Up for the downs
Some of our favourite paintings and best regional art galleries are associated with the south coast. David Dimbleby tells Mary Miers why
What is it about the South Downs that makes them so seductive even when viewed through the dying light of a November afternoon? a thick sea-fret obscures all but the shadow of a wooded rise as my train approaches Polegate, but I can visualise those whale-backed forms with their beech hangars and ragged thorn bushes, their combes and chalk pits, hill forts and ancient barrows and the skeins of white-ribboned tracks that disappear over the rolling chalk hills.
Few landscapes convey such a defining image of Englishness and David Dimbleby, who has lived in East Sussex for 18 years, has written eloquently about the role that artists have played in shaping its physical and emotional character.
‘anyone who has walked the Downs as I often do and who has seen any paintings of them cannot fail to be seduced by the images they have seen: the Downs like atlantic rollers thundering in from the sea; the Downs as abstract shapes, angular fields, some green, some striped with plough; the Downs marked out by chalk tracks winding up the hills and disappearing over their crests. and who could forget the Downs as the setting for Paul Nash’s wartime paintings of vapour trails in the sky… however much you want to have your own private image of the Downs you cannot escape what others have shown you.’
In 2005, Mr Dimbleby made a BBC series that explored the significance of painting in connecting us to landscape while aiming to popularise art to a wider audience. A Picture of Britain took him to parts of the country he had never visited and, in the accompanying book, he writes of ‘the prodigious variety of scenery and an infinite variety of light which changes the way that scenery looks’.
‘Geographical diversity is the key,’ he tells me when I remind him of those travels. ‘Every part of the country is so intensely different and the complexity intrigues and excites. You don’t have to go far and the scene changes, throws out a quite different message. Barely 100 miles from these extraordinary sculptural land forms you’re in a completely different world —the red earth of Devon, the black earth and huge skies of the Fens.’
he continues: ‘Our great landscape painters were more specifically located than, say, Claude and Poussin. Ravilious’s works create the dominant image of the downs to the extent that I sometimes realise when walking that I’m seeing them through his eyes—the huge, megalithic shapes scratched by the delicate lines of the plough, very different to William Nicholson’s bolder rendering in his painting Judd’s Farm or the moodier views of Edward Loxton Knight. I try not to, just as, when I’m in Suffolk, I try not to view it through Constable’s eyes, but I think these artists can help us get into places. then, we can start appreciating them through others’ eyes and, most importantly, our own.’
he admits to finding it irritating that a recurring interest he had in a particular mossy tree trunk, which he would see on walks in the scruffy wood beside his house, was not spontaneous, but derived from his memory of a painting by Graham Sutherland— Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods (1940): ‘Without the memory of that Sutherland, I might well have passed by my tree without a second glance.’
Facing page: David Dimbleby in his study in East Sussex, with a favourite lithograph, Hybrid, by Graham Sutherland Below: Downs in Winter by Eric Ravilious (1934)