way out through the darkening churchyard.


    Postscript: After the concert it was good to meet Hannah Devereux, whose ink drawings feature in the second edition of Lintel, an art journal published by the Corbel Stone Press which Richard runs with his partner Autumn. They are purely abstract but suggestive of fine rock strata or expanses of calm water stretching away to the horizon.

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  • 06/11/14--14:20: The Broken Road

  • The latest New York Review of Books carries a piece by Daniel Mendelsohn on Patrick Leigh Fermor and the posthumous publication of The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos.  Apparently Lawrence Durrell once referred to the 'truffled style and dense plumage' of Leigh Fermor’s prose and Mendelsohn suggests that 'what you think of his writing, and indeed what you make of the final instalment of his most beloved work, depends on your taste for truffles and feathers.'  Well I'm certainly not averse to them now and again, and I found myself as entranced by this volume as I had been by the earlier two (which have been mentioned here before).  Some feathers feature in this landscape description, which comes towards the end of the book, in December 1934, when PLF is just days away from his final destination and has reached the wooded slopes on the edge of the Black Sea.
    'Downhill at the end of plunging tunnels of trunks and branches and over the foliage of the ledges, the lowest stems of which seemed almost rooted in the sea, the European continent fell to fragments in spikes and small tufted islets far below, standing in translucent, pale green water, which darkened as it receded from the rocks to bottle green and the blue of peacock's neck feathers and fled away to the skyline.  The almost still water was stirred by incoming creases as slight as a breath on silk, just enough to hem the join of rock and water with a thin bracelet of white, but too little to interfere with the symmetry of the semi- and three-quarter circles that the rocks sent spinning slowly out to sea again.  Only the ghost of their sigh floated up through the mews and the wheeling sunlit wings of the seagulls.'
    As he continues through these woods, the late afternoon sun strikes them at an angle parallel to their slope, 'filling the clearings and striking the tree-boles and the foliage with layers of wintry gold, hanging rafts of light in the leaves, falling through the wood in long spokes and breaking up the loops of shadow over the surface of the water with horizontal windows of radiance.'  This perfect moment of solitude and peace in the 'celestial light' is full of the promise of what he imagines he will soon experience in the islands of the Aegean.  Later that day however, after the sun has set, he becomes lost among the rocky headlands, slips into a freezing pool, drops his torch and almost gives up hope before stumbling upon a cave where a group of shepherds and seamen revive him with fish, lentils and raki.  As Neil Ascherson points out in his LRB review, the description of what follows - a 'night of mighty bardic song, feasting and ancient dances' - may not be literally true to what happened on the journey, but it constitutes one of the book's most memorable set pieces. The evening finally ends with firelight ebbing on the walls and the stalactites while this extraordinary young traveller, unable to sleep, lies looking up at a high gap in the cave's wall where the stars of Orion are visible, blazing 'like a slanting lozenge of ice-crystals.'

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  • 06/17/14--14:53: The Enclave
  • We looked in on the Photographers Gallery yesterday to see the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize contenders.  I was particularly interested in The Enclave series by Richard Mosse (which has won him the prize), documenting the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  He hit upon the inspired idea of using discontinued infrared colour film, which was formerly used by the military to identify camouflaged targets.  The infrared light reflected by grass and trees appears in lurid but strangely beautiful shades of pink. Mosse hopes his work will help to bring exposure to a conflict that goes largely unreported in the media, just as the infrared film was designed to make the invisible visible.  In the video below, he talks about the film he made as part of this project - more visceral, proximate and scary than the "beautiful" landscape photographs you can see behind him as he talks.


    The photograph I was initially drawn to in the exhibition, Men of Good Fortune (2011), is a picturesque composition of gentle grassy slopes, pastoral figures and trees that might have been artfully placed by a Capability Brown.  These hills were originally inhabited by Congolese tribes who grew crops and hunted for bush meat, until they were driven out by pastoralists who cut down the forest for grazing.  Richard Mosse's camera renders this landscape's history of intimidation and human rights abuses in shocking pink, like superficially healthy teeth subjected to a plaque disclosing tablet.  Nowhere to Run (2010) shows another vista of unearthly pink hills, which seem to have undergone the kind of transformation J. G. Ballard described in The Crystal World. This rose quartz-coloured terrain is, according to the caption, 'rich in rare earth minerals like gold, cassiterite and coltan, which are extracted by artisanal miners who must pay taxes to the rebels.'

    Of course one question these photographs raise is whether the aesthetic pleasure they provide is a distraction from what is really happening in The Enclave.  Would direct documentary images be more shocking or informative?  In the interview below, Mosse says that one of the difficulties he encountered was that the the deep wounds inflicted by rape 'lack a visible trace' (last week's End Sexual Violence in Conflict conference here in London, which my wife took part in, was designed to raise the profile of this issue).  His images may be beautiful on the surface, but, he suggests, beauty is effective - 'the sharpest tool in the box.  If you can seduce the viewer and you can make them feel aesthetic pleasure regarding a landscape in which human rights violations happen all the time, then you can put them into a very problematic place for themselves - they feel ethically compromised and they feel angry with themselves and the photographer for making them feel that.  That moment of self awareness is a very powerful thing.'


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  • 06/26/14--14:17: The River Duddon
  • The valley of the River Duddon

    In 1820 William Wordsworth published The River Duddon, A Series of SonnetsAs Stephen Gill points out in his essay, 'Wordsworth and the River Duddon', reviewers were bemused that a famous poet should choose to write about this ‘insignificant river’ with a ‘barbarous name’:
    ‘What would he not have written had the majestic Thames employed his muse’, exclaimed the Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review, getting the matter exactly wrong. The lines from Burns quoted at the close of the ‘Postscript’ to the River Duddon sonnet sequence ought to have alerted the reviewer to Wordsworth’s poetic intent. In the verse letter ‘To William Simson, Ochiltree’, Burns declares that, ‘Illisus, Tiber, Thames, an’ Seine’ having all been celebrated in ‘monie a tunefu’ line’, he and his fellow poet should now rather seek the Muse ‘Adown some trottin burn’s meander’ in their own locality,
    to ‘gar our streams and burnies shine / Up wi’ the best’.  Wordsworth read this poem almost as soon as it was published in 1786, quoted from it throughout his life, and adopted its forthrightness as he began his celebration of the river with the
    barbarous name.'
    In The Song of the Earth, Jonathan Bate suggests that the choice of the Duddon for a sonnet sequence over, for example, those other Wordsworthian rivers, the Wye and the Derwent, may have had something to do with its location, rising near the confluence of Westmoreland, Cumberland and Lancashire.  Standing in three counties at once is to feel both connected to the local and in touch with a much wider geography.  Wordsworth believed in a nationalism rooted in the regions, a country of small Anglican parishes where the periphery was as important as the centre, the Duddon as worthy of literature as the Thames.  A couple of years ago I wrote here about Wordsworth's sonnet Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 3, 1802, in which the poet stood looking out over the Thames.  Here I will give a brief summary of the River Duddon sequence, from source to sea.
      1. Wordsworth's first sonnet announces his theme - not the spring of Bandusia, not some Persian fountain, not an Alpine torrent, but 'long-loved Duddon'.
      2. This river is 'remote from every taint / of sordid industry' and has remained unchanged, long after the surrounding forests have vanished 'where stalked the huge deer to his shaggy lair / through paths and alleys roofed with darkest green.'
      3. Wordsworth sits and prepares to 'paint' the river in words.  No monument marks its birthplace but instead the river itself has 'shed a gleam / of brilliant moss, instinct with freshness rare.'  
      4. The Duddon is like a snake, threading 'with sinuous lapse the rushes, through / dwarf willows gliding, and by ferny brake.'  
      5. After the solitude of 'sullen moss and craggy mound' the river becomes shaded by green alders, ashes and 'birch-trees risen in silver colonnade'.
      6. He describes the flowers that grow by the side of the river: wild strawberries, thyme and 'trembling eyebright ... sapphire blue'.
      7. A 'love-sick Stripling' might envy the plucked rose lying on his lover's breast, or imagine himself her caged bird singing, but those with 'calmer mind' would rather be an 'unculled floweret or darkling wren / that tunes on Duddon's banks her slender voice.'
      8. The poet wonders what kind of man first came upon this stream.  Whatever his ancient beliefs, the river's role was then as it is now, to heal, restore, soothe and cleanse.
      9. There are some stepping stones in the river.  Crossing here, when a flood runs 'fierce and wild', the Child puts 'his budding courage to the proof', whilst 'Declining Manhood learns to note the sly / and sure encroachments of infirmity.'
      10. The stepping stones again, and this time two young lovers cross, she blushing and holding out her hand, he teasingly withdrawing it, and then both of them feeling the thrill when their hands touch.  
      11. A flight of fancy in which tiny dancing elves are imagined dancing by their 'sunless cleft' and stealing a baby.
      12. As if realising that this sort of thing will try our patience, he exclaims: 'On, loitering Muse--the swift Stream chides us--on!'  It is all too easy for the river's features to become the 'toys of Fancy.'
      13. We zoom out to an open prospect of fields and a hamlet under a green hill.  Wordsworth imagines the pleasures of a warm hearth here in cold weather, 'when bleak winds roar / through the stiff lance-like shoots of pollard ash'.
      14. The river seems to seek its own solitude, attended only by its own voice, leaving behind the solitary shepherd and his cottage.
      15. From a 'deep chasm, where quivering sunbeams play', he sees a kind of 'gloomy niche' in the rock where some ancient statue might have been placed, sculpted by men perhaps, or fire, or the waters of the Deluge.
      16. A continuation of the theme, in which Wordsworth describes the caves and rock drawings of Native Americans.
      17. He hears the croak of a raven on a blasted yew and an eagle 'shedding where he flew / loose fragments of wild wailing.'  Sheep sleep by the remains of the old Roman fort and the ancient stone circle of the Druids.
      18. The sonnet is entitled 'Seathwaite Chapel' and suggests that the vale of the River Duddon protects 'Truth's holy lamp', alluding to the ministry of the Reverend Thomas Walker of whom Wordsworth wrote a short memoir, appended to the poem sequence.
      19. A tributary: 'waters, from their aery height / hurrying, with lordly Duddon to unite.'  Its musical murmur announces a source of refreshment to the thirsty fields.
      20. On the flowery plain of Donnerdale, the waters are slow and serene, but further on the course is rougher and the river dances from rock to rock.  
      21. 'The cloudy stall / of Time, breaks forth triumphant Memory' and Wordsworth recalls those he once roved with on the banks of the River Duddon.
      22. In a sonnet called 'Tradition' the story is told of a love-lorn Maid who yearns for a primrose reflected in a clear, blue pool and, it is implied, drowns there.
      23. Banishing such sad thoughts, he recalls the 'blithe cheer' of boys shouting and dogs barking whilst sheep are washed in a pool formed where bands of rock check the stream.
      24. Now he finds a good place to rest, 'with woodbine hung and straggling weed ... half grot, half arbour', enclosing both the body and the mind.
      25. Here he can imagine 'the One for whom my heart shall ever beat / with tenderest love' being brought.  But without her, 'the waters seem to waste / their vocal charm.'
      26. Memories of childhood: 'fondly I pursued, / even when a child, the Streams--unheard, unseen; / through tangled woods, impending rocks between.'  He has learnt much from the river.   
      27. He describes a ruined castle, 'quietly self-buried in earth's mould'. 
      28. He rises to continue his onward journey, while cattle avoid the heat of the day by crowding together 'under rustling trees / brushed by the current of the water-breeze.'  
      29. There are no stories of battles fought over this landscape, but to those who lie buried and unremembered,'the passing Winds memorial tribute pay'.
      30. In life, Wordsworth suggests, it is best not to yield to sudden temptations or swerve away too far from innocence.  He is content to 'saunter o'er the grassy plain' here, chained loosely to the river, knowing when he leaves that he will always return to it.
      31. The 'Kirk of Ulpha' is a welcome sight and he imagines reclining among its graves or marking the distant moonlit mountain summits, faintly shining, 'soothed by the unseen River's gentle roar.'  
      32. This penultimate sonnet is pure landscape: a description of the lower reaches of the river, 'gliding in silence with unfettered sweep'.
      33. The original sequence ends with the sea that the Duddon flows into - here there are no warships, just humble sailing boats.  Wordsworth would like to end his days like the river, 'prepared, in peace of heart, in calm of mind / and soul, to mingle with Eternity!'
      Postscript: Wordsworth later added a thirty-fourth sonnet in which, as Jonathan Bate says, 'the poet deconstructs, then reconstructs, the analogy between human life and the life of the river.'  It can be read at The Poetry Foundation.

      The stone circle referred to in Sonnet 17

      [In one of his endnotes Wordsworth says that 'the country people call this circle Sunken Church'.  We visited Sunkenkirk, as it is now known, on our recent trip to the Lakes.  In The Modern Antiquarian, Julian Cope calls it 'perfect from all angles ... this Sunkenkirk is a place for the most righteous devotion.']

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          • 07/02/14--14:21: A Prospect of Wales

          • Last year I asked here'why isn't the art of Recording Britain better known?'  Well Sheffield's Millenium Gallery is currently hosting a touring exhibition devoted to Recording Britain, with some of the original paintings from the 1940s set alongside earlier topographical watercolours and recent landscape art by people like Richard Long, Keith Arnatt and Ingrid Pollard.  A display case has books from the period, including A Prospect of Wales (1948), one of the old King Penguins (like John Piper's book on Romney Marsh which I described in  another post last summer). This book has illustrations by Kenneth Rowntree, whose contributions to the Prospect of Britain project were often quite unusual, e.g. The Smoke Room, Ashopton Inn, Derbyshire (1940) - a rather unprepossessing interior with dartboard, wall calendar and a fish mounted in a case. The accompanying essay is by Gwyn Jones, who founded The Welsh Review, wrote novels and translated Icelandic sagas.  Seeing this in the exhibition, and having just booked a week's holiday in Wales this summer, I thought I would get hold of a copy.

            The title, A Prospect of Wales, sounds paradoxical - how is it possible to see the whole country?  To some extent Gwyn Jones' essay represents a kind of landscape writing I've mentioned here previously, the imaginary prospect which begins with the local and then spreads out far beyond the limits of sight.  Jacquetta Hawkes does this in A Land, which was published three years later than a A Prospect of Wales; as I wrote in an earlier post here, 'the book ends with 'A Prospect of Britain', from the city streets round her home in Primrose Hill to the different landscapes of Britain described in the order they were created: the chalk Downs, the Cotswold's, the West Riding, the Lake District.'  Another example: Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928), whose hero/ine is able to climb a hill so high 'that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty, if the weather was very fine.'  And another, which I have not mentioned here before because it takes the reader completely beyond 'some landscapes': Olaf Stapledon's vision of the cosmos in Starmaker (1937), a book that begins with a view of suburbs and the sea's level darkness, and the opening sentence: 'One night when I had tasted bitterness I went out on to the hill.'  A Prospect of Wales begins, by contrast, 'I have just come down from the hill fronting my house in mid-Cardiganshire', but a few pages later he is asking us to ascend again to a point where 'we may survey with swinging glance the western counties of Wales.'


            In my photograph above, the book is open at two of Kenneth Rowntree's illustrations of Pembrokeshire, which is where we will be heading next month.  'This is a coast,' Jones writes, 'soaked in colour and radiant with light.'  He quotes Graham Sutherland's essay 'A Welsh Sketchbook', which had appeared in Horizon in 1942: 'The quality of light here is magical and transforming - as indeed it is in all this country.  Watching from the gloom as the sun's rays strike the further bank, one has the sensation of the after tranquillity of an explosion of light; or as if one had looked into the sun and had suddenly turned away.'  I will no doubt have more to say about Sutherland and his Pembrokeshire paintings after we've explored this landscape. I'll conclude here with four lines of Welsh poetry quoted at the end of A Prospect of Wales which encapsulate what Jones sees as the real essence of the country, to be found 'not in the famed vistas ... but in some corner of a field, a pool under a rock, in a bare sheep-walk or a cottage folded in a gulley.'  The poem is by Hedd Wyn and Jones translates these lines as follows: 'Only the purple moon at the edge of the bare mountain, and the sound of the old river Prysor singing in the valley.'
            Dim ond lleuad borffor
            Ar fin y mynydd llwm,
            A sŵn hen afon Prysor
            Yn canu yn y cwm 

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          • 07/07/14--14:37: Chinese Landscape - Tattoo
          • Looking at players in the World Cup this month I have wondered whether those reports last year that we have reached 'peak beard' can be right, and, if they are, whether we nonetheless still have some way to go before reaching 'peak tattoo'.  Sadly I have not spotted any landscape tattoo designs so far on the footballers' arms and torsos (although a quick Google tells me that a couple of years ago VfB Stuttgart's Julian Schieber got inked with a view of his home village of Weissach).  In contemporary art, Huang Yan has specialised in this kind of thing, although his work, beginning with Chinese Landscape - Tattoo (1999) is actually a form of body painting.  Here's how the Met describes that series: 'Huang covers his torso and arms with traditional landscape scenes, presenting his “reincarnation” of literati-style painting. The composition, modelled in ink and colors on a white ground by Huang’s wife, the artist Zhang Tiemei, follows the natural form of Huang’s body. In the photos, the artist’s face is cropped away and Huang’s anonymous torso becomes an emblem of the Chinese everyman who cannot be separated from his cultural heritage, which, like his racial identity, is as indelible as a tattoo.'


            Over the last fifteen years Huang has produced numerous variations on this theme.  What happens when a landscape is painted onto a face?  In Four Seasons (2005) the model is expressionless under each seasonal view, although in two of them his eyes are open, making it much harder toregardhis face as merely a blank canvass.  In Pine Landscape Dyptich (2007), a nude woman takes the leaves and branches painted on her body into the boughs of a real pine tree.  Dismantle Landscape (2005) begins with a photograph of another tree-covered model, posed against a landscape backdrop painted in more of a 'Western style'; as the camera zooms out we see her standing on what looks like the floor of a building site and in the last image she is surrounded by construction workers.  You can see others in the YouTube clip I have embedded above.  Huang has also made sculptural work in this vein: a ceramic landscape skull, busts of Mao decorated with traditional motifs (including a Landscape with Figures and a Boat, 2004), and Pork Landscape 1(2001), which is, as the title indicates, a piece of pork - the fat redolent of swirling mist and the meat a backdrop for blue hills and a tree covered in pink blossom.

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            • 07/12/14--06:13: Harvest

            • I have just finished the Jim Crace novel Harvest: 'Sometime in the pre-industrial period, an isolated and self-sufficient English village finds its common fields stolen for enclosure as collective agriculture yields to remotely-owned pasturage: "the sheaf is giving way to sheep."'  This summary of the story's background is from a review in the Independent, which praises Crace for his descriptive powers: 'No writer can match him for pin-sharp specificity in his rapt close-ups of rural life ... yet the village's unanchored quality matters hugely – even though the visiting map-maker "Mr Quill" seeks to sketch and shape it into a place ripe for reason, and for business.  Where are we, and when? Details of clothes, crops and rituals leave a centuries-wide window. But for all its timeless, folk-tale qualities, this village has a solid location. From Tudors to Victorians, land enclosure in England enacted, county-by-county and field-by-field, the "tragedy of the commons", as private interests claimed control of resources once responsibly shared by all.  In England's case, the sheep ate up the men – Thomas More's words in Utopia (1516). So Harvest takes place nowhere, and everywhere.'



              In the clip above you can see Crace read a passage in which the book's narrator, Walter, tries to create a garden and finda that the land needs to be worked: 'it does not wish us to stand back and comment on its comeliness or devise a song for it.  It has no time to listen to our song'.  There are many such moments that would interest readers of this blog. One of my favourite moments in the book is a description of the making of maps.  Walter is helping out by preparing and stretching vellum and is fascinated by the sketches that the man the villagers call Mr Quill has 'ennobled' with colour, 'just shapes and lines and colouring' with no lettering added as yet.  In the absence of language, they remind Walter of the natural patterns in nature.
              'I've seen equally compound patterns, no less ineffable than these, when I've peeled back bark on dying trees, or torn away the papering on birches. I've seen them sketched by lichens on a standing stone, or designed by mosses in a quag, or lurking on the under-wing of butterflies.  I've found these ordinary abstracts in the least expected places hereabouts: I have only to lift a stone, or turn some fallen timber in the wood, or reverse a leaf.  The structures and the ornaments revealed are made purposeful simply by being found.'
              Harvest had a lot of publicity last year because it was up for the Booker Prize.  In an interview in The Guardian Crace described the day his ideas all came together.  Itbegan with a moment of inspiration at the Watford Gap (recognising the extent to which the English landscape is 'drenched in narrative'), continued with a visit to Tate Britain, where there was an early eighteenth century depiction of enclosure, and ended on the train home with a story in the paper about South American soya barons turning people off the land.  I would love to know what the 'watercolour' was that Crace saw in London - presumably it was the inspiration for Mr Quill's sketches.  The clip below shows an old map at one point but what Crace refers to sounds more impressive - it prompted him to wonder how it was possible to gain such a vantage point 'at a time when no one could get higher than a treetop or a steeple'.  Perhaps it was a painting I am now no longer able to recall that Patrick Keiller included in his Robinson Institute exhibition at Tate Britain (reported on here in March 2012 - Harvest apparently took just six months to write and appeared in February last year).  You can let me know in the comments if you know - as it is, I'm torn between thinking it is probably something obvious and the feeling that, like the village in Harvest, it may not be real at all.


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            • 07/19/14--04:11: New Western Landscapes

            • Rebecca Solnit published two essays on contemporary American landscape photography in Creative Camera magazine, in 1993 and 1998, and they were reprinted together in her collection As Eve Said to the Serpent.  Both begin with some historical context: 'American landscape photography is grounded in both the scenery and ideology of the immigrant's West.'  The photographers who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey were only the first to concentrate on landforms rather than nature.  Carleton Watkins portrayed Yosemite as a virgin wilderness outside time, but his work was partly financed by photographs of the nearby gold mines.  Ansel Adams is also defined by these images of pure, unpeopled landscapes - an aesthetic that 'has dwindled into calendar pictures and coffee-table books'.  Meanwhile, landscape may have featured sometimes in the work of the great twentieth century documentary photographers like Robert Frank and William Eggleston, but their subject was always essentially social commentary.  It was only in the seventies that landscape once again became an important theme in American photography, following the seminal New Topographics exhibition curated by William Jenkins in 1975.  I have listed below the photographers Solnit discusses from the subsequent twenty years with brief comments pertaining to their work in that period.  Perhaps someone could ask her to write an essay* covering the next two decades... 
              • Robert Adams - the major survivor from the New Topographics group whose 'pessimism about culture's impact on nature has evolved into a broader melancholy.' 
              • Mark Klett - part of the Rephotographic Project that returned to document the sites originally photographed for the U.S. Geological Survey; his images are not 'elegies for a raped landscape', instead they show how the West can be Sublime even with modern additions like a TV antenna.
              • Robert Dawson - a documentary photographer whose work describes 'the ecological and social complexity of the California landscape'.  There is a Design Observer article by Mark Klett on the Water in the West project that Dawson founded with Ellen Manchester.
              • Peter Goin - a Water in the West photographer whose 'Nuclear Landscapes is an anthology of deadpan images of nuclear-war production sites.'  Solnit has some reservations about this - the 'captivity' of such work within the art world may undermine its educational value.
              • Richard Misrach - a photographer greatly admired by Solnit and whose work features in another of her essays,'Scapeland', his 'lush documents of political catastrophe point out that politics has invaded the landscape.'
              • Linda Connor - focusing on 'manifestations of the spiritual on the land', she is, like Misrach, a photogapher with whom Solnit has collaborated (an encounter with Connor's work in 1986 'opened the door' to a new understanding of landscape and representation).
              • Meridel Rubenstein - her Critical Mass project on Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atom bomb, is deeply Solnitesque (is there such a word yet?) and features in another excellent Solnit essay, 'Lisa Meitner's Walking Shoes.' 
              • Masumi Hayashi - her images of the Japanese internment camps comprising mosaics of narrow-angle snapshots 'seem to address the reconstructedness of memory, the fractures of truth'.
              • Zig Rising Buffalo Jackson - his photographs of signs on the borders of Indian reservations expose the arbitrariness of any boundaries, 'testimony that the story is invisible and the sign has only begun to tell you where you are.'
              • Anthony Hernandez - like Misrach, he produces 'gorgeous images of the bleakest parts of American culture' but the focus for Hernandez is on the poor and disenfranchised, as in his series Landscapes for the Homeless   
              • Cynthia Rettig - her photographs of family vacations at an artificial lake near the Hoover Dam, where shooting and gun play was all part of the fun, recall the original conquest of the West: 'people repeating a history they cannot remember at a vast lake that is itself the result of manipulating the landscape.'

              * NB: Rebecca Solnit is so prolific that she may have written a new survey on landscape photography somewhere, but if so I can't see it on the list of essays on her website...  Another place to keep up with her writing is the fuck yeah Rebecca Solnit tumblr. 

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            • 07/20/14--02:32: Dawn over the Gulf
            • Gerardo Dottori, Self Portrait, (1928)
              Comune di Perugia

              This summer at the Estorick Collection you can see a thought-provoking exhibition of aerial landscapes in Gerardo Dottori: The Futurist View.  Dottori was born in 1884 and his early work encompassed Divisionism (Trees of the Wood (1906), where dabs of paint capture the effect of dappled light) and Symbolism (Triptych of the Trees - The Survivors (1909-10), with its dark forms set against an extraordinary swirling sky in green, grey and sulphurous yellow).  He first started painting in a Futurist style around 1912 but really came to prominence in the late twenties as a leading exponent of aeropittura, modernist painting inspired by the speed and motion of flight, celebrating the role of the pilot and depicting the landscape far below in new ways. 'To fly,' he wrote in 1931, 'means to open and to ventilate the imagination.'  At this time the aeroplane was increasingly identified with war and the kind of bombing visited on Guernica, but Dottori developed a spiritual vision in which there is no sign of this destructive power.  Instead the curvature of the earth is exaggerated and rooftops, wooded hills and deep blue lakes are stretched into idealised forms.

              Gerardo Dottori, Ascending Forms (or Ascending Forces), 1930
              Comune di Perugia

              Dawn over the Gulf (1935),Umbrian Lake (1942), Lake-Dawn (1942), Umbrian Spring (1945)...  paintings like these formed a body of work which for all their abstract qualities were intended to celebrate a particular landscape.  In Dottori's 'Umbrian Manifesto of Aeropainting', he described himself as 'a passionate Umbrian who adores his land.'  According to Massimo Duranti, writing in the exhibition catalogue, Dottori's 'aspiration was to transform the terrestrial landscape into paradise by placing it outside time and space, and by elevating it towards the sky - the opposite approach to that of the Umbrian Renaissance painters, who had pulled the sky down to the ground.'  This paradise has no signs of modern life: actual people are invisible from so high up.  Place is reduced to space and then expanded so that we are no longer simply looking into a picture plane.  Dottori saw circles and gentle ascending curves in the Umbrian landscape that suggested the possibility of this all-embracing view.  'I compel viewers to place themselves with me in the centre of the aeropainting in order to dominate it and experience its totalitarian envelopment' ('e viverla nella sua rotondità totalitaria').  Art historians have taught us to see the elevated perspective as an expression of power and Dottori's language certainly sets alarm bells ringing.  Having recently read Lucy Hughes-Hallett'sbiography of D'Annunzio,The Pike, I found it hard to view this exhibition without wondering how far the paintings expressed strains of mystical idealism that were being exploited by the Fascists.

              Gerardo Dottori, Lake-Dawn, (1942) 
              Collezione Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Perugia

              In the exhibition catalogue Massimo Duranti is keen to focus on the paintings rather than the wider politics of Futurism.  'One must briefly consider here the relationship between Dottori and Fascism, which has been analysed in great detail on many occasions,' he writes (this extensive analysis will not be familiar to many British readers I suspect).  He goes on to say that whilst Dottori 'painted a number of apologetic works for the regime', his adhesion to Fascism 'may be described as 'dispassionate' and not uncritical on occasion.'  Duranti complains that some critics still equate Fascism and Futurism ('expecially in the United States') and of course he is right that this would be too reductive, not least because any equation would need to factor in a third term: Flight.  'Flying and Fascism' is discussed at some length in Robert Wohl's wonderfully illustrated book, The Spectacle of Flight, where he quotes Mussolini: 'Flying must remain the privilege of an aristocracy; but everyone must want to fly, everyone must regard flying with longing'.  The Futurist obsession with flight begun before the First World War but became central to its painting poetry in the thirties (the exhibition includes a portrait of poet Franca Maria Corneli, author ofL’aeropoema futurista dell’Umbria, 1943).  Dottori's continued to produce aerial landscapes after the war, less experimental as he grew older and less dependent on the idea of flight.  In paintings of Lake Trasimeno from a high vantage point he was returning to views he had first seen as a youth during excursions into the local mountains, long before he knew what it was like to pass over it in an aeroplane.

               
              Gerardo Dottori, Virginal Umbria, 1949
              Collezione Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Perugia
              Images used here courtesy of Estorick Collection 

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            • 07/26/14--01:41: No other tent but the sky
            • Walter Crane's 1907 frontispiece to
              Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879)

              Here is Robert Louis Stevenson, settling down with his donkey for a night in the Valley of the Mimente.
              A hollow underneath the oak was my bed. Before I had fed Modestine and arranged my sack, three stars were already brightly shining, and the others were beginning dimly to appear. I slipped down to the river, which looked very black among its rocks, to fill my can; and dined with a good appetite in the dark, for I scrupled to light a lantern while so near a house. The moon, which I had seen, a pallid crescent, all afternoon, faintly illuminated the summit of the hills, but not a ray fell into the bottom of the glen where I was lying. The oak rose before me like a pillar of darkness; and overhead the heartsome stars were set in the face of the night. No one knows the stars who has not slept, as the French happily put it, à la belle étoile.  [...]
              All night a strong wind blew up the valley, and the acorns fell pattering over me from the oak. Yet, on this first night of October, the air was as mild as May, and I slept with the fur thrown back.
              I was much disturbed by the barking of a dog, an animal that I fear more than any wolf. [...]  I was wakened next morning (Wednesday, October 2nd) by the same dog - for I knew his bark - making a charge down the bank, and then, seeing me sit up, retreating again with great alacrity. The stars were not yet quite extinguished. The heaven was of that enchanting mild grey-blue of the early morn. A still clear light began to fall, and the trees on the hillside were outlined sharply against the sky. The wind had veered more to the north, and no longer reached me in the glen; but as I was going on with my preparations, it drove a white cloud very swiftly over the hill-top; and looking up, I was surprised to see the cloud dyed with gold. In these high regions of the air the sun was already shining as at noon. If only the clouds travelled high enough, we should see the same thing all night long. For it is always daylight in the fields of space.
              The young Richard Holmes, following the route described by Stevenson, spent the night at this spot in 1964.  'I made a little fire among the rocks by the river, and slept in the doorway of an isolated barn.  My diary notes "a solitary star below the door-lintel, a little rain, and an occasional blink of lightning over the oak trees"' (Footsteps,1985).  In an earlier post here I referred to the notion of the literary pilgrimage and Richard Holmes' practise of 'footstepping' his biographical subjects.  I also quoted another description of a night à la belle étoile from his travels on the trail of Stevenson: 'I slept out that night under an outcrop of pines, facing east on a slight incline, with the light of the Costaros far way to my left. ... Only once, waking, I drank two ice-cold mouthfuls of water from my can and, leaning back, saw the Milky Way astonishingly bright through the pine tops, and felt something indescribable - like falling upwards into someone's arms.'

              Nowadays the path taken by Stevenson and Modestine can be followed on the chemin de Robert Louis Stevenson(GR70).  As one travel site says, 'Stevenson often slept out under trees in a prototype sleeping bag. You enjoy wholesome food in welcoming, en-suite accommodation as you trek across southern Auvergne and northern Languedoc with just your light backpack'.  A quick Google will take you to self-published travel accounts and shorter posts from tourists who have done this long distance walk (of course if I ever do it, you will be reading about it here).  Books too will continue to appear: as Nicholas Shakespeare wrote in The Telegraph, 'if you had visited the Cévennes in September 1994, you might have encountered a demented, rain-sodden Edinburgh schoolteacher whacking along a donkey and shouting out "lumps of poetry" about the effects of travel.  Christopher Rush was on a quest to recover himself after losing his wife to cancer a year before ...To Travel Hopefully breaks a 10-year silence to describe how Rush returned to "authorial normality" by following in the footsteps of his hero Robert Louis Stevenson.' 

              And so the landscape is continually over-written by travellers carrying copies of the accounts of previous travellers.  But Stevenson himself was walking with a copy of Peyrat's history of the Protestant Camisard Revolt of 1702-05 (an episode with some parallels to the resistance of the Scottish Covenanters).  On that night of October 1st, 1878, gazing at the night sky from the 'hollow underneath the oak' , he could imagine two of the romantically-named historical figures from the Camisard wars looking up at the same sight.  'These same far-away worlds, sprinkled like tapers or shaken together like a diamond dust upon the sky, had looked not otherwise to Roland or Cavalier, when, in the words of the latter, they had ‘no other tent but the sky, and no other bed than my mother earth.’' The same is true today for all those who walk GR70 in the hope of getting closer to Stevenson, or the fresher, but now half-a-century-old footsteps of the young Richard Holmes: the stars at least remain unchanging.

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            • 08/01/14--13:49: The Journey Through Wales
            • Medieval manuscript of The Journey Through Wales in the British Library

              In the spring of 1188 Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, set out to travel through Wales recruiting men for the Third Crusade.  He was accompanied by Gerald, Archdeacon of Brecon, whose highly readable account of their journey, Itinerarium Kambriae (The Journey Through Wales, translated by Lewis Thorpe), contains many interesting references to nature and topography.  I have always liked the abecedary form (as in, for example, Kevin Jackson's collection of alphabetical essays Letters of Introduction) and have used it here to list some of the places, sites and unusual natural phenomena Gerald wrote about.  What follows therefore is an A-Z of the Welsh landscape towards the end of the twelfth century.

              A is for Arthur's Chair.  A few days after setting out from Hereford, Gerald and Baldwin had reached Brecknockshire.  He describes there a 'lofty spot most difficult of access, so that in the minds of simple folk it is thought to have belonged to Arthur, the greatest and most distinguished King of the Britons'.  Cadair Arthur was the name given to this place, formed by two peaks (Pen y Fan and Corn Du), and at the summit there was a well-shaped pool, fed by a spring, in which trout were sometimes seen.  Gerald mentions King Arthur at several points, drawing on what Geoffrey of Monmouth had written in his History of the Kings of BritainMore intriguing are descriptions he gave in two later books of the discovery of Arthur's tomb, in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey (Glastonbury, he writes, was once called Ynys Gutrin, 'the Island of Glass, no doubt from the glassy colour of the river which flows around it in the marshland.')
              B is for the island of Barry. 'In a rock by the sea where one first lands on the island there is a small crack. If you press your ear to it, you can hear a noise like blacksmiths at work.'  As will be seen below, Gerald usually has stories to associate with unusual landscape phenomena, but this one is simply recorded for what it is.  'One would well imagine that a sound of this sort would come from the sea-waters rushing into hidden orifices beneath the island, but it is no less loud when the waves draw back, and it can be heard just as well when the shore is dry as when the tide is up.'
              C is forCaerleon.  The ancient City of the Legions, Caerleon 'is beautifully situated on the bank of the River Usk.  When the tide comes in, ships sail right up to the city.  It is surrounded by woods and meadows.  It was here that the Roman legates came to seek audience at the great Arthur's court.'  Gerald describes a lot more of the Roman city than can be seen today, including its impressive walls.  He found evidence of immense palaces, 'a lofty tower, and beside it remarkable hot baths, the remains of temples and an amphitheatre.' 
              D is for St. David.  According to Gerald, this devout man (said to have been the uncle of king Arthur), 'preferring the eremetical existence to the pastoral one', moved the archbishopric from Caerleon, the City of the Legions, to 'a remote corner of the country, looking out towards the Irish Sea.  The soil is rocky and barren.  It has no woods, no rivers and no pasture-lands.  It is exposed to the winds and to extremely inclement weather.'  It was this alleged archbishopric, independent of Canterbury, that Gerald  himself strove unsuccessfully throughout his life to re-establish.  There was a story that Gerald includes in which St. David himself changed the landscape: one day 'in full view of an astonished congregation, the ground on which he was standing rose up in the air.'
              E is for Eyri. 'I must not fail to tell you about the mountains which are called Eyri by the Welsh and by the English Snowdon, that is the Snow Mountains.'  Eyri means haunt of the eagles, and Gerald writes of one remarkable eagle that perches on a particular stone every fifth feast day, 'hoping to satiate its hunger with the bodies of dead men, for on that day it thinks that war will break out.  The stone on which it takes its stand has a hole pierced nearly through it, for it is there that the eagle cleans and sharpens its beak.'
              F is for a floating island.  This can be found in the mountains of Snowdonia where the strong winds continuously blow it from one bank of a lake to another.  'Shepherds are amazed to see the flocks which are feeding there carried off to distant parts of the lake.  It is possible that a section of the bank was broken off in times long past and that, bound together in a natural way by the roots of the willows and other shrubs which grow there, it has since become larger by alluvial deposits.'
              G is for the Golden Rock. This is 'a rocky eminence that dominates the River Severn' which has a gold sheen when struck by the sun. Gerald thinks that 'if someone who was skilled in such work would only dig down into the mineral deposits and penetrate the very entrails of the earth, he might extract sweet honey from the stone and oil from the rock.'
              H is for hawk.  At Haverfordwest, the falcons are 'remarkable for their good breeding, and they lord it over the river birds and those in the open fields.'  Gerald concludes one chapter of the book with the story of how one of these noble birds killed Henry II's carefully bred Norwegian hawk.  'As a result from this year onwards Henry II always sent to this region at nesting-time for some of the falcons which breed on the sea-cliffs.  Nowhere in the whole kingdom could he find more noble or more agile birds.  That is enough about falcons.  Now I must return to my journey.' 
              I is for the mountains of Ireland.  These can be seen on a clear day from St David's and Gerald writes that when William Rufus came to this spot and looked across the sea from the headland he said "I will collect a fleet together from my own kingdom and with it make a bridge, so that I can conquer that country."  Gerald himself had been in Ireland for a year, travelling there as chaplain and adviser to Prince John in 1185.The Journey Through Wales was Gerald's third book, written after two books on Ireland.
              J is for Jerusalem. Gerald had himself taken the cross and his whole party expected to leave for the Holy Land when their mission in Wales was complete.  In 1189 he and Archbishop Baldwin sailed for France but Gerald was sent back to England by the new king Richard, following the death of Henry II.  Baldwin went on and died at the siege of Acre in 1190.  Two years earlier, as he and Gerald approached Bangor along a valley with many steep climbs, they had dismounted in order to practise walking in the exhausting conditions they expected to find on the road to Jerusalem.  'We walked the whole length of the valley and we were very tired by the time we reached the farther end.  The Archbishop sat himself down on an oak-tree, which had been completely uprooted and overturned by the force of the winds, for he needed to rest and recover his breath.'  He asked for a tune to soothe his tired ears and a bird in a near-by coppice started to sing.
              K is for the knight and the King.  Gerald tells of 'a knight from Brittany' who was sent by Henry II to see how the land round Dinevor Castle was fortified.  He was conducted by a Welsh priest who took him along the most difficult and inaccessible paths.  'Whenever they passed through lush woodlands, to the great astonishment of all present, [the priest] plucked a handful of grass and ate it, thus giving the impression that in time of need the local inhabitants lived on roots and grasses.'  The knight reported to the King that the land was uninhabitable and the King made the local Welsh leader swear an oath of fealty but left him to his own affairs.
              L is for Llanthony. Gerald praises the location of this monastery in the vale of Ewias, so suitable for a life of contemplation.  'As they sit in their cloisters in this monastery, breathing the fresh air, the monks gaze up at distant prospects which rise above their own lofty roof-tops, and there they see, as far as any eye can reach, mountain-peaks which rise to meet the sky and often enough herds of wild deer which are grazing on their summits.'
              M is for Manorbier.  Gerald devotes a whole passage to the beautiful landscape surrounding the fortified mansion of Manorbier, visible from a distance on a hill near the sea.  'You will not be surprised to hear me lavish such praise upon it, when I tell you that this is where my family came from, this is where I myself was born.  I can only ask you to forgive me.'  He mentions a fish pond, an orchard, and a ready supply of wheat and wine.  'A stream of water which never fails, winds its way along a valley, which is strewn with sand by the strong sea-winds.'  There is a rocky headland: 'boats on their way to Ireland from almost any part of Britain scud by before the east wind, and from this vantage-point you can see them brave the ever-changing violence of the winds and the blind fury of the waters.'
              N is for Newgale Sands Here in the winter of 1171-2 a great wind blew 'with such unprecedented violence that the shores of South Wales were completely denuded of sand, and the subsoil, which had been buried deep for so many centuries, was once more revealed.  Tree-trunks became visible, standing in the sea, with their tops lopped off, and with the cuts made by the axes as clear as if they had been felled yesterday.  The soil was pitch-black and the wood of the tree-trunks shone like ebony.'  This wind was so fierce that it blew fish into the bushes and high rocks, and people came down to collect them. 
              O is for one-eyed fish. A lake among the mountains of Snowdonia 'abounds in three different kinds of fish, eels, trout and perch, and all of them have only one eye, the right one being there but not the left.  If the careful reader asks me the cause of such a remarkable phenomenon, I can only answer that I do not know.'
              P is for the two pools that burst their banks.  This happened in the Elfael district on the night that Henry I died (1st December 1135).  One was artificial and its water simply rushed down the valley leaving it empty.  'But, remarkably enough, the natural lake reformed itself, with all its fish and whatever else lived in it, in a certain valley not more than two miles away.'  
              Q is for quicksand.  Gerald and Baldwin took the coast road from Margam Abbey, fording the river Avon, where they were delayed by the ebbing water, and approached the river Neath.  There they encountered quicksand where Gerald's own pack-horse 'was almost sucked down into the abyss.'  They got him out, but 'not without some damage done to my books and baggage.'  Hurrying made things worse - 'it is better to advance more slowly and with great circumspection over such dangerous terrain as this.'  Eventually they made it to the Neath which they crossed in a boat since it was too dangerous to ford, 'for the passages through the river change with every monthly tide and they cannot be located after a heavy fall of rain.'
              R is for Rhyd Pencarn.  Near Newport, Gerald describes a stream that is 'passable only be certain fords, more because of the way in which it has hollowed out its bed and of the muddiness of the marshland which surrounds it than through the depth of its waters.'  Rhyd Pencarn, the 'ford beneath the hanging rock', was the subject of a prophecy by Merlin Sylvester (Gerald believed there had been two Merlins in Wales - this one was Scottish).  Merlin had said that the Welsh would not be beaten by a strong man riding over it with a freckled face, a description that matched the appearance of Henry II.  When Henry did cross the ford in 1163, the Welshmen who watched his approach knew that they would be defeated.  
              S is for the magic stone of Anglesey.  This stone in the shape of a human thigh-bone will always return no matter how far it is taken away.  Henry I tested it by throwing it into the sea, attached by chains to a much larger stone - the next morning it was back in its usual place.  'It is also said that if a couple come to have intercourse on this spot, or near by, which they do frequently, great drops of sweat drip from the stone.'  As will be clear by now, Gerald's Wales is scattered with strange rocks and stones.  Also on the island of Anglesey you can find Listener's Rock, and 'if you stand on one side and shout, no one on the other side can hear you.' 
              T is for the river Teifi.  In describing this 'noble river', Gerald writes a lengthy digression on the habits of beavers, for this is the only place in Wales where they can be found.  These clever creatures plan their lodges so that they just protrude from the water, building several stories linked with connecting doorways.  'As the years pass and the willow-wands keep on growing, the lodge is constantly in leaf and becomes, in fact, a grove of willow trees, looking like a natural bush from the outside, however artificially constructed it may be within.'
              U is for the river UskGerald says that salmon abound there in summer (whereas the Wye has them in winter).  The finest salmon in Wales can be found in the river Teifi and there is a spot there called Cenarth Mawr where a waterfall roars unceasingly and the fish leap the height of a tall spear into the concave rock above.  When Gerald and his companions reached Usk castle and preached the Crusade a large number of men took the cross, including robbers, highwaymen and murderers.  The road then took them to Newport via Caerleon and they had to cross the river Usk three times.
              V is for the Valley of Roses. This was the site chosen for the cathedral of St David's.  Gerald observes that 'a better name for it would be the Valley of Marble, for it is in no sense rosy or remarkable for roses, whereas there are plenty of rocks all over the place.'  One of these rocks was used as a bridge over the River Alun and called Llech Lafar, the Talking Stone. One of the prophecies of Merlin held that a king of England who had just conquered Ireland would die as he walked over this bridge.  As he had at Rhyd Pencarn, Henry II defied this superstition by boldly walking forward.  Calling Merlin a liar, he entered the cathedral to pray and hear Mass.
              W is for the waterfowl of Brecknock Mere.  There was an old saying that the rightful ruler of the land could order these birds to sing.  One winter Gruffydd ap Rhys ap Tewdwr (a great uncle of Gerald) did just this.  The water of this lake 'sometimes turns bright green, and in our days it has been known to become scarlet, not all over, but as if blood were flowing along certain currents and eddies.  What is more, those who live there sometimes observe it to be completely covered with buildings or rich pasture-lands, or adorned with gardens and orchards.  In the winter months, when it is covered with ice, and when the surface is frozen over with a smooth and slippery coat, it emits a horrible groaning sound, like the lowing of a vast herd of cattle all driven together in one place.  It is possible, of course, that this is caused by the cracking of the ice and the sudden violent eruptions of enclosed pockets of air through vents imperceptible to the eye.'
              X is for Exmes.  Gerald's digressions occasionally take him outside Wales itself - Exmes is actually a castle in Normandy.  Near it there is a certain pool whose fish fought each other so violently on the night Henry II died, 'some in the water and some even leaping in the air, that the noise which they made attracted to the spot a vast crowd of local people.'  This story parallels that of the two pools in Wales (see 'P' above), associated with the death of Henry I. 
              Y is for Ynys Lannog. This place, Priest's Island in English, lies off the coast of Anglesey.  Gerald says that if the hermits who live there quarrel, a species of mice who live there will come and consume most of their food and drink 'and befoul the rest.' When the argument is over the mice disappear. 'No women are ever allowed on the island.'
              Z is for Zeuxis.  The Journey Through Wales ended where it began, in Hereford.  After completing his account, Gerald wrote a second, shorter book, The Description of Wales.  In its Preface he says that some readers of his earlier topographical writings took exception to the choice of subject matter.  'They see me as a painter who, rich in precious colours, the master of his art, a second Zeuxis, strives with great skill and industry to portray a humble cottage or some other subject by its very nature base and ignoble, when they were expecting me to paint a temple or fine palace.'  But Gerald, on the contrary, was proud of having adorned the rugged country of Wales with 'all the flowers of my rhetoric'.

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              This autumn the Royal Academy will have a major retrospective exhibition for Anselm Kiefer.  Back in the eighties, when I was a teenager and first discovering contemporary art, Kiefer was a really big name.  In fact there were a group of German artists that seemed almost as well known as the Americans: Beuys, Baselitz, Polke, Richter (these last two had a nice joint show in London earlier this year).  In those days Robert Hughes would write witheringly about the latest stars of the New York art scene but considered Kiefer the best painter of his generation.  Then came Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory (1995) - familiar I'm sure to readers of this blog - which discussed Kiefer's work in relation to the German forest.  But since then it has seemed as if he has faded into the background somewhat as waves of new artists have come to the fore.  When I have thought of him, it has been to imagine him still holed up in the south of France, where he moved in 1992, gradually turning an old silk factory and its surroundings into a vast Gesamtkunstwerk.  However, watching Sophie Fiennes' documentary on Kiefer recently, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (2010), it was obvious that he remains a massive presence in the global art world.  The film ends with his relocation to Paris and Kiefer looking forward to easy motorway access to Germany and a large studio that had once been the depository for the La Samaritaine department store.

              In 2008 Sean O'Hagan went to interview Keifer for The Guardian, apprehensive about the artist's reputation for high seriousness.  Kiefer, 'as Schama memorably puts it, 'doesn't do droll, he does the big embarrassing stuff, the stuff that matters; the epic slaughters of the world, the incineration of the planet, apocalypse then, apocalypse now; the fragile endurance of the sacred amid the cauterised ruins of the earth.''  O'Hagan met him in Paris where he was working on ten seascapes simultaneously - ''When I started these paintings just before Christmas, I had the initial concept of painting the source of the Rhine. Now, you can see the Rhine is gone completely. There is only sea."  Despite its vast scale, the Paris studio was proving too small for him.  Meanwhile La Ribaute, the studio complex and environmental installation near Barjac that Kiefer had worked on for eleven years, was continuing to take shape in his absence.  O'Hagan travelled south to see it.  'Surrounded by a high wire fence, and accessed only by a huge steel security gate, it is a vast site that took me an afternoon to wander through. On one side of the hill on which stands his former studio, a converted 17th century silk factory, lies the valley of Babel-like towers, out of whose innards sprout plants resembling giant trioxids. It is utterly unreal and not a little unsettling, part post-apocalyptic city, part sci-fi film set.'


              As you can see here in the trailer for Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, La Ribaute was both a factory for producing monumental landscape painting (a forest scene spread with ashes), and an evolving work of land art itself.  Philip French described the impression the film conveys in his review:
              Fiennes's camera tracks slowly around its bunkers and underground passages with their pools of water, shattered urns, piles of broken glass, puzzling numbers on the walls that evoke the tattoos of concentration camp inmates and so on. Her visual style brings to mind the lengthy contemplative shots in Tarkovsky's Stalker, Nostalgia and The Sacrifice, and we think of blitzed cities, battlefields, the death camps, the post-industrial world and the impermanence of civilisation. The film's title is a quotation from the Bible and one inevitably remembers Eliot's line in The Waste Land: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins."
              Perhaps the most memorable scene comes near the end where the camera rises slowly to reveal a vista of concrete towers under grey skies.  Earlier we see Kiefer directing their construction - he does it all by eye.  Two similar towers were built for an installation in the courtyard of the Royal Academy in 2009 and a laser was installed to detect the slightest movement and sound an alarm if it looked like they might be about to collapse (it never went off).  Fiennes says in the commentary to the film that this ruined landscape reminds her of modern war zones like Gaza.  It is sad to think that she would have been referring then to the 2008 conflict while as I write this there is a new war creating new ruins.  Now, again, we are watching footage of twisted metal, shattered glass, tunnel networks and concrete towers: the destruction of real buildings and real people's lives.

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              I was reading Dafydd ap Gwilym in a Welsh wood last week.  Many of his nature poems were addressed to a llaitai - love-messenger - like the seagull or the skylark.  As Jay Griffiths wrote in her essay, 'The Grave of Dafydd', 'he sung himself into the land, asking birds, animals and the wind to carry messages to all his well-beloveds.  More yet: the now-printed words echo the print of his body on the land, as he tells of the way that the places where he made love, the crushed leaves and grass, the bed-shapes under the saplings, will remain imprinted on the landscape forever, and on the landscapes of the heart.'

              Those trysting places were not always accessible though - sometimes nature thwarted Dafydd's desires.  Finding the River Dyfi in spate he composed a song in its praise in the hope that it would allow him to cross.  On another day it was mist that descended just as the poet was setting out for a liaison with a slender maid.  Here are some lines from the translation of Y Niwl ('The Mist') by Rachel Bromwich (from my book, pictured above, sadly no longer in print).  Even in English I think they convey a vivid sense of fog on the Welsh landscape.


              But there came Mist, resembling night,
              across the expanse of the moor,
              a parchment-roll, making a black-cloth for the rain,
              coming in grey ranks to impede me
              like a tin sieve that was rusting,
              a snare for birds on the black earth,
              a murky barrier on a narrow path,
              an endless coverlet to the sky,
              a grey cowl discolouring the ground,
              placing in hiding every hollow valley,
              a scaffolding that can be seen on high,
              an enormous bruise over the hill, a vapour on the land,
              a thick and pale-grey, weakly-trailing fleece,
              like smoke, a hooded cowl upon the plain,
              a hedge of rain to hinder my good fortune,
              coat-armour of the oppressive shower.

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            • 09/03/14--13:46: Stourhead
            •  

              When we arrived at our Somerset B&B en route to Wales I told the owner we had chosen to break our journey there to visit the landscape garden at Stourhead.  "That's it over there" she said, pointing out of our bedroom at a distant tower rising above the trees on the horizon.  While the garden itself was hidden from view on the other side of the hill, this outlying folly 'took dominion everywhere', turning the wider countryside in the warm evening light of late August into the kind of ideal Claudian landscape admired by the tower's creator, Henry Hoare II.  The following morning we drove the short distance to see it.  King Alfred's Tower was completed in 1772, having been conceived a decade earlier with multiple patriotic intentions: to mark the end of the Seven Year's War, the succession of George III and the place where Alfred rallied his Saxon army to defeat the Danes at the Battle of Ethandun.  I was not that surprised to find the door locked, preventing us climbing its 205-step staircase to admire the view - I mentioned here a similar experience at Hadrian's belvedere in Tivoli earlier this year.  It was frustrating though, and I fantasised about returning, kitted out like an urban explorer, to just break in and climb up anyway.  Perhaps I should start travelling the country at weekends, 'place hacking' other National Trust properties...?  Just as I was starting to imagine the possibilities I was subjected to urgent requests for coffee and cake, and so we drove off to find the tearooms.


              In his book The Arcadian Friends Tim Richardson describes Stourhead in terms of the circuit one was expected to take in the eighteenth century.  The first viewpoint provided 'a vista across the lake to the circular, domed Temple of Apollo high above, its tall columns accentuating its height, with the medieval church and village of Stourton in the middle ground below, and to the left on smooth sward.'  The eclecticism of the landscape was therefore apparent immediately - Gothick and classical in one view.  Stourhead has no overriding narrative and while there clearly is symbolism in some of its statues and inscriptions, the design more closely resembles a painting - 'a charming Gaspd picture' in the words of Henry Hoare.  Setting off on my own circuit of the garden I found myself experiencing a gallery of views framed in foliage, like the one I photographed below, where the eye is drawn across the lake to the temple of Apollo and then beyond to the distant countryside.


              After descending to the lake, the garden's original visitors would have continued over a mildly perilous fretwork bridge (no longer extant) and then through a woodland path to the grotto.  This rather dank 'house of the nymphs' inevitably recalls Dr Johnson's quip that a grotto was indeed am appealingly cool habitation in the summer, "for a toad".  Within it you can still admire the landscape, where gaps resembling the mouths of caves create views over the lake to the Temple of Flora.  Emerging from the semi-darkness you ascend to the Pantheon, a remarkably beautiful design that must have improved with age (all Stourhead's temples are mottled with patches of lichen - the example below is from the Temple of Apollo).  The Pantheon was shut up so we were unable to go in and see the statue of Hercules, whose biceps were modelled by sculptor Michael Rysbrack on studies of the eighteenth-century prize fighter Jack Broughton, but we were able to admire the Callipygian Venus in a niche outside.  This figure, the 'Venus of the beautiful buttocks', is derived from an old Greek story of two sisters who asked a man to assess which of them had the finer bottom.  It is a timeless story, recently replayed for the digital age in online newspaper reports of the competing 'belfies' posted on Instagram by Kelly Brook and Kim Kardashian.


              Walking the garden circuit and then picnicking by the water, it was very apparent to me how important the lake is to Stourhead's landscape design.  You can see this in the first photograph below - a view taken from the convex slope leading up to the Pantheon - where my son seems to be watching the drama of the clouds play out on the screen of the lake.  Ripples break the reflections of trees into horizontal strokes, as if the planting had been arranged to create a painting in light on the lake surface.  In Arcadian Friends Tim Richardson says that eighteenth century visitors would have been able to experience the garden from the lake itself, an option not normally available now, 'presumably for reasons of health and safety.  I had the opportunity of boating on the lake at Stourhead and it does constitute a completely different way of seeing a garden, as you bob along at the lowest level possible, enjoying constantly shifting perspectives of the temples and landscape scenes around.'   


              The only person out on the lake when we were there was a man on a small dredger, clearing the water of pond weed.  He seemed unwilling to take a rest and the relentless noise of the engine made me wonder what the soundscape would have been like in Henry Hoare's day, with nothing louder than birdsong, fountains and the faint strains of music and conversation emanating from one of the temples.  Every few minutes, or so it seemed, a plane flew overhead; it would be impossible now to think of designing an arcadia secluded from the wider world.  Coming to the end of my circuit I re-entered the woods where I had left the others, following the happy sound of children's voices.  It was 'Forest Friday' and my sons were queueing to climb up ropes into the canopy of the old trees.  Equipped with hard hats they slowly made their way up as I watched, a little enviously, from the 'soft mossy turf' (as novelist Samuel Richardson described the grass here in 1757).  And so, after finding ourselves prevented from ascending King Alfred' tower, the boys at least were permitted a privileged  prospect of the garden.

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            • 09/05/14--04:36: A Journey to Avebury

            • There are two days left on the iPlayer to listen to an episode of Stuart Maconie's Radio 6 show on 'West Country Freaks' which includes some music specifically inspired by the landscape of Southwest England.  A few days before the broadcast I was actually in the West Country myself, about to visit the Avebury stone circle on our way back to London.  We stuck to our plan despite forecast heavy rain because I had worked it all out in advance with pleasing symmetry, to echo the stop-off at Stonehenge on our earlier journey west.  There had been rain in the air then too, giving some dramatic skies over the old stones, as you can see in my photograph above. Ah, Sonehenge... 'where a man's a man and the children dance to the Pipes of Pan'.  Spinal Tap's classic song was included in 'West Country Freaks', along with Coil's soundtrack to the early Derek Jarman film A Journey to Avebury (embedded from YouTube below).


              Another band featured on the programme were Neil Mortimer's Urthona, whose blog records various visits to stone circles.  'From The Godless Erme Valley' was an outtake from their 2008 release via Julian Cope's Head Heritage, 'I Refute It Thus.'  This comprised 'three long tracks of primitive noise guitar freakouts inspired by the windswept-tor landscape of mighty Dartmoor, and a retort to the doom-laden cultural landscape of 21st century Britain.'  It came 'packaged in a unique organic fold-out cover plus inserts and highfalutin liner notes with nods to William Blake, Richard Jefferies and Walt Whitman.'  Their latest album is inspired by the great storm of 1703 ('no pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it', according to Daniel Defoe).  In his review for Wire Joseph Stannard likens it to Flying Saucer Attack's 'Rainstorm Blues', which I mentioned in a post here a few years ago.



              FSA were based in Bristol and their 'Sea Corpus', from the limited edition 1996 release 'In Search Of Spaces', was also included in 'West Country Freaks'.  Two other tracks on the show are worth highlighting: 'Somerset' by the prolific ambient composer and artist Rutger Zuydervelt (Machinefabriek) and 'Piperspool' from John Surman's 1990 ECM album The Road to St Ives.  I had not checked out this St Ives album before, despite having visited several times in recent years and written here about the town's art and landscape. However, after returning from the Lake District a few months ago, I was listening to Ambleside Days - another John Surman album where each track relates to a specific place. I think these gentle jazz tunes were insufficiently experimental to feature on an earlier place-themed Freakier Zone covering the North West, which included a great interview with Richard Skelton.  Given Stuart Maconie's enthusiasm for fell walking and landscape, it would be worth looking out for more of these programmes in the future.


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            • 09/12/14--10:51: American Smoke

            • It was the season of autumn ghosts, a dampness in the soul.  November 2013.  I stopped outside the sea cadets building in Stoke Newington's Church Street, now re-purposed as an exhibition space: 'building-F'.  In the old bricks there were ghost traces of a painted sign: S S OKE.  The roof was an abandoned deck with white railings and a solitary flag pole.  Looking down at the street, a life-size photograph of J. G. Ballard.  In the new front window, a neat stack of Iain Sinclair's American Smoke.  Inside I was hoping to encounter the man himself, having heard that he would be selling off his old books for a limited period.  But there was no sign of him: just framed artwork and a bookcase filled almost entirely with his own publications, signed and annotated, with prices to match. Ridiculous, I now realise, to imagine he would be there in person, presiding over tables stacked with the remnants of his book selling days: paperbacks by overlooked London writers, pulp novelists, underground poets.  I lingered awhile - not buying anything felt like an affront to the couple from Test Centre who politely stood by as I looked at the shelves.  Eventually I left with a book of poems: Firewall.


              American Smoke begins in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Sinclair went to deliver a lecture on Charles Olson, 'poet, scholar and last rector of Black Mountain College'.  There he met Henry Ferrini, whose film on Olson I included in a post here on the Maximus Poems back in 2010.  He visited Dogtown, where Olson came and walked in the woods 'to refine the art of getting creatively lost'.  He even booked a tourist whale-watching cruise (assuring us that 'the excursion was being made for my wife'). Olson's first book, published in 1947, was a study of Moby Dick.  The boat trip cancelled, he headed for the local library, looking for Olson's marginalia in books that had found their way onto the stacks after his death.  He says he found rough notes for a poem in the endpapers of one volume (much harder to decipher than the text Sinclair added to his own books for the pop-up shop in Stoke Newington).  Back in London he was pleased to have 'absorbed some of the weather of the place' but realised in watching Ferrini's film again that Olson can only be experienced in the energy field of his poems.

              My landscape interest in American Smoke had been kindled by Sinclair's account of a journey to see Gary Snyder, published initially as an essay in the LRB.  Snyder evaded discussion of poetics but was happy to talk about logging, ecological threats and the day-to-day work needed to maintain the land he bought cheaply in 1966: 'a hundred acres of manzanita thickets, with open stretches of ponderosa pine, black oak, cedar, madrone, Douglas fir, bunchgrass...'
              'Taking responsibility for a portion of Sierra ridge, once occupied, river valley to densely forested upper slopes, by Indian tribes, was a major statement of intent from Snyder. ‘We were cash poor and land rich,’ he said. ‘And who needs more second-growth pine and manzanita?’ Alexander Pope, in his upstream exile at Twickenham, laid out garden and grotto as a conceit, an extension of his work into the world, and a powerful attractor for patrons and lesser talents. To fund the Sierra reinhabitation, as Snyder saw it, he took on reading tours and an academic position at UC Davis, fifty miles down the road near the state capital, Sacramento. He called his land Kitkitdizze, after the Wintu Indian name for the aromatic shrub known as bear clover. ...  This Thoreau-inspired wilderness encampment, real as it appears, is underwritten by the requirement to represent itself as a topic for thesis writers, a reluctant paradigm.  A magnet for approved visitors, students, localists, or anyone needing to understand if this thing can be managed: a self-funding, functioning centre that is not a retreat, but a resettlement...'
              The whole book is structured around these encounters with writers, living and dead: Corso in New York, Burroughs in Kansas, the grave of Malcolm Lowry in Sussex.  From Vancouver, Sinclair goes to the Burrard Inlet in search of the shack Lowry and his wife constructed from driftwood and sawmill lumber.  It was a kind of idyll - described as such in some beautiful passages in Under the Volcano - and Sinclair visits the spot on a crystalline morning.  He is led along a winding path through resinous woodland, down to the shore.  Lowry had enjoyed the view here, across the water to an oil refinery where the S had fallen from the word SHELL.  Sinclair is tempted to go in - 'I'd like to swim, the water is strobing gold' - but he paddles instead in the cold, sharp-stoned shallows.  There is an old bottle top glinting in the water - not Lowry's, but something to pick up and take away.

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            • 09/19/14--06:58: Fort Process
            • Musical performance and sound art installation come together in site-specific festivals like the one I attended on Saturday at Newhaven Fort, 'Fort Process', or the TÖNE Festival in June, originally planned for Chatham Dockyard (the review in this month's Wire magazine explains that it ended up split over several venues).  From the perspective of this blog, what interests me in these is the way invited artists work with the structure and history of a site and the extent to which the wider soundscape is incorporated in the audience's experience.  Newhaven Fort is a defensive structure - one of Palmerston's follies, completed in 1871 - and as such it encloses you from the wider landscape.  Sound pieces were located underground and many of the performances took place in enclosed, bunker-like enclosed spaces.  The small main stage was set up on the parade ground in the centre of the fort, surrounded on all sides by grass embankments, giving a sense of containment and isolation.  To see out we had to climb these slopes and stand where the guns once pointed seawards, the vantage point where Eric Ravilious sketched Newhaven's coastal defences in 1940 (a few months after he had been stationed at Chatham).  

              Eric Ravilious, Coastal Defences, 1940

              John Butcher's contribution to Fort Process felt symptomatic of the way the site's remnants of fortification influenced the sounds we heard.  I wrote here eight years ago about an outdoor performance he did at the Standing Stones of Stenness, when the local sheep joined in with their bleating and the wind played tunes on his amplified soprano saxaphone.  Based on this I had imagined we might watch him perform on the ramparts of the fort, blowing his horn towards the English Channel while sea birds wheeled above.  Instead, while the sun set over the Downs on what had been a beautiful warm day, we gathered to listen to his improvisations on the cold concrete floor of a room once used to store gunpowder and shells.  Earlier, one of the artists (Sara Jane Glendinning) tried to entice seagulls to land on switch pads connected to sound samples, but they were strangely resistant to landing near the old gun emplacements.  At the end of the day we were in an old World War II hut, watching the start of an explosive set by Steve Noble and Peter Brötzmann (best known for his 1968 free jazz album Machine Gun). As the sound clattered off the corrugated iron roof it was easy to imagine the soldiers stationed here during World War II, listening to the bombers heading out to sea. 

              As a collection of disparate artists linked only be location, this kind of event inevitably differs from an immersive theatre performance or the kind of multimedia environmental drama pioneered by Robert Wilson.  It was impossible to see everything - in addition to the sound art and performances there were talks and some interesting-sounding film works (sadly the projector broke down before we could see any of these).  The photograph below was taken during a performance of Fourfleckflock, a graphical score based on the motion of starlings.  I was interested in music like this with a landscape/nature connection (Thomas Köner showed that you don't need drums when you've sampled the sound of thunder) but was just as happy listening to Ex-Easter Island Head and Part Wild Horses Mane on Both Sides.  There was time to wander round and look at the art, installed inside tunnels and gun towers - some new, some versions of existing work so that the interest for the artist will have been in seeing how their pieces were transformed in this particular setting.  Sarah Angliss brought a collection of little mobile robots to the Fort's Laboratory, where live shells were once constructed.  Their bells, rung in alarm when they encountered walls and doorsteps, had a pleasing, gentle quality when heard from a distance.  Not something you could say of Noble and Brötzmann, whose gunfire followed us for some distance as we headed out of the fort during their set to get the train back to London... 


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            • 09/27/14--10:47: How gloomily glaring!
            • 'The Claude Glass was an optical device which took various forms, of which perhaps Thomas Gray's was the most typical: 'a Plano-convex Mirror of about for inches diameter on a black foil, and bound up like a pocket-book.'  The convexity miniaturised the reflected landscape.  Except in the foreground, details were largely lost, and something like a beau ideal emerged, freed from particularities and deformities. [...] Its 'complex view' helped the apprentice painter; and, for the non-painting tourist, its darker tinting and distortion helped to superimpose something like a Claudean idiom on British landscape.' - Malcolm Andrews The Search for the Picturesque
              Claude Lorrain mirror, rectangular of black glass  
              Claude Glasses in The Science Museum

              I have been reading Arnaud Maillet's The Claude Glass: Use and Meaning of the Black Mirror in Western Art.  It originally appeared in France in an edition of just a hundred copies, but was translated and published as a Zone Book at the instigation of Jonathan Crary (whose Techniques of the Observerhas been a key text in visual studies).  That small initial print run may reflect the surprising fact that, according to Maillet, 'in France, these instruments are virtually unknown, even by art historians'; whilst it is relatively easy to see them on show here (e.g. in the Science Museum), there are none in French collections.  The scope of Maillet's book goes well beyond the instrument used by Picturesque tourists and artists in the late eighteenth century.  In addition to covering earlier uses of convex mirrors in art, he considers the association of black mirrors with the dark arts and their use in catoptromancy and hypnotism.  He also finds black mirrors in more recent art (Boltanski, Richter, Perrodin) - abstractions and reflective surfaces that call into question what we are seeing - and he explores their association with loss, melancholy and mourning.

              Claude glass believed to be John Dee's scrying mirror, Europe, undated 
              John Dee's scrying mirror in The Science Musuem

              The term 'Claude Glass' has also been used for another viewing instrument sold to Picturesque tourists: a set of tinted viewing lenses.  These lenses could create the kind of tonal harmony we encounter only rarely in real life - in mist, at sunset or in the smoke of a fire.  Like the filters available now on photographic apps, they allowed the viewer to perceive the landscape in different lights.  For example, 'through the hoar-frost tinted lens, distant corn stooks become snow drifts.  The tourists could rationalise these fancies by claiming that such artifice was, after all, only a means of anticipating what Nature herself would be doing in a few hours' or a few months' time with the same landscape' (Andrews). The leading theorist of the Picturesque, William Gilpin, tried these Claude Glasses while riding in a chaise and saw a dream-like succession of 'high coloured pictures'.  Their usage was easy to satirise though, as Maillet points out, and I will end here with the quotation he uses from James Plumptre's comic opera The Lakers (1797).  Miss Veronica Beccabunga is looking through her 'Claude Lorraine Glasses' at the landscape between Derwent Water and Borrowdale.
              'Speedwell, give me my glasses.  Where's my Gray?  (Speedwell gives glasses.)  Oh! Claude and Poussin are nothing.  By the bye, where's my Claude-Lorrain?  I must throw a Gilpin tint over these magic scenes of beauty.  (Looks through the glass.) How gorgeously glowing!  Now for the darker. (Looks through the glass.)  How gloomily glaring!  Now the blue.  (Pretends to shiver cold.)  How frigidly frozen!  What illusions of vision!  The effect is unspeakably interesting.'
              Later Miss Beccabunga uses her glasses on her prospective husband.
               'I'll throw a Gilpin tint on him.  (Looks through the glass.)  Yes, he's gorgeously glowing.  I must not view him with the other lights, for a husband should not be either glaringly gloomy, or frigidly frozen; nor should I like to be haunted by a blue devil.'

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