Posts Tagged ‘light’

Mantel on history and Constable and McTaggart exhibition

June 14, 2017

A very interesting article in The Guardian Review section by well known author Hilary Mantel. In the article, Mantel discusses “Why I became a historical novelist” and writes “My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims”. The author cites her great grandmother as an example of a historical figure and there is evidence of where her relative grew up, who she married and of her 10 children. However, Mantel, argues “I have no access to her thoughts” and it is in expressing the thoughts and words of historical characters – real or imagined – that the work of the historical novelist is involved. Mantel also discusses what we call history and states that “history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record”. My first degree was in history and I’m now doing an oral history project on my home town of Dunbar in the 1950s, so definitions of history intrigue me. I remember having lectures in 1st year at university where the lecturer posed the question “What is history” and referred to E H Carr’s book with that title. Much of Carr’s arguments about what constitutes history has been revised since the 1960s when it was published. In my own educational research and in my current local history research, I take a constructivist view i.e. that historians construct their versions of history from evidence that is also constructed. For example, in my oral history project, when I was interviewing people about visiting the whales stranded at Thorntonloch in 1950, I was not expecting the people (aged between 70 and 95) to report what they saw, but to construct the scene from their memory. My job was then to interpret what I heard in the interviews and newspaper reports and construct a version of events in my book. So history for me is an interpretation of events in the past, not a reporting of them.

An exhibition currently on at the National Gallery in Edinburgh features the work of John Constable and William McTaggart. This is a small but powerful exhibition with 2 outstanding paintings at its core. The first is Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows shown below.

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Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows by John Constable (Click to enlarge)

This is a very large painting and in the booklet helpfully provided by the National Gallery at the exhibition, Constable is quoted as stating “I do not consider myself at work without I am before a six-foot canvas”. At the time of this painting, landscape was not seen as a proper subject for artists and Constable was also criticised for his use of both brush and knife when paintings were supposed to be smooth. It is also very detailed and worth close study at the exhibition or online. At first, you notice the rainbow, the church, the large tree and the cart being hauled across the river by horses. Then you see the dog in the foreground, the birds on the water and another church to the left. What is striking of course are the clouds and their various colours and the threat of rain. Constable was criticised for his depiction of the clouds as it was a departure from the painting norms at the time. The booklet states “Constable created a varied surface where dense, craggy areas alternate with passages of subtle translucence and movement is created by the dynamic application and flecking of paint”. The more you look at this picture, the more you do see movement in the horses, the swaying trees and the clouds.

The exhibition seeks to show how McTaggart was influenced by Constable, particularly in his painting The Storm shown below.

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The Storm by William McTaggart (Click to enlarge)

This painting is not as clear as Constable’s and deliberately so. The first impression you get is of the flow of the water and light and landscape, like a lava stream. Then you see the figures at the bottom left who look desperate and frightened. Look again and in the mid to top right a small boat looks in peril on the sea. The notes at the exhibition comment on McTaggart’s “remarkably dynamic brushwork” which was influenced by Impressionism. There are other paintings in this exhibition by Constable and McTaggart which makes a visit to the National Gallery well worth while. As a footnote, my lifelong friend Tam, on a recent visit to Dunbar, recalled that my current interest in form and shape in art did not match my inability to create art at school. Despite the advice of our excellent art teacher Carnegie Brown, my attempts were hopeless. I still can’t draw for toffee but I have learned to appreciate some aspects of art, including how it is constructed.

 

Barns Ness and The Last of the Light

December 23, 2015

A walk on Sunday along the beach at the White Sands, which is about 2 miles (3.2k) from Dunbar. The wind was in the south-west, so the sea was calm although rippled by the wind. If the wind is in the north, there can be breakers on this beach, but on Sunday, there was only Philip Larkin’s onomatopoeic “the small hushed wave’s repeated fresh collapse” from his poem To the Sea. At the east end of the beach, you find a series of limestone pavements, which were formed “with the scouring of the limestone by kilometre thick glaciers during the last ice age”. It’s hard to imagine a glacier being one kilometre thick. One of the most interesting features of limestone pavements are the visible fossils, of plants and animals, on the pitted surface of the hard rock.

 

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Limestone pavement at the White Sands

Once you reach the end of the beach, Barns Ness Lighthouse comes into view and there are alternative paths which take you to the lighthouse. We walked through the gorse bushes (some of them had unseasonable flowers), and then along the edge of the beach where the oystercatchers (includes video) were in a constant search for food at the waves’ edge.

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Oystercatcher. Photo by Mike Pennington and reproduced under the Creative Commons licence

Barns Ness Lighthouse first shone its beams across the sea in 1901 and the light continued to shine until 2005. It was originally manned by lighthouse keepers and then automated in 1986. One of our sons’ favourite picture books when they were young, was The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch and you can watch it on a YouTube video (not sure about the copyright on this). It’s a great story for children, amusing and educational at the same time.

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The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch by Ronda and David Armitage

The lighthouse has been recently repainted and repaired and it is one of our local icons as it stands proudly at the sea-shore. There may not be a light shining any more but it is still a very impressive and fascinating building.

Barns Ness Lighthouse

Barns Ness Lighthouse

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Barns Ness Lighthouse

In last week’s Guardian Review, there was a review of a book on twilight The Last of the Light by Peter Davidson. I very rarely read non-fiction books these days but I’m going to buy this one. Davidson refers to the fact that in 2016, there is so much unnatural light that we forget what twilight – ” the last glimmering of a way of seeing” is really like. The author looks at prose, poetry and art in discussing the time between light and dark at the end of the day and also considers twilight in a range of countries. For example, the French refer to twilight as the time between chien et loup – the dog and the wolf. The French for twilight is le crepuscule which comes from the Latin crepusculum. I’ve noted here before that one of my favourite words is crepuscular referring to the twilight. Crepuscular is a muscular word.

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The Last of the Light by Peter Davidson

Dunbar harbour (again) and Abbey St Bathans

August 25, 2015

There’s a biblical saying indicating (roughly) that there is no end to the making of books and there is no end to me taking photographs of my local harbour, which has featured a few times on this blog e.g. here and here. One reason for this is that the light is never exactly the same at Dunbar harbour, the tide is never at exactly the same height and the boats and yachts in the harbour are never exactly in the same place. These most recent photos were taken on a cloudy evening although there was enough light from the west to illuminate the water and enable the reflections to appear. The sounds of the harbour are always changing and the most significant recent change has been a dramatic decrease in sound as the calls of the kittiwakes no longer pierce the evening calm. The birds which nested on the castle walls ( see my photos) since April have gone back out to sea until next year.

Dunbar harbour on a cloudy evening

Dunbar harbour on a cloudy evening

Reflections in Dunbar harbour

Reflections in Dunbar harbour

Creels, yachts and castle ruins at Dunbar Harbour

Creels, yachts and castle ruins at Dunbar Harbour

It’s been a good few years since we ventured to Abbey St Bathans. From Dunbar, this is a pleasant drive – and a hard cycle run because of the many hills encountered. There are some nice walks from where you park near the bridge which is part of the route on the Southern Upland Way, a popular walking route.

Southern Upland Way signpost

Southern Upland Way signpost

The fast flowing Whiteadder (pr Whittader) River flows through this hamlet and there is a swinging bridge upstream which was built by the Gurkas in 1987. The church (good photos) is famous for being built on the site of a 12th century abbey.  Nowadays, there is a trout farm and a restaurant/gallery along the road from the church.  Over the road is an extensive sawmill – an unusual sight in the 21st century – but it gladdens the eye to see the piles of tree trunks sculpturally assembled across the mill yard. There is also always a lovely smell from the drying logs.

Whiteadder River at Abbey St Bathans

Whiteadder River at Abbey St Bathans

Sawmill at Abbey St Bathans

Sawmill at Abbey St Bathans