Originally I had intended to include some older work in this show as part of a sequence of images of Fisherman’s Rock. I first painted this particular rock while I was at college and have produced pictures based on the structure that I discovered in 1979 at regular intervals during the past 30 years. However, when I looked at some of the older work I had at hand, I thought it might be more interesting to group the work differently.
I have mixed 7 older pictures among the recent work (some pictures were started a long time ago but their character is so changed that I no longer consider them to represent previous bodies of work.)
These pictures include two interiors. By association, pictures of interiors are often assumed to represent interior states of mind to a greater extent than a depiction of an external landscape. This is not the case – the pictures are in some sense, all interiors.
Novalis said that philosophy is “really homesickness, the drive to be at home everywhere.”
My pictures, whether interiors or landscapes, are all pictures of home.
The paintings are mostly about an area of North Devon coastline that I know well. It is created by memory. Not only by events – the scattering of ashes, shared experiences, other people’s actions, swimming and accidents – but by the fact that for so many years I would take my canvas out in all weathers, look at the landscape and paint it. The accrued memories of experiencing different lights, moods and circumstances are now part of the substance of natural rock, seawater and sand.
Organisations and individuals possess all the wilder places of England. Cliffs, rain drenched moor, lakes and ravines are docketed and filed within a legal framework that ensures the rights of property are maintained. However, the persistence of our innate individual freedom is deeply connected with our attitude towards such landlords. We refer to them – and they usually refer to themselves – as guardians or custodians. In addition, we acknowledge a duty of care for such places. If the behaviour of either landlord or visitor is destructive there is a common concern for the preservation of a shared heritage.
On top of a hill on Bodmin Moor there is a small plaque which says that some local people died in the war for “this” – a view of a valley that stretches away into the distance. There are other plaques in beautiful places in the South West – one on a Cornish cliff top urges us to look on the rocks and sea as a temple built by God.
For some, God is home, for others England.
Our sense of belonging is something we notice more when it has begun to disappear. The strength of allegiance to our nation increases when that nation is under threat.
A country on the brink of war, threatened by a foreign ideology (whose fanatical supporters call for the destruction of monarchy, religion and government) is entitled to place potential terrorists under surveillance.
In 1797, a Home Office agent was dispatched to a small village in Somerset, where known sympathisers had travelled from Bristol to plot navigation routes along the Bristol Channel, in order to assist the French Fleet in their invasion and conquest of Great Britain.
The agent’s reports have been preserved.
“The man has camp stools, which he and his visitors take with them when they go about the country…. And have also a Portfolio in which they enter their observations, which they have been heard to say were almost finished. They have been heard to say that they should be rewarded for them and were very attentive to the River…”
The object of the agent’s scrutiny was the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his visitors, William and Dorothy Wordsworth. They were describing the countryside around them in much the same way as a painter might sketch out a landscape; navigation routes for the mind.
My paintings have regularly been described as Romantic and I accepted this definition while not really knowing what Romanticism is or was. As part of the process of trying to find out what I had been doing for so long, last year, I initiated a festival in Somerset devoted to the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a key figure in the birth of English Romanticism who, although he is now remembered as a poet was, towards the end of his life, regarded by his contemporaries primarily as a philosopher.
The young Coleridge, along with other radical thinkers of his age, struggled to come to terms with the fact that the French revolution, based on principles in which he believed, degenerated into bloodshed and horror. He wanted to salvage noble ideals – equality, freedom and brotherhood – from the wreckage and to discover why and how those ideals had been corrupted.
The idealism of the French Revolution can be interpreted as an appeal to rationality underpinned by a belief in the innate goodness of mankind. If society is rational then man’s natural state will shine through – uncorrupted and benevolent.
When the young Coleridge moved away from the city of Bristol to live in the Somerset countryside, it was in order to deepen his political engagement while rejecting the direct action that characterised his urban existence. The Home Office agent may have mistaken Coleridge’s practical intentions, but he was right to recognise a challenge to government and a spirit of anarchy.
Liberty, which “nor ever didst breathe thy soul in forms of human power” was found and sustained by the admission of the natural world into the human psyche.
Nature referred not only to the external world but the human body and the natural process by which consciousness is generated. Coleridge saw the means by which we select from and knit together the millions of pieces of separate information we receive every second – colours, sounds, smell and touch – and how we pattern this information via memory and emotion in order to become conscious, as the fundamental creative activity.
The distinctions we make between one man’s intelligence and another’s when viewed in relation to such extraordinarily complex activity are trivial in comparison.
Coleridge made a distinction between the creative poetic imagination nurtured by this (largely unselfconscious) organic process and a mechanical “ fancy.” which rearranges ready made objects via that “empirical phenomenon of the will which we express by the word CHOICE”
The German philosophers that influenced him, particularly Schelling, saw Nature as a generative process. While Nature can produce “objects”, these are essentially inhibitors of process and can never be regarded as complete in themselves. We (along with the other objects of Nature) are eddies in a stream – a temporary resistance to the current – formed of constantly changing material.
Coleridge believed that “the mind of man in its primary and constitutional forms represents the laws of nature.” We cannot truly regard other objects formed by nature as “other” or separate the observer from the observed.
(The degree to which Romanticism was influenced by the first translations from Sanskrit is of interest. Schlegel – who coined the term “Romanticism” – believed that contemporary examination of Vedic texts would prove as important to his own time as the study of classical antiquity was during the Renaissance. It is arguable that, although this influence was circuitous and largely unacknowledged, Schlegel was correct.)
As Coleridge considered the manner in which we idealise and unify the universe in order to produce consciousness he discovered those ideals that he sought to preserve, hard wired into the psyche.
Schelling insisted that the creative imagination was as capable of generating evil as virtue – and that to suggest otherwise was a negation of the concept of free will.
Oscar Wilde suggested that Coleridge’s ally in the generation of the English Romantic movement, William Wordsworth, found “sermons in stones” because he had put them there previously.
However, Coleridge’s appeal is not due to the exactitude and discipline of his thinking, rather to the expression of a seductive personality and a resilient temperament. Whatever his
contemporaries might have said, we are right to regard him primarily as a poet.
By linking Nature with freedom he ventured into potentially dangerous territory. Nature can be claimed – not only by landlords but also by dictators; Mao, Hitler and Stalin allied themselves with Nature as a legitimising agency. Nationalism is the great enemy of a romantic sensibility.
Romanticism may draw strength from an attachment to specific places but it links the particular with the general, the general to the universal and is corrupted when bound within the mechanical authority of the state, which while it can crush liberty, cannot create it.
The paintings are an attempt to conjure up a sense of being at home in the universe, albeit temporarily, through an incantation of rhythm, echo and pattern.
It is still through an appeal to Nature that the powerless stake their claim. In the quiet light filled moments where we allow consciousness to naturally recreate the world, to open up the space before us and to place ourselves within it, we can find liberty, equality and brotherhood growing continually, sprouting like weeds.