A Brief History of ‘The View’

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Originally I wrote this as part of another Essay, that I called ‘So You Think You Like McIntosh?’  …. writing about knowing what we really like, and our attitude to a ‘view’ I took as being symptomatic of our presumption. But I think it deserves a few words to itself. So: 

A priority in buying a house – at least in the UK and parts of Europe that I know even vaguely – is the view, and much vaunted in the estate agent’s literature. I look around the cottages and houses in the Machars of SW Scotland where I live, and am surprised at what little consideration must have gone in to the siting of dwellings when they were built. There are so many marvellous views here to be had … of the sea, both east and west, of the mountains to the north; winding rivers and moorland. But unless it was a large and prosperous dwelling, the considerations of where to build seemed to have been determined by more practical concerns, such as siting near a farm steading, near a road or shielded from prevailing weather (which coincides with shielding from most views). Villages and whole towns were constructed by the expedience of sharing a gable. Other practical  considerations such as sites of trade or convenience of travel no doubt counted more heavily, but the idea of a handsome prospect was not a strong one. There is a line of houses in the village of Sorbie, facing south, and with larger windows than usual for cottages around here … built for the view perhaps? … no, merely to admit more light for the ladies who engaged in sewing lace there. Properties built after the war – or thereabouts – started to consider the view; plenty of bungalow building to support that, such as Monreith and various village outskirts. So it occurred to me that perhaps views didn’t exist until fairly recently; it just was not a consideration in house building …  and then only because the idea was adopted from middle class properties, which in turn had evolved from country houses, or fine urban dwellings such as Edinburgh New Town .. and these in turn derived from the classically constructed artificial views of landscaped gardens from the grand houses from renaissance times onwards. And these fine gardens were constructed from the renaissance painters’ classical ideals. By the 17th century Inigo Jones was designing houses and gardens with the sort of classical vistas painted by Claud Lorrain and Poussin; in the 18th, Capability Brown was foremost in making the contrived view real for grand houses. The Romantic idea of the sublime, where the wildness of nature was admitted to challenge the Mannered vision, and the tempestuous landscapes of Friedrich and Courbet popularised the idea of a changing view, driven by the elements. But the idea of the view as accessible to all was taking root, and with the rise of the middle classes, this idea gradually filtered through society.

There is enough material for a full thesis on the subject; ‘How Views were Invented’, from the first placement of religious characters in a ‘real’ background by Giotto, through the high renaissance and Leonardo, through the idealists such as Bellini and Giorgione in Venice, the classical romance of Lorrain, through the Sublime, to Courbet, to Daubigny and thence to Monet’s water garden. The castle, vaunted by the Normans as a way to subdue the surrounding countryside, becomes a romantic ruin to the Gothic revivalists of later centuries. Clear lines of fire become emblems of man’s entanglement with nature to the Romantic painter, glimpsed from afar by Victorians like Turner. 

Was the farm worker as happy by his hearth, with no notion of a view, as the retired accountant might be today in his cottage by the sea? Impossible to say, though we could suppose that the accountant would feel impoverished if his view is taken from him, or altered outwith his notion of what a view should consist of. I am baffled by the number of otherwise sensible people who feel their freedom threatened by the prospect of a wind farm anywhere nearby … sometimes not even within view; the very idea is enough to cause distress. 

I have often heard the same said about electricity pylons, which don’t even have the grace of a modern wind turbine. But I’ve always found a rather grim majesty in the way they stalk the hills and the wilderness; in fact I’m confident that some honest paintings of pylons could change how we view them. (The pylons that attempt to follow human form, or that of a deer, just seem ridiculous to me). In fact, nature unadulterated by man’s influence I find to be rather dull, and I suspect that it is only through mistaken romance that this is not generally recognised. Is anyone else moved by the equal luminosity of man-made and natural light? Street lights at dusk? The appealing effect was caught in a number of urban paintings by John Atkinson Grimshaw. Or the prosaic grandeur of Lowry’s industrial paintings? 

There are not many views of raw nature that can’t be improved by an old ruin. I was working in a house in Tongland a few years ago … a wee village up the river from Kirkcudbright on the Galloway coast. Across the small wooded valley facing me I saw what looked like an old brick factory peeking through the trees. I asked about it, and was told it had once been the Galloway Car Factory … a part of Britain’s industrial heritage that i’d never heard of, buried in the woods by the River Dee! Ok, so this might appeal more to myself than most because of my trade, but I work in a similar old factory (the Bladnoch Creamery), and just about every customer who visits the workshop is intrigued by the history of the place. There are innumerable websites devoted to photos of abandoned and ruined buildings, testifying to their appeal; emblems of the past, redolent with the atmosphere of actual history. And this is understandable: man’s influence on the landscape must be considered as a part of nature, and one that excites our interest for reasons of cultural affinity. Wild and untamed nature is alarming, unless moderated for us. A raging storm can be exhilerating, as long as viewed from a position of safety, much as a horror film might pique our fearful instincts, even if we have to hide behind the sofa at the scary bits. Victor  Hugo, as well as writing prolifically, did over 4,000 paintings and drawings, romantic and craggy, ruins of castles and old towns … not unlike his German contemporary Caspar Friedrich. So I’m suggesting that’s what painters do, moderate nature for us. And there are many ways to describe the world on our behalf:

Music, if stripped of its tribal associations, can be flat and dull. I have various friends who subject me to their own tastes, from raw blues and be-bop to anarcho-punk, hip-hop, reggae and even glam rock. My own tastes were formed by the music that my father loved and was always playing in the house – classical greats like Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms, and the first pop music I came across, Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones, Dylan, Chicago blues men like Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf … I cannot imagine anyone arguing with these. But people do … they might hear classical music as   the sentimental reinforcement of class prejudice; the blues as rough shouting, pop as ephemeral. Our taste seems to be on the whole formed early, childhood associations giving way to the courting music of adolescence. And these are especially strong influences on our tribal allegiances. 

How to divide our intrinsic attraction to harmony and melody from the tribal colourings that clothe different genres? Is it even possible? Just as our sense of smell waned as our eyesight developed, so western music lost the subtleties of single note division as we revelled in the new possibilities that modulation gave us (that is, forming whole new chords from the dominant harmonics of a particular root note). Compare the nuanced music of classical Eastern forms with the rich but direct melody and harmony of Western music.  Once chordal music was invented, it spread quickly, through North America via church and folk music, back to Africa, down through South America and now globally. The echoes of the various cultures it has passed through has enriched our palette, from Celtic intricacy into American country, the Moorish hints of flamenco that travelled to South America to blend with Andean pipes into tango and salsa. The emotional power of courtship (witness dance and romance) is evidenced by the creativity of youth; new forms continue to proliferate, as the tribes evolve … jazz, bosa nova, hip-hop, reggae and rock spawn new movements with scarcely a note being written down or taught. What is there to rival the vitality of music’s ambassadorial role in global culture? With video and film it has used technology to spread far, fast and wide. But if it was merely the sonic quality we prized, would we not share a homogeneous sound that we found most agreeable? My friend the anarcho-punk fan goes into a trance of pleasure when he listens to Spunkwallah Nightmare … there’s nothing that he finds quite as soothing as angry teenagers  frothing at the mouth. He finds a sweet harmony painful. When we are persuaded to listen to a new genre of music, it is not usually the sounds that captivate us, but the persuasion of the new tribe.

The animal effect of light and dark is of course an issue. I’m reminded of an evening when I was once driving down here to the Machars of Galloway from Glasgow. When I reached Ayr I had a choice: either to go the last 50 miles over the hills by Dalmellington, or by the slower but well lit coast road by Girvan. It was dark, and a wild night, and I chose, without thinking the Girvan road. Why? I had no intention of stopping, and every confidence in my car (not always the case I have to say) … because, I presume, the well lit road suggested company and safety. 

I admit there must be some residual love of nature within us, inherited from our wild past. Warmth, light, water … these are prerequisites of life, in reasonable quantities. The scent of earth and woodland, the feel of fresh breeze upon the face, the sparkle of a distant body of water or the sound of a babbling brook; the appeal of birdsong, the colour of ripening fruit … all evidences of nature that might be of biological benefit to us. The smell of freshly baked bread promises nutrition, while putrescence warns us of possible disease. If we can remember our earliest impressions of the world as children, we will find correlation through what we appreciate as adults. And within these earliest impressions we might well detect evidence of animal response. But before Monet painted snow in shadow as purple, we never experienced it as such. It is only when the world is narrated to us in story form (or we tell the story ourselves) that it means anything to us. We need the stories to trigger our primeval appreciation of nature. I remember as a boy of 14, seeing a handsome sunset, and being frustrated that I was not moved as I felt I should be. Some months later I happened to do a drawing of the same view in oil pastels, and felt all the excitement that the original view should have afforded me. It was only a good time later that I worked out why that should be. After many years of going out painting the landscape, I have found that it can afford the same intimate and powerful association, on re-visiting it, that childhood memory can conjure up. This is partly for the concentrated looking involved, but primarily for the story that you have to tell to make sense of what you see. Perhaps this is why I have so little patience with those who claim a view to be their own. By it being there in front of you does not make it your own … paint it, write about it, work in it, then it can really mean something to you … and paradoxically, you lose interest in owning it. It is yours to the degree and for the moment of your appreciation; it is transitory, but might reside in your memory. That one might ‘own’ a view … ridiculous. I admit to enjoying a house with a good view as much as the next man, but it is not for the pleasure of looking out of the window; it is because I am pleased by the ‘story’ in my mind of living in such a place. It might be important for us to dwell in a  house that is pretty or handsome on the outside, but the only times we get to appreciate it directly are as we approach it … our continuing appreciation is of the ‘story’ of us in our dream house.

The relevance of the observation is in how we see the world, how even our perception is moulded by history and convention.  … we think we know what we like! For our own self-esteem we might think we reject the advertised image or jingle, but these, like opinions, become part of us. When the communists wished to expand their influence to another country, they would target the intelligentsia, not just as potential opinion formers, but because they are the most impressionable. The more vehemently we reject our received culture, the more likely it is that we are beholden to it. 

In trying to come to some conclusion to this essay, I’m more than aware of my limitations, not just as a writer, but a thinker as well; that this is more a collection of musings than a reasoned essay or argument. Such are the limitations of the part timer! How can I link these musings into some coherence? 

How beholden we are to artifice, and how little we are prepared to admit this. Is this due to something in our animal make-up, that makes us prone to delusion, or our culture, whereby history has gradually clad our eyes, trained our vision? I suspect the latter, or else this exercise has been wasted. Sure, there might be an effect of our tribal disposition that evolved over millions of years, that persuades us to view our enormous societies as extended families; of our bodies to recognize light and water as beneficial, and darkness and decay as bad; of the major triad as harmonious, and dissonance as disturbing. But it is the story that we tell which fashions our happiness, and how much we accept of the telling, and whether we merely listen, or question the truth of that story. And the best way to question it is to be part of the telling, to add to the narration. Our ideas are formed, but not necessarily governed by the language we have learned. We  have a much better appreciation of a ‘view’ if we attempt to paint it, work in it, describe it in words, write a song about it, than if we think we can buy it and thereby own it.