Back Again: The England Journal, Winter 1998
by John D. Tatter
Birmingham-Southern College

Friday 4 December

The Whale, Buckingham
I've spent the morning in the garden getting to know it in a totally different season. I've been lucky with the weather: the day dawned clear, and only in the last hour or so has it gotten the least cloudy. They're high clouds, so the sun comes and goes and the light is pale, but when the sky is clear and the sun bright, nothing compares to this. The landscape shape is revealed much more now that the leaves are down, as is the greater design of the garden and park.

The Folly Bridge Inn, Oxford
I'm not quite sure how to explain how delightful the day was. I was revisiting a familiar place, but like recognizing Michael at the airport in Chicago and noticing the changes in his face after ten years, recognizing a new Stowe was a little magical. The Elysian fields in particular were much more open and friendly: the Upper River was less gloomy, and there was more "visual conversation" between and among the temples. Also, there was an ongoing connection to the South Front of the House: it is easy in summer to leave the House behind when walking in the garden, but in winter the House is often looming up behind things, as if a reminder of the garden designer and the Lord of the Manor.

I've been trying to read Ruskin in snatches. He's always strongly opinionated, but the following passage may be true:

Art, properly so called, is no recreation; it cannot be learned at spare moments, nor pursued when we have nothing better to do. It is no handiwork for drawing-room tables; no relief of the boredom of boudoirs; it must be understood and undertaken seriously or not at all. To advance it men's lives must be given, and to receive it their hearts.
Certainly Ruskin's got his principles correct even if he's melodramatic and prescriptive. Art requires focus and presence. It requires study, as a beloved requires study: it offers pleasure as the study of a beloved offers pleasure. Dabbling in art is a little like dabbling in love -- it can give short-term pleasure, but there is little to build on or else that "building" is short-lived and must be re-learned. Occasional art is like dating around. At any rate, what Ruskin says here applies to the need for sabbaticals.

Saturday 5 December

Stowe Landscape Gardens
After finishing my second sketch, I decided to walk down to the cascade and around the southern circuit of the garden. I noticed wildlife first: loons and ducks on the Octagon, another rabbit (the first one had leapt out of the underbrush just before I encountered the Saxon Deities), other birds. The garden has often seemed more of a human space. Then I noticed the vegetation: the plantings of laurel around the cascade have matured so that they almost obscure it when seen from the Lake Pavilions. The Trust is also replanting the rows of trees along the outside of the Pegg's Terrace ha-ha, and it has cleared all of the area east of the Palladian Bridge of its undergrowth. The effect is really exciting. The Bridge is now in an Arcadian landscape rather than acting as a boundary to one. And once you cross the Bridge going north you can look to your right and see up-river to the waterfall. It is amazing how open the southern end of Hawkwell Field feels now. First there's that level space restored before Friendship. Then with the foliage down there's a greater sense of space looking back towards the House and towards the Elysian Fields. Finally, there's a view to the east -- a sense that there is actually garden beyond the Bridge, though not a sense of exactly what sort of garden. The last time I was here, that area was wild and untamed.

All in all, the garden felt dignified today in the way that cemeteries and national monuments feel dignified. The weather conditions and the surrounding vegetation may have offered a contemplative mood. Also, the loneliness of the garden empty of people (though it has been empty of people on a summer morning and not felt this way) may have had something to do with the mood. The monuments did not seem showy or ostentatious. And yet, if they had dignity, they weren't unfriendly. It was as if they had settled into their places for the long haul and were resting comfortably. I don't know how else to describe it. Maybe part of the mood was the subdued colors -- the earth tones and greys and dark greens. Nothing was cheerful or beautiful. The place felt like the landscape of Robert Frost's "My November Guest."

I must remember the sight (and sound) of the two swans flying in to land on the Octagon Lake: their feathers squeaked, and when they hit the ice they slid, their wings out to help them stop. I must also remember the chill I felt in the Elysian fields this morning remembering the long shadows of an English winter though I have never been here in winter before. Is it deja vu from an earlier life?

Ruskin again, this time on taste:

Hence, false taste may be known by its fastidiousness, by its demands of pomp, splendor, and unusual combination, by its enjoyment only of particular styles and modes of things, and by its pride also, for it is forever meddling, mending, accumulating, and self-exulting, its eye is always upon itself, and it tests all things around it by the way they fit it. But true taste is forever growing, learning, reading, worshipping, laying its hand upon its mouth because it is astonished, casting its shoes from off its feet because it finds all ground holy, lamenting over itself and testing itself by the way that it fits things. . . . I have seen a man of true taste pause for a quarter of an hour to look at the channelings the recent rain had traced in a heap of cinders.
Saturday 12 December

The King's Arms, Oxford
At the Ashmolean today the big hits for me were the Pissarros. I understand why Jonie loved that room. I was really touched to discover in the center of one wall a companion to the two paintings I saw at the Met in New York -- a scene of the Tuilleries Gardens in the rain. How he suggests wet pavement with a swipe of a dry brush! I noticed in his brushwork what Steve was telling me about the importance of unity of style in a painting. I also noticed again, after being away from other people's finished paintings for awhile, or at least being away from impressionist paintings, that in spite of Ruskin's demand for a particular kind of truth in art, truth takes many forms. Pissarro's trees are true, but they aren't detailed. Many of them are simply suggested. I also looked closely at the way he suggested the two draft horses pulling a wagon of hay. Up close, there were touches of white to suggest parts of the horse's body and touches of black to suggest its harness. No detail, but no wrong shape. Pissarro didn't paint the whole thing, but what was there was accurate. So the artist must know the whole (Ruskin's Truth) even if she paints only part.

I don't think I've written this yet, but I was thinking yesterday, as I was sitting in the Half Moon taking a break between my Broad Street and Magdalen Tower sketches, that drawing is meditation because it is an homage to detail -- an adoration of a kind. You must pay attention and be fully present to draw the things I drew yesterday. There's intensity to it. Painting is intense, too. But my en plein air work has been mostly in pen, not paint. The intensity of painting (it kept me up past midnight last night) is broken by pauses to let the paper dry, to mix paint, etc. A drawing gets built just as a painting does, but drawing requires the constant intense stare at the thing, as if to memorize it. See it, then make it. Re-produce it, produce it again.

I think that's why, for me, making a mistake in a drawing is like a lapse in concentration at prayer or missing an ingredient while copying a recepie. What I need to remember is that such irregularities are part of the artist's soul and the artist's particular experience that go into the mix -- a painting is not a xerox copy. Irregularities are the artist's signature.

In fact, I noticed a few minor irregularities in Turner's view of the High Street at the Ashmolean this afternoon, having spent a big chunk of yesterday morning trying to draw the Broad Street. My own drawing is even less perfect, but it is just as true (almost -- I fudged a little on the small windows in the Blackwell Poster Shop building). But my response wasn't "Oh, if Turner did it, it must be OK." Instead, stepping away from the painting, I realized I couldn't see the imperfection. Gulliver's disgust with the human body in Book II is because he sees everything too large, in extreme detail, being too close. There is something to be said for striking a balance between too little and too much intimacy in most of our relationships.

Tuesday 15 December

The Tate Gallery, London
Here in Room Four is a portrait of Giovanna Baccelli, celebrated ballerina of the 1770-80s in Europe and mistress to the 3rd Duke of Dorset, for whom the portrait was painted by Gainsborough. The likeness is delightful -- she holds her skirts high in her left hand and looks down flirtingly at us to her right. What I want to note is that Gainsborough didn't get the foreshortening of her shoes right. Of course, they aren't really important to the portrait, as the clouds and trees in the background aren't. What's important is her face and the fabric of her dress. But Gainsborough had trouble painting shoes.

One of the larger placards at the door of Room Five reminds me that Stubbs' horse portraits are the result of laborious anatomical study (the new science) and that Stubbs published an Anatomy of the Horse in 1766. I must remember to emphasize to my students how art and science were allied here both in the artist and in the artwork. Also, Joseph Wright of Derby's paintings are important for their depiction/celebration of industrial scenes like the one here of the Iron Forge (1772) that shows an iron worker and his family in the forge where an assistant holds a block of glowing iron on the anvil while a huge water-powered hammer comes down to strike it. The iron (not the sun or a lamp) gives the light for the painting. Wright of Derby's paintings of scientific experiments are just as important.

The Old White Bear, Hampstead
When these painters went to study other painters they took months to do it and they copied paintings: Constable copied Claude's Hagar and the Angel and used its composition for one of his own Stour Valley pictures. I don't have the time or the skills to copy anything, but I can go to some of the places these guys painted and try to capture the space somehow. It's OK that I'm a beginner and that this trip is more of a pilgrimage than anything else. I must remember that these painters I love were painters by profession who were academy trained. I'm self-taught, and my painting -- at least until I retire -- can be little more than a serious hobby. I can't do what these guys do. Yet I'm comforted a little by what I noticed this morning about Gainsborough and women's shoes, and what I noticed later about a Turner pencil/watercolor of a church: his gothic windows were off -- he had the linear perspective down pat, but he had trouble with the arcs of the tracery. Now, this watercolor was early in his career, when he was still an apprentice draughtsman. But my drawings are early, too -- I only started in August. And my painting skills are even more rudimentary. If I let myself get intimidated by potential errors I won't do as many pictures as I am capable of. If I think about the product instead of the process, I may not even attempt some things I ought to.

Again today in reading about Constable's work, and Turner's, I was impressed by the number of sketches and studies that went into the process of creating a finished painting. The studies themselves are wonderful -- Constable's oil study for the Salisbury Cathedral from the Watermeadows, for example. The rapidity of his strokes, but also their sureness (Ruskin called sureness a mark of genius) gives that sketch an immediacy and emotion that the larger finished painting at the National Gallery doesn't have, for all its rainbow drama. The study is a representation of a glance, a fleeting memory taken during a walk or a drive. Details don't always register at such moments. But presences do -- the presence of the Cathedral and of the trees and of the brooding clouds. I am not good enough to represent with a few strokes a tree or dog or horse. But I'm learning to see.

Friday 18 December

The Imperial, Chinatown, London
Like any big city, and maybe especially any European city, London offers a constant parade of people to study. It's impolite to stare so I can't really study the way I would study an inanimate object to draw. But especially since I spend so much time on public transportation I'm thrown in with lots and lots of people on their way places. The pubs offer the same thing, under the same restrictions. What strikes me every once in a while is that all of these people have rich lives and immediate agendas that can't be apparent even to someone studying them from across the room or across the underground platform. There's so little to tell by simple observation about the inside of people's lives except for the mood someone is in. And yet sometimes I'm tempted to spin out a story or two, or at least a scenario, like Herb and Diane and I used to do when we put jigsaw puzzles together in the campus center lounge and listened to the muzak on the sound system: we described movie scenes to go with the music, just the reverse of what happens when music is created for movies.

Things are getting busy here. It's Friday night in a pub in central London, and Sting and the Police are sending out an S.O.S. to the world. It's time to leave and let these people get on with their lives.

Monday 21 December

Heathrow, London
Last time I sat in a London airport I told myself to remember the particular smell of the underground -- the smell of hot brake linings. This morning I tell myself to remember the visual image of the tops of the chimney pots in Golders Green being lit by the rising sun. One thing about winter light in England -- we get to see more sunrises and sunsets (if we're not caught indoors at work: actually, maybe some people never see the sun at all during winter if they're stuck inside in a windowless office between 7:00 and 5:00). The skies over Hampstead Heath are delightful -- constantly changing -- though maybe the Heath simply affords a better view of the skies because it sits atop a number of hills. But it is possible that there are updrafts that cause atmospheric changes. At any rate, the views toward the City as well as toward Highgate and Hampstead are lovely. I know why Constable loved living near the Heath and painted it so often.

Monday 25 January 1999

Birmingham, Alabama
I've been back home a month, and after the holiday festivities were over I spent some time reading more of Ruskin, framing a couple of my sketches after xeroxing them all so I wouldn't have to remove them from the journal, and beginning a few watercolors. . . .

I'm also wrestling for the first time with an issue Ruskin takes up throughout his volumes -- that of choosing painterly technique over faithfulness to detail taken directly from nature. I suspect that these oppositions aren't totally mutually exclusive. That is, I suspect that I can suggest an evergreen tree by a series of horizontal strokes that create a long triangle, and that I can suggest a net-like fan of twigs at the end of a branch of a denuded oak tree in winter by painting a smudge of light grey, and not be false to nature. But in my second painting of Salisbury Cathedral (from the old bridge) I was tempted to paint not what I had seen in Salisbury but what I had seen in other paintings. That is, I was trying to remember all weekend the technique used in a small watercolor at Little House Galleries that I saw when Jonie and I stopped in a couple of weeks ago.

Now -- one of the things I must remember is that Ruskin was criticizing professional painters who never went beyond an imitation of style or technique. I am not yet proficient as a painter. In fact, I still have most of my techniques to learn. So in trying out a technique, or in trying out a possible solution to a painting problem -- a solution that I have seen used in other people's work -- I am simply completing an apprenticeship. But I must always measure those techniques, styles, solutions, against nature itself. Getting perspective wrong can be so distracting to a viewer (one who expects realism) that a picture can be spoiled. I think the same is true of using wet-into-wet technique where it is not needed or useful or appropriate (though I beg the question here of who determines what is proper or improper in a given painting -- the painter, the critic, the public?)

I believe that I will be on solid ground as a painter if I use the techniques I am capable of to produce a painting that is true to my vision of nature. And here I pick up on another issue raised by Ruskin: the kinds of imagination -- associative, penetrative, contemplative. I have realized even this early in my painting experience that I do not wish to reproduce a scene photographically (I can do that with my camera) the way many watercolorists try to do. I want to reproduce my memory of a scene, and that memory brings with it qualities of light, and mood, and a selection of images. I do not remember all details from even my most beloved scenes. What I remember may be associated with what was going through my mind at the time or with some other place I had been recently or had been thinking about.

In this associative sense, making Salisbury Cathedral more golden than silver (its truer, more natural color) in my first painting is not necessarily a lapse into lying visually. It is only a problem, and maybe not even then, if it causes some viewer to trip over my choice of color and find it enough of a distraction to stop paying attention to the painting. Changing the color or rearranging or editing the details of a painting can be a function of the associative or penetrative imagination: associative because I want to convey something beyond what can be seen, and penetrative because I want to convey something going on beneath the surface of what can be seen. But all decisions must be conscious (am I right here? are some things better left to the unconscious, to the gut, to be acted on and not understood until later, if ever?) By conscious I may mean purposeful: that is, done for a reason, even if that reason can't be explained verbally at the time. However, one of those reasons must not be because I saw some other painting in which the same sort of thing was done: unless that thing in the other painting struck my heart as being true and not just struck my imagination as being interesting or novel.

I am free to use tradition. In fact, I cannot paint outside of tradition. I may be self-taught in that I have not attended painting classes, but I have been taught by Crespo, who wrote the textbook I began with, and I have been taught by Steve Cole, who responded to my work, and I have been taught by all the painters whose works I have studied over the past nine months, and by Ruskin and Hogarth and Burke and even the art historians who wrote the copy on the cards next to the paintings in all of the galleries I have been to.

I read Jack Leax's Grace is Where I Live the other day, and one of the reasons I'm writing this morning is a response to the journal he kept on his sabbatical when his project was to write a set of new poems. . . . Something Jack was struggling with and that I have never really struggled with is the vocation of the artist and the relationship of artist to audience and critic. It may be that I avoid the issue out of fear of rejection and simply don't offer my work for criticism, only as gifts. I don't consider myself and artist by profession any more than I consider myself a professional poet, literary scholar, photographer, cook, automobile repairer/restorer. I haven't made a life commitment to any art form -- my poetry or my guitar or my painting. Not having made a commitment, I have been free to pick up my guitar or camera at any time and also to lay it back down at any time. I have reached a level of proficiency in these activities that allows me to please myself, and that's all I feel I need. I also do not publish or perform. I don't expect an audience to be satisfied with the level of proficiency in my work precisely because I don't take an audience into consideration when I work (I think I'm like Mr. Tanner in Harry Chapin's song about the man who "sang from his heart . . . and soul; he did not care how well he sang: it just made him whole.")

That's not completely true. I care if Jonie likes a gift I give her, and I care if Steve is pleased when I show him my paintings. And I look forward to putting up a show of my work next year as part of a sabbatical report. And I care that those people who visit my Stowe Web site think that it is well done. But I think that it is important that my concern with Steve's response and my desire to present a show is a desire to share the process of my work rather than to offer a product to be judged. I want to include the flawed and the incomplete work to highlight the growth I have gone through. Because art for me is about choices and selection, I want to document those choices and selections. Of course I want to be loved: I want to be approved of. And like Alice Walker has Shug Avery say in The Color Purple, everyone needs attention, even God. But I have little sense of a critical audience or creator. I have little interest in judging between good and bad these days. I have more interest in exploring possibilities.

My impulse toward art may be very selfish: in poetry, painting, photography, and even music, I want to preserve my memories. (I mentioned this in August when I was talking about sketching -- or was it about Pissarro and the Impressionists wanting to capture a moment -- a mood -- a time of day -- a certain light.) I told Jonie yesterday that the true meaning of the day I took off last spring to photograph Sloss Furnace and the railroad tracks was to study shapes and to compose frames with shapes in them. I was happy to see the results when I processed the film, but I felt no need or desire to do anything with those results: I don't have to turn them into finished prints or any other art form. The day was well spent studying the quality of light on steel and iron.

Yet my sabbatical has not been an exercise in self-absorption or aesthetic hedonism. There is a product to be evaluated and shared -- my teaching (and I do consider myself a teacher by profession if not a painter or poet). If I can teach writing better by having struggled with painting, then I have a worthy product. If I can draw clearer parallels between the sister arts in EH 349 this spring, then I have a worthy product. If I can produce a competent and engaging lecture on campus or at the Birmingham Museum of Art, then I have a worthy product.

And I suppose this is where Jack's experience and my own intersect: I may not be a particularly Christian artist with a particularly Christian audience, but my students are my audience, and I must minister to them, testify to them, offer an example for them, share a vision with them. And I must not object to getting criticism on any of those activities.

© John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College,