Rac­ing against the dy­ing of the light

Country Life Every Week - - My Week -

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)

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