Archive | November, 2013

Staring at the landscape

22 Nov

Unlike Turner, the heroic painter, who allegedly tied himself to a mast of a boat in a storm, ( according to art historian James Hall, this was most certainly a ‘romantic myth’), I recently sheltered , shivering unheroically, by one side of a wall on Gibbet Moor in the Peak District. I was forced to wait for a storm to blow through, before drawing the landscape on the moor. My only companions were several sheep, who were also bracing themselves against the wind.


There was little else to do but carry on staring at the landscape, that changed , minute by minute. As I did this, I wondered what other folk look at landscape from the same spot, in a similarly concentrated way , ( in my case over 3 days in November, about four hours at a time). Ornithologists, archaeologists, artists spring to mind, are there others? It is a singular experience. One begins inadvertently to group shapes together to make sense of the landscape. The lie of the land is sometimes clearly seen , and then this understanding drifts, as one’s concentration does , or the weather hides everything in cloud and rain.

Bonnard , the french painter, wrote and drew in his diary what he named as ‘observations on painting ‘. Although he was preoccupied with painting his wife in the bath , landscape and how to paint its complexities was also important. On this subject , he wrote :

‘Dans la vision, l’esprit a une capacite reduite pour sentir un grande nombres d’elements plastiques par groupements, ou proches, on peut augmente cette capacite’

‘visually , the spirit has a refined capacity to feel a great number of plastic elements by grouping them, or nearly, one can increase this capacity’

Bonnard 22 April 1931

Recently , at one of the EnglaID reading groups, the reading of Champion ( chapter 7) by Tom Williamson , Robert Liddiard and Tracey Partida, brought up discussions around the subject of Historic Landscape character.

On the English Heritage web site , it is defined as :

‘Characterization helps to manage change in the historic environment by tracing the imprint of history. Piecing together information from maps new and historic, from aerial photos, and from the wealth of data that we already have about archaeology and buildings, it builds up are-based pictures of how places in town and country have developed over time. It shows how the past exists within today’s world. These fascinating insights into historic environment , however, are about the future , not the past. Characterization is not an academic exercise but a vital tool for developers and planners to make sure that a place’s historical identity contributes properly to everyone’s quality of life’. ( English Heritage Characterization Team is headed by Graham Fairclough ).



While staring at Gibbet Moor, I wondered whether, by grouping patterns together, regognising traits in the moor both close and faraway, being aware of surrounding landscape, I was making my own version of characterization. I also wondered, how does this work for an artist ?Is an artistic characterization of landscape valuable ? Is it one step too far away from ‘honest’ representation , whatever that may be ? does it over simplify ?

After three days on the moor, I certainly felt that to get a feel for and to represent this landscape was, in fact, to make a characterization of it. This is singularly difficult to explain, but in my case these characterizations are not direct descriptions, but more a series of reactions to the landscape.



An example of the many ‘characterizations’ observed on trip to the Peak District are intense patches of light against very dark tones: ‘nodules’ if you like. These patterns, felt unique to that region, seemed to extend , repeat themselves beyond the landscape ,into the sky and even back to a particular breed of sheep, grazing in front of me.

These patches became useful as markers across the landscape: I traced my pencil backwards and forwards between them like an eye , scanning, or even like legs walking over to the horizon, reminiscent of the painter , Paul Klee’s advice on taking a line for a walk.

As I stared at the landscape , the patches, nodules, disappeared in the gloom of the storm and then reignited when sunlight appeared again.

These artistic characterizations may bear no direct resemblance to archaeological characterizations of the landscape, their purpose being quite different. However , the process of lengthy scrutiny and ‘ characterization’ could be said to connect artist and archaeologists, both of whom work intensively with landscape  ,and maybe inform each of them ?

Anwen Cooper had chosen this spot as an interesting piece of moorland to look at , providing me with an article from Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society ( Bronze Age settlement on the gritstone East Moors of Derbyshire and South Yorkshire ‘ PPS 53, 393-418) 

In this he writes:

‘ The day has gone when excavation of individual sites, despite its glamour, is adequate in itself to explain prehistory. It is only when sites can be assessed in relation to their patterning within the regional landscape that meaningful answers can begin to emerge ‘.

I wanted to follow his argument, however even staring at the map , kindly supplied by Chris Green, the cairns were not very obvious in the landscape , to me.

I am returning in January , to take advantage of more low light. Meanwhile, together with Anwen and Chris, I shall gather other representations of this extraordinary piece of landscape, and hopefully return with an altered gaze.Image