Category Archives: Nature in art and literature

Pre-Raphaelites and nature: Ophelia

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood scandalised the Victorians with their unconventional paintings.  But Ophelia by John Everett Millais was loved even when first completed in 1852.  It remains one of the most popular paintings in the Tate collection and the gallery’s best-selling postcard.

The Industrial Revolution was in full blast, bringing with it a new freedom of movement. Millais, one of the founders of the Brotherhood, would take the train out of London and paint nature as he saw it, not according to the fixed conventions taught at the Royal Academy. Continue reading Pre-Raphaelites and nature: Ophelia

The Shipping Forecast by Seamus Heaney

I love the unique and lulling cadences of the Shipping Forecast and this sonnet by Seamus Heaney captures its atmosphere perfectly. Read whole poem (BBC)

Dogger. Rockall. Malin, Irish Sea:
Green swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice.
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.

Listen to today’s forecast.

On the origin of the Lake District

The area we now call the Lakes was once much wilder. Continue reading On the origin of the Lake District

Wildlife and Sex on Hampstead Heath

John Constable, Hampstead Heath, c.1820
John Constable, Hampstead Heath, c.1820

The management of London’s biggest park (790 acres/ 320 hectares) involves balancing recreational activities with nature conservation. Stressed out city dwellers can relax in a rural landscape, composed of a rich variety of habitats, including meadows, where grass is allowed to grow long to favour butterflies, and woodlands, where all three of Britain’s woodpeckers nest.  Outdoor swimming is a popular activity on the Heath, while by one of the 25 ponds a bank has been constructed to encourage kingfishers to breed.  Up on Parliament Hill kite-fliers enjoy spectacular views of London and might also see Kestrels and Sparrowhawks hunting.

Encouraging respectful attitudes from the wide range of visitors is an important part of looking after the Heath.  There is a particular problem with the amount of rubbish left behind by night-time pleasure-seekers in West Heath, for example, famed as a safe cruising zone. The “Heath & Hampstead Society” proposes the following:

“The Society is . . . working with the City to come up with new ways to manage the problem, for example, putting solar lamps in trees to power flashing beacons on litter bins during the night.”

Snowdonia by Sidney Richard Percy


Sidney Richard Percy (1821 – 1886) is one of my favourite 19th century landscape painters. He had a particular love of the Welsh landscape of Snowdonia and the Merioneth region around the village of Llanbedr. These peaks shrouded in clouds draw me in and make me want to climb them.

Martin Parr on secret Britain

I found this recent article by photographer Martin Parr in The Guardian fascinating and inspiring. He reminds us to look at the beauty in the banal, stressing that even mundane objects have charm – you only have to notice them. Above photo, part of a series by Parr on the humble postbox, is an example of what he means by this.

Parr has spent a number of years trying to locate the postboxes with the most stunning backdrops, particularly in the Scottish islands. “Here you can find postboxes literally on the beach and at remote and beautiful crossroads. I have also looked for remote phoneboxes, but I believe the postbox has the edge, as it is smaller and visually stronger.”

As we travel around Britain, I am convinced most of us cannot really appreciate what we are seeing. We take too much for granted, because it is all so familiar.We float through our cities and countryside with our eyes half closed. However if we go abroad, especially to countries which are very different to our own, our sensibilities are awakened; everything is fresh and exciting. I am proposing that same approach should be rekindled when we look at our own environment. Read in the Guardian

Martin Parr is a Magnum photographer;

George Orwell on Jura

Between 1946 and 1948, George Orwell spent two spells of six months on the Isle of Jura with the aim of giving himself  ‘six months’ quiet’ in which to complete 1984.  A rich friend had let him use a small, remote stone farmhouse called Barnhill seven miles from Ardlussa, the nearest village, on the bleak northern tip of the island. After “a quite unendurable winter”,  he grew to love the isolation and wild beauty of Jura, while writing his most famous novel. He spent a lot of time with his young son fishing the loch and sea, shooting rabbits, laying lobster pots, and lending his hand at farming: he kept a small vegetable garden and orchard and had sheep, a cow and pig. One day on a fishing trip with friends he was nearly drowned in the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool.

Sadly, the island’s damp weather weakened his already fragile lungs and after finishing 1984, he finally left the island for a tuberculosis sanatorium in January 1949. Twelve months later, he  died.

Orwell disliked cruelty towards animals though according to a friend of his this clearly did not extend itself to this adder, rather common on the Isle of Jura, he came upon. I wonder if this attitude came from his days in Burma where he may well have seen people die of snake bites.

“‘We landed in a sort of shingly bay and the first thing we saw was a dirty great adder, an enormous thing and Eric quickly planted his boot right on top of its neck and anchored it to the ground and I fully expected that with the other foot he would grind its head into the ground too – he was obviously intent on destroying it – but he got out his penknife and quite deliberately opened and proceeded more or less to fillet this wretched creature, he just ripped it right open with the thing – quite deliberately. I must say, it surprised me terribly because he always really struck me as being very gentle to animals, in fact I think he was a very gently, kindly sort of man.’…”

From here Orwell’s Life on Jura

See also

From The Guardian on writing 1984 on Jura…Now Astor stepped in. His family owned an estate on the remote Scottish island of Jura,. There was a house, Barnhill, seven miles outside Ardlussa at the remote northern tip of this rocky finger of heather in the Inner Hebrides. Initially, Astor offered it to Orwell for a holiday. Speaking to the Observer last week, Richard Blair says he believes, from family legend, that Astor was taken aback by the enthusiasm of Orwell’s response.

Around the web

Landscapes of Yorkshire by David Hockney

Is it possible to do anything new in the twenty-first century in landscape painting? Although most of the art world has given up painting hills, fields and trees, David Hockney doesn’t agree and returned to his native Yorkshire to paint a series of works of the countryside he knew as a child and teenager.

In Europe, the idea grew that painting was finished, not needed. This is because it had been replaced by something – the photograph – the pencil of nature, the truth itself. This assumes photography is modern; at least it’s only 180 years old. If one rejects the “immaculate conception” theory of photography – it came from nowhere, about 1839 – one begins to see another history. David Hockney

  • See all the paintings here: David Hockney – The East Yorkshire Landscape
  • Tate | Press Releases | David Hockney: The East Yorkshire “East Yorkshire first engaged Hockney’s imagination as a teenager when he worked on the land during summer holidays, stooking corn. As an adult, Hockney has intermittently returned to this part of England when visiting his mother and sister at their home in the coastal town of Bridlington. However, he only became fully absorbed by the landscape over the past four years, making it the primary source of inspiration for his art.”
  • Pagel, David. “The view from the woods. David Hockney’s East Yorkshire landscapes make Cézanne look Pop” Los Angeles Times, Around the Galleries, 16 February, 2007.
    click to read the full article
  • Muchnic, Suzanne. “Landscape perspectives. David Hockney rediscovers the landscape of his youth and his celebrated countryman, John Constable.” Los Angeles Times, 11 February, 2007.
    click to read the full article

Loch Coruisk

Loch Coruisk in the Isle of Skye is one of the most spectacular and isolated places in the British Isles.  The head of this freshwater loch is surrounded on three sides by the imposing volcanic Black Cuillin while the southern end runs into a small rivulet, which then discharges into a sea loch, Loch Scavaig. Coruisk is an Anglicisation  of the Scottish Gaelic, Coire Uisg meaning “Cauldron of Waters”. As with much of the Highlands, once it would have been thickly wooded. Deforestation has left it all the bleaker.

Robert Macfarlane visited Loch Coruisk  in his tour of Britain’s remotest parts, The Wild Places. He describes it as the greatest example in Britain of what he calls “sanctuaries”: hidden valleys with all the lure of lost worlds.

Sir Walter Scott visited the loch in 1814 and described it vividly:

“Rarely human eye has known
A scene so stern as that dread lake,
With its dark ledge of barren stone…”

Lord Tennyson was somewhat more descriptive:

“Loch Coruisk, said to be the wildest scene in the Highlands, I failed in seeing. After a fatiguing expedition over the roughest ground on a wet day we arrived at the banks of the loch, and made acquaintance with the extremest tiptoes of the hills, all else being thick wool-white fog

The loch has been painted by many painters including Sidney Richard Percy (1821-1886) who painted the above picture, William Daniell (1769-1837), J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), and Alexander Francis Lydon (1836-1917). Turner almost fell to his death while painting this view of the Black Cuillin from a crag high up the valley.

The foreground figures help establish the scale of this awe inspiring view over the remote Loch Coruisk. The Cuillin Mountains soar above the loch like gigantic waves. Read National Galleries of Scotland

The loch is accessible by boat from Elgol, or, most usually, a 7-8 mile hike from Sligachan.

See also

  • Loch Coruisk – Wikipedia
  • Misty Isle Boat Trips. We are a family-run business running boat trips from Elgol on the Isle of Skye to the famous Loch Coruisk in the heart of the Cuillin Hills.
  • Skye – Loch Coruisk Cruises
  • Review of The Wild Places in the Guardian “In certain predictable ways, his early travels provide him with “the real” that he wants. On the island of Ynys Enlli, off the westernmost tip of the Lleyn Peninsula, he identifies with the contemplative and austere connectedness of the original peregrini – the monks and other devout solitaries who settled there. In Coruisk, the loch-filled valley on the southwest coast of the Isle of Skye, he encounters “a silence that reached backwards to the Ice Age” (similar sorts of time-travel occur in later chapters as well). Making “an ice-bound traverse” of Rannoch Moor, trekking through the Black Wood east of Rannoch, teetering on cliffs that define the north coast of Scotland and contemplating the peatbogs (the “Flows”) nearby, he is at once taken out of himself and connected with the original need for his journeys. They are all places that put human achievement in the perspective of eternity and generate a sense of the primitive that is salutary and bracing.”

Books about the Isle of Skye

Collins Rambler’s Guide – Isle of Skye

Produced in association with the Ramblers, this walking guide covers the beautiful Isle of Skye and combines detailed route descriptions with information on the local history and wildlife.

This famous corner of the Scottish Highlands and Islands is home to a spectacular variety of mountain landscapes and dramatic coastlines. There is also a wealth of fascinating places to explore: caves and sea stacks, headlands and arches, waterfalls and castles.

The introduction gives information about the topography, geology and history of the area, and describes the flora and fauna inhabiting it.

Isle of Skye: 40 Coast and Country Walks (Pocket Mountains)

An excellent little walking guide, especially for those – like me – wanting to explore as many parts of the Isle of Skye as possible in a visit. Arranged roughly by ‘peninsular’, there are walks ranging from 45 minutes to a few hours, even a day. We did at least one from each section and they were all straightforward and, of course, beautiful!