The Windmill at Brill

The windmill at BrillOne weekend when the weather was cloudy with very strong winds I thought I’d try out my long exposure technique described in the blog post of the same name, so I drove out to Brill with my Nikon Df.  Brill is a location well known to photographers all over Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and attractively perched on top of a steep hill, with an excellent view over the plain below.  The result is shown to the right, I was quite pleased with it.

The origin of the name of the village is derived from both the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic words for hill (Bre-hyll). In the reign of Edward the Confessor it was called Bruhella.  It is notable for its old post mill, the timbers of which reputedly date from 1685 and the clay pits were dug for the production of pottery and Brill bricks.   The clay pits were in use from Roman times until the last bricks were produced in the 1920s.   Roman occupation in the Brill area is highly probable as suggested by finds of tiles and pottery and the square earthworks believed to have been a Roman look-out.  The village is also close to the Roman road of Akeman Street.  It was a royal manor of the kings of Wessex in the Anglo-Saxon period and there was a Royal Palace at Brill until it was destroyed by the Parliamentarian John Hamden in 1643.  Edward the Confessor, Henry II, John, Henry III and Stephen all held court there in the 12-13th centuries.

Brill was the scene of a battle during the English Civil War. After the Battle of Edgehill in November 1642 a royalist force occupied the village. Parliamentary troops were sent to oust the royalists, and on January 27th 1643 the two forces met in the Battle of Brill.

The royalists had thrown up sturdy earthworks, perhaps using remnants of Brill Castle. The Roundheads launched a fierce canonnade, but called off the attack after several hours when the Royalists lit damp straw on fire, creating a wall of choking smoke. Residue of the Royalist defenses can be seen in the village.  During the 1830s an attempt was made to turn Brill into a spa town, as there is a spring between the nearby village of Dorton and Brill but royal patronage favoured Tunbridge Wells and Leamington Spa over the rather isolated village.

The Pheasant pub has outside seating that provides access to the view over a pint, which is very pleasant in the summer.  The site of the windmill is a popular spot for a picnic, with children and dogs often scampering about amongst the undulations of the old clay pits, and of course there are plenty of photographers…

Caravaggio – The original master of darkness and light

Always the same JesusBeyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery is an exhibition that examines the influence of one of art’s true originals, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Whilst the exhibition focuses on his influence on art via the Caravaggisti and later followers (Only 6 of the 49 paintings in the show are actually by Caravaggio), Caravaggio’s influence reaches well into to the present day; his use of everyday subjects and of dramatic lighting are cited as an influence on director Martin Scorsese, the photographer David LaChapelle and visual artist Mat Collishaw.

Caravaggio lived a short, turbulent life that was celebrated and notorious in equal measure.  He was orphaned to the plague as a boy of six.  At eleven he apprenticed in Milan but left in haste after wounding a police officer.  At 21 he moved to Rome and gained fame with the success of his first public commissions, but he was regularly in court and jailed on several occasions.  He was known for his drinking and whoring as well his brawling.  His powerful supporters helped smooth things over with the authorities but there was only so much they could do to contain a man overflowing with violence.  According to the German art historian Joachim von Sandrart (1606–88) Caravaggio spend his time in Rome “in the company of his young friends, mostly brash, swaggering fellows—painters and swordsmen—who lived by the motto nec spe, nec metu, ‘without hope, without fear.’”  He was, as Time Out noted, a real Baroque and Roller.

In 1606 he had a death sentence pronounced against him by the Pope after he killed a well known pimp in a knife fight.  He spent the rest of his life on the run in fear of his life in Malta, Naples and Sicily. He slept in this clothes and always had his dagger to hand.  His art, unsurprisingly, became darker and he was horribly mutilated by his enemies when they caught up with him in Naples in 1609.  It is likely that they inflicted a sfregio (facial wound), as a visible sign of revenge. He died, still on the run, in 1610 aged 38.

Caravaggio is most famous for his dramatic use of light, an extreme variant of chiaroscuro, using dark shadows to produce strong contrasts between light and dark with an incredible tonal range.  With this he captured form and added drama to his scenes in a way that no one before him had accomplished.  The scenes he painted were spot lit from above; he once had a run in with a landlord for breaking a ceiling to let in light.  It is so modern looking that David Hockney has referred to it as  ‘Hollywood lighting’.   There are claims by Italian researchers that his chiaroscuro is based on a form of photographic technique – the suggestion is that Caravaggio projecting the image of his subjects onto canvas using a lens and mirror and that he treated the canvas with a light-sensitive substance made from crushed fireflies, in order to fix the image.  This hypothesis remains unproven.

He combined dramatic lighting with a new kind of naturalism – painting people from the streets directly from life, and with incredible levels of often dirty hyperrealism created without drawing beforehand.  He populated biblical scenes with Roman prostitutes, beggars and thieves, bringing the sacred and the gutter together as he did so and dividing popular opinion.  He also applied the same level of detail and realism to still life as to the people in his paintings.  Great emphasis can be seen in the still life on the table in front of Christ at the ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ (1601), for example.  It was this combination of dramatic lighting and realism that created the pictorial and narrative power he became renowned for.  In an era when great art required powerful visual story telling, he elevated this to new heights.
Caravaggio was hugely influential throughout Italy and this spread to France, Belgium and the Netherlands and the exhibition seeks to show his influence by bringing together a collection of Caravaggio-inspired pieces.  These are my top three highlights of the show:
  • The Taking of Christ, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.  Painted at the height of Caravaggio’s fame, The Taking of Christ is a high contrast, dramatic treatment of the familiar biblical story of betrayal.  It is set in the garden of Gethsemane rendered as indeterminate, dark space, lit by the moon and, weakly, by lantern held by Carravagio who peers in from the edge of the scene.   (The shot on this post shows that image of Caravaggio in the background).  The painting offers a flash illuminated freeze frame of three soldiers in black armour, their faces largely hidden, who have come with Judas to seize Christ  – one of them grasping his throat with a mailed fist.  The brutality of the state is in contrast with the calm and meek Christ, who offers no resistance, whilst St. John the Evangelist flees from the violence in anguish.   It is dense, mysterious and incredibly dramatic.
  • Christ displaying his Wounds,  Giovanni Antonio Galli (nicknamed Lo Spadarino because his father was a sword smith).  Perhaps the greatest work of one of the most talented and inventive of Caravaggio’s disciples, this painting is as hyper real is it is strange.   A pale Jesus, lit by light that appears to come from nowhere, and naked except for his shroud, holds the wound on this side apart with hands holed by nails.  He makes direct eye contact with us with an expression that is full of accusation
  • The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera.  Saint Bartholomew’s executioner sharpens his knife in preparation of the flaying his about to perform – the knife and steel forming a symbolic cross.  Bartholomew stretches out his arms to heaven, creating a powerful diagonal, his face lit by grace as much as light.  The executioner’s expression is inscrutable, which makes the painting quite frightening.

I was looking for an image to accompany this post from my day’s shooting when I came across the shot above, which was taken outside the gallery after I had visited it.  I hadn’t considered it as  a candidate for this purpose as I hadn’t noticed the image of Caravaggio’s face from The Taking of Christ in the background.  When I did I was delighted, as the subject of the shot is carrying a placard reading ‘JESUS CHRIST the same yesterday today and for ever.’  This combination was pleasing to me; there is Caravaggio, in a detail from a painting from 1602, linked to a message about Christ being the same today as he was in the past.  The picture was shot with a Leica Q at f2.8 at 1/8000 sec.  The sunlight was very bright after the heavy rain that had fallen earlier so I used -1 ev of exposure compensation to stop the highlights blowing out.   It is a high contrast shot, which is entirely appropriate for the purpose.  Between the man with the placard and Caravaggio there are also two figures that bring something to the shot.  A woman, dressed in light clothing,  scrutinises the street preacher, who is dressed in black, whilst in the middle distance a girl shades her eyes as she looks at him also.  Both these figures provide detail on different planes, which is generally desirable.

 

Fox Talbot and Early Photography

Fox Talbot Early Photography

The recent exhibition Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph at the Science Museum in London which ended on September 11th 2016 was described as ‘magical to behold’ by  Time Out  and ‘ground-breaking’ by The Times.  I found it extremely enjoyable as it told the story of the pioneers of early photography very capably as well as displaying a great body of their work.

Central to the story of early photography is William Henry Fox Talbot, who was born in February 1800.  He attended Cambridge University in 1817 and went onto become a gentleman scientist, inventor, Egyptologist, member of parliament, mathematician, astronomer, archaeologist and transcriber of Chaldean cuneiform texts as well as a pioneer of photography.

It was a struggle with his sketchbook that put him on the road to photography: in 1833 at Lake Como in Italy, he found it difficult to capture the scenery adequately by sketching it with the aid of a Camera Lucida (an instrument used by draftsmen at the time which uses a prism to direct rays of light onto paper producing an image and from which a drawing can be made.)  This started him on the journey of discovery with light-sensitive paper to automate the process that he was to pursue at his home in Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.

Investigations with silver nitrate and sunlight actually go back as far as Angelo Sala (1576-1637).  Johann Heinrich Schulze (1687-1744) was the first to create photograms (a process that does not require a camera) with paper masks and Talbot would have been well aware of the work of Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805) and Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) who also worked on photograms of leaves and other objects.  These could not adequately fixed and faded quickly. Talbot built on this work, experimenting with plants and lace on paper coated with silver nitrate and fixing the images with salt to produce sciagraphs – drawings of shadows.

Talbot created the first negative in 1835, which minimized exposure time considerably compared to previous methods.  He had help from his friend Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), one of the leading British scientists of the time, and another formidable polymath, who was an astronomer, mathematician, chemist, inventor and experimental photographer. It was Herschel who solved the problem of ‘fixing’ pictures (used by both Talbot and Daguerre) and was also the first to use the terms ‘photography’ and ‘negative’.

There is some debate as to is the inventor of photography or even who was the most influential of the pioneers.  France can claim Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), inventor of a process known as heliography, who used a Camera Obscura to record an image of his country estate in 1826 via an eight-hour exposure.  Better known is Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, (1787-1851), a former architect and artist who collaborated with Niépce, and who had used the Camera Obscura to assist with his paintings in his earlier career.  He developed the Daguerrotype process after Niépce‘s death – a process based on light-sensitive, silver-plated copper, unique in the family of photographic process, in that the image is produced on metal directly without an intervening negative.   Hippolyte Bayard (1801-1887) also holds a claim as the developer of the direct positive process and the first in the world to hold a photo exhibition.  Bayard’s story embodies the struggle for recognition and adds a human dimension in the midst of all the science on show at the museum.   It also serves up one of the most interesting images of the exhibition. Bayard was persuaded to postpone announcing his new positive process to the French Academy of Sciences by a friend of Daguerre, which cost him the recognition he deserved, and led him to create the first staged (or faked) photograph entitled, Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, which was on show at the Science Museum exhibition. The image portrays the photographer as a corpse, and M. Bayard wrote a fake suicide note on the back:

“The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you. As far as I know this indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with his discovery. The Government which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life….! … He has been at the morgue for several days, and no-one has recognised or claimed him. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better pass along for fear of offending your sense of smell, for as you can observe, the face and hands of the gentleman are beginning to decay.”

Continue reading “Fox Talbot and Early Photography”

The Many Pleasures of Oxford

Radcliffe Camera OxfordThe exact date of the foundation of the city of Oxford is uncertain, but the place is ancient.  Sited on an important crossing point across the Thames, which formed the frontier between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, Oxford started as a ford for oxen (Oxenaforda).   The castle (now just a mound) dates from 1071 and the oldest standing building, the Saxon tower of St Michael at the Northgate, was built in 1040. The Domesday book records the right of the town’s Freemen to graze animals in Port Meadow free of charge – a right still exercised today. The University started in monastic halls, though none of these survived the suppression of the monasteries in the 1530s. The city was well established as an academic centre by the 13th century with University, Balliol, and Merton Colleges all founded during that century.

Academic life in Oxford was characterised by murder in the stories of ’90s TV detective Inspector Morse, and this violence in academia was foreshadowed by a turbulent relationship between Oxford’s town people and students. The most notorious incident occurred in 1354 in the Swyndlestock Tavern (a bank today), when two students took issue with the innkeeper about the quality of his wine. This dispute quickly escalated into an armed conflict that lasted three days and resulted in around 90 deaths.  Despite incidents like this and regular scholastic riots, by the mid 14th century the University was well established enough for Edward III to pay tribute to it for both its contribution to learning and the services to the state of Oxford graduates.  Several colleges were founded every century and there are now 38 in total.

Oxford’s growth was inevitably accompanied by some  reversals.  In the 12th century a fire burned the city to the ground and the black death of the 14th century reduced the population heavily; as did the sweating sickness epidemic of the 16th century.  The university benefited from these depopulations by buying up vacant property and continuing to grow its estates.

In the late 18th century Oxford connected to Coventry and the Thames, and in the mid In 1844, the Great Western Railway linked Oxford with London.  The city became more industrial when the automotive industry was established in nearby Cowley by William Morris, who built the Morris Garage in Longwall street in 1910.  The need for more space bought a move to a factory 1913 at Cowley and mass production followed, resulting in  Cowley expanding into a large industrial centre.  Despite its canal and railway links, the city had remained a tight knit , conservative and academic town, with the the university press the only large-scale employer.  The car industry transformed Oxford into one of the major industrial cities of southern England, though happily the architectural gems of the old city have been well preserved, also being spared the devastation meted out to so many other cities during World War II.

As you might expect from such a historic city, there are numerous sights to be enjoyed in Oxford, which particularly photogenic, though it is often very crowded, especially in the summer. Here are my top ten: Continue reading “The Many Pleasures of Oxford”

In Praise of Deal

I recently returned from a Christmas break in Deal, Kent.  It is where I spent the first 18 years of my life and is still very special to both me and my children.  We stayed in an eighteenth century cottage in Middle Street, which is in the heart of the conservation area (the first in Kent) – where the press gangs and sailors of Nelson’s navy once roamed and one of the most beautiful streets in England.

The Ship Inn, Deal
The Ship Inn, Deal

Deal is steeped in history – originally known as Addelam, it is mentioned in the Doomsday book, and is unique in once having been a port without a harbour.  Instead, the anchorage known as The Downs located between the Deal shoreline and the notorious ‘ship swallower’ of the Goodwin Sands  provided shelter for ships in the channel, and Deal became a thriving port.  Over time the Downs and the maritime traffic it generated made Deal worthy of protection by castles in the town itself and at nearby Sandown and Walmer and to become home to the Royal Marines.

In 1702 it was described as one of the four great ports of England, along with Portsmouth, Rochester and Plymouth and the town formed part of the defences of what became known as “the invasion coast”.  Deal also had a unique status conferred upon it by Royal Charter in the 12th century which established the town as one of the confederation of five ports (The Cinque Ports) to serve the crown with ships as the need arose. In return the towns received exemption from tax and tolls.  This led to extensive smuggling, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Deal’s smuggling activities were so notorious that Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger had the town’s luggers (large, two masted open boats) burned on the beach.  Deal’s boatmen also went to sea to for salvage and to save the lives of shipwreck victims and there has been a lifeboat stationed at nearby Walmer since the mid 19th century.  There has also been a pier at Deal from the same period, though the present one dates from the mid 20th century.

There are many pleasures to be had whilst staying in Deal.  Here’s ten of my favourites things to do, in no particular order:

  1. A stroll along the broad promenade and then onto the pier (said to be the same length as the Titanic but actually 200 ft longer)
  2. A walk through the winding narrow streets of the conversation area to admire the restored cottages and town houses, and perhaps to visit one of the fine old pubs like The Ship Inn, The Deal Hoy or the Royal Hotel (where Admiral Nelson frequently stayed.  Nelson also donated the tomb of Captain Parker, inscribed “My gallant good friend and able assistant”, which can be found in St George’s Churchyard.)
  3. Coffee or a bite to eat in the Black Douglas (run by the descendants of the Scottish knight)
  4. Sitting out on the seafront in front of the picturesque Kings Arms
  5. Shopping for fresh fish at Jenkin’s fishmongers
  6. Lunch or dinner at The Courtyard Oyster Bar and Restaurant
  7. Browsing in the boutiques of the High Street (Deal was inaugural High Street of the year for the Daily Telegraph in 2014)
  8. Visiting my folks, who still live in Walmer, or my friends ‘The Turnips’ (You don’t know them of course, but I can assure they are quite wonderful Deal and Walmer folk)
  9. A visit to the nearby visit to the picturesque former fishing village of Kingsdown immediately south of Walmer and the beachside pub The Zetland Arms
  10. And of course…taking pictures of one of my favourite places in the world – my Deal Gallery can be found here