Letter from Lancaster 21

Gray’s Seat, Crook o’ Lune, an Hour before Sunset.

It is a stiff scramble up from the river to the road, then another climb, but this with form, a progress, a path curving intriguingly up through woods between a drystone wall thickly-velveted with bright green moss, and a palisade of upright flagstones, slender menhirs. Up, the path, towards a blank wall – then it curves suddenly left and opens into a small arena, a viewing area, with a semi-circular seat faux-rustically constructed from quartered tree trunks and morticed upright planks, facing, looking out over – trees. The view lost behind trees. Gray’s view, that I slighted in Letter 20, I now yearn for.
“Ingleborough, behind a variety of lesser mountains, makes a back-ground of the prospect: on each hand of the middle distance, rise two sloping hills; the left clothed in thick woods, the right with variegated rock and herbage: between them, in the most fertile of valleys, the Lune serpentizes for many a mile, and comes forth ample and clear, through a well-wooded and richly-pastured fore-ground.”

In my fore-ground, a dense barrier of dark trees. While through it in haloed fragments, and around it and above it at this magic hour, the air is expansive, the light golden. I imagine the hill to the right vivid emerald, to the left shadowed viridian. I imagine Ingleborough gold becoming pink, mauve then blue, and the river transmuting from gold to silver as day fades into night … Chop down the trees! Restore the view!!

Because my argument was with the fetishising of the view as static, framed, fixed, as against that come upon on one’s motion through the landscape and taken into the self. The artists of the Views would not just fix, frame and enclose in the eye, they would bring their Claude glasses and, sitting with back to the view, draw or paint the image reflected in the mirror.

For the mass market visitor to the View, there was the ready-made, the postcard. And with the coming of mass-market cameras, each could take their view that, when it was returned days later from the chemist, would displace the fading memory, become the view. With the digital camera, the image could be viewed immediately – but was quickly buried under the deluge of promiscuous clicking. Perhaps the polaroid was the one copy that enabled the symbiosis, the feedback relationship, that could enrich both; but the polaroid was always expensive, specialist. With the smart phone and the selfie, the maker again stands back to the view. But now the view is not the subject but a backdrop, like one of the painted backdrops in Victorian photographic studios, representing aspiration, a hoped-for destination. In the selfie, the figure is the subject, as in the Victorian studio portrait; the view represents arrival.

Ps. Gray was an advocate for and populariser of the Claude glass. “On one sightseeing trip he was so intent on the glass that he fell backwards into a “dirty lane” and broke his knuckles.” Wikipedia. Prefiguring the jokes (and in some cases the reality) of selfie-takers walking backwards over cliffs.

2 thoughts on “Letter from Lancaster 21

  1. Interesting – the influence of the image. Like Diana photographed with the backdrop of the Taj Mahal before smartphones would have done the same sort of thing, so now Brits that visit think of that image before they even consider the story of Momtaz Mahal an then sit in the same place for a photo. You can’t help it. It seems different from seeing a landscape you’ve seen in a famous painting, like Flatford Mill or Salisbury cathedral. I will be pondering this all day now!

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