Floating World

Following the footpath down the hill from Constable’s studio in East Bergholt and along the Stour valley to Dedham you cross not just the boundary between Suffolk and Essex but also the border between past and present.

On a spring day the view across the water meadows, the sky above and the willows on the riverbank, are much as Constable would have known and experienced them as he walked, or as he later revisited them in paint. Little about this tranquil scene, here on his home ground (and now underfoot as I walk) has changed in two hundred years – deliberately so as it’s been more or less held in timeless suspension since being entrusted to the future as ‘Constable Country’.

The place where he made his images is now made in his image. One walks it as though in a dream, a pastoral idyll through which seemingly we can return to ourselves, to a shared past ‘gathered into a homeland’. Yet while he haunts this territory, there is also a sense in which his time and space and our own remain fundamentally unbridgeable – we can visit but cannot fully inhabit this other country. In our anxious present there is something uncanny about the desire to render this place immutable.

For we know – as we return to the car park and the A12 – that life flows on, contingent and unstable. The future is not knowable country. Close by, across the border and further east out on the Essex marshes where I work, everything changes. It becomes instead an untended wilderness of dissolving paths and silted up streams where creeks and channels endlessly mutate in the tidal salt waters. Beyond the fragmentary system of sea walls and dykes one encounters an un-tethered world, prone to flooding and now bearing silent witness to the cumulative effects on this fragile ecosystem of climate change.

In a recent essay Robert Macfarlane uses the term ‘solastalgia’ to encompass recent art that is, ‘unsurprisingly, obsessed with loss and disappearance’. ‘Solastalgia speaks of a modern uncanny, in which a familiar place is rendered unrecognisable by climate change or corporate action: the home becomes suddenly unhomely around its inhabitants’. (1)

And yet, regardless of the visible gap between them, what both territories offer is common ground for contemplation, one that connects us across time to a deep and enduring sense of place. When interviewed in 2014 about Constable’s painting Frank Auerbach said this: ‘it is not so much about the more well-known qualities – the clouds and the freshness and the light. It is more that I can’t think of another painter who has invested quite so much in every single image…Everything has been worked for and made personal so you sometimes feel that Constable’s own body is somehow inside the landscapes there’. (2)

This act of close observation, of ‘burrowing down’ (in paint), was essential to Constable’s being, just as for me it has become a way of marking my own transient presence in the flow of phenomena, of paying quiet attention to the shifting patterns on the water, the fall of light on a given day, and the incidental life that passes across one’s visual field. Beneath all this, there is also the delicate registering of material erasures, the disappearances and the brief resurgences, the momentary recollection of this place’s silent (sinking) past.

Caught between land and sea, this interzonal territory remains precarious, its existence granted with no future guarantee. Perhaps the only response (as one who paints) is to ‘gather in’ the present and recognise that if our current homeland is one of flux and uncertainty it is nevertheless still – in the earth beneath our feet, the ‘weather’ and the sky above – an essential realm of connectedness and embodied experience. ‘Everything’, as the writer Andrew Lambirth once said of this work,’ is submerged or reduced to dust eventually by the elements, but in the meantime we may enjoy the trace of their being’.

Luke Elwes Landermere 2016

(1) Robert Macfarlane: ‘Generation Anthropocene: How humans have altered the planet for ever’ (Guardian 1April 2016)

(2) Frank Auerbach talks about Constable, The Observer 21.09.14