It’s been another sitting-outside-with-a-cup-of-tea kind of day today. Even up here on the side of my mountain it’s pleasantly mild. There’s a quite a stiff breeze, but not a chilling one, and the air is spectacularly clear all day.
One of the most special things about my time living up here has been the view. It’s always there in one form or another and has provided all the header pictures for this blog. All lazy views – just taken from the doorstep. No effort required.
There’s something quite captivating about extensive views. There’s so much information in them – so much detail – and as a living landscape you can invariably see little vignettes of other peoples’ lives. The cyclists punishing themselves up the hill, the game keepers whizzing around on their quad bikes, the distant sound of a siren. Sometimes even the sound of a train (10 mies away – that’s impressive). Closer up there’s sheep and cows in the fields. Always pheasants. This time of year there’s dozens of swallows darting around and tweeting in the barn, curlews, buzzards and crows on the wing and tiny, scruffy lapwing chicks wandering around aimlessly.
This sense of pleasure and serenity from just sitting in the garden seems such a natural reaction to what’s around. Like something pre-programmed into our genes. But that’s not the case.
It wasn’t always like this.
Step forward the Lake District.
This is how many people – millions annually – see the beauty of the lake district every year.
Lakes and mountains (and sunshine – somehow). Millions venture up the fells each year to get these kinds of views over the lakes and mountains beyond. There’s a whole tourism industry built around this employing thousands and propping up the rural economy in otherwise isolated communities.
Three hundred years ago, no-one came. There were no tourists. Cumbria was a wild and forgotten corner of the country. Had been for centuries. Famously the doomsday book never got this far. It was considered inconsequential and untamed. Not worth going to even to find out what was there.
Landscapes too were just what was there. An obstacle to negotiate between places mostly. In art the idea of painting little watercolours of the view was years aways. Landscape painting was either a backdrop for dramatic stories or a document of a patrons’ wealth. Land ownership was power and importance.
So, when an unknown clergyman from Glasgow visited the Lake District and was blown away by its natural beauty, this was a truly radical moment.
Thomas West’s 1779 ‘Guide to the Lakes of Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire’ was more than just a guide book around sites of roman antiquity, it kickstarted ‘tourism’ in the UK and brought thousands of people out of cities to experience this radical new way of looking at the world around them.
In Thomas West’s day the mountains were still out of bounds for sane and ordinary people. They were just ‘scenery’ – a backdrop to offset the beauty of the lakes themselves. However, the burgeoning picturesque movement rapidly embraced the aesthetic qualities of the distant fells as part of the overall aesthetic. The wild and untamed mountains were frequently described as ‘terrifying’ and ‘awful’ in a way that added tension to the landscape view.
It was the romantic movement that brought us the human connection with landscape that we take for granted today. Born from the seeds of the French Revolution, it was a reaction to the pace of change that was sweeping Europe which brought artists and thinkers to seek solace in the basics of human existence. Forging an emotional link between us and the natural world around us.
Although it was primarily a German and French ideology, it was writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge who created a centre for romantic thinking based on the landscape of the Lake District who really cemented this idea that some landscape views were more beautiful than others. That views could in some way be special things in their own right.
While at the new house at Allan Bank in Grasmere, Wordsworth was instrumental in shaping the grounds to work in harmony with the natural landscape. One of the most ambitious features was a dramatic viewing tunnel through a hill. The short stone lined tunnel had a slight bend in it, so that on entering from one side you were venturing into the unknown, only by half way through to be presented with a composed view over the lake below.
In the 19th century, viewing the landscape became big business. Turner and Constable battled it out at the Royal Academy summer shows with bigger and more impressive landscapes. Viewing points became tourist attractions in their own right – many having pavilions built to frame the view. The ruin at Claife, on the western side of Windermere is a particularly impressive example of the fad for viewing. A three story building with rooms for entertainment overlooking the lake. The drawing room was famed for its very contemporary take on viewing – each of the windows was tinted with a different colour to simulate the seasons – yellow for summer, orange for autumn, green for spring and a pale blue for winter. A deep blue simulated moonlight and a lilac window represented the light in a thunderstorm.
There’s little remaining of the building today, and all those viewing windows are long gone. It must have been quite an amazing experience.
In 2011 Olafur Eliasson created ‘Your Rainbow Panorama’ in Århus, Denmark. A 360 degree panorama over the city where you view through a complete spectrum of colours. A thing of beauty, but one which existed in Cumbria over 200 years earlier.
Claife isn’t the only example of real cutting edge art-architecture. A full one hundred years before the picturesque took off, the owner of Rydal Hall, between Ambleside and Grasmere, took a radical view to landscaping the gardens. One of the most important features i this was the ‘Grot’ – a little summerhouse built at the foot of a waterfall on the beck running through the grounds. A path leading to the Grot, twisted and turned creating a series of hidden ‘reveals’ – composed little set pieces. The end of which was this little hut by the water. As soon as you opened the door, the waterfall was revealed through the window on the other side – framing it as a living picture.
Like all great cutting edge design, this little hut drew thousands of people from all over the country including Gilpin (credited with formalising the concept of the picturesque), Constable, Turner, Joseph Wright, Ruskin and all the romantic poets. It also featured in West’s guide.
This week I’m installing some new pieces in the Lake District. It’s been a while since I last did anything large-scale there. While I personally prefer the bleak and wilder landscapes of the North Pennines, there’s something about those lakes and mountains that I enjoy exploring and working with.
To be part of that ongoing narrative about looking at and experiencing the world around you – maybe its because its at the core of my own work that it feels so resonant. But maybe it’s because if it hadn’t been so inspiring to Thomas West all those years ago, none of us would be sitting outside simply admiring the view.