Above a sea of fog.

'Charnwood Lodge, above a sea of Fog' (2016 ,100x100cm) is an oil painting of my friend Themba looking out over the the Trent Valley area of the East Midlands from the Charnwood Lodge nature reserve, which lies just above Coalville on the edge of the Charnwood forest. I was up on the pathway through the reserve at sunrise early one October morning in 2014 when  the always impressive view was the most spectacular I have seen it, with little islands of trees and buildings peeking up out of a thick blanket of fog that lay in the Trent Valley.

The high clouds were illuminated by the rising sun but it had not yet reached the land around.  Through the fog I could see distant churches including the enigmatic Breedon on the Hill and also just make out the control tower of East Midlands airport, nearer by above the fog and nesteled in trees was Mount st Benard's Abbey and finally apperaing to float above and dominate the landscape, despite of their remoteness in the fog, were the cooling towers of Ratcliffe power station; churning out grey fluffy clouds.

I was inspired and immediatley wanted to paint this scene and so I began taking photos and made many return trips to the reserve to research the image. Earlier in the summer I had visited the reserve for a walk with my friend Themba and we stood on the rocks looking at the sunny view.   The breakthrough moment for me was when I remebered the painting 'The wanderer above a sea of fog' by Casper David Freidrich (1818).  It had parralels to the image I wanted to create as the figure stands atop an outcrop of rock and the charnwood forest is famous for outcrops of ancient rock. I thought about making it a self portarit but then I remembered my walk with Themba and thought he would make a much more interesting and striking subject.

A comparision and justification. 

Freidrich's romantic depiction of the walker looking out over the Elbe Sandstone Mountains in Saxony and Bohemia, (now part of Germany) was a pastiche of various views, he took his favourite mountains and rocky outcrops and dropped them into one scene.  Similarly I rearranged the view to suit my composition, for example; in reality Breedon on the Hill sits much further to the West than depicted. In Freidrich's painting of 1818 the central figure is the only sign of humkind in the landscape, and he is a moveable one. He stands open gait and powerful as if he is out exploring a great untouched wilderness, this reflects the romantic ideas of the time and the fashion of the Grand Tour taken by wealthy men and the Landed Gentry.   In my 2016 version the landscape is littered with the more permenant signs of humkind, the fog can no longer hide the signs of human impact on this industrial landscape. the aeroplane trails remind us that even the heavens have now been conquered.

The Fog in my painting sits still, quiet and grey, muffeling the landscape, which with the exception of the man made elements,  emerges through it in soft smooth forms like the backs of whales breaking calm water. In Freidrich's painting the fog is movement and dynamism and the landscape is rugged and untamable, with shards of rock and mountain punching through the swirling cloud.

I asked Themba to wear a long black coat as a reference to the man in Freidrich's painting but I wanted the painting to look modern.  If  you take a walk through the old art collections at the National Gallery and Portrait gallery in London peering back at you will be the faces of many, many, dead, white men, particularly old, wealthy and ifluential ones.  People from non-caucasian backgrounds are rarely depicted in these old paintings and almost never as the central focus. In choosing Themba as the subject I hoped to create a modern painting which is a positive nod to the great strides made in human rights since Freidrich's time and the better acceptance of ethnic diversity. By having him turn his face so that the viewer can see it he becomes even more of a focal point that the man in Fredrich's painting and his indentity becomes of importance. He is an individual not a metaphor for the everyman. 

We the viewer look up at Themba as he stands high above the landscape only the smoke from the power station gets near him as a verticle focus in the composition.  This again should add to the feeling of a landscape dominated by humans. In the original painting inspite of the figure's apparant elevated view point he is still slightly below the viewer and the mountains in the background attain greater heights within the composition.

In contrast to his dominant positioning; Themba's stance is still and reflective, passive compared to the striding and powerful stance of the man in Freidrich's work. He is also more pensive, brooding and deep in thought he does not seem to have found comfort in the nature around him.  This and his smart clothing indicate a man out from the city taking in the view but struggling to clear his mind of modern stresses. 

 

'Quercus' Oil on canvas 2015 157x90cm

Quercus (oak) oil on canvas

The same large oak that was a subject for a painting in 2013 provided the muse, or template, for this painting which I consider my most ambitious project to date and it has certainly taken me the longest time, I started it in May 2015 and finished it in October. The idea has actually developed over a much longer period though (several years). It started as an illustration concept in 2010. In which I illustrated an old verse describing the life and age of the English oak.

 

For three centuries he grows

And for three more he stays, supreme in state

And for three more he decays.

 

In 2014 the idea came back to me and whilst in hospital where I had time to sketch them up into a composition for this painting. A new heightened awareness of mortality, being shut in, away from the natural world, my wife expecting our first born. These were all intense personal emotions of the time and their influence can be seen in the painting.

 

 

Quercus which means oak in Latin, is a beacon for the great oaks of England and an epitaph to those which have gone before. It is a warning and sets out to remind us that; we are nature, we are neither above it or disconnected from it, it forms our very fabric of flesh and bone.

Some of the symbolism for this painting is borrowed and redeployed from medieval religious art. In particular I looked at and read about ‘The Garden of Earthly delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch (below) which was painted in about 1500bc. The painting serves to warn any would-be sinner of the temptations of the flesh and the terror of hell. It is fascinating and full of symbolism which the discerning medieval viewer would have been able to understand. In many cases the definite meaning of the symbols are now lost, but some are known and all can and have been hypothesised over.

Garden of Earthly delights by Hieronymous Bosch

It is known that owls were used as a warning. There are many of them in the ‘Garden of Earthly delights’. They are nocturnal and so living in the dark they are "unaware of the light of Jesus", thus making them a symbol for ignorance.

Tawny Owl  Little owl

I have redeployed them in Quercus but this time they represent ignorance of the damage humankind does to the natural world. All 5 of the recognised species that breed in Britain are in the painting, can you spot them all?

Little owl in Quercus  Barn owl in Quercus

The death cap fungi rising from the decaying skull of dead wood also link to Christian symbolism as they reference the 3 crosses of the crucifixion. It also represents the awareness of mortality which I wrote about earlier.

 speckled wood

Dark winged butterflies like Red admiralmeadow brown and speckled wood (pictured) represented agents of the devil. In the case of the meadow brown its eyed wings were supposedly watching out for sinners and reporting back to Satan. As happens in the Garden of Earthly Delights: a meadow brown is seen watching a pair of lustful lovers in the centre panel and then in the final right-hand hell panel it has morphed into a strange beast and is toturing a sinner.   

   Ratcliffe power station

The Power Station and aeroplane trails are a direct representation of humankind’s relationship with nature. The natural world is a resource there to use, to make us warm and our lives a little easier. Having said this I find Ratcliffe power station to have a stark beauty, it looms from the landscape like a modern day cathedral. It is an icon of this area and something to navigate by whilst out on my bike rides.  Many artists would look to leave it out of a landscape painting as an undesirable eyesore.  Here I have done the opposite and used artistic license to part the landscape and include it.  

Quercus - Symbols