Thursday, 7 September 2017

'The little gracefulnesses and tendernesses of human work..'

There are some landscapes, by reputation spectacularly beautiful, that somehow leave me cold and a little uneasy. It took me a while to realise what these landscapes have in common: it's the absence of all tangible signs of human habitation and activity. The fact is that I prefer landscapes inhabited and adorned by humanity, with an easy balance between the landscape and the buildings and settlements that sit naturally in it. The ideal setting (for me) is among gently rolling hills, with valleys and folds, farms and villages, patterns of field and wood. Not for me the desolation of an unpeopled landscape. And not, it seems, for John Ruskin, who begins The Two Paths by recounting the pain he felt in passing through such landscapes during a long holiday in the Scottish Highlands in the summer of 1857:

'As I passed, last summer, for the first time, through the North of Scotland, it seemed to me that there was a peculiar painfulness in its scenery, caused by the non-manifestation of the powers of human art. I had never travelled in, nor even heard or conceived of, such a country before; nor, though I had passed much of my life amidst mountain scenery in the South, was I before aware how much of its charm depended on the little gracefulnesses and tendernesses of human work, which are mingled with the beauty of the Alps, or spared by their desolation...'

 Ruskin goes on to compare what buildings there are in these Scottish wastes most unfavourably with the cottages and ruins that dot the Alpine scene. He continues:

'While these conditions of Scottish scenery affected me very painfully, it being the first time in my life that I had been in any country possessing no valuable monuments or examples of art, they also forced me into the consideration of one or two difficult questions respecting the effect of art on the human mind' - difficult questions that are considered at length in the remainder of the book.

 On the 1857 Highland holiday, Ruskin (then aged 38) was, like some sulky schoolboy,  reluctantly and resentfully accompanying his 'Papa and Mamma', as he recalls in notes that might in part explain his pained reaction to the Scottish scenery around him:

'My mother wants me to see the Bay of Cromarty and the Falls of Kilmorock. I consent sulkily to be taken to Scotland with that object. Papa and mamma, wistfully watching the effect on my mind, show their Scotland to me. I see, on my own quest, Craig-Ellachie, and the Lachin-y-Gair forests, and finally reach the Bay of Cromarty and Falls of Kilmorock, doubtless now the extreme point of my northern discoveries on the round earth. I admit, generously, the Bay of Cromarty and the Falls to be worth coming all that way to see; but beg papa and mamma to observe that it is twenty miles’ walk, in bogs, to the top of Ben Wyvis, that the town of Dingwall is not like Milan or Venice, - and that I think we have seen enough of Scotland.'


  1. Human presence changes a landscape. I love the Anthony Gorman figures on Crosby beach for this reason. Once a scene is viewed by a human it is changed.

  2. Probably what Blake meant when he wrote that 'without man Nature is barren'?




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