Just spent the weekend at Port Eliot literary festival near St Germans in Cornwall.
Lots of interesting talks and music but I discovered a single theme which connected with my London trip a few weeks ago.
I have just read The Leveling Sea by Philip Marsden. He owns an old wooden boat and lived in St Mawes and now the upper reaches of the Fal river, Cornwall. He wrote mostly about the history of Falmouth and the surrounding areas but mixed this up with short stories of his observations of the area today. It’s unlike me to read a book like this to the very end but I could picture almost everything he was writing about from Arwenack Manor to the Maritime Museum to the waters of the River Fal.
He was at Port Eliot to talk about his new book (of course) Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place. He spent a year living on Bodmin Moor and learnt how the ancient monuments such as standing stone circles were aligned with the natural features such as Brown Willy and Rough Tor on the moor. His theme was the degree to which people, who may have lived 6000 years ago, were influenced by, and had an influence on, the local landscape of the moor.
Simon Armitage is a writer and poet. His new book, Walking Away, describes his coastal walk from Minehead to Lands End so he too was thinking about landscape. He said the thing that he had not envisaged was how much his story became about the people he met as much as the, sometimes, arduous coastal path. Again landscape and its inhabitants. I remember one of his poems that he read to us about coming across an adder. It began: Harlequin watch strap …. I’ll have to wait for the arrival of the book from Mr Amazon to remember the rest.
Port Eliot festival 2015
And then on Sunday morning we listened to Nicholas Serota, the Director of the Tate Galleries, talking to Alice Channer and Chris Stevens about the Barbara Hepworth Exhibition I saw in London. Chris Stevens curated the exhibition in London as well as the 2003 exhibition in Tate St Ives which sadly I missed.
Once again Hepworth’s big idea, apart from putting holes in her work, was how the landscape of Cornwall, and more specifically West Penwith, made such an influence on her work. At the Tate in London we had watched a fairly awful film made in the Pathe News style, which compared many of Hepworth’s sculptures with features of the Cornish landscape. We had Godrevy island with its lighthouse shown alongside one of her white marble sculptures. We had standing stones filmed alongside an abstract standing wood carving.
So many local artists today claim to be influenced by the landscape or the sea in Cornwall that I have become a bit cynical. Perhaps Hepworth was the first to do this but I can’t help wondering if almost any abstract sculptor could claim to be influenced by something as broad as a landscape.
I do love the Cornish landscape including the coastal fringes but there are so many other things to be influenced by at the same time. How about mathematics or traditional boat making or …….?
An interesting point was made regarding the period in which Hepworth and the community of artists settled in St Ives in order to avoid the worst of the second world war. Initially quite idealistic, this group were shocked by the onset of another war so soon after the previous one. In times of upheaval the stability of nature and the landscape provided some reassurance. People might change and become fascists or otherwise but the landscape remains reassuringly the same.
This, though, was brought up-to-date with the thought that in modern times, with the threat of climate change, we are in danger of destroying the very thing that has brought solace in the past.