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

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Pho­to­graphs by Clara Molden

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)

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.