Monday, 9 April 2012

Beside the Seaside

                   This is a view of one corner of the study. If you are a regular reader, you will recognise most of the decorations and furnishings. The small picture in the middle is a reproduction of William Dyce’s painting Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858, (usually known more simply as Pegwell Bay), which is in the collection of the Tate Gallery, London. It was probably started in 1858, and was completed by 1860. The painting is oil on canvas, 24 ½ inches by 34 ½ inches.

  In the foreground are Dyce’s wife, her two sisters, and his son.

Dyce was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1806. He studied painting at the Royal Academy schools and travelled twice to Rome, where he met Friedrich Overbeck, the Nazerene. The Nazerenes were a group of German 19th century artists who worked in Rome, where they sought a return to the simplicity, honesty and spirituality of earlier Christian art. The name, Nazerene, was originally a term of derision, used by their critics against them, (in the same manner, Impressionism was also applied derogatorily to the works of Monet, Manet et al). The aims of the Nazerenes were instrumental in the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. With his meticulous attention to detail and his practice of painting outdoors, (unusual at the time), Dyce can be regarded as a proto-Pre-Raphaelite.

As I mentioned the other day, you can return to great works of art and find something new. I think this applies to Pegwell Bay. On the surface, it is a record of a family day out, a trip to the seaside, where a little boy collects seashells with his mother and his aunts. In the background are some donkeys, and fishermen with shrimping nets. The tide is out, the sky is darkening, and it is probably time they went home.

Let’s look a little closer. The full title of the painting is very specific. It records a certain day, in October 1858. Barring an Indian summer, that is not really a time of year for beachcombing – a little too bracing, maybe? That Dyce chose to be so specific is significant, it matters to him. He is marking a particular day, and a particular time of that day.

In the background are the meticulously observed and rendered cliffs. We can see the strata of the rocks, and embedded in them are flints and fossils. There are more flints in the foreground, eroded from the cliffs and washed out by numerous tides, (flint is fossilised sponges). The strata point to the great age of the rocks, slowly laid down in layers over the millennia, but for all their solidity they are ultimately impermanent, and are just as slowly being worn away. The fossils are the remains of creatures from another age, now extinct, and again pointing to both great age and impermanence. Fossil hunting, seashell collecting and gathering other natural history specimens were extremely popular with the Victorians. Some even made a living from finding and selling fossils, perhaps the most famous being Mary Anning, who lived and worked in Lyme Regis, and is the source for the tongue twister “She sells sea shells”.  Pegwell Bay was well known for its fossils. The man on the right (Dyce himself, maybe) looks up at the cliffs, indicating that we should also look closely at them. The very location, the seaside, with its ebbing and flowing tides, again reminds us of the passage of time, of change, movement, strength and fragility.

As evening draws in, the sky begins to darken, as another day, this particular day, draws to its end. It is reaching its conclusion, passing away as it must. And in the sky, right in the centre of the picture, against the darkening, can be seen the faint streak of a comet. This is Donati’s comet, first observed by Giovanni Donati on June 2nd 1858, the second brightest comet of the 19th century, and, incidentally, the first ever to be photographed. (Abraham Lincoln – remember him from the other day – sat on the porch of his hotel in Jonesboro, Illinois, to see the comet on September 14th 1858). It was closest to the Earth on October 10th. Dyce is recording an actual event in history, but is once more alluding to time, its passing and our relationship to it. The comet, a long-period comet, will not be seen again for over two thousand years, and reminds us of the depths and immensity of space and the universe.

Victorian advances in science led to great anxiety and crises of faith, as the evidence accumulated to overturn many long-held beliefs. James Hutton, the Scots geologist, had written about ‘deep time’ and the immense antiquity of the Earth in the previous century. However, Hutton had a particularly obtuse prose style, and is very hard to follow. His works were revised and restated by John Playfair in 1802, and by Charles Lyell in the 1830s, and Charles Darwin took, read, and was influenced by, Lyell’s work on his voyage on The Beagle. The discoveries of Mary Anning, and others, were evidence of extinction, of whole species of beasts that had died out completely, which contradicted the idea of God’s perfect creation. In 1859, whilst Pegwell Bay was being painted, Darwin published his On the Origin of Species, yet more evidence that nature evolved over great time, and did so without Divine intervention. We are familiar enough with Darwin and the arguments about evolution, but a work that is unfamiliar to most, but which caused an argument of at least the same scale, was published in 1860. Essays and Reviews was a collection of seven pieces, each authored by a Church of England clergyman, and proposed, amongst other things, that the Bible should be subject to the same method of enquiry as any other text, that it could be read ‘as any other book’, and that scripture was open to reinterpretation by successive generations. The arguments raged for years, and there were excommunications, sackings and indictments for heresy. Essays is hardly remembered today, but at the time it sold more copies in two years than Darwin’s Origin did in its first twenty.

Do you remember the Venerable Bede from yesterday, and how he wrote about Pope Gregory and the Angles/Angels thing, which caused St Augustine to be sent to convert the English? Augustine and his missionaries landed at Ebbsfleet, which stands at the head of Pegwell Bay, near Ramsgate, Kent. Is this why Dyce chose to depict this location as his subject? Is he alluding to the arrival of Christianity in this country, and suggesting that faith is subject to the same ebbs, flows and erosions as the very earth itself? 

Just down the Kent coast from Pegwell Bay is Dover. Consider these lines from Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach (written c. 1851, first published 1867) : -

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

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