Visiting Tate Britain last week we found that the painters and decorators were in and rooms closed – there’s a major re-hang going on that will be completed in May, with the promised result that we will be able to follow the story of British Art chronologically from 1540 to present day.
I can see the advantages of that approach, but I tend to prefer presentations that surprise by bringing together works from different periods or schools. And Tate Britain has actually got a display of that kind on show now – it’s called Looking at the View, and it presents paintings from the 17th century to the present alongside photographs and video, all in non-chronological pairings designed to demonstrate how different artists have approached ‘the view’ in similar ways. This is how the Tate introduces the exhibition:
This exhibition is about looking. It brings together works which are amazingly similar even when made centuries apart, and reveals how subject matter, focus, framing and composition operate in a complex relationship between viewer and view. The representation of a landscape is not defined only by considerations of period or place. Different viewpoints place the spectator in a range of relationships with the landscape: inside or outside, near or far, high above or immersed in detail. Such views appear natural but are, in fact, highly structured according to artistic conventions that have changed little over the centuries. All of them offer insights into the ways in which a viewer is engaged in the process of looking.
The works are all drawn from Tate’s collection. Some of them key works while others, less well-known, are rarely exhibited. One example of the Tate’s juxtapositions is the pairing of Tracey Emin’s ‘Monument Valley‘, a photograph of her reading in a chair against an Arizona desert background, with Joseph Wright’s 1782 portrait of Sir Brooke Boothby: both feature figures in a landscape reading a book, though neither are, to me, especially interesting. I did note that whereas Emin is reading a copy of her own book, Boothby is reading Rousseau. So there you have cultural decline in one!
The main interest of this display didn’t derive from the concept underpinning it (which, after that initial, brief introduction, the Tate left to our own imaginings, offering no further guidance through panels or captions), but from having the chance to view some beautiful works, among them many rarely put on show. Overall, it added up to a diverse survey of British landscape artists, that avoided chocolate box clichés.
Perhaps the best-known picture in the display is ‘The Cornfield’, painted by John Nash in 1918 (top). John Nash and his brother Paul had served at the Western Front in the Great War. On their return to England, they rented a studio in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, where John painted The Cornfield, a poignant contrast to the brothers’ paintings of devastation and death at the front they were working on as commissions at the same time. John later said that they used to paint for their own pleasure only after six o’clock, when their work as war artists was over for the day. This explains the long shadows cast by the evening sun across the golden field of corn that is the focus of the painting.
John Burnside’s wrote a beautiful meditation on The Cornfield for the Tate blog:
Nothing is as it was
in childhood, when we had to learn the names
of objects and colours,
and yet the eye can navigate a field,
loving the way a random stook of corn
– not by shadows; not by light –
but softly, like the tinder in a children’s
story-book, the stalled world raised to life
around a spark: that tenderness in presence,
pale as the flame a sniper waits to catch
across the yards of razor-wire and ditching;
thin as the light that falls from chapel doors,
so everything, it seems,
not for a moment, not in the sway of the now,
as the evening we can see
is all the others, all of history:
the man climbing up from the tomb
in a mantle of sulphur,
the struck match whiting his hands
in a blister of light.
The rather louche Count Zouboff in this painting by Annie Swynnerton (1844-1933), first exhibited in 1931, is not engaged with the landscape behind him; rather, this seems to be in the tradition of aristocratic types being portrayed in front of landscapes which they either own or have had the good fortune to be visit. Swynnerton was born in Kersal, a suburb of Manchester, one of seven daughters of a solicitor. She began painting to help support the family. Later she trained at the Manchester School of Art and in Paris. She married sculptor Joseph Swynnerton in 1883 and lived with him in Rome for much of her adult life. louche
Another less-often seen painting is Philip Wilson Steer’s Whistlerish ‘The Bridge’ (1887). The painting was attacked by critics when it was first exhibited in 1887, and dismissed by one as ‘either a deliberate daub or so much mere midsummer madness’. Steer considered giving up painting after this savaging, but its atmospheric lighting and subdued colouring has something of the feel of the ‘dreamy, pensive mood’ of Whistler’s ‘Nocturnes’ (though they hadn’t fared any better with the critics).
This is a photograph of the Bluewater shopping complex at night. It is one of a series by Dan Holdsworth entitled A Machine for Living, 1999-2000. The photograph shows exits from the motorway leading to vast empty car parks. The shopping complex itself looms in the background of the image beneath a heavy sky. Holdsworth used long exposures at night to exploit the available light sources, and this process has rendered the landscape in unnatural colours. The sky is a hazy red, as are trees in the immediate foreground, while the sparse foliage dotted around the car park is a sickly yellow. Electric lights in the car park give off an eerie, excessively bright glow. The scene is completely empty of people, and this barrenness, along with the saturated colours, conveys a sense of unease. Holdsworth has said, ‘I’m often quite interested in dislocating the image from the place. I’m not so interested in where it’s located. What I’m interested in is a psychological landscape.’
Bluewater was built on the site of a disused quarry near a major motorway junction in Kent. Dan Holdsworth’s photo makes it look like the vision of a future beautiful place, as conjured in Simon Armitage’s poem, ‘A Vision’:
The future was a beautiful place, once.
Remember the full-blown balsa-wood town
on public display in the Civic Hall?
The ring-bound sketches, artists’ impressions,
blueprints of smoked glass and tubular steel,
board-game suburbs, modes of transportation
like fairground rides or executive toys.
Cities like dreams, cantilevered by light.
And people like us at the bottle bank
next to the cycle path, or dog-walking
over tended strips of fuzzy-felt grass,
or model drivers, motoring home in
electric cars. Or after the late show –
strolling the boulevard. They were the plans,
all underwritten in the neat left-hand
of architects – a true, legible script.
I pulled that future out of the north wind
at the landfill site, stamped with today’s date,
riding the air with other such futures,
all unlived in and now fully extinct.
‘Welsh Landscape with Road’ (1936) by Graham Sutherland depicts a lane through a valley in the hills near Porthclais on the outskirts of St David’s, Pembrokeshire. Sutherland wrote that paintings like this expressed the ‘intellectual and emotional essence’ of a place, a sense of the ancient past hinted at here by the inclusion of the animal skull and the standing stones in the distance. Sutherland painted icons of deep country, but – as Alexandra Harris writes in Romantic Moderns, ‘in a manner so abstract that all sense of a through road disappears, leaving concentric forms that both embrace and repulse’. Sutherland remarked: ‘Surely if English painting is to gain strength it will do so in the open … and not behind the sheltered wall’.
I suppose the Tate couldn’t have left Turner out of this exhibition – though they have selected a less well-known oil painting, ‘Hill Town on the Edge of the Campagna’, possibly painted in 1828 on his second visit to Rome. It’s a tonal study of the Campagna broiling in a heat haze that may have been observed from nature, though his Italian sketches were generally composed in the studio.
John Brett’s ‘The British Channel Seen From the Dorsetshire Cliffs’, painted in 1871, reminded me a little bit of Kurt Jackson’s studies of sea surfaces off the coast of Cornwall. Brett’s view is probably from the cliffs above Lulworth Cove in Dorset, and was based on detailed notes on colour and meteorology that John Brett made as he sailed round the south-west coast in the summer of 1870. The focus of the painting is the effect of crepuscular rays of sunlight on the sea, which Brett had studied closely and aimed to reproduce accurately.
Another seascape. William Nicholson (father of Ben) lived at Harlech in North Wales towards the end of the First World War and after. This view is from high above Harlech Castle, and looks across Tremadoc Bay to the mountains on the Lleyn Peninsula.
When the sea’s to the west
The evenings are one dazzle –
You can find no sign of water.
Sun upflows the horizon;
Waves of shine
Heave, crest, fracture,
Explode on the shore;
The wide day burns
In the incandescent mantle of the air.
I would lean on handlebars,
Staring into the flare,
Blinded by looking,
Letting the gutterings and sykes of light
Flood into my skull.
Then, on the stroke of bedtime,
I’d turn to the town,
Cycle past purpling dykes
To a brown drizzle
Where black-scum shadows
Stagnated between backyard walls.
I pulled the warm dark over my head
Like an eiderdown.
Yet in that final stare when I
(Five times, perhaps, fifteen)
Creak protesting away –
The sea to the west,
The land darkening –
Let my eyes at the last be blinded
Not by the dark
But by dazzle.
– ‘Sea to the West’, Norman Nicholson
I was really struck by this painting – ‘Interior of the Carpenter’s Shop at Forty Hill, Enfield’ exhibited around 1813 by John Hill. This was Hill’s first finished picture – he was entirely self taught. What is interesting about this picture, apart from its details of a carpenter’s workshop in the early 19th century, is that window at the far end of the workshop. These are men working in an idyllic, Eden-like setting, but they have work to do. At least for the time they are working, they are oblivious to the beauty beyond.
The Tate website adds these details:
The interior depicted is that of a small joinery shop, flagstoned and largely timber-built, with a view of the countryside seen through an open window at the back of the shop. It is at this vantage point that the master carpenter (distinguished from his assistants by his moleskin hat and dark jacket) is portrayed at work, planing timber. His two assistants are in shirt-sleeves; each wears the traditional carpenter’s cap made of stout white paper folded into a box-like shape (also worn by the Carpenter in Tenniel’s illustrations to Alice Through the Looking-Glass).
A Tate monograph on the painting that:
None of these details are picturesque props; all of them are painted from first hand knowledge of the carpenter’s trade. The three men at work in this interior are not posing for the artist. Each of them is absorbed in his work and in command of the task to which he is putting his skills’. … Each of the three men is evidently a fully-qualified carpenter, for each has beside him his carpenter’s tool box, usually elaborately constructed and inlaid, which he would have made during his apprenticeship. … The only unrealistic note is the axe lying unprotected on the flagstones in the foreground: no carpenter would leave an axe on the floor like that.
‘The Beanfield, Letchworth’, painted by Spencer Gore in 1912, uses flat and vivid colour to give form and distinctive angular patterns to the landscape. Gore developed this style during time spent in Letchworth Garden City from August to November 1912. Trees in full leaf and a golden yellow sky indicate high summer or early autumn; on the distant horizon, the puffing chimneys of the Arlesey brickworks are visible.
He needed change. He seems to have felt something of the same dissatisfaction with Impressionism that Cézanne felt; its lack of definition and solidity. The feeling was intrinsic; it was not a pressure from outside. … He began to simplify and to mass the colour schemes of his pictures, grouping the tones into hot and cold colour. There was a gain in strength, solidity, and pattern; there was some loss of atmosphere and sparkle. At Letchworth he made a desperate break. He began to analyse his colour tones very broadly, and to put them down in arbitrarily defined masses; his drawing became simpler, more massive, angular. It was a period of transition and the paintings of the time revealed the working of his mind in a very interesting way.
If you want work that is ‘simpler, more massive, angular’, then ‘There are hills in the distance’ (1996) by Julian Opie should suit. It is a large wall painting, the dimensions of which are determined by the space in which it is to be installed (here it was along two adjacent walls, across the corner of a room) . It depicts a simplified landscape composed of three shades of green, representing foreground fields or grassland, plus two of blue, representing the distant hills alluded to in the title.
Colour gradation in the greens and the blues corresponds to the notion of distance. Paler colours represent areas that are further away. These colours are painted onto the wall in sloping horizontal strips below a large area of light blue sky. All the colours are monotone. The painting is made using water-based acrylic paint applied with a roller for even application. Low-tack masking tape is applied to the wall at the edges of each area when painting. The work is not dependent on the artist’s presence for its execution. The painting is carried out by professional sign painters following his instructions, which consist of templates, measurements and a list detailing the order in which areas should be painted. These include the specifications that ‘the idea is not to decorate the room but to make a panorama or view’. I was reminded a little bit of Bridget Riley’s designs for the old Royal Liverpool Hospital.
I liked this lithograph by Lisa Milroy titled ‘Sky’. She’s a Canadian painter who now lives and works in the UK. She is mainly known for painting everyday items (such as shoes or light bulbs) in the form of grids that look like pages from a catalogue. I thought this work, which reminded me a little of Constable’s cloud studies, was far preferable.
In the 1960s Lowry made a number of visits to South Wales, discovering of the mining villages and renewing his interest in the industrial landscape as a subject for his paintings. In contrast to his views of Lancashire towns, the Welsh mining villages prompted pictures that combine a sense of urban life within a rural environment, the village here nestling in the side of the hill. This picture was painted from notes and sketches made on the spot near Abertillery.
From the wide-angle view to the close-up: in the mid-1960s Freud made a series of paintings of botanical subjects. ‘Two Plants’ is almost photographic in its detail and precision. He began the painting in 1977 and it took three years to complete. Freud described it as ‘lots of little portraits of leaves’, adding ‘I wanted it to have a really biological feeling of things growing and fading and leaves coming up and others dying’.
Someone who walks long distances whilst looking at the view is Richard Long. The Crossing Place of Road and River, also known as A Walk of the Same Length as the River Avon, consists of two elements. One is a black and white photograph of a rough track approaching and crossing over a narrow river, above the handwritten words ‘the crossing place of road and river’ (above). The other is a drawing consisting of two lines, one blue, one black, above the words ‘a walk of the same length as the River Avon / An 84 mile northward walk along the Foss Way Roman Road’ inscribed in red ink. ‘England 1977’ is written below in black. The blue line, with its forked end, describes the contours of the River Avon from mouth to source. The black line marks the trajectory of the Foss Way, the road built by the Romans along which Long walked over a period of several days. The two panels of The Crossing Place freeze Long’s walk in time through two different viewpoints: the overview provided by the drawing and the literal view provided by the camera.
Tristram Hillier studied at the Slade School of Art, London, in 1926, and later in Paris. He lived in the South of France until 1940, where this picture – ‘La Route des Alpes’ – was painted in 1937 when he was staying near Vence. The artist later wrote of the work:
Here I started to paint landscape again, not in my earlier manner en plein air, but attempting to construct my pictures from rough drawings which I would elaborate in the studio, in the style of the Flemish and Italian masters whose work I had recently had so much opportunity of studying.
We have no time to stand and stare?—No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
– ‘Leisure’, WH Davies
Standing in front of this painting by Winifred Nicholson I couldn’t help hearing those soaring lines of Guy Garvey’s:
Throw those curtains wide
One day like this a year would see me right
‘Glimpse Upon Waking’ was painted in 1976 by Nicholson, who developed a very personal impressionistic style that concentrated on domestic subjects and landscapes, the two motifs often combined – as here – in a view out of a window that sometimes features flowers in a vase or a jug.
Winifred Nicholson married Ben Nicholson in 1920 and for a time they were both part of the artists’ colony in St Ives. The couple influenced each other’s work, with Ben admitting that he learnt a great deal about colour from Winifred. After her divorce from Ben in 1938, Winifred spent most of the rest of her long life (she died in 1981, aged 88) in Cumberland.
take the small voyage
out to the horizon
and back again
We left Tate Britain and strolled along the embankment, looking at the view. In a steady drizzle which had lasted all day, the towers rising up from London’s changing skyline dissolved into a murky haze, and the river was slate grey.
go and glimpse the lovely inattentive water
discarding the gaze of many a bored street walker
where the weather trespasses into strip-lit offices
through tiny windows into tiny thoughts and authorities
and the soft beseeching tapping of typewriters
take hold of a breath-width instant, stare
at water which is already elsewhere
in a scrapwork of flashes and glittery flutters
and regular waves of apparently motionless motion
under the teetering structures of administration
where a million shut~away eyes glance once
restlessly at the river’s ruts and glints
count five, then wander swiftly
away over the stone wing-bone of the city
– ‘Another Westminster Bridge’, Alice Oswald