Nocturne: prettiness in a face-off with edgelands grit

Nocturne: prettiness in a face-off with edgelands grit

Atkinson Grimshaw, Tree Shadows in the Park Wall, Roundhay, Leeds, 1872

Atkinson Grimshaw, Tree Shadows in the Park Wall, Roundhay, Leeds, 1872

One final report from Leeds Art Gallery.  After the Nicholsons in Art and Life and Stanley Spencer on the stairs we had a look at a small display entitled Nocturne. Built around three of four Atkinson Grimshaws from their permanent collection, the curators have added a handful of paintings that illuminate the way in which artists have been drawn to the crepuscular, or as their guide puts it:

We have traditionally feared the night and wanted to lighten the darkness, but for artists it has also been a zone of uncertainty to capture in painted form.

In the room that houses the display, the ‘moonlights’ painted by Leeds artist Atkinson Grimshaw face on the opposite wall two large paintings by the Turner-prize nominee George Shaw: prettiness and delicacy in a stand-off with edgelands grittiness. Two quite different artists, each of them masters of their chosen technique, whose works are atmospheric, evocative and haunting.

Atkinson Grimshaw, Nightfall Down the Thames

Atkinson Grimshaw, Nightfall Down the Thames, 1880

John Atkinson Grimshaw was born in Leeds and, in 1861 at the age of 24, and opposed by his parents, he abandoned his job as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway to pursue a career in art. Gradually, Grimshaw developed his own highly distinctive style and subject matter. He became a consummate painter of twilight, night time and autumnal scenes.

Atkinson Grimshaw, Snow and Mist

Atkinson Grimshaw, Snow and Mist (Caprice in Yellow Minor), 1893

A couple of years ago we saw an excellent retrospective of Grimshaw’s work in Harrogate.  One of the most strking works there was Snow and Mist: Caprice in Yellow Minor and I was pleased to encounter it again here. It was painted sometime in the last year of Grimshaw’s life. Both the technique and the title reflect the impact that Whistler had made on the artist.  In her memoir, Grimshaw’s daughter Elaine described how just before he became fatally ill with cancer, her father had continued to experiment with light and colour:

Only the winter before, he had experimented with snow pictures; a farmer trailing homewards across his snowy acres: one could feel the cold, the loneliness with his cattle safe and warm in their byres.  We must not trample and mar the crystalline beauty of the snowy paths near the house.  He even studied the texture of salt, as we piled it higher in   the salt-cellars.  Then he turned back to his moonlit wet lanes and streets, painting, painting, painting, all day, pictures to sell now and after he was gone.

George Shaw, The End of Time, 2008-9

George Shaw, The End of Time, 2008-9

Both of the George Shaw paintings depict something that is not there.  The End of Time and The Next Big Thing depict sites where pubs once stood on the Coventry estate where Shaw grew up.  Both are, like the subjects of Grimshaw’s paintings, observed at dusk, when the light has almost gone.

In The End of Time, Shaw has painted the site of the Woodsman, the local pub on the estate. Years earlier, when when it was known as The New Star, his mother worked there and his father had the odd drink there. Shaw himself recalls it as being post-war British modern — ‘which is a longer way of saying it was shite’.  He doesn’t know why it was renamed Woodsman but suspects it was a marketing gamble. However it soon caught fire and was later demolished.

Oh so I drank one
or was it four
and when I fell on the floor..
…I drank more
stop me, stop me
stop me if you think that you’ve
heard this one before
nothing’s changed
I still love you
I still love you
but only slightly
less than I used to

— ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’, The Smiths

Sean O’Hagan writing in 2011 in the Guardian, spoke of ‘the dark undertone of Shaw’s work – time, transience, the inevitability of death’ and noted that his work

Places him very much in a English realist tradition, though one defined more by certain matter-of-fact writers – Larkin, the Orwell of Coming Up for Air and The Road to Wigan Pier – and certain essentially English popular songwriters: vintage Ray Davies, early Paul Weller, Morrissey at his most Mancunian. “I’m a child of the classic pop song and classic sitcom,” he says, chuckling. “I explore within a painterly tradition what usually gets explored though TV drama or music. I’ve thought about this a lot and, like most things in Britain, it’s to do with class. It’s like when I went down to London as a teenager to visit the National Gallery or the Tate: as much as I loved a lot of the work, I never felt it reflected anything of my life back to me. But, when I went into Woolworths and listened to the latest single by the Jam or the Specials, I heard my life reflected back loud and clear, and with all its tensions and uncertainties. There was always this opposition being put up: art was not about my life, whereas pop culture was. And, I didn’t like that opposition, still don’t, even though in a way I still work out of it.

George Shaw, The Next Big Thing, 2010

The Next Big Thing is a view of the place where The Hawthorne Tree used to be, the pub which George says he knew ‘too well’. It was in the Hawthorne that George and his father had a drink shortly before his father died. The irony is in the title – as if Shaw, contemplating what might replace the Hawthorne Tree, has decided that the next big thing will be more of the same old crap; that whatever replace the demolished pub will, in the fullness of time, become a ruin itself.

Memory becomes as unreliable as forgetting. Reality lacks the poetry of melting into air. The familiar falls beyond use and lies in the way. I carry within myself an older man. His illness slows me, his dried mouth robs me of speech, his amnesia forces me to live in the today. But after all this I still cannot come to terms with the simple fact that life slips away and time is called everywhere everyday. What some may call a subject or an idea or an answer to the question what is your work about? is only an act of holding on.
– George Shaw

See also


Leeds art: pain, war, atonement and dance

Leeds art: pain, war, atonement and dance

Stanley Spencer, Family Group Hilda, Unity and Dolls, 1937

Stanley Spencer, Family Group: Hilda, Unity and Dolls, 1937

After seeing the paintings of Ben Nicholson and Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis in Art and Life at Leeds Art Gallery last week, we started to look around the permanent collection.  No sooner had we begun than the lighting began to flicker and everyone was asked to leave while an electrician was summoned to diagnose the problem.

So we strolled for an hour through the lovely Victorian arcades and Kirkgate market – all built when Leeds was at its most prosperous at the end of the 19th century. Then we headed back to the gallery to see if the problem had been sorted.  Thankfully, it had – for the gallery has a superb collection of early 20th century British paintings.  The excitement begins as you mount the staircase to the first floor galleries which house the permanent collection.  For here are masterpieces by Stanley Spencer, Jacob Kramer and Walter Sickert.

Here is Family Group: Hilda, Unity and Dolls, one of Stanley Spencer’s greatest pictures, painted in 1937. At first sight it appears to be a straightforward depiction of a woman, a child and some toys.  But this is a painting with a complex psychological undertow in which Spencer confronted the pain of separation from his first wife and his seven year old daughter.

The Hilda of the title was Spencer’s first wife and Unity was one of his two young daughters. The family had been living in the Berkshire village of Cookham when Spencer became obsessed with Patricia Preece who lived nearby and was, apparently, a painter.  In reality, Preece was a con artist. The paintings she exhibited under her own name were executed by her lover, Dorothy Hepworth. She had no real interest in Spencer except to get hold of his money – which she did very successfully. Spencer and Hilda divorced when the children were seven and eleven, and he married Preece. But they never lived together and Spencer was reduced to penury for the rest of his life. Spencer came to regret his disastrous decision, but too late to repair the damage done.

Hilda, Unity and Dolls was painted soon after it became clear that his second marriage was a fiasco. In the summer of 1937 Spencer returned to London, where Hilda, who was ill, was living with her mother. Spencer hoped to renew the relationship, but Hilda refused. In the painting she turns away, while the seven-year-old little girl stares intently at the artist with an unreadable expression.  The gallery caption offers this analysis of the painting’s disturbing psychology:

Spencer seems to push the viewer into close contact with the child’s gaze.  The adult looks wearily away, while the two eyeless dolls suggest a sinister unseeing presence.  It is the intense and poignant expression of a broken relationship.

Stanley Spencer, Christ's Entry into Jerusalem, 1920

Stanley Spencer, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, 1920

Nearby is another superb work by Spencer, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, painted in 1920. It was particularly interesting to see this work so soon after seeing Spencer’s Sandham murals at Somerset House, where they are on display temporarily. They were were inspired by Spencer’s experience in the First World War, serving as a medical orderly in Macedonia.  Whereas the murals were not completed until the early 1930s, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem was one of the first paintings that Spencer completed after his return from the war.  It represents his own joyful feelings at returning to his beloved Cookham – for he has set the Biblical scene in Cookham’s High Street.

Christ’s Entry is one of a series of large scale religious paintings which Spencer began in 1920 – the same year in which he was invited to submit designs for murals for Leeds Town Hall.  The project never came to fruition, though Spencer did come to Leeds to discuss the plans.  When he arrived in the city he was shown around the town and its slums by Jacob Kramer, a Leeds artist who, like Spencer, had studied the Slade School of Art.  Kramer’s masterwork, The Day of Atonement is displayed at the top of the staircase, alongside the Spencers.

(c) The William Roberts Society; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Jacob Kramer, The Day of Atonement, 1919

Kramer had been born in Russia, arriving in Leeds in 1900 with his parents after they had fled Tsar Nicholas II virulent anti-Semitic policies that forced Russian Jews either to assimilate or leave the country.  Desperately poor, Kramer obtained support from a Leeds-based Jewish foundation that enabled him to study at the Slade.  There he came into contact with the Vorticist movement led by William Roberts and Wyndham Lewis.

Spencer later congratulated Kramer on The Day of Atonement, one of the first modernist paintings to enter the Leeds collection.  Both artists shared an interest in finding modern expression for deeply-held religious beliefs.  Kramer once wrote:

The degree of expression in a work of art is a measure of its greatness.  A spiritual discernment is more essential than the reproduction of the obvious.

The painting depicts a group of Jewish men gathered for prayer on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. There is a Vorticist dynamic in its stark portrayal of a procession of figures in silent prayer, its rhythmic intensity conveying strong emotions.

CW Nevinson, The First Searchlights at Charing Cross, 1914

CW Nevinson, The First Searchlights at Charing Cross, 1914

CW Nevinson was at the Slade at the same time as Kramer, where he came into contact with the individuals who would announce the instigation of the Vorticist movement in the manifesto Blast, published in July 1914 (it was Nevinson who came up with the title of the magazine).  Nevinson was already impressed with the ideas of the Italian Futurists (after all his mother, Margaret Nevinson had written that the Futurists were ‘young men in revolt at the worship of the past . . . determined to destroy it, and erect upon its ashes the Temple of the future. War seems to be the chief tenet in the gospel of futurism: war upon the classical in art, literature and music’.  Craig Raine, in the Guardian, described the movement as ‘a parochial British attempt to emulate and excel Cubism and Futurism. […] The impulse behind Vorticism, the theory, is simple. The machine is central to Vorticism. Everything was subsumed to the machine’.

The Futurists praised war and ‘beautiful ideas that kill’ as the only way of escaping a stultifying past. But the movement was swept away in the horrors of the First World War.  However, not before Nevinson had made Futurist paintings of machine-age London that celebrated the dynamism of underground Tube trains, traffic in the Strand, and – after war had been declared – the sight of searchlights over Charing Cross. The First Searchlights at Charing Cross is currently on display in Leeds Art Gallery.

The advent of World War I changed Nevinson’s mind. Having refused as a pacifist to become involved in combat duties, volunteering instead to work for the Red Cross, he was invalided home in January 1915.  On his return he announced that he would be using ‘Futurist technique’ to express the reality of war in his new work. In subsequent paintings Nevinson confirmed that he saw the Great War essentially as a tragic event. Nevinson understood that the very things that the Vorticists celebrated had become instruments of destruction. Bleak, outspoken and often angry, his paintings of 1915–16 are among the masterpieces of his career, bravely opposing the prevailing jingoistic tendency. He argued:

Our Futurist technique is the only possible medium to express the crudeness, violence and brutality of the emotions seen and felt on the present battlefields of Europe.

In The Daily Graphic he was quoted as insisting that all British artists should enlist:

I am firmly convinced that all artists should enlist and go to the front, no matter how little they owe England for her contempt of modern art, but to strengthen their art of physical and moral courage and a fearless desire of adventure, risk and daring.

Wyndham Lewis, one of the co-founders of Vorticism, subsequently tried to revive the Vorticist spirit, but the movement had met its end amidst the torn metal and broken bodies in the mud of Flanders and the Eastern Front.

William Roberts, The Dance Club (The Jazz Party), 1923

William Roberts, The Dance Club (The Jazz Party), 1923

William Roberts was a founding member of the Vorticist group who served in the war as a gunner.  After the war he developed an interest in picturing people at work and at play – as seen in The Dance Club (The Jazz Party), painted in 1923, which reflects the fascination of the Vorticists with dancing as a subject.  Some have recognised the figure on the right, standing and yawning, as Jacob Kramer. In 1915 Roberts met Sarah Kramer, Jacob’s sister, who he later married.

See also

Art and Life: ‘you cannot tell where one begins and the other ends’

Art and Life: ‘you cannot tell where one begins and the other ends’

1921 - circa 1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano) 1921-circa 1923 by Ben Nicholson OM 1894-1982

Ben Nicholson, 1921 – c 1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano)

Art and Life 1920-1931 at Leeds Art Gallery is an exhibition about friendship.  Brilliantly and excitingly, it fills two rooms with works that also speak of a time of passionate argument and exploration in British art.  Its focus is the artistic partnership between Ben Nicholson and Winifred Nicholson in the 1920s, and their friendship with Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis.

The Nicholsons and Wood were affected by and, in their different ways, absorbed the experimental ethos of continental modernism.  But the three artists – who often painted side by side to produce impressions of the same landscape – were also drawn to to whether, as Paul Nash put it, it was possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British’.  Like Nash (another close friend), the Nicholsons and Wood were drawn to paint landscapes and flowers, but were fascinated, too, by the formal experiments of their contemporaries.

Battle lines had been drawn in the first two decades of the century, succinctly put by Nash in an article for Axis, the British art magazine in which these arguments raged every quarter:

Internationalism versus an indigenous culture; renovation versus conservatism; the industrial versus the pastoral; the functional versus the futile.

Winifred and Ben had joined the ‘7 and 5’ Society in 1924, later bringing in their friend Christopher Wood. The ‘7 and 5’ (seven painters, five sculptors) had been formed in London in 1919 and was originally intended to champion traditional, conservative artistic sensibilities: ‘We feel that there has of late been too much pioneering along too many lines in altogether too much of a hurry’, asserted the first exhibition catalogue.  But the Nicholsons, along with  others such as David Jones, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, changed the society into one that championed modernism (in 1935, the group was renamed the Seven and Five Abstract Group).

Ben and Winifred’s marriage in 1920 marked the beginning of a highly creative partnership. They painted side by side, experimenting and sharing ideas whilst studying the same landscapes and still lifes. Together they taught and learnt from each other, working at various times in Lugano, Dulwich, Cumberland and Cornwall. Like other artists in this fruitful period for British art, their work was inspired by their surroundings, at the same time as it absorbed the influences of contemporary artists working in London and on the continent.

Whether it originated in the dazzling snowlight of Switzerland, the silvery-grey light of Paris, the sharp Atlantic brightness of Cornwall or the notes of clear white from whitewashed houses in a green Cumberland landscape, a vibrancy found its way into the Nicholsons’ work [as they responded to] the colour and rhythms of the surrounding landscape.
– Christopher Neve

As their work shifted away from realism, they both came to believe that a picture should be allowed to stand on its own merits without being compared with the object depicted: pictures should be living things with a rhythm and flow like music.  Winifred’s work especially revealed a romantic temperament, a belief that it was less important whether a picture was representational or not than that it should have a life of its own.  Her art was evolving, in Christopher Neve’s words, ‘in the direction of wild flowers, distant mountains, the sea, softer and more ambiguous forms, half-seen, remembered or only suspected’.

Cyclamen and Primula, 1922-23

Winifred Nicholson, Cyclamen and Primula, 1922-23

Art and Life has been curated by Jovan Nicholson, Ben and Winifred’s grandson, and his personal knowledge and experience of the artists makes the exhibition a particularly interesting exploration of the couple’s experimentation during the 1920s that also reveals how their practice interacted with fellow artists.

Winifred and Ben’s paintings were quite different. Winifred’s emphasis was strongly on colour and light whereas Ben focused more on line, muted colours and abstract, simple forms.  As Christopher Neve has written:

Winifred Nicholson was already seeing colour as a series of iridescent veils, dissolving edges.  Ben Nicholson’s instinctive links with Cezanne and Cubism, on the other hand, discouraged him from relinquishing shapes, forms and lines, however much they drifted and crossed.

Ben Nicholson, Jar and Goblet, 1925

Christopher Wood was born in Knowsley, just outside Liverpool, and went on to study architecture briefly at Liverpool University just after the war. Then, in London in 1920, the French collector Alphonse Kahn invited Wood to Paris, where he studied drawing and absorbed modernist influences.  He met the Nicholsons in 1926 and became a close friend, living with them for periods of time in Cumbria and St Ives in Cornwall.

Winifred Nicholson, Polyanthus and Cineraria, 1921

Winifred Nicholson, Polyanthus and Cineraria, 1921

Art and Life is divided into four sections – three of them presenting work associated with locations where the artists spent time in the 1920s, the last pointing towards their diverging paths in the following decade.

Lugano and London

After their marriage in 1920 the Nicholsons spent the next three winters in in a villa overlooking Lake Lugano in Switzerland, stopping off in Paris on the way there and back. They were particularly attracted to the Cubist works of Picasso and in Lugano they patiently absorbed the lessons of Paris. They experimented and painted intensely, often outside and in the snow, and gradually began to find their own individual styles.

It was during those years that Ben Nicholson broke away from naturalism and developed an interest in modern French and early Italian painting. 1921-circa 1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano) seen at the top of this post takes for its subject Cortivallo, one of the villages near Lake Lugano. In its appearance and much of its technique the picture reflects Paul Cézanne’s landscape paintings of the 1880s and 1890s, especially those of Mont Ste Victoire. The cubistic rendering of buildings, rough modelling of forms and unfinished brushwork are all reminiscent of Cézanne’s style.

It was in Lugano that Winifred Nicholson first painted flowers on a window sill with a view behind, as for example in Polyanthus and Cineraria; this became her favourite subject which she varied and evolved throughout the rest of her painting life.

 Ben Nicholson, 1924 (first abstract painting, Chelsea)

 Ben Nicholson, 1924 (first abstract painting, Chelsea)

For Ben Nicholson the process of artistic development led, eventually, to the reliefs and abstracts of the 1930s. The first abstract he painted is on display here – 1924 (first abstract painting, Chelsea) – one of only a few such works made by British artists in this period. While other British avant-garde artists tended to use still life or landscape as a way into abstract experimentation, Nicholson displays a sophisticated understanding of Cubism in its insistence on shallow space and overlapping planes. It’s a painting that was very advanced in the context of British art in this period, where the notion of abstraction was primarily equated with the distortion of natural appearance.  However, it would be another ten years before Nicholson returned to complete abstraction

Ben Nicholson, 1925 (still life with jug, mugs, cup and goblet)

Ben Nicholson, 1925 (still life with jug, mugs, cup and goblet)

For me, though, it’s less radical but still challenging works such as 1925 (still life with jug, mugs, cup and goblet) and Dymchurch Beach, 1923 that thrill me.  It’s interesting to compare Nicholson’s representation of Dymchurch beach with that of his friend Paul Nash, made in the same year (not in this show, but on display elsewhere in the gallery).

Ben Nicholson, Dymchurch Beach, 1923

Ben Nicholson, Dymchurch Beach, 1923

Paul Nash, The Shore, 1923

Paul Nash, The Shore, 1923


The earth of Cumberland is my earth … I have always lived in Cumberland – the call of the curlew is my call, the tremble of the harebell is my tremble in life, the blue mist of the lonely fells is my mystery, and the sliver gleam when the sun does come out is my pathway.
-Winifred Nicholson

Throughout the 1920s, although the Nicholsons moved around a fair bit, painting in Chelsea and Dulwich, Dymchurch in Kent, Sutton Veny in Wiltshire, and Feock and St. Ives in Cornwall, it was Cumberland where they made their home. In 1923 they purchased Bankshead, a farmhouse straddling Hadrian’s Wall in north east Cumberland. They began to explore the surrounding landscape together, often painting the distant rolling fells.

Banks Head

Banks Head, Cumberland

It was while in London in 1926 that the Nicholsons had met Christopher Wood.  Their friendship grew, and in the spring of 1928 Wood visited the Nicholsons in Cumberland. Wood painted and drew outside side by side with Ben Nicholson, the two playing a game of reducing their drawings as much as possible. There’s a fine drawing by Wood in the exhibition, titled ‘Cumberland Landscape’, probably during that spring visit.  ‘Bankshead is the painter’s life’, said Wood. ‘I am on the verge of the real thing after what I saw and learned at Bankshead’.

Christopher Wood, Cumberland Landscape (Northrigg Hill), 1928

Christopher Wood, Cumberland Landscape (Northrigg Hill), 1928

One of the best moments in the exhibition comes with the opportunity to compare the treatment of the same view by the three artists: Ben Nicholson’s 1930 (Cumberland Farm), Christopher Wood’s, Cumberland Landscape (Northrigg Hill), 1928 and Winifred’s Northrigg Hill, 1926. Of the three, I feel that it is Winifred’s widescreen panorama that is most perfectly realised, tracing the shapes made by drystone walls and ploughed furrows, the distant blue fells on the horizon, all beneath a turbulent sky.

Ben Nicholson’s later 1930 (Cumberland Farm), like the other two, is clearly painted from the same viewpoint.  All three have same subject, but exhibit different treatments – Ben’s reflecting the influence of Alfred Wallis, who he had met in St Ives in 1928.

Winifred Nicholson, Northrigg Hill, 1926

Winifred Nicholson, Northrigg Hill, 1926

Ben Nicholson, 1930 (Cumberland Farm)

Banks Head was basic: it had no electricity until after the Second World War and Winifred had to get plumbing, heating and cooking equipment installed. Knowing that gives in extra frisson to her painting, Fire and Water, of the old black range that was always lit in the windswept house that was high up, overlooking a panorama of rolling farmland stretching to the distant northern edge of the Pennines.

Winifred Nicholson, Fire and Water, 1927

Winifred Nicholson, Fire and Water, 1927

It was during these years that flowers – brought indoors and displayed in a vase or jar on a table or a windowsill with a hazy view of the outdoor scene beyond – becomes a familiar element of Winifred’s work.  They are more than just pretty pictures of posies, though.  In the Times, an anonymous reviewer  of an exhibition given by the three artists in 1927 commented on Winifred’s ‘escape from realism into a new reality’ which seems about right.  These paintings are not slavish representations but experiments in light and colour that ‘invest the visible world with an almost magical aura’ (Christopher Andreae, Winifred Nicholson)

Winifred Nicholson, Flower Table, Pots, 1927

Winifred Nicholson, Flower Table, Pots, 1927

In parenthesis: Winifred Nicholson is often dismissed simply as a painter of flowers or a ‘woman’s’ painter (it was interesting to note how many of the paintings exhibited at Leeds Art Gallery were from a private collection; a sign, perhaps, of the disdain for her work by those who buy works for public collections? ) The worst example of this attitude that I’ve come across was from Brian Sewell who, in a Telegraph piece that I don’t think even merits a link, opined that her paintings are ‘very slight indeed… what I call women’s pictures. In fact only a woman could have painted them’. For myself, I’m with Alain de Botton who (writing about Monet’s lilies in last week’s Guardian) spoke of how many people of taste and sophistication regard ‘prettiness’ as a symptom of sentimentality, even stupidity:

The worry might be that the fondness for this kind of art is a delusion: those who love pretty gardens are in danger of forgetting the actual conditions of life, which include war, disease and political error and immorality. … But … for most of us, the greatest risk we face is not complacency; few of us are likely to forget the evils of existence. The real risk is that we are going to fall into fury, depression and despair; the danger is that we will lose all hope in the human project.

It is this kind of despair that art is well suited to correct and that explains the well-founded popular enthusiasm for prettiness. Flowers in spring, blue skies, children running on the beach … these are the visual symbols of hope. Cheerfulness is an achievement and hope is something to celebrate.

Winifred herself wrote:

I like painting flowers – I have tried to paint many things in many different ways, but my paint brush always gives a tremor of pleasure when I let it paint a flower – and I think I know why this is so. Flowers mean different things to different people – to some they are trophies to decorate their dwellings (for this plastic flowers will do as well as real ones) – to some they are buttonholes for their conceit – to botanists they are species and tabulated categories – to bees of course they are honey – to me they are the secret of the cosmos.

This secret cannot be put into image, far less into the smallness of words – but I try to. Their silence says to me – ‘My rootlets are moving in the dark, in the wet, cold, damp mud – My leaflets are moving in the brightness of the sky – My flowerface has seen the darkness which cannot be seen, and the brightness that is too bright to see – has seen earth to sun and sun to earth.’

Art is the desire to resolve opposites – to find a path in the jungle of phenomena. […] Some artists find their ultimate opposites in the contrast of the circle against the square – but I wonder whether the measure of the rectangular environment and of human beings, are the true opposites.

The flower world thinks they are not. You never circumscribe within the prison of a square bed even the tamest of flowers. They struggle, they sprawl – and if curtailed, they invite the worst weeds to come and join in the fray with them. They know more geometry than Pythagoras – and all sunflowers practice mathematical law in the spiral arrangement of their seeds. For resolving the ultimate of the universe is not all that they can tell – listen, they will show how to turn light into rainbows.

Winifred Nicholson, Flower Piece, 1927

Winifred Nicholson, Flower Piece, 1927

Winifred Nicholson, Window-Sill, Lugano 1923

Winifred Nicholson, Window-Sill, Lugano 1923

Window-Sill, Lugano 1923 is not in the exhibition, but is a painting from that period which clearly demonstrates her seriousness and her strengths.  It’s in the Tate collection, and this is what their caption says about the painting and about Winifred’s work:

Though the painting of flowers has been stereotyped as the preserve of women artists, Nicholson uses it here not as an expression of femininity, but as a pretext for experiments in technique. Like many progressive artists at this time she adopts a naïve or ‘primitive’ style in an attempt to unlearn traditional picture-making habits and generate a fresh vision of the subject. Nicholson innovatively combines the two genres of still life and landscape, aiming at personal expression through her use of space, shapes and colour

Flowers and landscapes were not Winifred’s only subjects.  She painted the people close to her as well – her family and country people, farm people.  The exhibition has two of these paintings – the tender portrait of Ben with their baby, Father and Son, and the large painting of The Warwick Family, made in 1926 and depicting the family who lived and worked the farmstead next door.

Winifred Nicholson, Father and Son, 1927

Winifred Nicholson, Father and Son, 1927

Christopher Wood, Flowers, 1930

Christopher Wood, Flowers, 1930

Winifred’s influence on Christopher (Kit) Wood (at least in choice of subject) can be seen in Flowers, a painting he made in 1930.  The three artists had become close friends, and after Kit had stayed at Banks Head for a month in the spring of 1928 windowsills and flowers began to appear in his work. In Winifred’s writings (published in Unknown Colour) there’s a terrific journal entry in which she writes of Kit’s arrival at Banks Head:

He came in March.  His arrival was like a meteor.  The wild country delighted him.  The dark forests took on a mystery and magic as he looked on them, moved in spirit with the impetuosity of the brown river that runs, carving its course, through Coombe Crags.  We all three painted and thought of nothing else.  Inspiration ran high and flew backwards and forwards from one to the other.  Usually he painted from drawings or from memory, but here he painted some pictures from nature, carrying an enormous box of paints and easel over the rough fields and walking at his usual swift pace.  […]

He came up from the valley with the springing step of eternal youth.  He had been out all day with Ben along by the river in the green valley making schemes for pictures and drawings.  He came up the hill with his heavy painting gear and a great branch of palm over his shoulder.  He had climbed to the top of a tree to get it.  The pollen of the yellow catkins lay dusty on his coat.

Meanwhile, Ben was moving, slowly but surely, towards abstraction, as represented here by c.1925 (Jamaique).

Ben Nicholson, c.1925 (Jamaique)

Ben Nicholson, c.1925 (Jamaique)


In the summer of 1928 the Nicholsons holidayed at Pill Creek, near Feock in south Cornwall,  described by Winifred as ‘a sleeping beauty’s countryside of southern foliage, sheltered creeks and wide expanse of water’.

Christopher Wood, Pill Creek, Feock, Cornwall, 1928

Christopher Wood, Pill Creek, Feock, Cornwall, 1928

While at Feock Ben Nicholson and Wood made a day trip to St. Ives where they stumbled upon the old fisherman and painter Alfred Wallis.  They were so taken with his paintings that not long after the whole party moved to St. Ives.

Alfred Wallis was entirely self taught and depicted scenes from his memory: schooners in which he had crossed the Atlantic, mackerel luggers he had worked on, and images of St. Ives Bay and Mount’s Bay that lacked any perspective. He used old ship or household paint, and painted on old bits of odd-shaped cardboard. Each of the three painters responded to Wallis in their own way, but he had the most significant impact on Ben Nicholson who saw these paintings as experiences more real than life itself, and responded by making similar works of deceptive simplicity, such as 1930 ( Cornish Port).

Ben Nicholson, 1930 (Cornish Port)

Ben Nicholson, 1930 (Cornish Port)

Winifred wrote about Wallis with the same simplicity of expression as the old fisherman’s paintings:

Alfred Wallis  … is an old fisherman of eighty.  He paints.  Kit and Ben had seen his pictures stuck up over his wall as they were passing down the street one day.  They saw them through the open door.  They went in and spoke to him.  The pictures were of the sea and ships.  He paints them on any bits of cardboard.  They are painted with the imagination of a poet and the restraint of colour and sense of movement of a master.  His work is true naive and of the utmost sincerity.  He started painting a year after his wife died.  He lives in one room.  He is suspicious of all the neighbours who do not understand him.  He has a kind of mouth-organ wrapped up in a purple-spotted handkerchief.  He plays out of his head strange melodies which he improvises by the hour.  He used to be a rag-and-bone man.  he once had a shop and made money.  It was all stolen.  He distrusts people.  He loves ships with a passion.  All his painting is expressive as only great and simple painting is.

There, in a few crisp sentences, is just about all you need to know about Alfred Wallis.

Ben Nicholson kept in touch with Alfred Wallis, visiting when he could, exchanging letters, sending him money and materials and receiving parcels of paintings by post. When Alfred Wallis’s work was exhibited in London it was met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, despite Ben Nicholson championing Wallis amongst his artistic friends.

Alfred Wallis, Four Luggers and a Lighthouse, c 1928

Alfred Wallis, Four Luggers and a Lighthouse, c 1928

Alfred Wallis, White Houses, Hales Down, near St Ives, c1930

Alfred Wallis, White Houses, Hales Down, near St Ives, c 1930

Ben Nicholson, 1928 (Porthmeor Beach no. 2)

Ben Nicholson, 1928 (Porthmeor Beach no. 2)

Both Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood painted pictures entitled Porthmeor Beach in 1928, and both can be interpreted as homages to Alfred Wallis.  Ben’s 1928 (Porthmeor Beach No. 2, above) is in the exhibition, a sand-coloured painting with sand-scoured textures.  Ben has painted the view through an open window of the beach with a Wallis-style schooner afloat on the sea beyond.  Ben painted another view of Porthmeor beach that year (not in the exhibition), also with a Wallis-like ship riding the waves.  Both paintings draw heavily upon Wallis’s simple, direct painting style.

Christopher Wood’s Porthmeor Beach (below, also not in this exhibition) also exhibits the influence of Wallis.  It was painted shortly after Ben and Kit had met Wallis, and it views (fairly accurately in topographic terms) the Man’s Head promontory that embraces the beach to the west. In the foreground, a hunched figure strides along the coast path towards us –  it could well be Wallis himself, for this was his favourite walk.

On the far side of Porthmeor, the headland known as The Island is crowned by a tiny chapel.  Winifred made a painting of The Island in the same year (which is in the exhibition); it’s a great painting on which Winifred has left visible a network of pencil lines that trace arcs and ellipses from various points on the canvas, particularly the top of the church tower.

Christopher Wood, Porthmeor Beach, 1928

Christopher Wood, Porthmeor Beach, 1928

Ben Nicholson - Porthmeor Beach, St Ives 1928

Ben Nicholson, 1928 (Porthmeor Beach)

Diverging Paths

The Nicholsons and Kit had been joined on that Cornish holiday by Wood’s lover Frosca Munster, a Russian emigre that he had met in Paris, once described by Diaghilev’s secretary as having ‘a serene face that had the strange beauty of the models painted by Piero della Francesca’.  She had rechristened Wood ‘Kit of the woods’ because she felt he was so untameable.  There’s  a portrait of her by Wood in the last section of the exhibition, called The Blue Necklace.

Christopher Wood, The Blue Necklace, 1928

Christopher Wood, The Blue Necklace, 1928

The Nicholsons and Wood  shared no more painting trips after 1928. Wood continued to paint in intensive spells, notably in Brittany in 1929 and 1930, where he painted Le Phare, one work where the influence of Alfred Wallis is most evident.

Christopher Wood, Le Phare, 1929

Christopher Wood, Le Phare, 1929

In the winter of 1929, Wood stayed on in St. Ives with Froska.  In a rented cottage on Porthmeor Beach, Wood was smoking five or six pipes of opium each evening.  By day he visited Wallis and studied the people of the town and their customs, noting his observations in a letter to Winifred:

When someone dies here, they burn the mattress, the clothes and even the bedstead of the defunct on the beach.  The male folk, these darkly dressed men, carry it all down on their shoulders and make a huge fire among the rocks and stand around with paraffin cans musing on the life of the dead person.  It is rather impressive, with the huge green waves like horses, bounding and pounding in on the sand.

That describes a typical Christopher Wood picture: the sea, darkly dressed fisherpeople (‘they look like pirates with big jack boots up to their thighs and skin hats with wings in them like Mercury’, he wrote to Winifred), drama, wildness and mystery.  Sebastian Faulks has written that Wood ‘was the only serious English painter between the two wars who continued to believe that a picture could deal with the lives of people.  There’s one such painting in this exhibition – The Fisherman’s Farewell.

The painting dates from that autumn spent in Cornwall with the Nicholsons. Set against a backdrop of St Ives harbour, a fisherman bids farewell to a woman and a child, his sun-tanned face partially obscured as he leans to kiss the child’s head. One group of men hauls a boat towards the sea, others are already crowded into a tiny vessel and heading towards the cluster of larger boats that await their crews. It’s a poignant scene of departure overlaid with an atmosphere of impending loss.

It was a form of personal farewell: the figures in the foreground are portraits of Ben and Winifred with their young son, Jake born a year earlier.

The Fisherman's Farewell 1928 by Christopher Wood

Christopher Wood, The Fisherman’s Farewell 1928

In December 1929, shortly before leaving Cornwall for London and then Paris, Wood wrote to Winifred Nicholson:

I seem to live on the edge of the world. But what a world it is, I love this place and could stay here for ever if I had those around me for whom I care … It will be hard to leave it.

On 21 August 1930, in Winifred’s words, Wood ‘went into the unknown’. Suffering the effects of opium withdrawal, he threw himself under a train at Salisbury Station at the age of 29.  Winifred wrote:

If there had been no night; if the earth had never turned her face away from her bright sun, we had never known that there were stars – countless millions of them in space so wide we cannot conceive of it.  Suns so many that all our glory is but pale in comparison.

Besides the awful greatness of the universe, its solitude, its silence, its power, the vast deep unknown, there is only one thing as awe-inspiring, and that is the soul of a man when it is inspired by a purpose that risks all to scale the high skies, to aspire to abstract beauty herself …

Wood had been addicted to opium for a good many years and some have suggested that this is was gives many of his works a dream-like quality:

His best paintings are radiant and faintly sinister. Fra Angelico and El Greco seem, for once to have met on common ground. There is an unclouded purity, at times a rapture, in his pictures, but there is also a thunderstorm somewhere in the neighbourhood. Sometimes it is the inky blue-black of the sea, sometimes a leaden sky, more often a series of sinister shapes that cannot be analysed, that set the mood’
– Eric Newton, Christopher Wood: His life and Work

Christopher Wood, Zebra and Parachute, 1930

Christopher Wood, Zebra and Parachute, 1930

One of Kit Wood’s last paintings is here: the strange, surreal Zebra and Parachute. A zebra stands before a modernist building, identified as the Villa Savoye, near Paris, designed by Le Corbusier. The villa, begun in 1928, was completed after Wood’s death, but construction was well underway at the time Wood produced this painting in Paris.  The mysterious atmosphere of the image is reinforced by the sight of the parachute descending, a tiny figure dangling in the harness limp and lifeless.

Alfred Wallis, St Ives Harbour, Hayle Bay and Godrevy and Fishing Boats, 1932-34

Alfred Wallis, St Ives Harbour, Hayle Bay and Godrevy and Fishing Boats, 1932-34

The final group of paintings also includes what is, for me, the best of Alfred Wallis’s paintings, St Ives Harbour, Hayle Bay and Godrevy and Fishing Boats. The subject was a Wallis favourite, and he painted it many times. In this version he has concertina’d a broad area of sea and coastline into a compact composition in order to emphasise its key features – St.Ives harbour with mackerel boats beached at low tide, Porthminster Beach with its seine nets, Hayle Estuary, the long stretch of coastline beyond, and Godrevy Lighthouse across the bay.

In the materials used, too, the painting is pure Wallis.  He would make use of whatever scraps of board happened to be available, often cartons and old packing-cases given to him by the local grocer. Instead of disguising their origin Wallis would incorporate their irregularities into the design of his pictures, making a virtue of whatever shape, texture and colour they chanced to have. His colours were similarly restricted by what he could manage to lay his hands on – invariably ship’s paint, never artists’ colours, which he thoroughly despised. As he wrote to one of his few collectors in 1935: ‘I do not put Collers what do not Belong. I Think it spoils The pictures’.

Winifred Nicholson, Autumn Flowers on Mantlepiece, 1932

Winifred Nicholson, Autumn Flowers on Mantlepiece, 1932

By the early 1930s the Nicholson’s marriage was breaking down and they began to live apart (although they both stayed in close contact and visited each other regularly for the rest of their lives). In 1932 Winifred was living in Paris and while staying with her Ben made his first relief. A later one, from 1935, is displayed here, alongside a superb abstract from the same year, 1935 (Painting), consisting of blocks of black, grey, cream and sand-coloured paint dominated by a central pale blue circle.

Nicholson: 1935 (White Relief)

Ben Nicholson, 1935 (White Relief)

Although living separately, Ben and Winifred continued to keep up a lively correspondence until they were in their eighties.  In 1932 Winifred wrote to Ben from the Isle of Wight:

I like your idea of our new relationship – clear and true, in complete freedom and unexclusiveness, no sense of the divisions of people.  I see it clear in the high skies – I feel it clear in the subconscious spaces where all picture ideas, all vision, comes from.  How it works on earth I do not see.  But perhaps it need not come to earth any more than Kit’s need. …

The day is full of bright sunlight.  The white ship in the distance came straight out of Kit’s St. Ives picture – moving like magic and dazzling white – serene and cold …

In 1953 Winifred wrote:

There are several kinds of happiness, and there is one sort I have found.  It is the sort that is within oneself, enjoying fresh promise, and taking all the experiences of life that one has been through, so-called sad ones and so-called happy ones, to make up understanding that is further on than joy or sorrow.  I have been extremely lucky – I have had ten years of companionship with an ‘all-time’ painter, working in the medium of classical eternity and that has been better than a lifetime with any second-class person – isn’t it – I have found it so …

In 1967, again writing to Ben, Winifred makes a delightfully irascible observation about something which the poet Kathleen Raine had written in an introduction to the catalogue for an exhibition of her work:

I don’t at all mind your stating that you were married to me (if you want to) after all it’s a fact.  But Kathleen’s Mrs Nicholson is a piece of stupidity – who is Mrs Nicholson?  Does she really feel that a woman has no identity of her own?  She should study the new Swedish law in which, on marriage, women keep their own name, or take an entirely different name if they wish to – either different from their own or their husband’s.

On another occasion Winifred wrote to Ben:

I don’t want more, never have wanted and never will want to paint more real than actual life. I want life and painting to be the same so that you cannot tell where one begins and the other ends.

Winifred Nicholson, The Gate to the Isles, 1980

Winifred Nicholson, The Gate to the Isles, 1980 (not in exhibition)

See also

Atkinson Grimshaw: mystery in the moonlight

Atkinson Grimshaw: mystery in the moonlight

There’s a mystery that surrounds Atkinson Grimshaw, the now-celebrated Victorian painter, whose exhibition ‘Painter of Moonlight’ we saw this week in Harrogate.  The mystery is this: can an artist spring, fully-formed, into the limelight? Continue reading “Atkinson Grimshaw: mystery in the moonlight”

Walking the canal: envoi

Walking the canal: envoi

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

-Wallace Stevens

In March 2009, inspired by the construction of the new canal link that extended the Leeds-Liverpool canal past the Three Graces and into the Albert Dock, I decided to walk the length of the  canal to Leeds. Last Saturday, 129 miles later, I arrived at Granary Wharf in Leeds city centre.

The lines from Wallace Stevens are a reminder of the solipsistic nature of this sort of thing: another could follow the same path, but see things entirely differently or have different impressions.  I began to wonder: what made the enterprise different to merely going out on a succession of short walks?  Was it its linear nature and distant goal?  Was there something intrinsically male about a project like this?

More likely, a Buddhist might say, it’s an example of your western dualism: you’re seeing everything around you – the water, the tree, the boat, the angler – as separate from everything else, and your own ‘self’ as distinct from the rest of the world:

Westerners like to conquer mountains;
Orientals like to contemplate them.
As for me, I like to taste the mountains.

– Santoka Taneda

There’s a wonderful passage at the end of The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth.  He’s just completed an extraordinary walk – the entire length of Japan – and he remembers a conversation he’d had early in the journey:

I was sitting outside a little grocer’s shop in the sun, talking to an old man. The old man had asked me where I lived, and I told him I lived in Tokyo.
”Tokyo is not Japan,” he said. “You can’t understand Japan by living in Tokyo.”
‘No,” I agreed. “That’s why I’m taking this time off to have a good look at the rest of it.”
”You can’t understand Japan just by looking at it,” the old man said.
”No, not just by looking at it,” I said. “Not by looking at it as a tourist might out of the window of a bus, but by walking through the whole length of it.”
“You can’t understand Japan just by walking through it,” the old man said.
“Not just by walking through it,” I argued, “but by talking to all the different people I meet.”
“You can’t understand Japan just by talking to people,” the old man said.
“How do you suggest I try to understand Japan, then?” I asked him.
He seemed surprised by the question, and a little hurt, and a little angry.
“You can’t understand Japan,” he said.

To walk with a purpose, or just go where the wind blows?  In The South Country, Edward Thomas remarked that:

I have used a good many maps in my time…but I confess that I prefer to do without them and to go, if I have some days before me, guided by the hills or the sun or a stream – or, if I have one day only, in a rough circle, trusting, by taking a series of turnings to the left or a series to the right, to take much beauty by surprise and to return at last to my starting point…I never go out to see anything….Castles, churches, old houses, of extraordinary beauty or interest, have never worn out any of my shoe leather except by accident.  I like to come upon them – usually without knowing their names and legends…And so I travel, armed only with myself, an avaricious and fickle eye and ear, not of knowledge, not of wisdom, but one of whom to pursue is never to capture.

Setting these thoughts aside, the further I walked, the greater my sense of the history of this part of Britain in the past 200 years, and particularly of that moment when the arrival of the canal acted like an electric current, sparking into life industries and communities up and down its length.

Canals were the backbone of the industrial revolution, and changed the way in which people lived and worked.  The introduction of steam-powered machines led to a massive increase in the number of factories, and gradually people moved out of the countryside and into cities to work in them.  An key factor for the success of these new factories was transport. Coal, to fire the steam engines, had to be transported from the mines to the factories. And the goods produced in the factories had to be transferred to ports like Liverpool.

Raw materials for the rapidly expanding textile trades came from Liverpool, while stone flags, limestone and coal were carried to and from wharves all along the canal. Coal mines expanded after the canal opened, since it made it possible for the coal to reach new markets. Grain was another important cargo, imported from distant places through Liverpool for local mills along the canal.

Canals were the new technology of their age  but were overtaken within 30 to 40 years by the railway,  just as now the Internet and associated technological changes supersede each other at a bewildering rate. Those living in the years between 1750 and 1850 probably experienced change in the same way we do, as both exhilarating in its speed and disturbing in its implications.

The towpath walker is struck forcefully by the great civil engineering feat that the canals represent, and  the sheer scale of the endeavour – most of it in the form of manual labour by the ‘navvies’, the men who came from distant places to construct the new navigations.

The navvies aroused local suspicion and antagonism with their capacity for hard physical labour and equally remarkable capacity for drunkenness and rioting (often provoked by being exploited by the inn-keepers and traders who jacked up their prices to navvies).  The canals brought into existence another group of workers, the canal boatmen, whose reputation soon rivalled that of the navvies.  Their work was hard, too, involving hauling, lifting, shovelling and ‘legging’ through tunnels like the one at Foulridge.

Many of the navvies on the Leeds & Liverpool had come south from Scotland for work and money.  One such was Alexander MacKenzie who, in 1793 was staying at the Chapel Inn, Little Marsden. The Cotton Town website records that on 11th March 1793 he married Mary Roberts, one of the landlord’s two daughters. Their first son was born at the Inn and baptised at the Chapel. They returned to have their subsequent children baptised as well. From their entries in the Register of Colne Parish Church, it is possible to trace progress of the canal through East Lancashire:

William 20 March 1794, born at Little Marsden
Alexander 10 February 1796, born at  Oldham
Sarah 12 December 1797, born at  Little Marsden
Daniel 23 December 1799, born at  Burnley
Margaret 5 April 1802,  born at Henfield
John 1 November 1804, born at  Henfield
David 7 March 1808, born at  Rishton
Thomas 25 December 1808, born at  Altham

The family finally settled in Blackburn.

The reputation of navvies (who still had their work cut out, building the railways) fell to a very low point with respectable society in Victorian times, which is why Ford Madox Brown’s mid-19th century painting Work (above) is such a rare depiction of the dignity of the navvies’ manual labour.  It’s in Manchester Art Gallery.

Surprisingly, the canals survived for a long time, providing just as effective a means of moving coal and other heavy goods as the railways, albeit more slowly.  It was only after the First World War that the canals went into serious decline, with many canals forced into closure, and a large section of the old system seemingly doomed to crumble away into terminal decay. The Leeds-Liverpool Canal survived competition from the railways in the 19th century but it was weakened by the development of road transport in the 1920s and 1930s. The decline of the traditional industries which it had provided transport for also reduced traffic on the canal. Two of the last Liverpool clients of the canal were Tate and Lyle’s sugar refinery and the gas works. Both continued to receive coal deliveries by canal into the 1960s. However, even this trade ended due to the bad winter of 1963 (when the canal froze) and the increasingly poor quality of Wigan coal.

During the sixties and seventies there was little interest in the canal and its condition was allowed to deteriorate. Canalside industries were also declining, with many factories falling into disuse.  Canals, and the zones in which they stagnated, came to be regarded as dirty, rubbish filled backwaters – finely captured in Ewan MacColl’s ‘Dirty Old Town:

I met my love by the gas works wall
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
I Kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town…

I Heard a siren from the docks
Saw a train set the night on fire
I Smelled the spring on the smoky wind
Dirty old town…

I’m gonna make me a big sharp axe
Shining steel tempered in the fire
I’ll chop you down like an old dead tree
Dirty old town…

In the early 1920s Rita’s grandfather served a five year apprenticeship as a boat builder on the Manchester, Bolton and Bury canal, only for the boatyard to be closed soon after, with the result that he applied  the same skills to working as a safety engineer in the local coal mines. This inspired her poem, At the Canal:

Still waters, in the hawthorn time,
In the season of wild roses, or as the days
Bring comfrey for healing, nettles for wine.
Weeds wild field-days where through the air
Ripeness sweetly decays, replacing the tang
Of tar and resin, here where once they came
To work the oak and pine, and bind
The fine-cut planks with pitch, to load
Cargoes of coal for the port. Buried in your unfathomable
Silence the din of their craft, – their chatter, a clatter
Of loves and labour, their bright particularity –
Submerged, superseded, drawn back to the springs.

The canals drew migrants to the once-wild fields and fells of Lancashire and Yorkshire – first to cut the canals, then to work in the mills and factories they sprung alive. New industries grew that crushed old ones in India and other parts of the British Empire.  Then those industries, in their dying decades, drew new migrants from the colonies where indigenous industries had been snuffed out. Then the tide of industry withdrew, leaving a new Britain, a new society, as street and towpath in Nelson, Burnley or Bradford testify.

Jeremy Seabrook has written beautifully about these changes – for example in a New Statesman article in 1998, ‘10,000 memories in Nelson, Lancashire’:

The streets of the Lancashire mill-towns are full of old people now. If there is a certain melancholy as they look out on to the car parks and rectangles of rubble where weaving sheds and houses stood, this is perhaps because their whole working life was spent in a declining industry.

The house where Ethel and Alan Timberlake live is in the shadow of one of the last mills in Nelson. It closed 18 months ago, and is now being demolished; sunlight comes into the front room for the first time, through the roofless building and its broken windows. “The house used to shake with the vibration from the looms,” says Ethel. “It was not very pleasant, but the silence is worse.” The mill had the most modern Swiss looms, making industrial uniforms for several airlines and Marks and Spencer. It was taken over by Carrington Viyella, who get the work done more cheaply abroad. The looms went to India.

“We used to make sarees for export to India,” recalls Dick Howarth, now in his mid-eighties. “Then, when there were labour shortages, they fetched workers from India and Pakistan. They worked the night-shifts, sleeping in beds turn and turn about, just as the Irish did 100 years ago. Now they are bringing in the material from India and Pakistan. It’s hard to make sense of it.”

“It’s a different world,” say the old spinners of Bolton and Oldham, the weavers of Blackburn and Burnley. And for them it is; even though that same world still exists, on the other side, the dark side, of the earth, in the slums of Dhaka and Jakarta. […]

Sometimes the Lancashire people talk of the people of Asia “stealing our jobs” as though labour had crossed the world like a thief in the night to take away their function as they slept the sleep of exhaustion; as though capital had no role in it; as though desperate migrants to Dhaka or Jakarta, in their shared slum rooms, three metres by three, were the enemies, and not the kin, of the ghosts of country people once driven from impoverished villages into the squalid towns of Lancashire. […]

The workers of Asia and of Lancashire have one other thing in common; they were never consulted about the setting up of the industry, any more than they were about its closure, but were sucked into it beyond their will, beyond their control. They used to say “I’m not going to let any child of mine go into the mill”, but into the mill they went. Then, when there were no mills left, they find themselves asking “Where are the jobs for the next generation coming from?”

There is no answer. The jobs have gone to use up the youth and energies of young people in Asia, just as they laid waste those of generations in Lancashire.

But the world turns and a new lease of life came for the decaying canals. They have the unique distinction of being virtually the only modern form of  transport that has enhanced rather than ruined the countryside through which it was built, mainly because its construction was so closely governed by the nature of the land itself but also because the canals were constructed from local naturally occurring materials – clay, earth, stone and water.  So now a canal can be a place of pleasure and leisure, a linear park that aerates and invigorates the communities through which it meanders.

Along the entire length of this walk I’ve seen how restoration has replaced canalside decay.  There’s a  canal leisure industry of narrowboat hire, marinas, pubs and parks.  The canal has become a positive force for regeneration, with  investment in attractive new or redeveloped canalside homes, and  new places of work. With cleaner water and a tidier towpath, the canal has become a place to escape to for boaters, cyclists and walkers:

There’s a place that I seek when I need somewhere to hide
It’s a place that I go when I need some peace of mind
Don’t seem to mind if I smile, don’t seem to care if I don’t
I’m a fly upon the wall, I’m in company and I am alone

There’s a message on the bridge in graffiti-written words
And it reads as an answer or it reads as nothing at all
Don’t seem to mind if I show, don’t seem to care if I don’t
I’m a bird upon the bridge, I look out and I look in

When the city’s back is turned it looks a lot like this
When a mind begins to burn it needs a place like this

– Emily Barker, ‘The Greenway’

I was the world in which I walked. Now I’m home.

Walking the canal: Saltaire to Leeds

The first milestone on the canal – one mile to the end

It was humid and already in the twenties by ten when I set off from Salt’s Mill at Saltaire at the start of the last leg of the Liverpool-Leeds canal walk.  The heat was a reminder that, although there’s been a good deal of torrential rain this past week, the spring drought will result in the closure of a long stretch of the canal in a week’s time.  The planned closure of almost half of Britain’s longest canal will take effect from Monday 2 August, and will close it for boating for 60 miles from Wigan to Gargrave in North Yorkshire.  It’s all down to the extremely low level of the summit reservoirs that feed the canal at Barrowford and Foulridge.  This was Barrowford reservoir when I passed in June.

From Saltaire, the canal skirts the northern edge of Shipley, and there are many reminders of the industrial past, with old warehouses and wool mills interspersed with recent residential developments.

Typical is this warehouse, purpose-built for loading barges on the canal, with its own basin and covered loading bay.

Shipley is where the former Bradford Canal (now filled in) met the Leeds – Liverpool Canal.  Junction bridge is so-called because the canal junction was here (on the right, just through the bridge). The large building by the bridge on the right bank was the toll office and bargemen’s dormitory, known as the Barracks.

This is the time of year when two extremely successful invasive plants come to dominate places like roadsides, railway tracks and canal towpaths – the Himalayan Balsam and the more congenial Buddleia.  Both are introductions from the Far East; the Balsam and its compatriot the Japanese Knotweed being the most troublesome.  Buddleia was introduced to Britain from China in the 1890s. It is a highly successful coloniser, and really came into its own after the Second World War in bombeded areas of many cities. It is now widespread, especially on highly disturbed sites such as quarries, railway sidings and derelict building sites. There was plenty to be seen on this walk, especially along the last mile into Leeds city centre, where the canal is bordered by derelict sites smothered in Buddleia and Russian Vine.

Buddleia is named after Adam Buddle (1662–1715), an English cleric and botanist. Buddle didn’t discover the plant, but was commemorated by Linnaeus, who named the genus Buddleja in his honour.  It seems to be a rare example of a beneficial invasive plant –  a facilitator of species successions by providing a positive environment in which other species can establish. During the flowering season it is the favourite source of nectar for almost all native butterflies and in Britain it attracts more species than any native plants. The shrubs being highly attractive to insects, it encourages insectivorous birds to visit the sites to forage and in doing so they may inadvertently deliver seeds of other species in their faeces.

Leaving Shipley the canal stays close to the course of the river Aire, winding its way around the foot of the 500-foot densely wooded Buck Hill.  The railway, which also says close for much of this stage, here cuts straight through the hill in a two-mile tunnel.

Halfway around the hill are Field locks, and the circuit of the hill is complete at Dobson locks, just outside Apperley Bridge.

Apperley Bridge is one of the posher areas of Bradford and certainly exuded a cheery charm on a sunny Saturday.  There were tasteful new housing developments around the Apperley marina, while between the river Aire and the canal, playing fields were crowded with kids and parents involved in a local football tournament.

There’s a curious event associated with Apperley Bridge: on 29 February1824, watched by an estimated 30,000 people, John Wroe, also known as Wroe the Prophet, was baptised here, having announced in flyers that he would part the waters of the Aire like Moses.

Wroe was one of the most outrageous religious impostors known to history. The son of a worsted manufacturer at Bradford, Wroe, who was born in 1782, never received any education worth speaking of, and seems to have led an idle and purposeless life during his youth. In 1819 he had a serious illness, and after a seeming miraculous recovery Wroe started having visions or trances, which were usually preceded by his being struck blind and dumb. He joined the Southcottians, the followers of Joanna Southcott, at Leeds in 1820 and two years later claimed the succession as their leader.

After failing to part the waters of the river Aire at Apperley Bridge in 1824, Wroe continued his shameless ministry. In 1830 he announced that he had had ‘a comand from heaven to take seven virgins to cherish and comfort him’. Three local families duly provided the virgins from amongst their daughters and Wroe set off on a preaching tour with them. When he returned one of the girls was pregnant – this scandalized some of his followers and they attempted to hold an inquiry at which fighting broke out; pews, fittings, doors and windows were torn out and broken, and ‘pandemonium reigned’. Others were prepared to believe Wroe’s word that a Shiloh, or messiah would be born to the girl and great preparations were made for the birth. At Peel Park Museum, Salford, there used to be preserved the magnificent cradle made ready for the Shiloh’s reception.  When the messiah was finally born it was a girl; at this point the Southcottians finally lost patience with Wroe and he was forced to leave town.

Another example of Wroe’s shameless behaviour is related by the Rev. S. Baring Gould in his work Yorkshire Oddities:

On one occasion Wroe announced that he was to lie in a trance for twelve days, and this beginning, people came from far and near to see him. At the foot of his bed was a basket in which visitors deposited gifts of money. At a fixed hour of the day all visitors were turned out, and the door of the house locked. One day Mrs Wroe went out and forgot to fasten the door behind her. Two neighbours, watching their opportunity, opened the door and looked within, to discover the Prophet sitting in the inglenook, supping very comfortably on beef-steak, pickled cabbage, and oat-cake. Notwithstanding this and many other exposures, Wroe continued to flourish. In 1854 he announced that the spirit had commanded him to build a house forthe believers, and to collect money for its erection from the latter, and subscriptions poured in readily. He bought a piece of land and commenced to build a great mansion, on which large sums of money were spent. When it was finished he conveyed it to the Society by will, but immediately made another will, revoking the first, and leaving his ill-gotten property to his son James.

Cultures change:  in 2002 Bradford’s Hindu Cultural Society submitted a proposal to Bradford City Council to allow a small stretch of the River Aire at Apperley Bridge to be used for the scattering of ashes after a traditional Hindu funeral. A spokesman for the cultural society said, ‘Most of our community still travel to India for the purpose. But using the River Aire would allow those who can’t afford it to also scatter ashes’. I haven’t been able to discover whether approval was granted.

Leaving Apperley Bridge, there was a fine example of an old mill conversion into residential or office accommodation.

A little further on, a short, cheery woman with earphones passed me singing away to herself.  The man on the canal bank fishing said, ‘She’s been past three times now singing to herself’. I asked why the chimney had a pointed top like a biro.  He didn’t know.

I stopped for a pint and a ploughman’s at the Railway Inn at Rodley, another settlement associated with the woollen industry that at one time had fulling mills and scribbling mills powered by the fast-flowing waters of the Aire.

Setting off again after lunch, I was impressed by this imposing building on the opposite bank.  Hailing the chap doing stone work in the grounds, I quickly discovered how you can draw the wrong conclusions.  The building predates the canal, when it was a farm (perhaps an indication of the prosperity of wool farmers in the early 18th century).  But with the arrival of the canal it had changed its function and become a brewery.

Pressing on, I pass Newlay and Forge locks, and with the river Aire so close it becomes apparent how high the level of the canal is being raised above the river.

A bit further on I notice, above the trees to the north, some sort of ruined tower.  It’s Kirkstall Abbey, built between 1152 and 1182, and, though ruined, still substantially its full height and a unique example of early Cistercian architecture. Dissolution came in in 1539, and subsequently  the Abbey and its lands were granted to Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, but reverted to the Crown in 1556 when he was burnt at the stake for treason.

Having been stripped of its roofs and windows, the abbey served as a quarry for local building works and housing for cattle, while the cloisters were planted as an orchard, and the gatehouse converted into a farmhouse. Grass, trees and ivy began to engulf the ruins, giving them a particularly rich quality of romantic beauty. The Abbey was painted by JMW Turner in 1824.

At Kirkstall itself, the old Mackeson brewery has been converted into a student hall of residence.

At Spring Garden lock the tower blocks of Leeds first come into view.

Just past Spring Garden lock there was a magnificent display of buddleia and water lilies.

At Oddy lock the lock-keeper was busy with maintenance work.  There’s a mural here, called ‘Fragments from the post-industrial state’ by Graeme Willson. It was painted between 1981 and 1985 and has lasted very well.  Willson is well known locally as a creator of public art and in 1978 he founded the Yorkshire Mural Artists group. His 1990 mural ‘Cornucopia’ on the Corn Exchange in Leeds has become a familiar landmark and won the Leeds Award for Architecture and Environment.

Just after Oddy lock stands this very impressive mill building – Leeds Mill – with elegant windows and curved bays at each end.

With less than a mile to go to the end of the canal, river, rail and canal are funnelled together, heading towards their common destination at Granary Wharf.

A really striking landmark here is the towers of the former Tower Works which produced pins and needles for the textile industry. The grade II listed structure is about to be redeveloped. The oldest of the three towers dates from 1864 and is based on the Torre del Commune, or Lamberti tower in Verona. Next to it is the Giotto Tower based on the Campanile of Florence Cathedral. The Giotto tower, which was in fact a chimney, is about half the height of that in Florence and rather than the marble cladding it has a finish of red brick work and local Burmantoft tiles. The third tower looks plain by comparison but is believed to be based on one of the towers of San Gimignano in Tuscany.

Towering over the second lock on the canal, Office lock, is Bridgewater Place, the tallest building in Yorkshire.

Next to the lock is the Canal Company office with the lock-keeper’s house to rear. The Canal Office building is listed and was built after the completion of the canal in 1816 (the canal from Leeds to Gargrave was completed by 1777, but there was a long delay in the completion through to Liverpool due to a lack of funds).

Finally, I arrive at Granary Wharf, the canal basin at the end of the canal.  There has been a great deal of redevelopment here in recent years, with new buildings housing office, residential and retail units.

Granary Wharf represents the heart of the industrial revolution in Leeds, since the canal triggered the growth of Leeds as an industrial city.  The earliest building in this area is the canal warehouse (below, left) built to a design by canal engineer Robert Owen in 1776, in time for the canal opening as far as Gargrave. In the area between the canal and the railway viaduct are a couple of small docks, now the focal points of the redevelopment of the area. These docks were used for repairing boats.

In the centre of the photo above is Candle House, a striking 23-storey round tower containing apartments, named after the candle and tallow packing warehouses that were previously located on the site. To the right is the new City Inn hotel.

I walked out across the footbridge over the river Aire to take this photo of the first lock – River lock – which begins the process of lifting the canal above the floor of the river valley. Behind me, a man dived off the Victoria Bridge into the river.  This is a Grade 2 listed structure,built by George Leather Junior, engineer of the Aire and Calder Navigation between 1837 and 1839.

With the long walk finally over I wandered into the city centre through the railway arches known locally as the ‘Dark Arches’.  They reminded me, in a rather bizarre way, of arriving in Orvieto, the Umbrian hill-town, where, after parking your car at the foot of the sheer cliffs that the town is built on, you enter the town via a series of tunnels and underground passageways.

When the railway arrived in Leeds, New Station was constructed on a large viaduct spanning the River Aire. Beneath the station and the tracks a series of arches were built with passageways connecting them, and many of these vaults were used for handling goods from the railway or nearby canal.  These days they seem to be used mainly for car parking.

Next: Envoi