Category Archives: Nature in art and literature

Nature writing of Patrick Leigh Fermor

The renowned British travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, also had the sharp eye of a naturalist. In Between the Woods and the Water, the sequel to A Time of Gifts, the young Fermor is crossing Hungary and Romania on foot and horse-back, describing an idyllic world about to be devastated by the Second World War.  The descriptions of the birds he came across stand out.

On migration:

[Cranes and wild geese] sometimes travel in a wedge formation, at others beak to tail for miles on end; unlike storks, which, as I had seen a couple of weeks ago, move in an endless, loose-lined mob as ragged as nomads in the Dark Ages."

On species he'd never seen before:

. . . the first, with dazzling yellow and black plumage and a short haunting tune, was a golden oriole; next day was marked by the blue-green-yellow flash of bee eaters; and the third by two hoopoes walking in the grass and spreading and closing their Red Indian head-dresses, then fluttering aloft and chasing each other among the leaves, their wings turning them into little flying zebras until they settled again."

The landscapes of Eric Ravilious

Eric Ravilious  (1903-42) is known for his watercolour landscapes of southern England, particularly those featuring the chalk figures of the South Downs.   He painted the stark figure of the Long Man of Wilmington, which we can see in its other-worldly dimensions through a barbed wire fence.  There is something idealistic about the painting, like an illustration from a children’s book, but this is undermined by the wire and overcast sky.  The English landscape is tamed and parcelled but not completely.  The figure, whose mystery is unsolved, remains unperturbed on the billowing downs, a connection with the past, reaching back through time.

Theories about the Long Man of Wilmington range from pre-historic fertility symbol to early 18th century folly.  Ravilious viewed it as a female figure opening the doors of death.

Kurt Jackson’s landscapes

I love the landscapes of Kurt Jackson. Of the above painting he notes “Evening and two choughs fly over the sea squeaking excitedly – my first Cornish choughs” from his exhibition The Cornish Crows. populated with jackdaws, magpies, choughs, ravens and crows.

More on Wikipedia on Kurt Jackson.

Poet climbs Scafell

In August 1802, poet, scholar and journalist Samuel Taylor Coleridge set off on a tough 9-day walking and climbing tour of the Lake District, which would include Scafell, the second highest peak in England.  It’s interesting to see how he went equipped. For a walking stick he dismantled a broom, to the annoyance of his wife. His knapsack was made of a square of green oilskin, closed by string, and inside

. . . he carried a spare shirt, stockings, cravat, and night-cap (which seems to have been Coleridge’s equivalent of a sleeping bag), together with paper twists of tea and sugar, his Notebook, and half a dozen quills with a portable inkwell.”  – Early Visions by Richard Holmes

Coleridge is said to be the first “outsider” to climb Scafell and his descent is hailed as the first ever recreational rock climb.  It was a memorable piece of improvisation. Threatened by an approaching storm, he chose a way down, without any idea of what lay below.  He found himself descending a series of ledges, a kind of giant’s staircase, known today as Broad Stand. As the ledges grew further apart, he lowered himself over them and let himself drop.  The succession of jolts soon “put my whole Limbs in a Tremble, and  . . . I began to suspect that I ought not to go on . . ” Continue reading Poet climbs Scafell

Coleridge and a murmuration of starlings

After escaping to the Lake District to visit his friends the Wordsworths, Samuel T. Coleridge was on the overnight coach to London, preparing to face family responsibilities and the reality of earning a living.  At dawn, he was mesmerised by a sight over the wintry fields:

Starlings on a vast flight drove along like smoke, mist, or any thing misty without volition – now a circular area inclined in an Arc – now a Globe – now from complete Orb into an Elipse & Oblong – now a balloon with the car suspended, now a concaved Semicircle – & still it expands & condenses, some moments glimmering & shivering, dim & shadowy, now thickening, deepening and blackening!

In his fascinating biography Coleridge: Early Visions Richard Holmes notes how this vision would haunt the poet long after.  It was

some sort of self image for Coleridge, both stimulating in its sense of freedom, of “vast flight”; and menacing in its sense of threatening chaos or implosion, “Thickening, deepening, blackening”.

This excellent video shot at Otmoor, near Oxford, captures the display before the starlings settle in their roost, building up to an astonishing climax, when the flock becomes almost impossibly dense.

The photograph is taken from a Guardian gallery of starling photographs.

The landscapes of Don McCullin

Landscape in winter

The photojournalist Don McCullin is better known for his work recording war and urban strife around the world, but his more recent work has concentrated more on black and white landscape photography, often taken during the winter in his adopted Somerset . I find them stark, bleak and beautiful.

Don McCullin notes on his love for winter: Continue reading The landscapes of Don McCullin

Animal focused street photography

giacomo brunelli animals 13 Giacomo Brunelli The Animals Book

With an old black and white 35mm camera the photographer Giacomo Brunelli prowls the night in search of his subjects in backyards, small villages, fields, farms and near his home in London. Brunellihas developed a style which he calls “animal focused street photography”.”By pushing the boundaries of nature photography he creates eerie and unfamiliar images, which succeed in capturing the instinctive drama and wildness of his subjects” More here

giacomo brunelli animals 11 Giacomo Brunelli The Animals Book

Photos from here

The Lark Ascending

The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams is one of my favourite pieces of classical music and I know of no other which conveys so well the beauty of the English countryside. Written in 1914, it was inspired by George Meredith’s 122-line poem of the same name about the skylark. Vaughan Williams actually wrote sketches for it whilst watching troop ships cross the English Channel at the outbreak of war. A small boy observed him making the sketches and, thinking he was jotting down a secret code, informed a police officer who subsequently arrested the composer! Thus, although the piece appears to be a pastoral idyll, at its heart it is a nostalgic work about England and the loss of innocence that the First World War brought.

The composition is intended to convey the lyrical and almost eternally English beauty of the scene in which a skylark rises into the heavens above some sunny down and attains such height that it becomes barely visible to those on the ground below. Text adapted from Wikipedia

Constable and the English countryside: The Hay Wain

. . . Constable paints nature at a point in history when its total destruction by the hand of man had not yet become conceivable.  But only just . . .   Wessel Krul in Green and pleasant land: English culture and the Romantic countryside

“Quintessentially English” is how Constable’s landscapes are frequently described. It’s a source of quiet satisfaction to the painter’s most nationalistic fan base that he was happy to live his life entirely in England, never crossing the Channel, even though his work was much more enthusiastically received by French critics.

Born in East Bergholt, Suffolk, Constable even found the dramatic landscapes of the Lake and Peak Districts too foreign.  Rather than mountains, he was inspired by the vast skies of the East Anglian flatlands where he grew up.

Popular opinion was never bothered by intellectual sneering and by 1880 the countryside of The Hay Wain (finished in 1821) was already being promoted as “Constable Country”.  Visitors ever since have been drawn to the banks of the River Stour, where Willy Lott’s cottage still stands (Grade 1 listed), so they can compare the view with the painting.  It’s reassuringly similar, though the river runs deeper these days, as East Anglia sinks. Continue reading Constable and the English countryside: The Hay Wain

Landscape painting and nature tourism: the Falls of Clyde

The landscape painters of the 18th century were among the first promoters of nature tourism in Britain. Their work inspired people to go on tours of wild places and admire the grandeur of nature.  One popular destination, much sketched, painted and written about, was the Falls of the Clyde in Scotland.

Jacob More’s work is a romanticised view of the highest and largest of the Falls, the Corra Linn. Viewers of the painting could identify with the group of tourists in the corner, awe-struck by this “rude slope of furious foam”, as 18th century travel writer Thomas Pennant described them. They might even be galvanized to do a trip to the wilds of Scotland themselves. Continue reading Landscape painting and nature tourism: the Falls of Clyde

The house and garden of Roger Deakin

Anyone who has enjoyed reading Roger Deakin’s books, especially Waterlog and Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, will love listening to these radio programmes that he recorded for the BBC.  Produced by Sara Blunt, the 25 minute-long programmes capture Deakin’s unusual home and garden, and the man who lived there.  The producer deliberately chose not to use an interviewer, instead allowing Deakin to draw you into his world with his own words. Continue reading The house and garden of Roger Deakin

Wildlife calendar

The remarkable BBC documentary Secrets of the Sett filmed badgers making their beds before venturing out for a night’s foraging. Indeed, one of the signs of an inhabited sett is old straw left at the entrance by house-proud badgers. Cornish wildlife artist Dick Twinney has captured this aspect of badger behaviour in an engaging painting, included in the 2100 calendar he’s put together. Take a look at his keenly observed and vividly textured images in the Living Countryside calendar available in a limited number of 500 signed editions.

The Monarch of the Glen – the most famous animal portrait ever?

A red deer stag stands with its powerful neck raised, antlers filling the sky. In the background mists swirl over the Scottish Highlands. The Monarch of the Glen was painted in 1851 by Sir Edwin Landseer, a star in his own time.  Animals were his speciality, both in painting and sculpture – the lions at the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar square are his.  Emotive portraits of animals went down very well with the Victorian public, crossing the class divide.  Queen Victoria had Landseer paint her pets, while the middle classes bought prints of his work to hang at home. Continue reading The Monarch of the Glen – the most famous animal portrait ever?