Archive | April, 2014

West Penwith, Cornwall

8 Apr

Sitting for four days on a grassy wall at Carn Euny , overlooking the landscape of West Penwith, it was only on the last day ,

that I began , in small measures, to grasp this complex landscape.Image

in his book , the Writing of Art , Olivier Berggruen, likens Cy Twombly’s paintings and Leonardo da Vinci’s Deluge paintings,

describing how, at first they appear ‘chaotic’..with ‘traces of discontinuity, of losing control’, however after a while ‘these

paintings regain a voice that leaves an imprint, which is anything but disorderly’. Although this landscape could not be described as ‘disorderly ‘ or ‘chaotic’, it is complicated, is this the reason for its distinctive identity?, as Leonardo da Vinci wrote of his Deluge paintings : ‘there can be no voice, where there is no motion or percussion in the air’ (1)



A Deluge ,Leonardo da Vinci 1517-18

 Royal Collection.

The Carn Euny settlement and landscape abound both with’motion’ and ‘percussion’, partly from being situated in a peninsula with prevailing winds (C.Tilley described West Penwith as ‘virtually an island’ (2) ); but also from the feeling of a busy landscape, with visible traces of human occupation, which makes it, anything, but still.


photo by Anthony Edwards

Carn Euny is described by English Heritage on their web site as ‘ among the best preserved ancient villages in the south west ‘ whose ‘courtyard settlements’ are few in number, only about 50 in England. ‘Courtyard houses of this type are confined , geographically to a very small area indeed, clustering on the West Penwith peninsula at the furthest western extent of Cornwall as well as the Isles of Scilly. There are strong morphological and chronological links , however, with a range of domestic structures seen in northern Britain, including scooped settlements and homesteads recorded in the Northumberland Cheviots and dun related settlements and wheelhouses in the Western Isles’. ( )


Photograph English Heritage

The site has been occupied from the Iron Age until late Roman times, it is managed by the Cornwall Heritage Trust. The lay out of the 

settlement is ‘ fairly haphazard’ ( http://www.historic-cornwall ), it includes the foundations of stone houses, and an intriguing ‘fogou’ , an underground passage.

The complexity of Carn Euny and the landscape could be said to arise from the traces of ancient mixed farming communities, these ‘ small co-operating clusters of households’ (3) worked the land using individually owned fields and also rough ground held in common; ‘projections based on Historic Landscape Characterization suggest that the extent of rough ground in the later medieval period, say about 1550, was probably very close to that in later prehistory .'(4)

Was I seeing a part of all this while I drew ?


Back in Mousehole, where I was staying, the drawing revealed responses to what I had just seen, which included traces of the past, but there were also surprising similarities to elements of Celtic Art in the drawing : when the gaze does not settle for long in one part of the picture plane, a response to the curve, and everything interlinked.


Decorated bronze mirror, Iron Age, 100BC, from Trelan Bahow, St Keverne, Cornwall, The British Museum.

‘In building Cairns, rather then trying to replicate the forms of rocks and tors, people shifted their efforts to enclosing and appropriating the rocks and tors by building structures in and around them .’ (5) C.Tilley


Roger Hilton , January 1957, Tate Collection.


Inclined Oval Brown, Paul Feiler , 1964-65 Tate Collection


Black Circle , Terry Frost 2002

Did the artist Roger Hilton, Terry Frost and Paul Feiler come to this spot and look at this view ?  they all lived in different places but within 5 miles away, maybe they responded directly to the landscape but also to these forms’ in and around’ the rocks, made or managed by humans in the past.


Jeremy le Grice : Carn Euny 1968, Plynouth City Council Museum and Art Gallery.

On the last day , as I was about to pack up and walk away across the fields to go home, a feral looking cat popped up from one of the walls, looked at me directly, then disappeared, mirroring the small moment that I had a grasp of this extraordinary landscape.

No neat pattern, no explanation, or drawing could be said to  completely describe the landscape of West Penwith ,intriguing to archaeologists and artists. Maybe it is this just this , a puzzle, that gives this land , such a strong sense of identity.Image

(1) Jean Paul Richter , The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci , London, New York and Toronto Oxford University Press 1939, vol 2 p252.

(2) C. Tilley : Interpreting landscape , Left Coast Press 2010 ( chapter 9, p 427 )

(3) (4) : Peter Dudley : Goon, hal, cliff & croft , published by Historic Environment , Cornwall Council , 2011, summary p 8

(5) C.Tilley : Interpreting landscape, Left Coast Press , 2010 ( chapter 9, p 422).