‘And so…’ runs Hestercombe’s welcoming video, ‘Paradise is restored.’ Yet it also adds, that, as in all gardens, everything changes.
In 2014, artist Volkhardt Mueller created a single shot 30 minute video piece, English Themes after Claude Lorrain. It showed a picturesque English landscape, in which live figures, volunteers, took up and held poses taken from Lorrain’s paintings, occasionally transitioning from one set of poses to another. I was thinking about this as I walked around Hestercombe, considering the difference between a live landscape (a landscape that changes) and a still, painted one, and making a few clumsy attempts to copy, or should I say, pay homage to Volkhardt’s concept using my phone camera.
The wonderfully-named Coplestone Warre Bampfylde, owner of Hestercombe in the 18th century, was a talented landscape painter. Some of the scenes in his landscape gardens, which he designed between 1750 and 1786, were depicted in his own paintings. The guidebook describes the garden as ‘a circuit with surprises, variety and subtle changes of mood together with a number of carefully orchestrated views each composed as if they were a ‘landskip’ or landscape painting…’ (White 2013:5). This is a very accurate description.
(I should briefly mention that there are also some stunning formal gardens, designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1908. I won’t discuss them here, as it all becomes too long, but they are worth a visit in their own right)
John Dixon Hunt identifies a trend in late 18th century painting which mirrored those of literature and garden design, in the concern with movement through a landscape, and processes of experiencing. He points to examples of painting that display the artist in the landscape, as well as other figures, commenting on ‘the spectrum of involvement, participation and experience of natural phenomena’ that he posits is actually ‘wider and more diverse’ than in poetry, or gardening (Hunt 200). Bampfylde’s own paintings and drawings are often full of figures, admiring the view, fishing, boating, or working. Most often, he shows a man out walking with a dog, sometimes resting on the grass while the animal explores nearby. I don’t know whether Bampfylde had a dog, but I would guess that this figure was close to his own experience. At the same time, there are elements of fantasy and idealisation – Bampfylde had spent some time in Rome, and his idea of a landscape was influenced both by Roman landscapes and by painters such as Vernet, whom he had met.
I thought his garden was glorious. I walked from the Octagon Summerhouse, framing views across the gardens and valley, to the Pear Pond, with its various structures – Chinese Seat, ‘Mausoleum’ and the temple at its head, along a path to a ‘Witches House’ from which one could view a dramatic cascade, through a little valley with stream to a more secluded walk around the Box Pond, and then around, past the site of Sybil’s Temple (only the base remaining), up through a ‘dark wood’, leading to a green tunnel and suddenly out into an open field with views across the valley, from the Gothic Alcove. Here, I tried to film myself against the landscape, still but for the ribbon on my shirt, my hair, grasses moving, insects flying up, blinking… not still at all really. However this garden not only provides sites and frames to hold the landscape as if a static composition, it also really does immerse one in an ever-changing experience of nature and artifice combining in contrasting effects.
A contemporary artist who has an equal, if rather differently expressed interest in the movements and forces of landscape is Tim Knowles, whose work is currently exhibited in the house itself, in an exhibition entitled The Dynamics of Drifting.
One of Knowles’ works, WTWB Prototype V2, takes up a whole room of the display. This circular craft, with its square sail, three equidistant hulls and single seat, is a vessel designed to be guided only by the wind itself, so that the passenger submits to the forces of nature. A photograph on the wall shows this prototype, at 66% of the final scale, taking its maiden voyage on the Pear Pond outside. Knowles describes this work as a ‘folly’, which also connects it to those more static, but similarly experiential structures in the garden.
Other works by Knowles also respond to the forces of movement at work in the landscape. In Windwalks (2009-14), head-worn sails, like arrows, compel the walker to take the direction the wind dictates. In Path of Least Resistance (2014), we see the GPS record of people asked to take the route that water might take downhill, appearing like the branching map of a river and its tributaries. In other works, ink follows the creases of paper, as if it, too, were a landscape.
In the final rooms, I found images that reminded me again of Volkhardt Mueller’s video, and, in a different way, Bampfylde’s garden. Glacial Creep (2017) and Mungo Bush Walk (2013), as Lizzie Lloyd observes, ‘pull at another theme that is held in tension through his work: the interconnection between process or event and evidence or documentation’ (2017:17). In these works, Knowles has walked with a pinhole camera, which captured still images of the landscape in 2-3 second exposures. Thus, each shot comprises the blurring of a few seconds of movement into a still image. In Mungo Bush Walk, these images are cross-faded, to create a kind of slow, blurred video piece, in which it is uncertain whether, or how, this landscape, or this photographer, is moving.
What is movement; what is stillness? Who moves; what moves? How does the landscape move us? What remains? My eyes strained to focus, confused by this fuzzy landscape’s sand and blue, its morphing continuity, its ungraspable journey.
The Dynamics of Drifting is in Hestercombe Gallery 15th July to 5th November 2017.
Catalogue essay by Lizzie Lloyd, 2017, ‘Conversations with Tim Knowles’, pp.11-39.
Hunt, John Dixon (1976), The Figure in the Landscape, Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore and London.
White, Philip (2013), ‘Hestercombe: Paradise Restored – An illustrated history and guide’, 2nd edition, Hestercombe Gardens Trust: Somerset.