It is a stiff scramble, up from the river to the road, then another climb towards my destination. But this climb has shape, form. It is a progress, the path curving intriguingly up through woods, between, on one side, an old drystone wall thickly-velveted with bright green moss, on the other a palisade of upright flagstones, like slender menhirs. The path heads up, towards a blank wall – then curves surprisingly left, enters a small arena, a viewing area, carefully made. At its centre is a semi-circular seat, constructed from quartered tree trunks and morticed upright planks. It faces, looks out over, presents to the eye – not Gray’s famous View, but, trees. This is the oft-repeated quote:
“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.” 1769 letter.
Whereas in my fore-ground, there is a barrier of dark trees. I climbed up here in the magic hour before sunset, for the view. What I see is dense foliage. While through it in haloed fragments, and around it and above it, the air is expansive, the light golden. In my mind’s eye I see the hill to the right, vivid emerald, the hill to the left, shadowed viridian. I see Ingleborough gold, becoming pink, then mauve, then blue, as the river alchemises from gold to silver, as day fades into night … Chop down the trees! Restore the view!!
I argued [Letter 20] against the fetishising of the view as static, framed, fixed, and for the view come upon in one’s motion through the landscape, and thereby taken into the self within that motion. The artists of the Views would not just fix, frame and enclose it in the eye; they would bring Claude glasses and, sitting with back to the view, draw or paint the image that was reflected in a mirror. How Ruskin hated them!
But of course we all like a View, including Ruskin [Letter 20]. It says, ‘I was there’.
For the mass market visitor to the View, after photography, 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, and 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, between view and image, that could enrich both. But the Polaroid was always expensive, niche.
With the smart phone and the selfie, the image-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 that represented aspiration, the hoped-for destination. As in the Victorian studio portrait, in the selfie the person is the subject; but now the view represents arrival. I was there.
As for Gray’s View – please, chop down the trees.
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.” Prefiguring the jokes (and in some cases the reality) of selfie-takers walking backwards off cliffs.