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A sense of place: illustrations rooted in their landscape; Romanticism and an exploration into the works of Beatrix Potter, Natalia Goncharova and John Minton.

“Romanticism is an attitude of mind in which any human being, at any time, may, by virtue of his humanity, indulge.”

Eric Newton, The Romantic Rebellion (Newton, 1962, p.12)

I’ve been thinking a lot about a “sense of place” recently and how a location can inspire art and illustrations. This is partly because I’ve been asked to give a lecture on a place which has greatly inspired me (and other artists) for a conference in September.

So I thought I’d share a piece on three examples of illustrated literary works, which are all strongly influenced by a sense of place; I break down why the medium which the illustrators use in all three cases works so perfectly; and I also try to put them in a context of Romanticism, the 18th century movement which emphasized inspiration, the emotion and imagination of the individual, as well as the natural world. Copyright is, as ever, my own (except where cited!).

The three books are all from the first half of the 20th century and are: The Tale of Jeremy Fisher (1906), the children’s book written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) and inspired by the Lake District; Gorod (The City) (1920), a book of poems written by Alexander Rubakin (1889-?), illustrated by Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) and inspired by Moscow; and finally the travel book Time Was Away – A Journey Through Corsica (1948) written by Alan Ross (1922-2001) and illustrated by John Minton (1917-1957).

The three books are contrasting in their form, authorship, period and culture: the first both written and illustrated by an Englishwoman inspired by a place in England; the second, a couple of decades later, an illustrated book of poems by two Russian émigrés in exile but celebrating the city they grew up in; the third, a travel book written and illustrated by two Englishman abroad, out of their own context and responding to a war-torn Mediterranean landscape that is, at first, totally unfamiliar. However, in all three cases, the sense of place is central; it is this, the surrounding context and landscape, that the authors and illustrators find so wondrous and inspires them to create; and this connection even goes so far as to inspire the illustrators’ choice of medium.

Beatrix Potter was born in London, but spent a lot of her childhood, and later lived, in the Lake District. Like the Romantic poets – the Lake poets – a hundred years before her, Potter found the Lake District a source of inspiration, and her children’s books are closely tied to its landscape and nature. In The Tale of Jeremy Fisher, Jeremy lives “in a little damp house… at the edge of a pond”, the larder and back passage of which are filled with water and Jeremy, at one with his landscape, likes “getting his feet wet”. He has a boat – a water lily – on the pond and fishes from the pond for food.

Illustration of Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter

When Jeremy sets off on his fishing trip, Potter’s extensive knowledge of insects and the Lakes comes to the fore. She describes the pond life Jeremy meets and the book almost takes on the roll of a scientific paper on the ecosystem of the Lakes. “A great big water-beetle came up underneath the lily leaf… Instead of a smooth fat minnow, Mr. Jeremy landed little Jack Sharp the stickleback, covered with spines!… A great big enormous trout came up… “What a mercy that was not a pike!”” Potter shows how intimately she knows the wildlife since the water-beetle, the stickleback, the trout and pike are all freshwater creatures that live in the meres and waters of the Lake District.

Potter, like the Romantics before her, was so closely intertwined with her natural landscape that she went further than merely depicting nature. In his book The Spirit of Place  (Yorke, 1988, p.18),  the critic Malcolm Yorke reveals how the Romantic poet Wordsworth attributed his own sadness onto a moon, as he anthropomorphised it in:“With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the sky”:

WITH how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the sky,
“How silently, and with how wan a face!”
Where art thou? Thou so often seen on high
Running among the clouds a Wood-nymph’s race!…

Likewise, Potter’s animals take on human qualities and she anthropomorphises them in her romantic vision. Jeremy wears clothes: a mackintosh and “shiny galoshes” and “Sir Isaac Newton wore his black and gold waistcoat”.

It is perhaps apt that, for tales set in a watery landscape, Beatrix Potter chose watercolour as her medium for her illustrations. The delicacy of the watercolours, and the care and precision with which Potter renders the animals, reflects the love she had for every inch and insect of her beloved Lakes. Potter celebrated the Lake District in its entirety, not only immortalising it in her writing and illustrations, but in her life also: she was heavily involved in land preservation, buying up what is now the majority of the Lake District National Park.

The second book, The City, is a collection of twenty-one Russian poems based on the theme of modern urban life. It was composed by two émigrés abroad. Alexander Nikolaevich Rubakin was born in 1889 in St Petersburg. After being arrested for publishing revolutionary literature in 1906, he escaped to France where he worked as a physician, and published poems in French journals and the Russian émigré press. Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova was born in Tula in 1881 but moved to Moscow with her family in 1891. She studied art in Moscow, was part of the Futurist movement and was pro-Revolution. However, Goncharova became disillusioned after the Revolution of 1917 and left to live in Paris in self-imposed exile from 1920.

In the book, the exiles manage to bring across their love and yearning for their respective cities and romanticise the urban landscape. The first poem, entitled The City, reads:

“The city is dirty and smoky, / The city is dark and evil, / I sung my hymns for you, / You are surely mine! You are mine… /

Whether Petrograd, whether Moscow, or Paris – / Here, from the cradle I was used to hearing / As in the midnight silence, / The wind blowing in the window cracks…”

“Город грязный и дымный,

Город тёмный и злой,

Для тебя я сложил мой гимны, –

Ты ведь, мой! Ты – мой!

Петроград ли, Москва ли, Париж,

Здесь привык я внимать с колыбели,

Как в полночную тишь

Дует ветер в оконные щели.”

At times ominous, menacing and rough, the cityscape is their internal landscape and this vision of a city inspires fifty-three pages of verse and beautiful, dynamic illustrations by Goncharova. In his fourth poem, At Dawn (Rubakin, 1920, p.15), Rubakin describes the city in the early morning, personifying the factories in the third and fourth lines:  “The horns of the awakening factories/ are merged into the pre-dawn chorus.” (“Гудки проснувшихся заводов/ Слилися в перед рассветный хор.”). We see this in the second illustration below, as, once again in an emotive, romantic context, anthropomorphised faces loom ominously out of the smoke of the factory towers, rising from the cubist city below:

Goncharova’s anthropomorphised factory smoke

In the second illustration, the bodies and faces of four men are entangled, tussling. There had been strong dis-chord in the cities prior to the 1917 Revolution – indeed the Revolution was one of the urban masses, arising from close-quartered discontent. However, Goncharova’s illustration almost resembles a dance in its fluidity and sense of movement, and thus we see grim realities of the Revolution being romanticised.

As with Potter, the choice of medium – in this case printed in monochrome black lithographs – reflects the sense of place perfectly, as it conjures up the coal and soot of an industrial city. However, despite this dirt and smoke, Goncharova conveys the magic of the city and her attachment to it.

The final book, Time Was Away – A Journey Through Corsica, is a travel book to poverty stricken Corsica after its heavy Italian-German occupation in World War II. Although the traveller is at first in an unfamiliar, foreign landscape, he can nevertheless start to understand his environment and, with empathy, build up his own experiences and associations, so that he too becomes firmly rooted in place. The introductory poem A Map for Corsica reads:

“At first the coasts and hills are only lines,/With boundaries marked in red, and sea/Like muslin draped in blue around the edges;…

“The map will come alive; the towns grow dark/ with olive, straight nosed faces, and south/ the sandy bays be filled with keels of boats…”.

Ross and Minton’s connection with Corsica is initially as spectators: Ross outlines ‘A Framework of History’ in a timeline and Minton sketches a lush, fantasy vision to accompany this. However, as the “land’s contours increased” (p18) their experiences come to life: they meet people, talk and engage with the underprivileged lives in their context. Like the map coming to life, the place develops from an unreal dream to a reality, with real people, faces, sights, sounds and tastes to be associated with it. They observe the faces on the Portugal (p16), and take note of the exotic food: “The market stalls were… filled with melons, peaches, grapes, tomatoes and aubergines” (p21).

However, this reality soon develops into a very bleak vision:

Stripped to the waist they chipped the white blocks of the stone at the roadside, their forage caps green against the rich brown of their bodies. They hardly spoke: their dreams, their emotions dropped slowly into the sponge of the marshes. They became absorbed without any trace or effect on their environment….

The lights from the German windows went out in the darkness, a hundred and fifty existences switched over to an inner world whose destroyed landscape they had never seen.

The cinemas were shut up, peeling posters hanging from old hoardings. … But it didn’t matter, for the curious, human contact if established had no relation to time.

After a few hours, the houses, the people, the smell seemed already familiar, as if life had only existed there and in no other surroundings.

Upstairs, in the hotel…. children slept naked and dirty on mats and old women sat doubled up in sleep or watchfulness by the windows. Thought must have run out years ago.”

This is not the anticipated bright Mediterranean landscape. This is a sun-bleached, war-torn, brutal and very real, ravaged island. Ross and Minton are now part of their environment and have understanding and humanity for the difficult lives of these people and this is successfully brought across in Minton’s illustrations:

In the chapter ‘Homecoming’, Ross says: “Coming down to Ajaccio in a morning of mackerel skies was almost like coming home.” He acknowledges his sense of connection to this sad – “blue” – place in the final chapter: “one grows accustomed to being in a place… a different world had built itself up somewhere in the blue wastes of feeling.” (p168).

Minton is considered one of the “Neo-Romantic” artists, that is from the period falling roughly between the Second World War and the mid 1950s. The Neo-Romantics produced a great deal of painting and illustration that was rooted in landscape and a sense of place. Presumably because, after the horrors of a world war, this generation needed to firmly ground themselves in a sense of place and belonging. The war had kindled awareness and compassion in this generation and this equips both Ross and Minton with the ability to romanticise what is, in essence, a desolate landscape.

As for medium, Minton’s black ink sketches are so apt, as they are the easy, natural choice for the traveller, and the spontaneous sketches reflect his environment: they are not pre-planned and worked on, but are gritty, truthful and real. Minton only added the colour layers to a selection of images afterwards for publication.

These three books differ in their form, authorship, period and culture, but are all rooted in a connection with ‘place’. We see how Potter’s intense love of the natural landscape of the Lake District, its animals and creatures, inspired her books and the characters in them. We see how Rubakin and Goncharova sought to romanticise a beloved, but far off, cityscape of smoke and discord which had undergone a Revolution. Finally,  how strangers in a foreign, war-torn and underprivileged land can – by artistic vision and humanity – become rooted in their landscape.

In the context of Romanticism, although it is traditionally associated with rural settings, an artist need not only be inspired by a place which is “naturally” beautiful. When Eric Newton says, “Romanticism is an attitude of mind in which any human being, at any time, may, by virtue of his humanity, indulge”, he is reminding us that Romantic artists and writers can also be inspired by places which have also been subject to grim revolutions and war-stricken poverty. It is not the place per say, but what the place invokes internally within the artist, his reaction, feelings of sentimentality and humanity towards that place, which is vital. Whether “busy streets” or “sylvan walks” (Anthology, 1944, p.40), Romanticism is about how your external context inspires your internal landscape – the mindscape – and the symbiosis of the two. Thus, although two centuries later, Goncharova and Minton might also be considered ‘Romantics’ by the way in which they engage with and celebrate their land- and cityscapes.

Bibliography

Anon., n.d. Wikipedia. [Online] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_pike.

Anon., n.d. Wikipedia. [Online] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natalia_Goncharova.

Anon., n.d. Wikipedia. [Online] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Ross.

Anthology, 1944. The Poet’s Eye – Anthology chosen by Geoffrey Grigson, ill. John Craxton. Adprint Limited.

Hobsbawm, E., 2007. Changing of the avant-garde. Royal Academy of Arts Magazine, Winter. pp.59-63.

Newton, E., 1962. The Romantic Rebellion. St. Martin’s Press.

Piper, M., 1944. Sea Poems – an anthology. London: Frederick Muller Ltd.

Potter, B., 1906. The Tale of Jeremy Fisher. Warne & Co.

Ross, A., 1988. Time Was Away – A Journey Through Corsica. London.

Rubakin, A..i.G.N., 1920. The City. 1st ed. Paris: Alexander Rubakin.

Susan Gross Solomon, L.M.P.Z., ed., 2008. Shifting Boundaries of Public Health: Europe in the Twentieth Century. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Wordsworth, W. 1806.,  “With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the sky”.

Yorke, M., 1988. The Spirit of Place: Nine Neo-Romantic artists and their times. London: Constable.

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