Patience (After Sebald): the synchronicity of words and images

Patience (After Sebald): the synchronicity of words and images

Patience (After Sebald) is a film by Grant Gee about the landscapes and legacy of WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. It was premiered last year at a weekend festival celebrating Sebald in Aldeburgh and, unable to get there, I’ve wanted to see it ever since.  On our first afternoon on a short break in London there was, fortuitously, a one-off screening at the Renoir cinema in Bloomsbury and so we grabbed at the chance to see it.

The emergence of this film reflects the huge rise in Sebald’s reputation:  a contributor to the film even suggests that, had he not died in a car crash near Norwich in December 2001, he might by now have won the Nobel Prize for literature. Gee’s film explores Sebald’s profound influence on contemporary writers, thinkers and artists, some of whom speak in the film.

Sebald was born in Bavaria in 1944. His father served in the Wehrmacht under the Nazis, and the Holocaust and its meaning for post-war Germany constitute a recurrent strand in Sebald’s work.  He studied German literature at the University of Freiburg, before being appointed assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester in 1966 and settling in England permanently, later teaching at the University of East Anglia.

The Rings of Saturn is an unclassifiable work – Sebald’s idiosyncratic style absorbs elements of travel writing (a walk along the Suffolk coast), history book, Holocaust literature, biography, poetry, essay, and photography.  On one level, Patience (After Sebald) takes the form of Grant Gee walking in Sebald’s footsteps along the route taken in the book, filming the landscape in grainy black and white, like the images in Sebald’s book, and evoking the book’s powerful sense of a landscape refracted through the memory of the narrator.  These are atmospheric passages in the film, enhanced by Sebald’s words which are voiced superbly by Jonathan Pryce.

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. And in fact my hope was realized, up to a point; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however, whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star. At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place. Perhaps it was because of this that, a year to the day after I began my tour, I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility. It was then that I began in my thoughts to write these pages.
– WG Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, opening lines

Embarking on a film about The Rings of Saturn there is obviously a strong temptation to do this – to follow in Sebald’s footsteps-  but Gee is aware of this, and several contributors to his film comment on the futility of such an endeavour, such as Robert Macfarlane, who tells of his  attempt to retrace Sebald’s melancholy-drenched steps. He arrived in Lowestoft, and the weather was lovely, and everybody was smiling.  He quickly realised that he was having too much fun, so he went and had a swim in the sea and gave up the venture.

Patience is an essay film rather than a conventional documentary, so there isn’t the usual gamut of people who knew Sebald talking about the man, or literary critics talking about his work. Gee’s film is more subtle than that; what we hear are responses by some of those who have been touched by his work, including writers Robert Macfarlane, Marina Warner, Andrew Motion and artist Tacita Dean.

Gee weaves their words into the film with great sensitivity: sometimes they are heard  only on the soundtrack, while at others their heads fade in like ghostly apparitions over the landscape. The pace is measured, and the minor key mood is reinforced by the soundtrack music contributed by Leyland Kirby working under his moniker The Caretaker in which snatches of Schubert’s Winterreise are treated electronically – I quote – ‘subjected to his perplexing processes, smudging and rubbing isolated fragments into a dust-caked haze of plangent keys, strangely resolved loops and de-pitched vocals which recede from view as eerily as they appear’.

Gee’s film opens with a Google map created by Barbara Hui: Litmap uses Google to digitally map literature, to create a tool that can be used alongside traditional methods of close reading in order to critically examine narratives in terms of their geospatiality. She explains:

In keeping with spatial theorist Doreen Massey, I contend that places be defined as the nodes that are constituted by the intersection of multiple lines or paths of social networks. As she describes it:

What gives a place its specificity is not some long internalized history but the fact that it is constructed out of a particular constellation of social relations, meeting and weaving together at a particular locus. If one moves in from the satellite towards the globe, holding all those networks of social relations and movements and communications in one’s head, then each ‘place’ can be seen as a particular, unique, point of their intersection. It is, indeed, a meeting place. Instead then, of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings, but where a large proportion of those relations, experiences and understandings are constructed on a far larger scale than what we happen to define for that moment as the place itself, whether it be a street, a region, or even a continent.

This approach is certainly appropriate to The Rings of Saturn, in which Sebald’s musings, as he walks along his Suffolk path, spiral outwards through time and place and across the globe.

Gee’s film is largely successful in capturing the book’s sense of physical meandering that provokes disparate mental associations.  Tracing Sebald’s path in grainy black and white, the film segues into archive footage and back, collapsing present into past and echoing the ghostly images that punctuate Sebald’s text, the originals repeatedly photocopied until their lines were sufficiently blurred. As in Sebald’s book, we are brought sharply back into the 20th century by a high definition colour segment, such as when his friend and translator Michael Hamburger speaks of the man he knew.

Grant Gee’s documentary is a labour of love, its elegiac tone making an engaging tribute to Sebald’s work.  There is only one questionable moment – the sequence in which some besotted Sebald follower decides to set of a firework at the roadside location where Sebald died and then claims to discern his facial features in the drifting smoke should have been excised. Overall, the film provides a useful guide to The Rings of Saturn (when Jonathan Pryce reads an extract the page number appears on screen), though someone who has not read the book may find themselves adrift.

It is those passages in which Jonathan Pryce reads from the book itself, augmenting Gee’s photography with the author’s sonorous words that are the best moments in which words and image synchronise with absolute perfection.

See also

After Sebald: Patience and Re-Enchantment

If there is one place I would have liked to be this weekend it is Aldeburgh, where a rather unique event has been taking place, which we found out about too late.

Organised by Artevents as part of The Re-Enchantment, their national arts project exploring and questioning the various meanings of  ‘place’ in the twenty-first century, the inspiration for the event has been the work of the writer WG Sebald, who lived and worked in East Anglia for four decades. The Rings of Saturn, his most famous book, mixed history, travelogue, memoir, meditation, fiction and images to explore the personal, public and often overlooked histories of Suffolk.  Across three days, and in varied media, his writing and its impact was celebrated by a bunch of artists who are among my favourites – including writers Richard Mabey and Robert Macfarlane, poet Alice Oswald, and musician Patti Smith.

The central event of the weekend was the world premiere of  the Artevents-backed documentary, Patience (After Sebald), an award-winning film by Grant Gee about the landscapes and legacy of  The Rings of SaturnPatience (After Sebald) is described as a multi-layered film essay on landscape, art, history, life and loss told via a long walk through coastal East Anglia tracking Sebald’s walk The Rings of Saturn.

The Artevents weekend also included a writer’s day, when writers including Richard Mabey and Robert Macfarlane  explored the meanings of place from different perspectives, and an evening with Patti Smith featuring a new work inspired by Sebald, Max: a Tribute.

Sebald has profoundly influenced many contemporary writers, thinkers and artists, some of whom speak in the film. He was born in Bavaria in 1944. His father served in the Wehrmacht under the Nazis, and the Holocaust and its meaning for post-war Germany came to constitute a central strand in Sebald’s work.  He studied German literature at the University of Freiburg, before being appointed assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester in 1966 and settling in England permanently, later teaching at the University of East Anglia.  Sebald died in a car crash near Norwich in December 2001.

Sebald’s works are largely concerned with the theme of memory, both personal and collective. They are, in particular, attempts to reconcile himself with, and deal in literary terms with, the trauma of the Second World War and its effect on the German people.  But they are also noted for their overwhelming, hypnotic character, marked by repeated digressions. Roger Deakin wrote of Sebald:

I relish Max Sebald, as I love Thomas de Quincey, for his fearless digressions, for the sheer scope of his curious, cosmopolitan imagination and for his powers of  free association. As a Suffolk man I have a special appreciation for The Rings of Saturn, although the Suffolk coast Sebald evokes is nothing like the Suffolk I know. It is a landscape transformed by a particular state of mind, gloomy but compelling. The place he describes is outlandish, like the writer, who is an exile from his language as well as from his land. Max’s ornate, stately sentences appear to wander as widely as his narrators on their travels, following winding paths of digression, disappearing into side-streets, and pausing to examine objects or images of particular interest. When asked by an interviewer from the New Yorker how he came to write The Rings of Saturn, he replied: ‘I had this idea of writing a few short pieces for the German papers in order to pay for the extravagance of a fortnight’s rambling tour. So that was the plan. But then, as you walk along, you find things. I think that’s the advantage of walking. It’s just one of the reasons I do that a lot. You find things by the wayside or you buy a brochure written by a local historian which is in a tiny little museum somewhere . . . and in that you find odd details that lead you somewhere else.’ Digression is at the heart of Max’s work. As Dave Eggers puts it: ‘The digressiveness follows the path of memory, which is rarely orderly. The uncovering of the story through the thicket of the mind – that’s the plot in a way.’

Sebald opens The Rings of Saturn by telling how, in August 1992, he ‘set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a stint of work’.  He collapses ‘a year to the day after I began my tour’. He tells of being rushed to hospital in Norwich, and from this point the narrative drifts from one topic to the next, weaving an elaborate skein of associations drawn from his walk, his reading, thoughts and memories to produce a work that is a pilgrimage, a memoir, a prose poem, rambling and constantly digressing.

For example: as Sebald passes through Walsingham, he recalls that here, in 1658, in a field in the village, nearly fifty urn burials were unearthed. This inspired Sir Thomas Browne of Norwich to write his HydriotaphiaUrne-Burial or, A Brief Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk. Sebald meditates, in turn, upon Thomas Browne and Hydriotaphia:

The inquiry of oblivion blindly scatters her poppyseed and when wretchedness falls upon us one summer’s day like snow, all we wish for is to be forgotten. These are the circles Browne’s thoughts describe, most unremittingly perhaps in Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial of 1658, a discourse on sepulchral urns found in a field near Walsingham in Norfolk. Drawing upon the most varied of historical and natural historical sources, he expatiates upon the rites we enact when one from our midst sets out on his last journey.

Sebald’s landscapes are usually empty of human inhabitants:

The train ground into motion again and disappeared round a gradual bend, leaving a trail of black smoke behind it. There was no station at the stop, only an open shelter. I walked down the deserted platform, to my left the seemingly endless expanses of the marshes and to my right, beyond a low brick wall, the shrubs and trees of the park. There was not a soul about….

But, at the same time, they are haunted by the residue of human endeavour:

Too many buildings have fallen down, too much rubble has been heaped up, the moraines and deposits are insuperable.

There is a great deal of characteristic laconic humour.  Just read his account of  entering Lowestoft on a grey evening and then eating armour-plated fish and chips in his deserted hotel : ‘the fish . . . had doubtless lain entombed in the
deep freeze for years’.

Robert McCrum in the Observer noted that Rings of Saturn is

Ostensibly a record of a journey on foot through coastal East Anglia… [but it] is also a brilliantly allusive study of England’s imperial past and the nature of decline and fall, of loss and decay.

The Rings of Saturn is a strange, compelling work, with its curious archive of photographs and its chronicling of Sebald’s tour across epochs as well as the East Anglian countryside. On his way his thoughts meander via Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy Lesson’, the natural history of the herring, a matchstick model of the Temple of Jerusalem, the travels of Sir Thomas Browne’s skull, and the massive bombings of World War 2. He connects sugar fortunes, Joseph Conrad, the horrors of colonial Belgian Congo, an abandoned bridge over the River Blyth, the Empress Tzu Hsi and the silk industry in Norwich.

He recalls visiting the Waterloo Panorama, a 360-degree representation of the battle wrapped around an ‘immense domed rotunda’, and muses:

This then . . . is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.

For the Re-enchantment project, Artevents has commissioned four artists to explore the significance of our various relationships to place – personal, collective, cultural, ecological or spiritual. One of these, England Revisited, is a monumental land artwork by Simon English that builds upon his earlier work All England Sculpture (1971). Then, he journeyed to, and marked with a St. George’s flag, 75 points from Cumbria to the South of England over three months.  For England Revisited, he has revisited all 75 points creating an entirely new work about change. From July to September 2010, Simon traveled across the country, photographing the locations, collecting samples of the local flora, talking to the locals, as he had done in 1971. This material from both journeys, along with Simon’s observations on England then and now, will eventually result in a downloadable touring exhibition to be produced by Artevents in 2011.

In December, Artevents published a book, Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings, with contributions by various writers and poets reflecting on the meaning of ‘re-enchantment’, with reference to an actual, particular place or region. The book has essays by, amongst others,  Jay Griffiths, Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane, Iain Sinclair and Ken Worpole, with poems from Elisabeth Bletsoe, Lavinia Greenlaw and Alice Oswald.


Mary Newcomb: the perfect moment

Mary Newcomb: the perfect moment

Today we saw the exhibition, Mary Newcomb’s Odd Universe, at Norwich Castle Art Gallery – an excellent retrospective of the work of the painter Mary Newcomb, who died last year. Some of her most evocative paintings were there: poetic, pastoral and often revealing a quirky sense of humour. Largely inspired by the animals, plants and landscapes of the Norfolk countryside, her work is an intense song of colour, often shading into abstraction, and with some elements of primitivism, particularly in the way that key elements of a painting may be foregrounded without respect to scale or perspective. Two of my favourites, unfortunately not reproduced, were ‘Cowslips in Moonlight’ and ‘Collared Doves Lifted by Light’.

The exhibition was curated by the writer Ian Collins, a friend of the artist for 30 years,  and arranged around the themes of Fire, Earth, Water and Air, moving from early earthy paintings and watery images to end in the poetry of flying things (butterflies, birds, planets, balloons).In her work, Mary caught the essence of the Waveney Valley and the serenity of life on a small, ramshackle farm.

“She wasn’t influenced by existing local landscape painting… she was a visionary. She painted things nobody else saw – small things sometimes. Even though her work is immensely accessible, she was the kind of person who had a vision all of her own. She may have seen a cyclist or a bird wandering across the road or the washing hanging out and its movement in the weather, and she studied it intensively. She brought something so simple to painting that no-one had really even seen before. She points us to things we know all about but haven’t looked at properly. When you look at them, you think, ‘Why didn’t I notice that before?'” Ronald Blythe, East Anglian writer and Mary’s friend.

‘We saw the very brightest lights on the very darkest nights.’

‘The rook remembers the red flower she saw in the earth garden.’

From the exhibition leaflet:

Rural visionary Mary Newcomb (1922-2008) was a self-taught painter whose work is both unique and universal – growing from the soil of Waveney Valley farms in the 1950s to a late blooming in airy poetry.

Trained in science and first drawing birds at Flatford Mill Field Studies Centre in 1945, she met husband Godfrey Newcomb on a bittern-boosting trip to Walberswick. They farmed, potted and restored gypsy caravans as Mary found her vocation as a lyrical painter which she pursued in a series of ancient houses – and on foot, bicycle, bus and train – across Norfolk and Suffolk.

Praised by Ben Nicholson and collected by film stars, Mary Newcomb remained the unaffected poet of the rural scene, communicating the joy of existence in the world of country rites and rituals and the wonders of nature.

Towards the end of her life Mary Newcomb’s paintings became sparer, lighter, larger and ever more abstract; but they always referred back to specific incidents, noted, savoured and remembered.

Mary Newcomb was also a gifted writer. She began a Diary in 1986; the first entry reads:

I wanted to say these things and to record what I have seen to remind ourselves that – in our haste – in this century – we may not give time to pause and look – and may pass on our way unheeding.

The entries in her Diary include observations such as:

Today a man cycled madly down a hill between yellow rape fields, head down, trousers flapping. There was a grey church on a hill, a farm house tucked into a corner of trees – a typical East Anglian scene perpetuated from spring to spring. Time still passes but it passes more slowly here.

A new painting…It will be difficult to do, but I will try…On the common a lady walks stiffly along in her best suit and hat.  The sky is mediaeval blue. The clouds are white. The lady stops and takes off her jacket and reveals a soft yellow blouse. She stoops to smell flowers that have no scent and goes on her way – her stiffness gone.

Mary Newcomb found a kindred spirit in the East Anglian author Ronald Blythe, and his words and her drawings combined memorably in a book of essays, Borderland.

Her art celebrated the rhythms of nature and the rituals of rural life; wildlife and farm animals, village fetes and agricultural shows, incidents glimpsed as she travelled by bus, train or bicycle.

‘If there is a god for our planet, it is the sun.’

Ian Collins, curator of the exhibition, met Mary during one of his first interviews as a journalist back in 1978:

“When I first met Mary at her farm, I left after the interview and looked at the landscape as though it was a Mary Newcomb painting. She has that really powerful impact and yet she paints very gentle pictures too. Some make you feel like you can fly – utterly uplifting. She paints a very accurate picture of the Waveney Valley and its rural history, but she likes to play around with perspective and proportion. She stands out because her paintings are like nobody else’s. She didn’t know where they came from – she didn’t know how she did them. They almost emerged as if by magic. To focus her mind before painting, Mary used to write maxims. One that best explains her inspiration is, “Press close to farms, for all your life comes from them”, which is something many people in Norfolk can relate to. Mary wrote these words in large print on the walls of her cottage and studio to give her guidance. She’s a poet in paint and that comes across in the words and pictures of a very beautiful, but utterly East Anglian landscape”.

Newcomb’s theme is country behaviour: her entire work is like a landscape through which insects, animals, birds and people are continually moving. They come in and out of her vision like entries in a diary; part and parcel of an intense inner life.

There’s a definitive book on Mary Newcomb by Christopher Andreae which introduces Mary Newcomb’s universe, lavishly illustrated with 150 full-colour reproductions. Her paintings and drawings are set alongside extracts from her Diary and an illuminating text by Andreae.

Christopher Andreae’s text is based on conversations and correspondence with the artist as well as close study of her Diary, paintings and drawings. It considers the relation of Newcomb’s work to so-called ‘naive’ painting and to naturalist artists and writers, and analyses the unique self-taught ‘language’ of her art.

Roger Deakin, in Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, wrote an excellent account of Mary Newcomb’s work:

Every now and again if you’re lucky, exploring a wood, sitting by a river or looking out of a train, you may experience what a friend of mine calls ‘a Mary moment’. Such minor epiphanies, often apparently unremarkable in themselves, will lodge in your memory and may be recalled in their essentials long afterwards. They are the distinctive subjects of the Suffolk painter Mary Newcomb: a flock of goldfinches dispersing, a magpie flying up from a wet road, a football match seen through a hole in an oak leaf eaten by a caterpillar. These are all actual titles of paintings by Mary Newcomb. Such poetical vignettes are essential to the particular effect of these deceptively modest pictures.

Mary Newcomb belongs firmly in the greenwood tradition, peering unnoticed from behind leaves like the Green Man at things that are very often half hidden themselves. In the Newcomb world, people and plants sometimes surreally hybridize, as in Girl at the Garden Centre in the Rain, in which a woman, mostly hidden beneath an outsized green-and-black striped umbrella, has grown into an umbellifer. And in Lady with a Bunch of Sweet Williams, a woman standing in an exuberantly flowering meadow, hidden from the waist up by her giant posy, seems to have burst into full bloom in sympathy. Such chameleon impulses in many of the paintings come close to a visual expression of Andrew Marvell’s lines in ‘The Garden’: ‘Annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in a green shade’. They have a notable affinity with poetry. Mary is an admirer of John Clare, whose words ‘I found my poems in the fields and only wrote down what I saw’ describe very well how she paints, and the connections she notices between, say, pylons and cobwebs, or butterflies and bits of torn paper. Indeed, the notes in her diaries are very often written without punctuation in a style that strongly suggests that of Clare as well as the stream of consciousness she wants to express.

I appreciate Mary’s pictures in a way that must be informed and biased by my affection for the part of the world where we have both lived through the poignant closing years of what might be called the old rural Suffolk: the northern stretch of the county broadly defined by the valley of the River Waveney. In her evocation of the natural, mainly rural life of Suffolk, Mary Newcomb is comparable with two other artists of the borderlands, John Nash and Ronald Blythe, whose work is based on their relationship with the Stour Valley along the southern margins of the county. The setting of some of Mary’s work in Ronald Blythe’s book Borderland seems an entirely natural collaboration. She delights in simple, vernacular structures or machines: rowing boats, bicycles, weather- vanes, telegraph poles, bird boxes, lighthouses, windmills, church towers. ‘They serve a purpose. They have a point,’ she writes in her diary. She also loves to travel, in the old, unhurried way on trains, steamers or on foot, and records her excursions in paint.

When Mary and Godfrey first came to Suffolk, they lived at Needham so close to the Waveney that one night two dog otters fought each other right under their window. ‘They were on their back legs, teeth in each other’s necks, and balanced by their tails,’ Mary wrote to me in a letter. ‘In the morning I saw their bloody trails in the dew on the marsh, going in different directions.’ They farmed in a small way along a stretch of river bank with goats, hens and cows. Mary would get up early and paint from five until seven and then do farm work for the rest of the day, scrubbing eggs clean with cold water or milking goats. Now they had moved to Peasenhall, a few miles inland from Walberswick, where they also lived for a while, and I have driven over with the East Anglian painterJayne Ivimey, an old friend of Mary and Godfrey, for tea.

The house is at one end of the village, with a walled garden and a homemade wooden aeroplane on a pole as a weather vane. The first thing that strikes you about Mary is the calm depth and steadiness of her clear blue eyes. She walks and stands stoutly, with definite steps and great certainty about everything she does, looking remarkably young for a woman in her eightieth year. She wears her rich dark-brown hair, which has never turned grey, neatly cropped. Mary Newcomb bears the air of someone who has worked hard, and to some purpose, all her life. Everything about the house suffuses it with a lively spirit of curiosity and inquiry. There is something of or by Mary in every room of the house except Godfrey’s, which houses his beloved Philip Suttons. Godfrey, says Jayne, is a man of sudden strong enthusiasms: the saxophone, the penny whistle, the spinning wheel.

Mary has been painting rooks. ‘A Brooding Rook in its Heaven’ is the working title of her new work in progress. On the floor beside the canvas are haifa dozen of the birds drawn in charcoal on sheets of paper, and on the wall is another one, standing confidently, bald beak raised aloft, about to caw. The poetical titles always come first. They are like haiku. And there is something Japanese about the clarity and profound simplicity of Mary’s work. This has not come about through any deliberate study of such things. Mary has simply arrived quite independently at similar conclusions through her own original route. Every so often, as we have our tea, a live inhabitant of the rookery beside her garden comes down and pecks about on the lawn.

Mary generally places her paintings on the floor and sits on a low stool, bending over them to work. This accounts for the close focus. Sometimes the picture is propped against the wall, and she uses a small step that enables her almost to walk right into the work. At one point in the diary, she describes herself as ‘so tired I almost fell into the canvas’. Unlike most artists, Mary keeps not a sketchbook but a notebook or diary. She fills it with handwritten thoughts and observations that often find their way into the work verbatim. ‘Be sure to put it down,’ she writes in one diary entry, ‘be it squirrel in a woodpile, men with white-toed boots working on a mountain railway, caterpillars hanging stiffly and staring from a laurel bush, the magnitude of the stars — there is no end.’

That reference to the stars inevitably suggests one of the best-known Newcomb pictures, the beautiful watercolour Ewes Watching Shooting Stars: three ewes on a clear, cold night, invite you to identify with the animals inside their warm coats. The painting reminds me of Ted Hughes’s poem ‘The Warm and the Cold’, an evocation of the animal world on a freezing, starry night in terms of the particular form of shelter each one takes, including, by contrast, the ‘sweating farmers’ who ‘Turn in their sleep/Like oxen on spits’. Newcomb and Hughes share an acute awareness of the minutiae of life in the wild, and a deep, affectionate understanding of the lives of farm animals and all creatures. In another picture, Very Cold Birds Where One has Flown Away it Knocked the Raindrops Off the raindrops are drawn very nearly as big as the birds on a tree, so the three drops in mid fall suggest the absent bird. Proportion is very often skewed like this in a way reminiscent of children’s art or ‘naive’ painting, in order to represent the thing that looms large in the artist’s mind at a particular moment.

Years before she eventually began to write in a series of red-bound diaries from W. H. Smith’s, Mary instinctively preferred writing or drawing on separate sheets of a favourite A5 paper, torn from a book and carefully kept in the folder she carried with her. She was well aware that this was the medium that best suited her mode of thought and sudden, crystalline perceptions. To write in a notebook or diary implies a burden of narrative, of things unfolding in sequence through time, which Mary was temperamentally reluctant to take on. Entering one of her paintings, like entering a wood, alters your sense of time. The act of drawing, as John Berger points out in a recent interview, ‘is a way of learning to leave the present, or rather, of gathering the past, the future and the present into one’.

At the head of a jotted list of projected ideas, Mary writes, ‘The lady in her landscape, her rightness, her industry, her involvement, respect and pride.’ It has the ring of a self-portrait. There is a certainty about Mary Newcomb that includes an absolute belief in the importance of the clear-sighted moments that engender her paintings. The impression you often have, looking at one of her paintings, is that ‘Suddenly there it was, and Mary painted it.’ But, in fact, each painting evolves slowly in the studio. Mary paints a first version, blocking out the main elements, then stands it against the wall. Over a period of weeks or months she will then begin to tear out bits of colour or texture that catch her eye in magazines and arrange them on the floor beside each picture. As we move through the house we step carefully around these pools of colour.

At the end of each day’s work Mary also paints out all her brushes on to pieces of hardboard and stands them near the painting in progress. ‘Just now I’m still stuck on green,’ she says. A particular colour will preoccupy her for weeks, and the painting out of the brushes is much more than ‘a good way to use up spare paint’, as she deceptively claims. It is the gradual preparation of the underpainting that gives the pictures such depth and mystery, and often pushes them to the edge of abstraction. Turner did something similar in his ‘colour beginnings’. It is the most profoundly unconscious part of the painting: the music of the song. I notice a predominantly blue work from an earlier phase, a back view of two figures sitting in the garden. Mary often paints people from behind, perhaps shyly, in a way that suggests that they too are lost in their own private worlds. Another example hangs across the room: three female figures leaning over the railings of Southwold Pier, looking out across a sparkling sea with a pair of distant sailing ships on the horizon. One wears a black-and-white harlequin-patterned dress. Wind catches her hair.

The people in these paintings seem to be part of the landscape. They do not dominate it, but take their place in it like any other being. Mary’s Man Cycling Madly Down a Hill seems airborne on his bicycle in an abstract ‘green shade’, his arms and elbows akimbo over the handlebars like wings, cloth-capped head leaning forward like a bird’s. Mary’s men often appear in the cloth caps worn by Suffolk farm labourers or fishermen until recently: a badge of belonging to the land or sea. These anonymous figures are in some ways Green Men, emerging through deep layers of foliage. The just-visible Lady in an Unsprayed Field Seen in Passing, an after-image, might be a corn spirit. Mary Newcomb seems attracted to paint what is half hidden, invisible even. In The Last Bird Home, the small figure of the bird, in a slight halo of warm amber dusk light, descends into a long smudge of dark-grey hedge we know is crowded with concealed birds, all singing. ‘After a long wet evening,’ Mary wrote while she was working on this picture, ‘the birds must sing. They have to get it out and shout insistently.’ Birds are everywhere in the work, yet they are often half concealed, hard to spot, as in a wood or a hedge. A cock pheasant in a field is actually a half pheasant submerged in grass, and in the diary there is a reference to ‘half men’ as subjects for pictures: ‘half men in hollows, in fields, in dips in the road, in long grass’. This is how it is in the fields, hedges and woods: things heard but unseen, or glimpsed, partly hidden. Seen collectively as hedgerow or wood, trees are abstracted by nature into a mass of colour and texture. The experience is distinct from the architectural look of a single tree. And this is what you see in a Newcomb painting.

‘There is no end.’

A river is a fine place to sit. The river is going somewhere and you are not. There is very slight activity all the time. There is a sense of travelling: either you can go with it, conjure up the view around the next corner. Look back and recreate its passage in your mind.

Out into the river when everything else had gone came a small black tub containing a lady and a large black dog. The very slight wash was silver. Her coat was green. The dog sat on. The woman rowed the boat looking round ocassionally to see the dog.

After half an hour when more light had gone she returned past us, rowing slowly, turning to talk to the dog.  The dog sat on like a little black mountain.  Both were very peaceful and companiable to one another.  It was a perfect moment.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Weekend on the Waveney

After catching up with friends for the first time in 17 years, we’re having a short break in Suffolk, drawn to this part of the country having read the books by Roger Deakin – Waterlog, Wildwood and Notes from Walnut Tree Farm – the latter about the place where he lived from the late 1960s. Continue reading “Weekend on the Waveney”

Dunwich Heath

After our Dedham Vale walk we headed back up the coast to Dunwich Heath, where we had an excellent afternoon walk.  It was calm and peaceful with hardly anyone elese about.

The walk was through varied landscapes – heathland with splashes of gorse, birch woodland and reedy marshland (the are backs onto Minsmere RSPB reserve).

As we approached the coast there were stunning views across the marshes towards Sizewell B nuclear power station.

Dunwich itself was once a thriving port, similar in size to London but storms, erosion and floods have almost wiped out this once prosperous village which was the capital of East Anglia. All that now remains are a few cottages where once there was six churches, three chapels, two monasteries and even a mint.  It’s rumoured that most of it is under the sea and on a quiet day it’s said you can hear the church bells of the doomed village still ringing out …


Dunwich Heath in July: from Malcolm Farrow Landscape & natural history photography site

Constable country

Swan over the Stour

Today, on our Suffolk trip, we ventured just over the border into Essex to Flatford Mill and walked along Dedham Vale to the village of Dedham. We were lucky with the weather – the sunny, warm spring days continue. It was a glorious walk – the vale was a ‘fair field full of folk’ on foot and punting on the water. There were close encounters with swans.

With the help of map from the Tate Constable Country website, I was able to stand in the same position as Constable when he painted several of his views of Flatford Mill and photograph the scene as it is today (remarkably unchanged).

The Hay Wain, 1821
The Hay Wain today

Constable’s gritty depiction of rural life with workers going about their business rankled many of his contemporaries whopreferred a more idealised view of the English countryside. Apparantly he played a bit fast and loose with the cottage (in the painting the roof is a slightly different shape).  He was constantly retouching his pictures. Evidence of this is the ghostly dark patch at the front of the painting that was once a horse before he changed his mind.

Boatbuilding, 1814
Boat Building today
Boat Building today

John Constable found most of his inspiration close to his childhood home in the Stour Valley in Suffolk. Living in East Bergholt, his father Golding Constable, a wealthy miller, often had business at nearby Flatford Mill.

Flatford Mill, 1817

Flatford Mill today

“But I should paint my own places best… I associate my careless boyhood to all that lies on the banks of the Stour. They made me a painter. That is I often thought of pictures of them before I ever touched a pencil.” (Constable, from a display at Bridge Cottage, Flatford Mill)

View on the Stour near Dedham, 1822
The Stour today
The Stour today

‘The landscape painter must walk in the fields with a humble mind. No arrogant man was ever permitted to see nature in all her beauty.’ (Constable)

Dedham Vale 1802



After leaving our friends we drove, under a cloudless spring sky, straight to the Suffolk coast at Southwold.  There we walked along the sand, past the multicoloured beach huts, to the pier.

Southwold was mentioned in the Domesday Book as an important fishing port, and it received a town charter from Henry VII in 1489. Over the following centuries a shingle bar built up across the harbour mouth, preventing the town becoming a major port.

Southwold was the home of a number of Puritan emigrants to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early seventeenth century. In 1659 a fire devastated most of the town and damaged St Edmunds Church, whose original structure dated from the 12th century. The fire created a number of open spaces within the town which were never rebuilt. Today these greens, and the restriction of expansion because of the surrounding marshes, have preserved its genteel appearance.

Southwold lighthouse was constructed in 1887 by Trinity House. It stands as a landmark in the centre of the town. It replaced three local lighthouses which were under serious threat from coastal erosion. It began operation in 1890 and was electrified and de-manned in 1938.

Southwold Pier was built in 1900, was practically destroyed by a gale in 1934, and had a major refurbishment in 2001. Whilst many English seaside piers are in decline, Southwold Pier is enjoying renewed popularity. It includes a collection of modern coin-operated novelty machines made by Tim Hunkin.

“The north Suffolk coastal area around Southwold is a land of undulating countryside rich with public footpaths, oak-tree lined minor roads and lanes, productive arable fields, beaches of both shingle and sand, crumbling cliffs, marshland, and heather-covered commons, all under open skies where the star-spangled night sky can be seen in all its glory. Here too are otter and kingfisher at home along river banks, hares, wild deer, a wealth of native birdlife as well as bird migrants visiting by accident or design.

“Scatterings of houses and farms shelter in ancient lanes with villages tracing their beginnings back many centuries before Domesday. The village church stands as testament to past wealth and glories. These churches, rich in an atmosphere of hundreds of years of humble worship, are an important part of the modern-day community. Suffolk’s churches contain notable fonts, screens, pews and all manner of historic interior items of interest and are well worth a visit. Some churches have a round tower, something seldom found outside Norfolk and north Suffolk.

This unspoiled coast can be idyllic at any time of year but Nature can still exert her force at times, whipping the North Sea into a foaming frenzy, or sending an eerie sea mist ashore, dank and cold, or just letting that Lazy East Wind blow (“It blows straight through you being too lazy to go around”). At such times, perhaps surprisingly, it is good to venture out, wrapped up warm, just to give your senses an experience. To see and hear the timeless ebb and flow of the sea can be fascinating at any time but when a storm is brewing and the waves are building, relentlessly driven by a strong wind, these are exciting times.
Explore Southwold

Construction of Southwold lighthouse began in 1886 and took three years to complete. It’s a wonderful piece of classical Victorian engineering.

It took 1,500,000 half bricks to construct. The local coal merchant, Thomas Moy & Co, brought them to the cliff top in a fleet of 15 horse-drawn wagons. The lighthouse stands at 101 ft, making it 120 ft from sea level to the focus of the light. The lantern is reached via two winding staircases and 113 steps.

If you want a good place to eat in Southwold, try The Blue Lighthouse in East Street. We found the food and atmosphere excellent.

Mary Newcomb:  The little lighthouse town