‘Compass’d by the Inviolate Sea’

Penlee House Gallery in Penzance never fails to offer fascinating exhibitions, and their current one is no exception. ‘Compass’d by the Inviolate Sea’: Marine Painting in Cornwall from Turner to Wallis takes its title from Tennyson’s poem ‘Dedication to the Queen’, and indicates the breadth and depth of sea-painting over the period, with a focus – though not exclusively – on paintings of the Cornish coast. The quotation indicates the position of Britain as an island, suggestive of the strength and impassivity of the sea, though in fact it comes from one of Tennyson’s Laureate poems written in praise of Queen Victoria, and the line, which closes the poem, refers to the impregnability of her throne because of the peace and stability of her reign (you can read the poem here).

Turner

Turner’s ‘St Michael’s Mount’ (1834) is one of several paintings of that particular view, and one of the best, though looking much steeper and more impregnable than it does now. Turner’s composition shows wrecked ships overshadowed by the Mount and surrounded by the sea; like many of the pictures in the first room, this is not a chocolate-box view, but rather one which demonstrates the sea as a force ‘inviolate’ indeed, uncaring of the lives it takes. The works on display are more than local scenes, then: some are realist while others more representative, and indicate the huge number of ways in which artists engage with the sea, in working harbours, landscapes, even narrative paintings. Thomas Creswick’s ‘The Land’s End’ is strikingly realist, with carefully detailed geological strata of rock appearing in a style reminiscent of Dyce’s Pre-Raphaelite-inspired works, while Henry Moore’s ‘Seascape’ almost gestures towards abstraction in its focussed colour and vigour.

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There are three striking images hung together: James Millar’s ‘Cornish Solitude’, Samuel ‘Lamorna’ Birch’s ‘Tol-Pedn’, and Richard Carter’s ‘The Rising Moon and the Day’s Departure’, all depict rocks, sea, and seagulls: no human figure is present, and none could get there (one wonders where the artist was sitting) – the sea is untouchable, inviolate indeed. The threat of the sea is palpable in all: these may be beautiful, picturesque scenes but this is the untamed sea, not simply a decorative image. Those images which do include figures often refer to disasters, past or potential, and again imply the dangers of the sea-faring life more than the tamer appeal of the seaside, though there are a few of these, too.

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The later rooms of the exhibition are a little more tranquil, with more concession to the human figure, and it is interesting to note the shift; as the exhibition guide points out, the approach to sea-painting changed in the twentieth century, away from narrative Victorian approaches of Wallis and Birch, for example, towards an abstraction where form is sometimes dominated by colour. One of Birch’s later paintings, ‘Morning at Lamorna Cove’ (1930s) provides an interesting example of how his work becomes more ‘modern’ in its approach.

Morning at Lamorna Cove

Meanwhile Robert Borlase Smart’s wonderful ‘Moonlit Sea’ of the same period shows how much further other artists had gone: the sea becomes a very different beast in Smart’s hands – an abstract surface of the sea, with colours, angles and patterns appearing on the waves.

Smart moonlit sea

John Mogford’s painting ‘Crossing the Bar – A Break in the Clouds, St Ives’ (1873) reminded me how important the sea was as a metaphor in the nineteenth century. There are several paintings here which reference Victorian writing, but no sea-poem was as powerful in the nineteenth century as Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’ (not even Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, sadly). The ‘bar’ in fact refers (in the painting) to the old wooden pier at St Ives, but the link is clearly made with the sea as a stormy place (life) which must be crossed before we reach Heaven. Numerous hymns and songs of the nineteenth century draw on similar imagery, and the paintings owe something to this poetic history.

A spectacular finale to the exhibition is Albert Julius Olsson’s ‘Stormy Evening on the Cornish Coast’, in which the waves seem visibly and audibly to crash on the shore; again, this work is moving towards abstraction, providing the very essence of the sea. The Penwith Peninsula is one of the most treacherous coastlines in Britain, and the dangers it holds have been felt in the communities here for centuries. This exhibition does justice to this coastline in all its wild beauty.

Ancient stones

I’m endlessly fascinated by stone circles, quoits, burial mounds and so on, and West Penwith in Cornwall is full of them. To me they give a sense of an ancient past, one which we can’t really understand, and perhaps our failure to understand the purpose of many of these stones is part of the appeal. These stones have become an essential part of the landscape, part of the natural habitat though made by people of whom we know nothing, or very little. These were not decorative, or practical, but were often, possibly, part of a kind of worship – of nature, of the sun or the stars, of the world around. Interestingly, as far as I know none are situated in sight of the sea.

One of my favourites is the Merry Maidens or ‘Dans Maen’ (Dancing Stones), near St Buryan (images above). The IMG_3235myth is that girls were dancing on a Sunday, in contravention of the Church’s edicts, and were turned to stone – as well as the stone circle, to each side there is another stone, the piper and fiddler who played the music for their dances, transformed as they tried to run away. There is also a burial chamber. As with so many things, the Victorians’ well-meaning attempts at restoration have altered the original circle, possibly adding a stone, and changing their positions slightly. But the site is still fascinating, filled with wild flowers, and despite the regular arrival of tourists it is a peaceful place with wonderful views. There is more detailed information about the Merry Maidens here. Wandering around the circle, the stones are warm to the touch, the grasses dancing where the girls no longer do; there is something magical in the air. There has been speculation for over a century that another stone circle stood close by;

Another popular site is the Bronze Age Men-an-Tol (more details here). This is a fascinating holed stone (which is the meaning of the Cornish name) with two other upright stones, and it has historically been considered part of a fertility ritual, or as having curative powers (one is meant to crawl through it a certain number of times at sundown, or something like that – the legends vary). Again it is a beautiful situation, in open land, surrounded by fields and with a distant chimney of a tin mine on the horizon. The Historic Cornwall website suggests that this may once have been part of a stone circle, and that “the holed stone would probably have been aligned along the circumference of the circle and would have had a special ritual significance possibly by providing a lens through which to view other sites or features in the landscape, or as a window onto other worlds” – an appealing idea.

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These stones are part of a pre-Christian pagan landscape, in which the stones were imbued with magical qualities. I’m not someone who believes this is still the case – though there are many who do – but there is something mysterious, ancient and powerful in these places. Madron Well and Baptistry indicates early Christian worship, in the tiny ruined chapel, associated with both pagan and Christian worship, which is near a cloutie tree (a tree with ribbons or rags tied to it). Until recently I understand local Methodists held outdoor services here. This, like many other sites, is looked after by the Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network, which offers more information on its website. There are many, many more such sites across Cornwall (and indeed Britain), but the concentration of them in Cornwall, and their survival into the 21st century, perhaps indicates the ways in which Cornwall’s physical isolation from the rest of England has enabled it to maintain such a distinct heritage.

Barbara Hepworth’s Studio

20160711_110310In St Ives on holiday, we visited Barbara Hepworth’s studio and garden, now part of Tate St Ives; Hepworth (1903-1975) died there in a fire about 40 years ago, and in her will asked that Trewyn Studio and gardens, complete with her sculptures and belongings, be opened to the public. Now, it is a tranquil place to visit, and one can imagine the haven it provided for Hepworth, who moved to St Ives in 1939 to escape London in the advent of war.  The move initiated a shift in the focus of her work, to natural forms inspired by the Cornish landscape she grew to love.  This is displayed to great effect with the sculptures in her garden, where a natural sense of form and movement blends with plants, trees and natural light, for which St Ives is remarkable.  Previously Trewyn had been a children’s home, but in 1949, ten years after her move to St Ives, Hepworth fell in love with it and bought it even though she couldn’t afford it, and the garden in particular became integral to her work.

From the dark entrance hall, paved with Delabole slate, which she used for many of her sculptures, and filled with photographs of Hepworth’s life, the visitor emerges into a light, bright studio space equipped with many examples of her work, including the famous stringed designs, sketches, and photographs of the space as it was during Hepworth’s lifetime.  It is also still furnished with pieces of furniture she acquired herself, which give it a homely touch.  Through the studio the garden can be reached, where sculptures are set among an array of plants and flowers, their organic shapes demonstrating Hepworth’s understanding of the holistic form and harmony with nature and landscape.  Winding paths lead around the garden, where one is assailed with the smell of the flowers and the sea, and the sight of nature and art entwined.  The garden is based on a formal layout, which is a relic of the Georgian estate of which it was once a part.

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In the garden is a small, white-painted summerhouse, with a makeshift bed, where Hepworth used sometimes to sleep; there is also a large outdoor studio, consisting of several rooms not unlike a conservatory.  This makes the most of the St Ives light, and is airy and warm, housing a number of cacti, and sometimes a cat, which dozes in a shabby armchair in the sun.  There are also a number of unfinished works in the studio, which adds an unusual sense of immediacy, as though the artist may return at any moment.  Jars of coffee sit side-by-side with glue and varnish on the dusty shelves, and her tools are scattered about.  Hepworth used a number of assistants in her work, especially in later life when she became frail, but her own tools are clearly marked with red tape. While resting in the summerhouse, she could hear her assistants working, and would call out to them if they made a mistake, which she could tell by the sounds of the tools on the material.

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Some of the sculptures are small and unassuming, almost hidden by the foliage in which they reside, while some are towering focal points that demand attention.  These are combined with beautiful flowers, and gnarled trees, which are works of art in themselves.  A small lily pond with a bridge completes the picture.  Somehow the holes in the forms of her sculptures seem to make more sense when trees, flowers and the sky can be seen through them, giving an appropriate sense of context to these smooth and natural forms.  While modern sculpture is not something that appeals to everyone, there is a strong sense here that searching for meaning is beside the point; it is feeling which is important, and the garden is an ideal environment for this.  Unlike a gallery, here you can walk around the sculptures, and give in to the irresistible urge to reach out and touch them.  By walking around and peering through the pieces, a visitor can become a part of the sculpture garden. Visiting with my son, I was fascinated by his enthusiasm for interacting with the sculptures, looking at them from all sides and even touching them.

Hepworth is well known for her exploration of form, especially the “pierced form”, which by means of a hole or depression in a solid mass allows exploration both of form or shape, and material. Like many of her contemporaries in abstract art, she believed in the concept of “truth to material”, where the artist works with rather than against the inherent qualities of the material.  Frequently she worked in wood, but in later life she moved on to bronze sculptures, and it is these and stone sculptures which form the majority of pieces in the garden.  Some are totem-like, giving a feeling of standing in an ancient, pagan landscape, while some are smaller and curved, with strings demonstrating tension in the landscape.  One such sculpture fills up with water when it rains, giving it a fourth dimen20160711_104917sion which adds to the organic feeling of her work.

Although very much rooted in the Cornish landscape, her work was never insular, influenced by international movements in art and sculpture.  At art school in Leeds, she was a contemporary of Henry Moore, and had many friends and acquaintances in the international art scene.  It was after the birth of her triplets in 1934 that she moved to abstract art, and endeavoured to ‘infuse the formal perfection of geometry with the vital grace of nature’.  Her work reflected both her own emotions, and her feelings towards nature, examining seed forms and maternal instincts along with regeneration and regrowth.  This last was considered particularly significant in the post-war world.

Sculpture and Landscape

01ada5367e4539481d00fe5a8d3e1c3012e0aa5965On holiday recently, we visited Tremenheere sculpture gardens for the first time, and found the combination of plants and landscape with works of art a really interesting experience. Over the site there are 16 installations, all very different from each other, and which work with the landscape in different, appealing ways. The site is planted with the lush, tropical vegetation for which the climate of Cornwall is known, so that one almost expects the unexpected to appear anyway (or, in the case of my son, dinosaurs). Actually this is a great place for children, as the map you are given to follow for your walk creates a kind of treasure hunt as you search for the sculptures. There are also wonderful views of St Michael’s Mount from the gardens, and the food in the restaurant is excellent.

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One of my favourite works there – and, I imagine, one of the most popular – is ‘Tewlolow Kernow’, or ‘Twilight in Cornwall’ designed by James Turrell, a sky space which turns the sky into art, framing the sky with an oval hole in a dome. The entrance to the space feels as though one is entering a place of ritual, and though it echoes beautifully  – making it tempting to sing – I felt as though I ought to be silent whilst observing the clouds moving ahead (I am a little obsessed with clouds, and how they are portrayed in art, after reading Weatherland by Alexandra Harris). One of Turrell’s sky spaces was featured in ‘Forest, Field and Sky: Art out of Nature’ on BBC4, and the presenter James Fox sat watching the sky for hours; I could happily have done so too. The clean, blank lines of the space you are in shifts your entire focus onto the world above.

Billy Wynter’s Camera Obscura was also hypnotic, projecting the world around onto a table in a small, dark room – which prompts questions about when nature becomes art, or vice versa. Like so many of the works, art and nature merge here, reflecting each other. Many works consequently prompt ideas about humanity’s place in the world, our relation to landscape and the land, and the cycles of nature and life. A remarkable, huge work, Penny Saunders’ ‘Restless Temple’ consists of counterbalanced pillars which sway in the wind, perhaps ‘challenging our preconceptions of what we hold secure and stable in everyday life’, the guide suggests. This link takes you to a video which shows my son enjoying this instability. We were all fascinated by the cloud form of Matt Chivers’ ‘Hybrid’ and Richard Marsh’s ‘Untitled X3’, both organic shapes which one can walk around endlessly.

We have got used to thinking of ‘art’ as an indoors thing: paintings of nature hung on a wall, perhaps, so it both refreshing and inspiring to walk around looking at art which grows, art which is placed in the landscape, art which is part of the natural world. My reflections were on the contrasts of transience and permanence, and questions about what art is and what it does, but it also works simply as a nice walk with some interesting things to look at.

Book Review: Charlotte Bronte: A Life

bronte-a-life-xlargeThe Bronte sisters are well-biographised (if that is a word); the outlines of their stories are a part of the cultural consciousness, and there are a number of biographical works available on them, of which I have read a few (most memorably Juliet Barker’s The Brontes and Mrs Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte). Yet Claire Harman’s in-depth biography somehow fills a gap; it takes account of the most recent scholarship on Charlotte Bronte’s life and work, and traces where some of the more misleading myths came from. Harman acknowledges her debt to previous biographers, especially Gaskell, but also identifies Gaskell as the source of some of the myths. Significantly, for me at least, Harman is not one of those biographers given to undue speculation of the “she must have thought…” school, instead providing context and source for any speculations, and unpicking the Bronte myth which sprung up so quickly after Charlotte’s death.

Few writers seem to have enjoyed quite such remarkable posthumous fame. Haworth became a site of pilgrimage not long after Charlotte’s death, with its popularity as a tourist destination being one of the reasons cited for the introduction of the railway into the area (I’ve never been, but am excitedly planning a visit). brontesThe Bronte Society formed in 1893, not quite 40 years after Charlotte’s death. The sisters – or brothers, as they were presumed to be, using the pen names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell – were quite the talk of London and literary society during their lifetime, but the details of their lives, discussed by Mrs Gaskell and others, have caused their stars to rise even further since their deaths. And there is something fascinating about the insistent tragedy of their lives. The world of the Haworth parsonage, in its bleak and wuthering position on the edge of the moors, is described so vividly that on finishing the book I feel as if I have been in another world. The lives of the children – six in total, suffering the death of their mother at a young age – is one of imagination, famously explored in their juvenilia (which in fact continued well into adulthood) of the Gondal and Angrian sagas. But the bereavements they repeatedly suffered, with the two eldest girls dying whilst at school, and the deaths of Emily, Anne and Branwell at a young age, not to mention the deaths of friends and relatives, makes one wonder how Charlotte and her father Patrick could bear the constant sadness. Perhaps one of the most poignant moments described here is how Anne, Emily and Charlotte used to walk round and round the dining table after finishing writing for the evening; after their deaths, Charlotte did so alone.

Charlotte appears here as a very real woman: religious, but constantly aware of her lack of beauty, desirous of love but reluctant to marry the wrong man, protective of her writing bronte-largeand her literary reputation, especially after the runaway success of Jane Eyre, a novel which surprised and shocked the literary establishment as much as it delighted it. She was a highly complex woman – that much is obvious from her novels – and Harman is aware that to speculate too much about her psychological depths is unnecessary. In fact, her novels say it all. I’m usually rather reluctant to link fiction to biography, but particularly in the case of Villette it is hard not to do so. I teach this novel on a module on Victorian literature and psychology, and as Harman points out, it is a novel of remarkable psychological depths, reflecting both Bronte’s and the Victorians’ growing interest in the new discipline of psychology. Like Bronte, the protagonist Lucy Snowe has a phrenological reading done; like Bronte (and indeed Jane Eyre), she is an intelligent woman who stands up to the prevailing norms of society which wish women to be beautiful, coquettish, childish. More than that, Villette depicts the experiences of an English woman teaching at a school in Brussels, a woman who falls in love with one of the other teachers. To align this with Bronte’s experience is not mere speculation; her letters indicate it happened, and Harman demonstrates the ways in which Bronte often uses her fiction to tell the truth about her own feelings. It was pleasing, too, to see the prominence Harman gives to the sisters’ poetry and its significance in their growing confidence in their ability to express themselves on the page.

Eventually, at the age of 38, Charlotte Bronte married. Initially reluctant when her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls,proposed to her, she is surprised by how happy marriage makes her. It is the final tragedy of her life that her death comes only 8 months after their haworth parsonagemarriage, due to complications of pregnancy (the same suffered by the Duchess of Cambridge, as Harman points out). She was planning another, more realist work prior to this, having visited prisons, lunatic asylums and other grim places of hardship in Victorian London, and who can say what else she might have written? However, despite all this, I’m left with a feeling of admiration for this woman who chose her own way in life against the odds, standing up to publishers, resisting attempts to make her conform, writing unexpected novels, and finding a way to be a woman writer at a time when Robert Southey could write to Bronte that ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be’. Less wilful than wild Emily, less meek than pious Anne, Charlotte was very much her own woman, demonstrating an interest in how women writers could work: she saw Harriet Martineau’s solitary life, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s busy family home, and adapted her own writing life to her changing circumstances. Though I teach several Bronte novels and am very familiar with them, I want to return to them now with fresh eyes, keeping in mind the remarkable woman who wrote them.

 

Turning to See

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Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery currently have a free exhibition called ‘Turning to See‘. It’s a novel premise, but it’s well worth exploring. Curated by John Stezaker, its centrepiece is Van Dyck’s splendid last self-portrait, which was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery with the Art Fund. It’s now touring the country so that everyone has a chance to see it – and I do suggest you take the opportunity, if you can. As it travels, the portrait will be part of a number of different exhibitions, many of which will relate to portraiture, I imagine. BMAG’s exhibition is creative and unusual in its approach: ‘the display will create a spectacle of turning in the gallery and will mirror the way the viewer moves around the space’, and one does feel watched, moving around and looking at the pictures, many of which look back at you. This effect is heightened when you visit at a quiet time: it’s just you and lots of people looking back.

‘Turning to See’ is a deliberately ambiguous title. The exhibition notes suggest both turning as pose, and turning as metamorphosis. The transformational effects of pose are apparent here, as the subjects turn towards or away from the viewer. I was fascinated by how this raised my awareness of pose in portraiture: not all of these are natural poses, though some are casually glancing at their audience, while  James Jefferys, in this self-portrait, below, appears to be looking up with annoyance at whoever has come to disturb him. A turn to see, of course, is always a pause, a disruption of previous activities, the opportunity to see something new or rethink things. Art should be like that.

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Me interrupting James Jefferys at the opening of the exhibition

Van Dyck himself, in this very immediate and powerful self-portrait, is posed formally, his posture slightly uncomfortable, but looking very much the man in charge of the exhibition, while others seem to be turning to deliberately avoid looking directly at the viewer. Burne-Jones’s Phyllis and Demophoon demonstrates a much more physical turning (without clothes on) while Rossetti’s Proserpine is mournfully turning her eyes away. image1

There are quite a lot of Pre-Raphaelite works here, including this wonderful portrait of Jane Morris, awkwardly turning, looking somehow both completely natural and also splendidly posed. (My picture here isn’t great, but I quite like the post-modern juxtaposition of Jane Morris with the reflection of me holding up my iPad!) There’s also a sketch for Rossetti’s Found, in which the ‘turning’ both indicates the metamorphosis of a respectable woman into a fallen one, and a turning away in remorse and anguish. Rossetti’s sketch for Orpheus and Eurydice also appears, as does Arthur Hughes’s beautiful ‘Study of a Girl’s Head’, the picture of innocence, unlike Rossetti’s disdainful ‘Portrait of Ada Vernon’, whose turning posture suggests she is looking rather snootily at you.

John Stezaker also has a few of his own works here, which are photo-collages and indicate both the physical turn and also metamorphosis: merging film portraits, the works indicate a blurring of boundaries of gender and space. Man Ray’s striking portrait of Lee Miller almost obliterates her, focusing on a length of exposed neck as she turns away. The exhibition space is surveyed rather grandly by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s imposing bronze Alfred Wolmark, who is turning to have a closer look at Van Dyck. Posture, I think, brings out character and narrative, speaking without words to tell the viewer what is really going on. This effect s intensified here, though, because these portraits are encouraged, by their positioning and juxtapositions, to interact with us and with each other, across the centuries, across countries. There is much to be considered here: it has made me think about portraiture more carefully, but it is also a playful exhibition which challenges our notions about portraits, people and the gaze.

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