Friday, June 15, 2012

Bucolic Setting, Violent Confrontation

A year ago, in June 2011, during a three-week stay in England, I spent a couple of days in a small northern town called Kirkby Lonsdale. The main reason for my going there was to visit an old friend whom I hadn't seen since 2005, but I also hoped to have the opportunity to revisit a place that had so much impressed me on my previous visit that I had based three paintings on it.

Kirkby Lonsdale, often shortened to Kirkby (with the second k silent) is a picturesque spot that I can heartily recommend for a visit. It's located between the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, and if you travel by train, as I did, the nearest station is Lancaster. A car would get you there more efficiently, but you might want to abandon it on arrival, since the streets are narrow and twisting, and slope steeply down to the River Lune.
Kirkby street

   One of Kirkby's attractions is a lookout point near the parish church from which you can gaze across the river and its valley at "Ruskin's View", named for the 19th century art critic and social reformer. I'm not sure if Ruskin actually painted the view or just stopped and looked at it, and I don't know exactly which way he was looking, either, but these photos will give you an idea of what he saw, and why he apparently found it so inspiring. It's English countryside at its best, and fortunately doesn't appear to have changed much since Ruskin's time.
Ruskin's View 2
Ruskin's View 1
Like my illustrious predecessor I too paused and and admired this idyllic scene, but it was not the place I was making for. I continued along the cliff top path, skirting the churchyard, until the panoramic view gave way to a wooded area. A rusted iron fence ran along beside the footpath, perhaps to stop people straying on to the hazardous slope. And here was the scene of the slow-paced but violent drama that had grabbed my attention six years before. In 2011, on a bright, summery afternoon, this is what I saw (left) . . .

 . . . but the first time I'd been there it was a dark, showery day, and with the camera I had at the time I'd had to use a flash, so the scene looked more like this  (right) and correspondingly more sinister.

You have to look closely--this is definitely a case of the devil being in the details. The fence must have been erected when the tree was much younger. Maybe it was even here in Ruskin's day--who knows? In any case, the tree expanded outwards and became viciously impaled on the rusted spikes of the fence, which, though bent out of shape, remained firmly in place and poked through the bark. The roots continued to spread through the fence on to the "civilized" side, like monstrous toes trying to escape from jail.

Back in the studio in 2007 I painted three versions of this protracted border war in which nature pits herself against human beings for control of a few feet of woodland. Neither side seems to be winning and the tree has probably by now reached its full size, though I suspect the ogre's toes will keep trying to inch forward. As I painted I was thinking all the time about man-versus-nature confrontations, overlaps and conflicts. Here are the results, each 24 x36 ins.
Encroachment 1: Toehold
Encroachment 3: Staked Out

Encroachment 2: Boundary Fence

This unlikely subject caught my imagination and I felt a real compulsion to paint it. As with my later painting "The Tree that almost Brained Me" (please see this blog Feb. 7, 2011) I wanted both to paint a realistic tree but also to represent the forest monster which, after all, I hadn't invented: there it was! I think I did an adequate job and took the work as far as I could at the time, but I wasn't altogether satisfied with the results. Perhaps that was why I wanted to return to the scene. A year ago I took more photos, closer up this time, and at some point I may make more paintings, based on images like these.
Foot of Tree

Next blog post in about a month.