Racing against the dying of the light
WAKING this morning, blinking at the ceiling in the pale October light, I sensed something was missing. It was the sound of the wood pigeon on the wire outside the window. All summer, we have listened to that familiar husky song, interspersed with the feathery flappings of his amorous manoeuvres. It is a song that reads like a weary complaint repeated comfortingly, one I remember as: ‘My toe hurts Betty, my toe hurts Betty.’
‘We have as much ownership of landscape as the flitting swallows’
And it occurs to me that autumn days in the countryside are curiously quiet. The children are back at school, the combine harvesters are back in their sheds, the acrobatic pilot of Sedgehill has stopped circling above our garden and the songbirds have finally exhausted themselves. Yet, there is still the absorbent cushion of leaf on the trees, which creates a certain closeness and hush. Let’s hope for a slow-burning season of clear, calm weather.
As an outdoors painter of landscape, I actively need a run of good weather as I attempt to complete some paintings on the Dorset coast, near Lulworth Cove. It’s my favourite stretch, where chalk downland meets rich-blue sea. Above the white cliffs, there are still straggler packs of swallows skirting the coastline, before launching across the sea, southwards for winter. So long, my friends—and good luck.
Irealise how eccentric this must appear: an artist on a cliff saluting passing birdlife. Unusually, the other day, I found myself painting alongside another artist on the exact same location. It was Peter Brown, an artist I know of and admire, known in his hometown of Bath as Pete-the-street. Independently, we had both made the same pilgrimage to record the famous natural limestone arch and iridescent cove known as Man O‘ War.
We aren’t alone. Despite it being low season, there’s a constant stream of visitors making its way down the path towards the sea. It seems the place attracts like-minded people, in particular, large groups of Hindus. From a distance, their colourful saris could easily be confused with the more common medley of hikers’ anoraks. More than once, I have been asked to take photos of beautifully dressed couples in front of the arch.
Amazingly, it seems Durdle Door is one of several natural stone arches worldwide that are of particular symbolic significance to Hindus—apparently, arches are lucky and symbolise fertility and rebirth. I’m told that a Bollywood star of the 1980s famously swam through Durdle Door. The cultural incongruity is strangely charming and adds to the idea that there is something magical about the place.
Autumn is also a busy time of year for the art market, not only for the international auction houses, but also for commercial galleries. A few people such as myself are looking anxiously at the post-referendum environment, wondering whether there’s still life in the old dog.
Apparently, there is, with some galleries claiming better-thanusual interest during the quiet summer months. One gallerist told me not to worry about demand for British landscape painting. He said most collectors of such pictures are well-insulated Brexiteers, for whom British landscape has become even more precious and appealing. That’s a relief, in one sense.
However, it was a throwaway line that I found troubling. Can anyone own the idea of landscape, be they a section of the electorate, an artist or a Hindu pilgrim? Landscape defies boundaries, it slips the categorisations we ascribe it. In a sense, we all have as much intellectual ownership of it as the flitting swallows.
With the drawing in of useful painting light and the onset of the exhibition season, I’m spending more time with other artists than usual. It’s a curious thing, when artists socialise. For some, there’s a tendency to wear ridiculously flamboyant clothes—or at least the regulation ‘artist’s hat’. Perhaps it’s a reaction against stinking overalls, but I try to avoid such sartorial overload.
Also, because we spend a lot of time on our own, we have an overwhelming backlog of subjects we need to share with like-minded practitioners. It makes for feverish conversation that we seem unable to control, often veering into obscure technical details about painting materials or some such.
Sadly, it is a well-known truth that artists are competitive and prone to long moans about money. Still, I devour these conversations compulsively, before journeying home to a place where the owls hoot and screech.
If an artist ever gets too full of himself, or even too gregarious, there’ll always be the intimidating blank canvas to put him back in his place.
Oliver Akers Douglas is a landscape artist. His next solo exhibition is at the Portland Gallery, London SW1, November 16–December 2 (www. portlandgallery.com)