Saturday, April 30, 2011

Top Withens

OK third time lucky. I've written this post twice now and both times it's been deleted - I don't know if other blogspot users are having the same difficulties (basically just as you're editing something it wipes a whole paragraph or, the first time it happened, the whole post, and then instantly saves it so you cannot recover the earlier version).  Anyway, what I've been trying to write something about is Bill Brandt’s Literary Britain (1951), a collection of photographs he had taken of the places associated with British writers from Chaucer to Lawrence.  The montage below gives you an idea of the book’s layout (without reproducing directly the actual photographs) and shows Brandt’s elemental landscapes: George Crabbe’s Aldeburgh, Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath, William Langland’s Malvern Hills, where Piers the Plowman went to rest ‘under a brode banke bi a bornes side.’  But this is a little misleading because many of Brandt’s images are writers’ homes – after Richard Jefferies’ Marlborough Downs, for example, you turn to the birthplace of Samuel Johnson and it is tempting to move swiftly on to the next page, illustrating Johnson’s journey to the Western Isles of Scotland with the desolate moorland on Skye where Sir James Macdonald tried in vain to plant a forest, ‘expecting, doubtless, that they would grow up into future navies and cities,’ but resulting only in a ‘useless heath.’

The next photograph after that is another house: Wentworth Place, where John Keats live.  We visited it on a sunny Spring day last year but in Brandt’s photograph all is dark, except for one partially open window - Keats's room.  The accompanying text quotes a letter to Fanny - 'come round to my window for a moment when you have read this' - and lines from 'Ode to Psyche': 'A bright torch, and a casement ope at night, To let the warm love in.'  Looking at this I started to feel that the photographs of houses were just as interesting as the landscapes in their own way.  Turning back to the image of Johnson's house, you see the same aesthetic of simplified forms and strong shadows that Brandt uses in his landscapes, and notice details that start to seem suggestive of the writer - a sturdy white structure with three classical pillars but an asymmetric roof and a set of windows with small rectangular panes that resemble rows of books.

In Romantic Moderns Alexandra Harris writes about the pains Brandt took to get just the right conditions, travelling with heavy equipment and waiting for the perfect weather conditions.  ‘Reclaiming the pathetic fallacy, he ensured that each writer got the weather he deserved … Literary Britain is a catalogue of English weather: D. H. Lawrence’s Eastwood terrace is slushy with half-thawed snow, menacing clouds hang suspended over Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, and an ecstatically illuminated mist fills Anthony Trollope’s cathedral.’  The last image of the six above is Top Withens, the supposed location of Wuthering Heights, which Brandt first tried to capture in 1944.  “I went to the West Riding in summer, but there were tourists and it seemed quite the wrong time of year.  I liked it better misty, rainy, and lonely in November.  But I was not satisfied until I saw it again in February.  I took the picture just after a hailstorm when a high wind was blowing over the moors.”  And yet even this was insufficient, so Brandt superimposed a sky from a different photograph, ‘over-exposing both negatives so that the moorland earth became impenetrably black, pitted with the spectral white of the settled hailstones.’

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