The Melody of Landscape

Jun 9, 2024 | News

In 1886, tiring of the city, Johannes Brahms left his home in Vienna for a summer holiday on Lake Thun in the Bernese Oberland with a new companion, the contralto Hermine Spies.

What a time it was.

A combination of infatuation, delight in his surroundings, and the proximity of numerous biergartens jolted him into a period of the most intense creativity. He wrote 3 of his most loved chamber pieces here – the great Violin Sonata no.2, the Cello Sonata no. 2 and the Piano Trio no. 3.

Phew. We should all have such holidays.

Like some of us, Brahms liked to write postcards. In one, he wrote that the Swiss mountain landscape around him was “full of so many melodies that one would have to be careful not to step on any.”

As a painter I know exactly what he means.

Studio Life, France

Good landscapes are full of melodies, and for a landscape painter, dependent on what I see outside my head, it is a joy to have a studio in rural France. The studio is high up in a very old house, in the old grenier. When it became mine, 35 years ago, it was full of bats, mice, and stinking sacks of grain. It was a treasure trove. Under the sacks, aside from tiny rodent skeletons, were furniture, old glassware, 19th century farm documents, frighteningly mysterious hygiene instruments, and rusted agricultural implements. It took years to go through them. If I ever decided to stop painting – an unlikely decision as that is how I work out what I am thinking – I could become an antediluvian farmer, a medical quack, or make a fortune selling some of my finds in Manhattan and Shoreditch. I have kept everything. Except the medical equipment that makes me think of the doctor in Moliere’s Le Malade Imaginaire.


Lake at Night, France

Right now, the studio is full of paintings, as I am working towards a show in central London in October 2024. Right next to the National Gallery, so I am in good company. The French studio is big, and an orderly chaos. There are some terrible failures that I think one day I will be able to save when I can figure out the problem. Some paintings are almost OK. Some are also-rans. Some are in progress and looking potentially viable. There is a huge old chest I found in the grenier that is now full of painted paper shards that I make when I get stuck in my work. There are stacks of canvases in various stages of undress. There are leaning towers of paint pots. Broken frames that I intend to fix. One day real soon, as they say. There is unfinished work to get me started when I arrive, all wound up by city life in London.

On one side of the room, I see huge skies out of the big Velux windows. Clouds, wind, storms, sunrise, sunsets, pink skies, yellow skies, black skies. My very own James Turrell light installation. On another side, I look out over a lake. On a third side I can see two fields rising into the sky. The smaller one is always green and has 12 cows and a lazy mournful bull who moans a lot. Always 12 cows. Never fewer, never more. Above the first field is a second, sometimes brown with tilled earth, and sometimes green-y yellow with planted maize, sunflowers or tobacco. It is fringed on the horizon by a deep dark forest with trees that appear to have been given a severe bobbed haircut by a cosmic barber.

It is so quiet that one can hear the cows chewing.

And there are so many melodies that, like Brahms, I am very careful not to step on any.



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