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.


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.


A Church and a Chapel and a half

St Petrock

St Petrock

A sign which says ‘Ancient Church’ is irresistible to me. You never know what you might find off the beaten track, and sometimes the most beautiful places are the most hidden. On holiday in Devon, I followed one such sign, near the National Trust property Arlington Court in Parracombe, to look at the Church of St Petrock. Like a number of other churches in Devon and Cornwall, this one takes its name from the Cornish saint, a prince originally from Wales who is reported to have performed many miracles. The church is in a beautiful position with views overlooking the hills and valleys of the land, and with an old churchyard which I P1000818explored with my son (who is also partial to a nice graveyard). The church is reputed to have been built by William de Falaise in the eleventh century (he was a relative of William the Conqueror), though with later additions. In its secluded spot the church retains an atmosphere of the ancient, with much of it both inside and out being fairly plain. There is a wonderful painted screen, however, depicting the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed alongside the Hanoverian royal arms.

The guidebook tells me that the interior has not been altered in any way for two hundred years, and thus ‘shows the fashion in church furnishing that prevailed in a simple village church in the late eighteenth century’, complete with high box pews for keeping out the drafts, and plain sixteenth century benches. There is something refreshingly simple about it, as though plainly dressed, devout rural worshippers might solemnly file in at P1000827any moment. Fascinatingly, two old cottages nearby represent what is left of the church ale house, which brewed refreshments for the congregation. And as a final touch to bring the scene to life, it seems that ‘one pew has a piece cut out to allow room for the bow of a bass viol. St Petrock’s is believed to have been the last church in Devon in which the singing was accompanied by a band of musicians.’ The church was nearly pulled down in 1879, but John Ruskin defended it and offered a donation for a new church to be built elsewhere. Though the church is no longer in use, now looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust, it still somehow contains echoes of faith, and is, perhaps surprisingly (or perhaps not) one of the most visited churches in the country.ilfracombe

The chapel I visited was St Nicholas Chapel in Ilfracombe, on a hill above the harbour. Overlooking Damien Hirst’s ‘gigantic and arrestingly hideous Verity‘ (according to the Guardian, and I can’t say I like the sculpture either), there is something of deep peace about the little chapel overlooking the sea, beset – on the day I visited – by high wind and heavy rain. Built in 1321, it has also served as a lighthouse for much of its life (and is still a working lighthouse) – a nice metaphor for its early purpose as a beacon of hope for workers in the harbour. With the dissolution of the Chapelmonasteries it was no longer a chapel, and has been used as a reading room and a laundry, and in the mid-nineteenth century was home to a lighthouse keeper and his fourteen children. Now maintained by the Rotary Club, it contains a few pieces of furniture which recall this domestic dwelling, though services  are still occasionally held at the tiny altar. It’s a steep climb, but a tiny gem.

The half mentioned in the title refers to the ruins of St Michael’s chapel in Braunton. This is a sixteenth century chapel high up on a hill, which we could see from our holiday home, and I spent the first few days here planning a trip to explore it. Its position made it a perfect place to watch the seas and pray for sailors. Legend has it that the church was demolished every night by the devil, so eventually it was abandoned and the church of St Brannock was built in a more accessible spot in the village. We tried very hard, climbing several steep hills with a P1000844three year old, but ultimately were defeated by padlocked gates and electric fences, so although we saw some lovely views we never got to the chapel.

While on holiday, I’m reading Alexandra Harris’s marvellous Romantic Moderns, which reminds me that John Betjeman urged radio listeners in the 1930s to see churches as ‘not backwaters, but “strongholds”. … They had for centuries been the focal point of village culture. This was where English music had flourished; it was also the village art gallery with a permanent collection of extraordinary richness, from wall paintings and ceiling bosses to stained-glass windows and memorial sculpture.’ (Harris, 193)

The Return of History

IMG_2535My third and final blog from Port Eliot looks at two very different ways in which the past is important and why it matters. Both books – one fiction and one non-fiction – also suggest ways in which history is significant for the present day.

One was a talk by Paul Kingsnorth whose book, The Wake, was published by Unbound using crowd funding, and it has become the first book of that kind to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Kingsnorth is a compelling speaker and began by talking about how we tend to forget the myths of the founding of Britain, and indeed that British roots are easily forgotten or ignored. He discussed how myths and stories developed to help the population understand and explain what happened in turbulent times when England was invaded, poor and often struggling with the influx of conquerors with new languages and ideas. The point in history he takes as a beginning for his work was 1066, a time we assume we know about, but Kingsnorth’s point is that there is so much we ignore, or don’t think about. He emphasised that the first law that William (the Conqueror) passed took all landwake cover_illustration into the possession of the crown; and that all English barons in power were replaced with Normans over the following decade or two. Insurgency is little discussed now, but, as the elite of England had mostly been killed in the battles or by William’s orders, opposition had to come from other sources, notably the Sylvatica, or wild men, such as Hereward the Wake. The Harrying of the North, in which resistance to Norman rule was put down ruthlessly, with villages and farmland burned and population slaughtered, is perhaps a sadly familiar tale, but with that history often seems to stop. This is the start for The Wake: how did ordinary people live through these violent times, coming to terms with a loss of identity as well as land and family? The main character, Buccmaster, is a Fens farmer, rooted in ‘the old ways’ and fearful for the future. As Kingsnorth asks, ‘Does an oak tree bend or break when hit by lightning?’ What does this period of history do to identity, and to England?

Of course such big questions have big, often ambiguous answers, but they also have resonance for the modern world, not just here in Britain but much more widely. The novel provokes questions about how the future will judge us; and also about what national identity is, and why it is (or isn’t) important. What role does history play in this? It’s a story both specific and universal, then, of a colonised and paul_kingsnorthoppressed people with many modern and historic parallels.

I’m also interested in the language used. Kingsnorth began writing in modern English, but felt this grated (and certainly the language used in historical novels is a bugbear of mine). Then he thought about Old English, but this would be unreadable to all but academics. Eventually he settled on what he calls a ‘shadow tongue’, a language somewhere between Old English and modern English. The reader is thus dropped into an alien world ‘without a lifebelt’, but from what I’ve read so far the language is striking and evocative, and makes appealing and sometimes beautiful prose. There is a glossary (though I studied Old English at university and remembered the vocab quite quickly), and it’s fascinating to read a book with no Gallicisms, and no modern words – nothing sounds out of place. When I was about 8 my father showed me a book written in Old English, which I didn’t understand, and then read some to me, and I quickly realised how the sounds have changed less than the words and it suddenly made sense, and this feeling of a spoken language which can quickly become more familiar than we expect is present in The Wake, too. I was so inspired by the talk that I rushed off to buy the last copy and got it signed. I’ll report back when I’ve read it!

Finally, I went to a panel lecture on Pevsner’s Cornwall, chaired by Sir Richard Carew-Pole. He introduced the subject, pointing out Nikolaus Pevsner- The Life by Susie Harriesthat Cornwall was the first in the original Buildings of England series, published in 1951, revised 1971, and with a new edition out this year, by Peter Beacham. The panel spoke about the history of Pevsner’s series, with some lovely reminiscences about the man. One of the speakers was Susie Harries, the author of the Pevsner biography (which I’m now keen to read); she told us how what is now seen as a quintessentially English series was begun by a young German academic with an interest in modernist art. As a young academic, Pevsner was sent to England by his university to learn about English architecture for a course he was teaching. Not long after his return, he lost his job because he was from a Russian-Jewish family, and ended up in England as an ‘art odd-job man’, who eventually ended up writing for the Architectural Review, becoming editor during the war. When Penguin approached him to ask what he thought they should be doing, he suggested what he had wanted on his first visit to England: a county by county guide to architecture. What he ended up producing was not a history or a travel guide, but just about architectural styles, though he struggled sometimes with how much historic detail to include, a struggle which Peter Beacham has also had. Yet ultimately Pevsner was sad to have become essentially a ‘compiler’, doing no original research because of the success of the Buildings of England series. Yet Joe Mordaunt-Crook spoke of the range of Pevsner’s work; apparently he spoke of himself as a general practitioner of architectural history, specialising in nothing but with a remarkable knowledge, which many people have benefitted from. He used to claim that the secret for a contented life was to ‘find out what you’re good at and keep doing it’, which is exactly what he did.

Nikolaus-Pevsner-007Peter Beacham is a keen defender of the original series, but without unnecessary reverence; there were limitations (partly due to petrol rationing) and mistakes, so the new edition offers much more whilst remaining a part of the original (and correcting a mistake about Withiel church which no one had pointed out in 65 years!) The architecture of Cornwall is unique in many ways, especially as a centre for Gothic revival architecture; neglected by the established church for centuries, Henry Philpotts, a Victorian bishop of Exeter tried to inject traditional ecclesiastical architecture into the county, including repairs of many churches in the Tractarian tradition. The biggest challenge for Beacham was to retain a sense of place iCornwalln his work; while Pevsner felt he had neither talent nor space for this, Beacham felt that, especially in such an atmospheric county as Cornwall, this was important and has tried to include this. There were a few places where Pevsner ‘let himself go’ and did discuss historical context; Tintagel was one.

Finally, Giles Clotworthy, who spent time on the road with Pevsner, gave some amusing and enlightening anecdotes about his time travelling with the man himself, after having been taught by him at the Courtauld Institute of Art. His five weeks as Pevsner’s driver were perhaps the most gruelling of his life, and, having also travelled with Peter Beacham, confirms that the latter enabled him to spend more time in pubs and take things a bit easier! With Pevsner, ‘Private’ signs on land meant little, and when staff with pitchforks emerged to drive the intruders away, Pevsner instructed Giles to put his foot down to get them out of there. Then, they would eat fudge.

My notes are so extensive I can only give a flavour of the discussion, but (having grown up with the Buildings of England series all around me, I was filled with enthusiasm for the man who devoted his life to them, and the enduring power both of the architecture and the books about it.

Jamaica Inn

Jamaica_Inn_novelThe first of Daphne du Maurier’s novels I read was Jamaica Inn, which thrilled and rather scared me when I first read it, aged about 12. I even made my parents take me to the ‘real’ Jamaica Inn – the old inn on Bodmin Moor which inspired the story (which rather disappointed me when we got there). So I was rather looking forward to the BBC’s adaptation and to seeing how they achieved the menacing atmosphere and drama of the novel. The book unfolds how Mary Yellan begins to understand the significance of what is going on at her uncle’s inn, the wrecking and the violence, and also falls in love with his brother Jem, and while there is plenty of description of Cornwall and of the scenes Mary sees, the tension is palpable; it’s the kind of book where you keep wanting to know what happens.

The biggest issue with the BBC’s version was the ‘mumbling‘, variously blamed on the sound mixers and the actors, and moaned about all over the internet. And this was a problem, particularly with Joss Merlyn’s lines, and it didn’t really improve across the three episodes. But that wasn’t the biggest problem, for me: what I can’t understand is how, when the drama seemed to stick fairly closely to the plot of the novel (though lacking much detail), the novel is so much more exciting. I can only assume that in a desire not to overplay or overdramatise – that is, n an attempt to show some restraint which is often appropriate in adapting a novel for screen, the events were slowed down a little too much. Much of the dialogue comes straight from du Maurier, and the action is little changed too, though the bedroom scene in Launceston was added (of course). The scenery is beautiful (though it was filmed in Northern Ireland rather than Cornwall), and Jessica Brown Findlay is well-cast as Mary, both innocent and fiery, unsure of her place in the world but with a distinct and strong personality. Joanne Whalljamaica_2868239bey was perfect, in my opinion, as Aunt Patience, unhappy but determined to stick with her abusive husband (something she wrote about on the BBC blog). But Joss Merlyn is physically unlike du Maurier’s description (hardly a ‘great husk of a man’), and lacks the physical and psychological power that is crucial to the plot, and Jem is too shallowly drawn by this production – it is difficult to see why Mary was attracted to him, since he shows little sign of any real depth or interest. And Francis Davey, the Vicar of Altarnun, lacked any sinister atmosphere, despite being quite terrifying in the novel. The paintings which scare Mary and the way in which he reveals to her his part in the wrecking and murder are glossed over here, which causes the ending to lose its force.

608The real issue is the one usually faced with adaptations of novels: the drama and tension of a novel lies in its detail, its description, its careful building-up of character, place and storyline, and this detail is necessarily lost in performance. The historical and social contexts which du Maurier brings out so well are also lost, which is a shame. Most of all, Cornwall itself is the great hero of du Maurier’s novels, and despite the (mumbled!) accents, this is lost here: the sense of place which is so significant in the book seems somehow obliterated. The best I can say for this adaptation is that I didn’t hate it; but I was a little bored by it, and probably only stayed with it to the end because I wanted to see how the novel was adapted. I suggest you read the book.

Laura Knight Portraits

264lk_selfportraitAt the moment the National Portrait Gallery has an exhibition of Laura Knight’s portraits.  There have been quite a few Laura Knight exhibitions over the last few years, including Laura Knight in the Open Air and Laura Knight at the Theatre, plus appearances in Cornish Childhoods, Women War Artists and The Magic of a Line. This exhibition is somewhat different, since it only features portraits, usually of named figures. These portraits, as the exhibition notes point out, are “in the realist, figurative tradition”, demonstrating her “distinctive” approach to portraiture, “bold and compassionate” and “reflecting her experience of modern Britain”. Though these descriptions seem to contain a lot of buzzwords, in fact I tend to agree: there is a remarkable modern colour and life about Knight’s portraits. Still, I have seen several reviews of the exhibition which suggest that Knight’s approach was rather old-fashioned even at the time – that her contemporaries were experimenting with modernism and other isms, which make her recognisable approach seem rather regressive. Looking at this exhibition, I don’t agree. While her work is infrequently experimental, her empathy with her subjects and her expressiveness of style makes her work always interesting, and after all she was hardly the only successful painter not to embrace the art movements of the twentieth century.

The exhibition begins with the famous self-portrait, exhibiting her pleasure in being able to paint nudes after being denied the opportunity at art school. This is accompanied by a lovely, in(c) John Croft; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundationformal sketch of Ella Napier, the model for the nude, sitting in a tree. I was interested in her large oil of Lamorna Birch and his daughters, which I don’t recall seeing before: it’s an odd painting, combining a realist style with an impressionistic background. While the painting indicates freedom and an unconventional and happy childhood, the figures are not smiling. Birch, a fellow Newlyn School painter, was a friend of Knight’s and one feels there must be history behind the painting.

The exhibition is divided into sections: Early years and Cornwall; Ballet and Theatre; John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore; Circus; Gypsies; War; The Royal Academy. These show a helpful trajectory in Knight’s life, work and subjects, though as ever the ballet and theatre paintings seem to take centre stage (no pun intended!) These paintings are so detailed, with many, such as her portrait of Lubov Tchernicheva, almost photographic. It is interesting that she paints Tchernicheva not as a dancer but as a knight-laura-1877-1970-united-the-ballerina-lydia-lopokova-1090806fashionable young woman, with sad, soulful eyes, in contrast to her painting of Lydia Lopokova, also a dancer, this time in the act of preparing to dance, looking almost childlike.

Knight’s paintings of gypsies have led to accusations that she abused the trust of her sitters by painting them over and over, but I find it difficult not to be drawn to these images, particularly those of the women, strong but sad, with experiences drawn into every line on their faces. I think Knight is at her most sympathetic as an artist when representing those whose lives have been a struggle, and the sadness of the gypsies’ eyes demonstrate this. There is an inner beauty and strength in many of these women, particularly ‘Freedom’ Smith, in a painting which reminds me of Tess of the D’Urbervilles!264lk_beulah2 And in the war pictures, from “Take Off”, with its focus, concentration and tension, to “Corporal J.M. Robins”, a woman who won a Military Medal for bravery, realism is a necessary part of the picture’s construction and meaning: to say Knight is not avant-garde enough is to miss the point.

Knight is significant for her determination to succeed as a woman artist, not only for finally becoming the Royal Academy’s first full female member, but also her desire to record the experience of women – at work, at war, as mothers. Many of her paintings are deceptively simple, but contain a wealth of meaning and experience behind their bright and vivacious surfaces. While this exhibition may not change your views of Knight’s work, it does bring a large body of her portraiture together and in so doing assemble a strong case for her significance as a twentieth-century painter.

Laura Knight in the Open Air

0467be557c0b8a002975a64818ab4055686bdd5fUntil 10th February 2013, Worcester City Art Gallery is hosting this exhibition of works of Laura Knight which are painted outdoors, from large landscapes to sketches of sheep. I don’t think of Knight as an outdoors kind of person, or painter, but this exhibition shows how much of her work is preoccupied with nature, although not perhaps in the same way as other painters. In an interview in 1964, she said that she and her husband, Harold Knight, were ‘great walkers’, and explained that ‘what entranced me most [in the Malverns] were the immense views so detailed with patchwork, with little shapes of field and red roofed farms, cattle in the fields, and hens pecking round the farmyards…’. This explains so much about the subject matter and construction of her paintings: with a few notable exceptions, the paintings in the exhibition depict figures in landscape, often working – hop pickers, fishermen, carthorses, etc.

Of course, Knight is most well known for her paintings of the theatre and for her work as a war artist, both of which in their own ways show people at work, entirely focussed on using their skills. But her paintings of landscape, from Cornwall to the Malvern Hills, do something similar: she seems preoccupied with showing humanity in relation to 4110503nature, though usually as quite large figures in the landscape, rather than dwarfed by the natural world. Paintings such as ‘The Cornish Coast’ (1917) are both completely of their time, given the figures’ costumes, and also timeless, of the coastal landscape: this contrast is striking and also pleasing. The selection of pictures in this exhibition also gives one the opportunity to admire Knight’s skill in painting water, fields, the effects of weather and the change of seasons: ‘Autumn Sunset’ and ‘Snow on the Hills’ are excellent examples of this, with the former providing an almost Turneresque effect of light in the sky (unusually: her paintings, even her landscapes, don’t often show very much sky), and the latter inviting the viewer into the snow-covered fields to admire the vista beyond. But though no figures appear in either of these, both show the effect of occupation: ploughed and furrowed fields, a distant train, carefully ordered hedges. Knight’s landscapes are not wild, they are subject to agriculture and to civilisation, though the Malvern Hills in the distance resist such man-made shaping.

Dame+Laura+Knight+-+A+Ballon+Site+Coventry+1943The exhibition also displays Knight’s remarkable versatility as an artist: she employs so many media (mostly oils, watercolour and etchings, with a few pencil sketches) and styles: if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t guess that ‘A Balloon Site, Coventry, 1943’ and ‘In the Sun: Newlyn’ (1910) were painted by the same artist (albeit  30 years apart). The exhibition also includes one of her most famous war paintings: ‘The Dock, Nuremburg 1944’, which qualifies for this exhibition, I presume, because of the shattered, war-torn landscapes which appear in the top left of the painting, as if themselves accusing those in the dock for the harm done.

The exhibition closes with a series in a gypsy encampment. Again, Knight’s primary focus is on the figures, rather than their landscape, and here the characterful faces of the subjects almost obliterate the carefully-painted landscapes behind. Yet, the implication is, here are people who are a part of the open-air life, who are in many ways a part of the landscape. Here the similarities to her theatre paintings are most obvious, and here, perhaps, her work seems at its most coherent as a body.