Art and walking

Art and walking

The view from Tufton Lodge, where we live and work, is stupendous. It is without a doubt what sold us the house, as in every other respect its location is quite insane. Built just before 1900 by the Appleby Castle estate to house its gamekeeper, the property sits on an unprotected hillside nearly 1400 feet above sea level, with uninterrupted views right across the Eden Valley to the Lake District fells, framed by the North Pennines on the right and a bleak grouse moor stretching up to Nine Standards Rigg on the left. When we bought the property it was leaking at every seam, the carpets squelched when you walked across them and there was what our surveyor referred to as a ‘lean-away’ which housed the bathroom and toilet. It took several years to make it as wind and water-proof as you can reasonably expect in such an exposed position.

Tufton LodgeThe original rationale, no doubt, was to position the gamekeeper’s lodge in an uncompromisingly prominent way, as a clear deterrent to anyone thinking of poaching the estate’s precious game. For the poor gamekeeper and his family this came at some cost; during storms the prevailing westerly wind batters the house at full pelt, sweeping up the steep slope from the Belah beck which runs along the valley floor some 350 feet below, without so much as a mound of earth or a single tree to blunt its force. Before we put down a solid concrete floor a strong wind would lift the carpets in the sitting room. Even now, with the benefit of double glazing, wall insulation and underfloor heating it can feel like sitting out a gale at sea, with the wind howling across every vent and chimney, flexing the glass panes and rattling the slates.

On good days, however, and even on ones when the sky fills with brooding clouds and sunlight pierces through in occasional diagonal shafts, you can stand for hours and simply gaze at the landscape stretched out in front of you. The fells of Blencathra, High Street and behind it a few bumps of the Helvellyn range, must be at least forty miles distant. On a hazy or misty day they do indeed seem that far away, but when the weather turns crisp, the sky is blue and the peaks have a cap of snow you almost feel you can reach out and touch them. Sometimes a kestrel will complete the picture by hovering motionless on the wind, skillfully fluttering its wing or tail feathers to keep itself locked in position, its eyes fixed firmly on the ground below.

The story goes that this very view provided inspiration for the Victorian painter John Martin (1789-1854) as he worked on his last set of paintings, a tryptich known as ‘The Last Judgement’. The three pictures are huge, some two metres tall and three metres wide, and were designed to be viewed side by side, possibly even illuminated by lanterns to make a dramatic ‘son et lumiere’ show.

John Martin was renowned in his day for his awe-inspiring visions of the apocalypse and giant tableaux depicting biblical tales. Seen from a 21st century perspective many of his pictures look like stills from computer generated disaster movies and in fact a host of film directors have cited him as a key influence. In many respects John Martin was the Steven Speilberg of his day, with his paintings attracting massive audiences; it has been estimated that ‘The Last Judgement’ paintings were seen by over 8 million people during a tour that lasted several decades after Martin’s death in 1854. Painters like Martin also knew a thing or two about merchandising; much of his income came from the sale of engravings of the pictures sold during their exhibition.

The first and second paintings are right out of the ‘disaster movie’ mould. The first (reading from right to left), ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’, is all fire, lightning, crashing mountains and tiny figures falling into the abyss. The second, ‘The Last Judgement’, shows humankind being divided into those going to heaven and those condemned to hell, with God and the angels presiding. The third, ‘The Plains of Heaven’, depicts a wide luscious valley, framed on both sides by hills and with a range of icy peaks in the far distance. Below the hills, etched out more in relief than in colour, you can just make out the buildings of a celestial city. This metropolis, the great blue lake and the wide waterfall that pours water everlastingly into it are certainly missing from the real life view from our house. So too are the bands of souls, clothed in billowing white gowns, floating off in the middle distance on their eternal journey to who knows where - the group, appropriately enough, consists of a number of artists and poets. If this is a rendition of the view from near our house, it’s been highly filtered through a glass of heightened imagination and religious fervour.

Sadly, and perhaps because of his popularity, John Martin’s paintings fell out of fashion with art critics, collectors and the curators of the nation’s art galleries. In the 1930s the three paintings were sold for just £7 and one was cut into four strips to decorate a screen. Eventually they all found their way to the Tate Gallery in London. When we first bought Tufton Lodge and learned of its tentative connection to ‘The Plains of Heaven’ we made a trip to the Tate. We searched for it vain. When we finally gave up and asked at the information desk we were informed that it was in storage and therefore not available for public viewing. We managed to buy a small postcard, a tiny fraction of its true size.

However in 2011/12, the Tate mounted a proper exhibition of Martin’s works and it was possible to view ‘The Last Judgement’ tryptich in all its glory, complete with music and light show, if only for a few short months. It is only by viewing the pictures at their full scale, pretty much that of a cinemascope movie when the three are placed side by side, that you can properly appreciate their impact on audiences of the time. It seems extraordinary that such magnificent and influential work is now, once again, stashed away out of sight. You can, thankfully, see 'The Plains of Heaven' on its own at The Tate as part of the 'Walk through British Art' exhibition and also view it online.

Extreme though his vision may have been, John Martin was working in a long tradition of Romantic artists, whether painters, poets or writers, seeking to capture the ‘sublime’ in nature and render it for an audience that might well not get the opportunity to experience the ‘real thing’. The desire to capture nature in its most favourable aspect had been filtering down to even amateur artists for several decades by the time Martin completed his grand religious triology. An intriguing relic of this trend is Claife Station, found on the western shore of Windermore just above the ferry landing stage opposite Bowness-on-Windermere. This was one of several ‘stations’ promoted by guidebook author Thomas West (1720-79), from which visitors could view the landscape from the most pictorial points and, if their talent allowed, sketch and paint them. Claife Station, now itself a picturesque ruin, was built on the site of one of the viewing stations featured West’s ‘Guide to the Lakes’, first published in 1778. The book became immensely popular, in spite of his death just one year later, running to seven editions before the turn of the century.

The large windows of Claife Station were glazed with different coloured glass to offer views of the landscape in what was considered a more pleasing tint, one which simplified the tonal range of the scenery to give it a ‘painterly’ quality. Well equipped visitors could also turn their backs on the landscape and hold up a small slightly convex mirror known as a Claude Glass to make the scene easier to sketch or perhaps just more pleasurable to look at; the mirror reduced the size of the image to manageable proportions. The ‘Claude Glass’ was named after Claude Lorrain (1600-82), a painter renowned for suffusing his pictures with a mellow golden tint who had became immensely popular in England in the 18th century. No doubt the amateur artist owners of a Claude Glass hoped that some of the genius of the French master would filter through to them. Inevitably there were others who were quick to poke fun at groups of tourists and artists 'turning their back on nature' in order to view it in a more appropriate and ‘picturesque’ guise.

Romantic views of the countryside found their way into the increasingly popular walking journals and guides of the period. Etchings created from the works of landscape watercolour painters allowed writers to convey their enthusiasm for the landscape in imagery as well as words. By chance a painting used as a source for a walking guide hangs at Tufton Lodge. It’s a modestly sized watercolour by the artist David Cox (1783–1859), a near contemporary of John Martin. It shows a dramatic scene at ‘Rhaiadr Cwm’, marked now as Rhaeadr y Cwm on the OS map, near Ffestiniog in North Wales. The picture used to hang in my grandparents house in their dining room and I have always found it fascinating. It’s a dramatic image, showing the deep gully of the cwm with wisps of cloud hanging above the waterfalls, accentuated by the presence of a tiny group of figures walking down some stone steps in the foreground and an even tinier coach and horses following a precarious road at the very top left of the picture.

The image finds its way into ‘Wanderings and Excursions in North Wales’ by Thomas Roscoe (1791-1871). The book was first published in 1836; my mother managed to find a later edition printed in 1853, so it clearly had enduring appeal. The book, in which Roscoe describes a long walking tour around North Wales, incorporates fifty images by Cox and two other artists, so the pictures were clearly considered something of a selling point. Even so Roscoe is at pains, in his preface, to assert that of the visual and literary arts, the work of the poet is definitely the superior. Rather more self-deprecatingly he goes on to say that, in the case of this book, he and his artist collaborators were able to walk ‘arm-in-arm over the pleasant hills, by the green valleys or the sunny shores’, simply aiming to convey Nature’s charms in a ‘simple and faithful manner’.

Roscoe’s description of the scene exactly matches the impression given by the painting: ‘Seen…when the sun had flared through its zenith, and the lengthening shadows began gradually to creep over the valley, the immensity of the rocks , and the wildness of the landscape, gave rise to feelings of wonder and surprise.’ It goes in in similar vein for a whole page.

Roscoe’s description and Cox’s picture do somewhat ‘improve’ on reality. The cliffs rising above the cascades are considerably higher and steeper than they are in the real world, while the intrepid tourists are shown stepping across a crag that spectacularly overhangs the valley below. Unencumbered by the need to render the scene completely accurately, both writer and artist were able to express their feelings and in many respects they did so faithfully. It would be ungenerous to suggest that the exaggerations were dishonest; this was what they saw in their mind’s eye.

Those of us who take photographs of the landscape do much the same when we wait for the most flattering light or seek out the most dramatic viewpoints, even if we don’t actually doctor the image with Photoshop later. We also tend to be very selective from the many hundreds of images we can now take with a digital camera; only the those where the colours have been just right or which capture a fleeting moment of action get a public airing – all the rest are either deleted immediately or languish on a hard drive somewhere. You have to wonder whether the gorgeous images found in books or displayed on websites are really any more representative of real hills, mountains and countryside than their Victorian counterparts. In all honesty, they are not – we just have a new ideal of what we want the landscape to look like.

David Stewart