Tag Archives: nature

coming home

Saturday 9 May 2015

They take away our belts so that we must hold
Our trousers up. The truly mad don’t bother
And thus are oddly hobbled. Also our laces
So that our shoes do flop about our feet.

so begins Anthony Hecht’s poem ‘Coming Home’ [1976], a creative retelling of the English poet John Clare’s escape from an asylum house in Essex back to his ‘homeland’ in Northamptonshire, in the summer of 1841 [from John Clare’s journals].

but what connection does this excerpt from a poem have with a bright blustery morning in early may?

well, out of the blue, the picture editor of The Times Literary Supplement [TLS] contacted me and asked if they could use a picture of mine to accompany a poem by John Clare as the ‘Poem of the Week’.

the request was for something “wild and woody”, as they liked my ‘Clare inspired’ sketchbook paintings in this journal [blog]. i hadn’t conceived of these painting sketches as outwardly ‘clare-inspired’ but i had, in a curious inversion, quoted a couple of lines from John Clare’s poem ‘The Progress of Rhyme’ to accompany the sequence of paintings from some muddy and muted days in winter.

maybe it was something to do with seeking hope, on the horizon, escaping to the country, side-tracked, down a country lane, a nearby hill, the corner of a field, or down on the marsh – all reflected back in jaded eyes. an overwhelming sense of ‘enclosure’ in these agricultural landscapes could make anyone go a little stir-crazy after a while, but in John Clare’s poem i was reminded that sometimes it’s small nature that grasps and grounds you. one can easily ramble on about these things, it’s a common side-effect of the ruralist condition.

the progress of rhyme’ is, as the title suggests, a poem about poetry: nature as muse, his enduring love for ‘poesy’ as he terms it, intertwined with memories of past acquaintances, the indifference and fickleness of others, finding beauty in weeds, uplifted by birdsong – “cheer-up cheer-up cheer-up”, solace and joy in nature. it goes on. & on, & on [with quite a lot of curly ampersands en route]

the progress of rhyme’ is also a poem that requires repeated reading, not only because it is quite long and there is a quirky dialect to be deciphered in the words, grammar and spelling, but because with each reading a short rhyme might chime out with new resonance.

whenever i take time out to skim through the two books of John Clare’s poems i have, there is always an interesting pause for thought in the wider narrative. maybe this is the nature of poetry – you read what you need – as i must confess i have not yet read all of the poems, nor have i fully comprehended them in the academic literary sense.

but i must get back to the original back-story, for this is not about ‘the progress of rhyme‘, but another poem…

in reply to the enquiry from the TLS, i sent them pictures of five landscape painting sketches for consideration, not knowing which John Clare poem they might be associated with. naturally, i was flattered by the picture request even though no fee was involved, as i like john clare’s poetry, and oddly, maybe it would be some good exposure for a hermit artist [i’m not really a hermit, it just appears that way in comparison to other artists’ lives].

then a small muddle-up occurred as it transpired that the ‘poem of the week’ wasn’t going to be a John Clare poem after all, but a poem inspired by Clare’s ‘Journey out of Essex’. i had not previously heard of the poet Anthony Hecht, but have discovered via the wonder of the worldwide web he is/was a prestigious american poet [now deceased]. i was still happy with the picture agreement.

i later emailed a friend who has more literary connections – they have worked in graphic design & book publishing, and are currently working on illustrations for a new book of poems – and i said that i found it unusual that a small wintery bleak painting of mine was chosen to illustrate a journey taken in summer time. they replied: he sleeps in ditches. this sounds reasonable, but i wouldn’t want my painting to be interpreted that things had got that bad. in any case, ditches can be beautiful in summer, overgrown with the tall, swaying fluffy-ended stems of meadowsweet.

after re-reading the poem, the contrast made more sense: John Clare’s escape from the mental asylum to a place called home, as reinterpreted by Hecht in ‘Coming Home’, is a solitary and inhospitable journey: he travels wearily “by the dark of night”, the trees in the landscape are “unimaginably black and flat” against the grey sky, puddles are “flagstones of silver”, he goes hungry, takes a nap in a ditch, is “troubled by uneasy dreams”, forgets he has a wife and child, and still holds on to the hope that when he arrives ‘home’…

here is the link to the full poem mentioned at the beginning, ‘Coming Home‘ by Anthony Hecht, in The Times Literary Supplement: [http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1552228.ece]

some other sources of information found on the internet this week:

Interview: Anthony Hecht, The Art of Poetry N0. 40, the Paris Review: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2487/the-art-of-poetry-no-40-anthony-hecht

John Clare Cottage, Helpston: http://www.clarecottage.org

[note to self: there are probably some inconsistencies in using capitals, with regard to my usual ‘house style’ of typing]

[another thought: as a result of the general election here in the UK this week, a cloud of despondency has descended upon the liberal and left-leaning voters of the population. five more years of austerity. any analogy will do….]

art, it's a snap : maggi hambling & may cornet

Thursday 5 July 2012

more snaps from the Snap 2012 exhibition (Art at Aldeburgh Festival) at Snape Maltings…

in one of the disused malt buildings, an interesting ‘conflation’ of traditional painting and sound installation by the suffolk-based artist Maggi Hambling…

maggi hambling, painting installation, you are the sea, snape maltings, suffolk

you are the sea, maggi hambling 2012

this building is ‘presented’ in a state of elegant abandonment, not unlike a dystopian film set, littered at the boundary with architectural detritus but the floor is scrubbed clean. the eerie sounds of a water sluice (which Maggi Hambling encountered daily while sketching the north sea at nearby Thorpeness beach) meld into the sounds of a wailing voice or a poetical reading of sorts (uncredited) from the circular vented structure (a redundant relic from the building’s former use) – the ghosts of the sea are summarily summoned…

maggi hambling, painting installation, snape maltings, suffolk

i sat on the vent to listen through (as instructed). the accompanying ‘suspended’ canvas painting (Wall of Water VIII, from a series on the North sea) became less compelling as the draw of dark, semi-derelict architectural spaces encourages the eyes to wander & explore – although, bravo to this bold departure from the context of a white cube gallery.

many of the redundant outbuildings here (especially those without windows or roofs) are artfully preserved in a state of semi-dereliction with tidy groupings of architectural & industrial detritus – rusting containers, stacks of wood, bricks and tiles, drainage pipes, scrap metal, engine parts, even the carcasses of old cars – and such arrangements became even more appealing to the senses because on this day it was raining hard (in that dystopian, the-world-is-falling-apart-and-i-think-i-like-it way). no one else was about and this environment needed no other artistic intervention other than eyes to see it (or souls to feel it)…

snape maltings, dereliction detritus, suffolk

snape maltings, buildings, weeds, nature, suffolk

and let us not forget the invasive nature of the flora which some might call ‘weeds’, that serve to remind us of the unassuming poetry in encroaching wildness. nature is reclaiming this building…

it’s an idea purposefully recrafted as a secret ‘Walled Garden’ by the artist May Cornet later on in the Snap tour. stacked piles of bricks have been sown with a medley of wild flowers and grasses, with the white hexagonal structures perhaps mystically channelling these elements of nature. alas, the white gate to this manufactured haven for wildlife was firmly locked, so one was left peering through the prison-like bars from a controlled distance, as if we can never truly be free with nature, wherever we seek it. in truth, this merging of the man-made and nature in the environment can be witnessed anywhere: in urban derelict spaces, the hinterland sprawl, waste sites, railway sidings, rural backyards…

may cornet, walled garden installation, snape maltings, suffolk

the walled garden, May Cornet 2012

in constable country, again

Monday 11 June 2012

last year, i wrote that i planned to make a winter visit to constable country. well, dear reader, i did make a special visit to ‘Constable country’ in early march, which as any British person or Englishman will unhappily remind you if asked, still felt like the depths of winter. it was a bright day, on the cusp between winter and spring, the trees were still bare of leaves but the many surrounding fields were a vibrant shade of green with the sowings of winter wheat.

willy lotts cottage, dedham, constable country

Willy Lott’s cottage, Flatford Mill, March 2012

i was very pleased the two ducks stopped waddling briefly for this photograph by the glassy millpond at flatford mill, but i was disappointed the glare of the sun burnt out the white fluffy clouds. the owners of Flatford Mill (now a field studies centre) must work very hard to preserve this iconic English pastoral scene so that visitors can say how wonderfully it still resembles the famous painting nearly two hundred years later.

here is a small reminder of the painting…

the haywain, national gallery

The Hay Wain, 1821 © National Gallery, London

and here is my ‘impromptu’ contemporary reference to the hay wain

the hay wain, 2011

a toy farm trailer in a farm trailer, round about noon, early september 2011

and so began a very pleasant circular walk around flatford, firstly across a lush green meadow, meeting with some inquisitive sheep…

three sheep in a field, dedham, constable country

[in the (brief) company of wolves]

i had heard that in ‘Constable country’ there are powers in place to minimise unsightly blots on the landscape such as electricity pylons, but it was only a few minutes into our walk (after the brief encounter with the ‘wolves’) when i looked up and saw this…

electricity pylon, flatford, dedham vale, constable country

[an electricity pylon & power lines spanning constable country]

no matter; i was here for the day to walk about and maybe sketch a little, to see some ‘Constable’ scenery…

we passed by and walked around a lovely old woodland, called ‘the grove’ – and we didn’t meet any other walkers along the path. i made a note of this old, weathered tree stump (below, sketched from two angles) as perhaps being an old hawthorn as it was very tightly gnarled and twisted but was also quite small compared to the other trees. these are two very quick sketches. sketching tree forms such as this feels much like gestural life-drawing; you work within the restraints given and you try not to be too ‘precious’ about it.

sketchbook drawings of old, gnarled trees, near flatford, dedham vale, constable country

two more very quick bark/tree sketch studies, in graphite, drawn while standing…

further on, the landscape opened out and i made some notes of the field names (based on the map). the second sketch is a view looking down a hill back towards flatford mill. the third sketch is looking at the wide expanse of dedham vale, with gibbonsgate field, miller’s field and church field.

sketchbook, sketches of fields and hedegrows, flatford, dedham vale, constable country

three sketches, a winter hedgerow and some green fields…

towards the end of the walk we met a dog walker, or rather his two dogs made their keen acquaintances with us – and shortly after that i found this large piece of metal detritus on the perimeter of a ploughed field – a very mangled, flattened tin bucket – and i considered it to be the finest ‘Constable country’ find of the day.

old tin bucket, constable country

a constable country souvenir, a very mangled, flattened tin bucket (verso)

it was a very pleasant, relaxing walk (with afternoon tea taken later on in the day at a delightful Dedham teashop), but it was not possible to walk far and also find time to draw; so, i enjoyed the walking.

it was also nice to take another peek into one of John Constable’s early sketchbooks online (collection of the V&A Museum, London). Constable’s many studies and sketches were invaluable visual resources throughout his career. after Constable moved to London with his wife (and a fast-expanding family) he only returned to Suffolk for a few days or weeks each summer (which would explain the distinct lack of winter landscapes), although he travelled quite extensively throughout England due to painting commissions. on one occasion, while working on his preparatory studies for The Hay Wain, Constable required a sketch of a hay cart, and a young Johnny Dunthorne (the teenage son of a friend back in Suffolk) was duly sent out to make an initial study which Constable could work from and refine back in his Hampstead studio. i can quite understand the artistic frustration of earnestly painting a summer scene in the winter months, and many miles away from its source.

by all accounts, painting the The Hay Wain was an anxious task for Constable, a difficult and slow to resolve painting, hastily completed for The Royal Academy summer exhibition – but that is far from most people’s minds as they gaze into the romantic, pastoral quietude of the scene. i think most painters will empathise with that particular anxiety of making work for art exhibitions. add to that anxiety, that his young wife was expecting their third child (they had seven children together in total), and they were perhaps conscious of outgrowing their new hampstead home, as well as the ever-present difficulty of making an income from art to support his young family.

it was amusing to read that they had to remove a window from the property to deliver the finished painting to Somerset House (the location of the Royal Academy at that time) – although the painting was (probably) not completely finished, as – as was the custom – artists often completed their paintings in situ in the gallery on varnishing days (aware of the competition!). Constable was anxious that this painting would sincerely impart all he felt about nature and the landscape, and that it would make a good impression at a time when the fashion in painting was for the very grand, the mythical, the historical & the dramatic…

I hear little of landscape – and why? The Londoners with all their ingenuity as artists know nothing of the feeling of country life (the essence of landscape) – any more than a hackney coach horse knows of pasture.

John Constable, in a letter to John Fisher (a good friend and patron), dated 1st April 1821, shortly before completion of the painting Landscape, Noon later to become more widely known as The Hay Wain, a title first suggested by John Fisher.

John Constable was born on this day, 11th June, 1776.

see also, in constable country and on thinking, clouds in a sketchbook