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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

25 March 2022

In his new house, Malcolm Guite looks at an old painting and sees it in a new light

ONE advantage of moving house is that you see all your old things with new eyes. Books are in a different order and on different shelves; pictures hang on new walls in different rooms; and you begin to see them, quite literally, in a new light. It is as though you’ve acquired them all afresh.

So it is that, when I pause, a little breathless from climbing our rather steep stairs, I can enjoy, close-up and at eye level, a beautiful painting, looking out from Ruskin’s house Brantwood, across Coniston Water to the fells and the Old Man of Coniston. But it is a painting of far more than the glorious view that any camera might have captured: it is a painting of the weather, the atmosphere, the astonishing interplay of darkness and light, the sheer feel of those northern fells and of something more in the gleams of light, in white and gold, and the tiny patches of deep and distant blue which shimmer behind and sometimes through the dark and massy clouds “Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores, And mountain crags”, as Coleridge writes in “Frost at Midnight”.

And it is a painting that captures even more than that; for it seems, to me at least, to clarify something that Coleridge says in the very next lines of that poem, to show me again:

The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.

The work is by Daniel L. Cooper, in charcoal and mixed media, and it is a miracle to me that the charcoal that they used to burn on those fells (as I learned from my childhood readings of Arthur Ransome, so many of whose stories are set in this very place) should be able so completely, in the hands of an artist, to express the very spirit of the landscape from which it was drawn.

Among the other media in the work are just the faintest traces of gold and white under the clouds, hinting at the sun we cannot see. I scarcely saw those hints and glints of gold where the painting hung in our old house: they hid themselves and just left the suggestion of light. But here, in the new house in Norfolk, standing a little closer, I am transported from the East Anglian reeds and broads to that other English wildness of the fells and lakes, transfigured in light, transfiguring the earthen media of which they are made.

The painting is called A Golden Era, and we saw and fell in love with it in a gallery in Brantwood itself, on holiday in the summer of 2019 — a summer that, considering the almost continuous oppression of crises since then, does indeed seem like a golden era.

And so it is that, as I stand at the top of my stairs, personal and literary memory of Ransome, Ruskin, Wordsworth, and Coleridge fuses and coheres around this flat rectangle of beauty. On each encounter, it seems less like an opaque arrangement of paper and charcoal on which the light of Norfolk falls, and more like a window from which the light of Cumbria, and something more than the light of this world, streams out.

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