Next Saturday I’ll be reading some poetry from the First World War (therefore not my own!) at the Buckinghamshire County Museum in Aylesbury along with some of my fellow members of Metroland Poets.
I’m due to be reading at 1,30pm and 2.30pm (there’s another, later, reading at 3.30pm).
The poems I’m due to read are:
Recruiting by E A Mackintosh;
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death by W. B. Yeats;
and The General and Base Details, both by Siegfried Sassoon.
It’s all free and it marks with the end of an exhibition about the First World War, which tells the story of the war viewed from a local perspective and by local figures, including the war artist, John Nash (whose First World War painting, The Cornfield, I have on my wall and a figure whom Kim reveres in my novel).
I was walking to the station a few days ago — the long way round because the footpath over the fields is too muddy (see the melting snow in the photo) and noticed a wonderful sunrise emerging over the tops of the Chiltern Hills, specifically Beacon Hill and Pulpit Hill (to the left and right respectively). I took a quick couple of photos with my phone and thought no more about them until I came to download some other photos to my laptop — and then was blown away by the way the camera had captured the moment. (The photo above hasn’t been altered in colour by any photo-editing software).
The beaming, beacon-like sun means I like this photo in a slightly superstitious, borderline-karmic way too because in my mind, the imaginary village where much of the novel is located approximately under where the sun is breaking through the clouds — just on over the scarp of Chilterns. In reality, there is already a steaming hot-bed of scandal and highly-secret political intrigue nestling on the other side of those hills. It’s called Chequers — and while what goes on in there is no doubt stranger than fiction, its stories are subject to the hundred years rule.
There’s something also a little Turner-like about the yellow blast of light spilling over so much of the sky between the hills, which also ties in with the novel. One of the reasons Kim considers leaving London for the countryside is that she wants to paint landscapes — something there’s limited scope to do in Shoreditch and Hackney. A German artist coming to Britain also draws on a strong tradition for landscape painting common to both countries — and a subject I’ve been learning about as I’ve been writing the novel.
Caspar David Friedrich is a dominant figure in early nineteenth century German art and his landscape paintings depict a romantic melancholy that, it could be argued, reflects a strand of the German character – certainly a phlegmatic love of the open-air. I recently went to a lunchtime lecture at the National Gallery titled Caspar David Friedrich and the Tragedy of the Landscape, which rattled through slides of dozens of his paintings, accompanied by an illuminating commentary. Kim will know Friedrich inside out.
Friedrich was a contemporary of the great British Romantic landscape artists, notably Constable and Turner, whose most famous paintings, such as The Hay Wainor The Fighting Temeraire, hang in the likes of the National Gallery. I went to the last weekend of the current Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape exhibition at the Royal Academy yesterday and saw a few of the lesser known paintings by the famous three in the exhibition’s title, as well as examples by many of their lesser known predecessors. Turner’s fishing rod was also exhibited!
However, the National Gallery’s Room 34, in which those two painting hang either side of the entrance door, always awes me. Unlike writers, whose physical works are interesting curiosities but lose nothing in reproduction, painters’ original works are fascinating in person because of their physicality. It’s fascinating to stand close to the Turners, in particular, and see the brush strokes and the varying thicknesses of paint on the canvas — there’s a direct connection between artist and viewer that’s unique in painting.
I had the chance at the Tate Britain’s newLooking at the View landscape exhibition to see the original of a print that hangs on the wall above my computer at home — John Nash’s wonderful The Cornfield(sadly the Tate’s website doesn’t show an image of the painting but instead suggests his The Moat, Grange Farm, Kimble, which is of a landscape less half a mile away from where I’m currently typing).
I’d looked before for The Cornfield in the Tate and found it not on display so was very pleased to see it hung in the exhibition. I spent several minutes looking carefully at the way Nash had created the authentic, yet modernist, representation of wheatsheaves and summer foliage in the original. It was also fascinating to stand back from the painting in the gallery and observe the way Nash had cast the low sunlight and lengthening shadows across the painting. Painted in the last summer of the First World War in 1918 in the Chilterns near Chalfont St. Giles, it’s such a beautifully understated painting that both nods back to the Romantic tradition and anticipates the disruptions of the early twentieth century that it features on the cover of the book of the David Dimbleby A Picture of Britainseries of a few years ago.
The Looking at the View exhibition displays many classic works but chooses to display these alongside more modern works — often photographic — and so seeks to show that landscape painting is a vibrant part of the contemporary art scene — and not just about haystacks and water mills. For example, there’s a series of 56 photos called Concorde Gridby Wolfgang Tillman. They’re all taken around Heathrow Airport’s perimeter, in Hatton Cross, Cranford and Hounslow West in 1997 and, in addition to Concorde passing over , they feature things like the BA maintenance base (inside which I worked for four years and close by for an additional eight), the road sign on the A30 and what seems like a scrapyard on Hatton Road.
As the Tate exhibition shows (it runs until June), landscape is something that still holds a fascination for both artist and viewer and there’s plenty of scope for Kim to move to the landscape of the photo above and start to paint her own unique synthesis of Germanic melancholy, English pastoral, Berlin reinvention and Shoreditch cool.
And, in doing so, she’s almost retracing the journey of another famous (real) German artist — Kurt Schwitters — co-incidentally also the subject of a major current exhibition at Tate Britain, Schwitters in Britain, which I’ve also seen. Schwitters is most known for his collages, the lasting effect of which can be seen even now in most graphic art (e.g. magazines), inspired by his concept of Merz.
Like Kim, Schwitters came from Hanover, where much of his work is now curated in the Sprengel Museum. I used to go to Hanover at least a dozen times a year over a period of eight or nine years so I may have picked up Schwitters’s story without realising it. (I certainly remember the Sprengel Museum itself — it was near the Machsee, location for a wonderful beer and bratwurst festival in the summer.) But Schwitters being an entartete Kunst, he sensibly fled to Norway and then to Britain. He was interned for a while in the Isle of Man and the Tate exhibition has his original application, made whilst interned, to remain in the UK. It is typed in faltering English, describing himself being ‘called by the Nazis’ for being ‘a degenerated artist’.
The form is humbling and heartbreaking to read but also hugely uplifting, because the application was eventually successful and Schwitters was released to live freely in London. He subsequently moved to Ambleside in the Lake District, where he made a living by painting portraits and also made many paintings of the dramatic local landscapes. In 1948 Schwitters learned he’d been granted British citizenship — on the day before he died .
One of my favourite paintings — and one that is very germane to The Angel’s setting is John Nash’s The Cornfield, whichÂ I’ve blogged about previously. It’s relatively well-known, providing a motif for David Dimbleby’s BBC series on landscape painting a couple of years ago and can be viewed here on a link to the Tate Britain website.
Clearly the painting captures a specific moment in the agricultural year — the bringing in of the harvest — and as it was painted in 1918 it predates any mechanisation. The Nash painting depicts a line of wheatsheaves (amazingly the word ‘wheatsheaf’ isn’t in my wrist-sapping Oxford Dictionary of English). They’re portrayed almost anthropomorphically as semi-human figures (a little like monks with hassocks tied around their waists) and they look tired, weary and irregular, but still form a semblance of a line, much as one might imagine was the mood of the country at the end of the First World War.
I took the photograph below at 6.30am on the 15th July (St. Swithin’s Day — as immortalised by David Nicholls) on the way to get the train. (This is my bucolic route to the local station, which is wonderful on a July morning but awful on a rainy, muddy January evening). I’d walked the opposite direction the previous night about 6pm, when the grass had been cut but not baled. One point about the reduction in the number of farmers is that when the remaining farmers are busy, then they’re really busy. When the wheat is ready to bring in the combine harvesters work through the night. So it’s not surprising that the cut grass had been baled over the course of the previous evening.
Although these bales are of meadow hay and not corn (which meant wheat when Nash painted his picture) I later realised that there was something of a parallel. Rather than sheaves that are designed to be gathered in the arms, these cylindrical bales are so huge they can only be moved by a fork-lift truck (or its tractor equivalent) — there are no more than a dozen of them in the field, which must be a good three or four acres. So my photo, with its long shadows, Â is similar in spirit to Nash’s painting but also shows the differences.
I was reminded of Nash because I paid a brief visit today to Tate Britain in Millbank, which is where The CornfieldÂ is on display. I didn’t have time to go into their current Watercolour exhibition but I saw a few reproductions of the pictures elsewhere in the gallery. I was particularly struck by Eric Ravilious’s The Vale of the White Horse,featuring the genuinely ancient prehistoric monument which is just off the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire.
If you were to follow the Ridgeway from the Uffington White Horse north-east for about fifty miles, you’d end up at The Angel (in fact I might use a bit of artistic licence and have the Ridgeway go past the front door, as it does at The Plough at Cadsden). And Kim will be wonderfully excited about the connection between the land and Â the art — she’s going to take the Nashes and Revilious as inspiration.
There’s also a profound irony about Kim’s interest in Ravilious — like the Nashes he was a war artist — but unlike them he died in action. He was killed in an air-sea rescue mission in 1942 off Iceland.
AnotherÂ serendipitous connection is that there is a brewery named after the White Horse.TheirÂ beers include two that are well-known to me — Wayland Smithy and, er, Village Idiot.
An update to the post on ‘Totes Meer’ below. I was in Tesco’s and they’ve started to do a small selection of ‘local’ books. One was a walks in Buckinghamshire guide. I like to flick through these as they usually have at least one walk that passes within about half a mile of where I live — and it reminds me not to take for granted the fact that in a ten minute stroll (or five minute run) I can be in some of the best walking country in England. (And I was brought up within a few miles of the Pennine Way.) A national trail, the Ridgeway, is less than a mile away and I can see Â two long-distance paths (the North Bucks Way and the Midshires Way) out of the front of the house and a local long-distance route (the Aylesbury Ring) out of the back.
Quite often these walking books have nuggets of interesting information interspersed with the directions. I was reading a circular walk in the book with a route that passes very close to me and saw it had a reference to John Nash (the painter of The Cornfield). It said he’d written the ‘Shell Guide to Buckinghamshire’ in 1936 in a village (hamlet really) called Meadle, which is about a mile and a half away, a dead-end off a road in the middle of nowhere that I sometimes run past — the place seems to be dominated by stud farms and stables. (The Shell guides were much more ‘arty’ than normal 1930s tourist guides — those the Nashes did were described as surrealist. Â John Betjeman wrote the guide to Cornwall.)
I did a Google search on Meadle and John Nash and found a useful Chilterns AONB page giving a detailed biography. Nash lived in Meadle from 1922 until 1939, when he again served in the military. The website says ‘the location, on the edge of the Chilterns, provided great inspiration for him. The escarpment with its beechwoods and the farmed landscape with its daily activities became the subject of many of his paintings.’
I then found that another of his most famous works, which is in the Tate Collection, is ‘The Moat, Grange Farm, Kimble‘ , painted in 1922. According to Wikipedia this is a classic use of the landscape to represent reflections on the human condition — using a brooding claustrophobia that refers back to the war. I can see Grange Farm from my window and have walked past it several times (it’s on the North Bucks Way).
While ‘The Cornfield’ has an obvious appeal to me because it’s a painting of the region where I live, I find it fascinating that, unknown to me in the years since I bought the print, that the artist could almost have been my neighbour, having chosen to live for 17 years literally down the road.
Also, the work of both the Nash brothers fits incredibly well as a theme to my novel. Quite early in the novel I’ve written something about Kim and her attitude to the second world war. It’s debatable whether a German of that age really thinks about it too much and were that to be the only reference it would probably be read as fairly gratuitous. However, as the Nashes wereÂ artists who painted both world wars and also drew and/or lived in the area where the novel is set and also appreciated its much older, almost spiritual ancestry then the historical aspect could be developed. Â (Also, it’s interesting that the Tate owns most of these picture — shame they don’t seem to be on display — as I’m setting some significant scenes from the novel in The Tate Gallery.)
The process of developing what appears to be a soapy story of people running a pub is actually dredging all kinds of connections out of my subconscious.Â It’s producing a unification of character, setting and theme that’s very specific to me personally.
I’m finding it quite tricky to write a section of ‘The Angel’ in which Kim is in transition between London and the rural countryside. Part of the reason is that she’s currently making a journey alone, which isn’t a great source of dramatic conflict, except if the conflict is played out within her own mind — and the ideas that I want her to grapple with are difficult to convey without becoming a pretentious candidate for pseuds corner in Private Eye.
I’m tempted to bin, or severely edit, what I’ve written but as I’ve ploughed on I discovered some very surprising connections that suggest that certain themes in the novel are coming from deep in my subconscious.
I have Kim standing at a viewpoint and being blown away (almost literally) by the view. This sets off a series of associations as she spots that the view towards a place called Wittenham Clumps is signposted. This is a series of hills near Wallingford in Oxfordshire and my friend Kathy finds it a beautiful, meditative place and has sent me photos. It has the mystical appearance of the many of the chain of ancient locations that lie on the northern slopes of the Chilterns and the Berkshire Downs Â — such as Avebury, Silbury Hill, Barbury Castle, the Uffington White Horse, Whiteleaf Cross, Beacon Hill (near Chequers) and Ivinghoe Beacon. Most of these are linked by the Ridgeway.
Wittenham Clumps was also a location frequently painted by Paul Nash — who is sometimes described as one of the most important British artists of the 20th century. He admired Wittenham Clumps in the same way he revered the standing stones of Avebury which he described as ‘wonderful and disquieting’. Nash’s paintings examine the English landscape in an intuitive, slightly surrealist way that conveys as much about the interior thoughts of the painter as much as the physical landscape. The effect was described by Jonathan Jones in ‘The Guardian’ as being ‘in a distinctive, painted world that is part William Blake, part JRR Tolkien and all England. Red suns rise over chalk hills, grey breakers hit coastal defences. The landscapes of Kent keep recurring, along with unfamiliar views of London…[Nash]Â paint[ed] his dreams, and mix[ed] up homely landscapes with personal myth in a way comparable to DalÃ¬’s mythologising ofÂ Catalonia…his sensibility is as Âknotted as an English oak.’
The quotation above was from a review of an exhibition of Nash’s work in Dulwich earlier this year which was widely reported so I don’t think I really need to stretch artistic licence too much for Kim to have known about Nash and even attended the exhibition. What’s also striking is that, before I found that review, I’d written a description of what Kim sees in the landscape and alluded to both Middle Earth (Brill Hill can be seen from the same view, on which Tolkien based the village of Bree) and the ‘feet in ancient times’ from Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’.
I knew that what was also notable about Paul Nash was that he was an artist in both the World Wars. However, I learned a lot more from watching a fascinating programme on BBC2 this week about the art of the second world war. One of Nash’s most famous paintings is ‘The Battle of Britain’ and perhaps his best known work, which is owned by the Tate, but doesn’t appear to be on display, is ‘Totes Meer‘. This is German for ‘Dead Sea’ and is a depiction of a scrapyard near Cowley (also visible — and referred to frequently in ‘Burying Bad News’) full of fighter aircraft wreckage which he paints to look like a moonlit sea.
I’d enjoyed the David Dimbleby landscape art series ‘A Picture of Britain’ a few years ago and bought the accompanying book as it has some reproductions of some beautiful paintings. I liked the painting featured on the cover of the book so much that I bought a canvas print reproduction from the Tate — it’s called ‘The Cornfield’ and is a late afternoon view of an unmechanised harvest just after the first world war in the rolling Chilterns somewhere near Chalfont St.Giles. I’ve had it hanging on the wall of my study all the time I’ve been writing this novel. The artist is John Nash — who I didn’t realise was Paul Nash’s older brother.
The connections are almost spine-tingling: ‘The Cornfield’, Cowley, the Ridgeway, ‘Totes Meer’, ‘Battle of Britain’, Blake, Tolkien — it’s no surprise I’ve ended up writing about a modern-day German artist marvelling at the history of the English landscape.