Beechwoods – Patterns

Alex Schneideman explores the importance of patterns in his ‘Thinking Photography’ feature in the May 2017 issue of Black+White Photography.  He defines patterns in three ways: as repeating graphic shapes; as related to an order or system; and as a mode of thinking or behaviour.  He argues: ‘A pattern is a visible manifestation of an invisible force.  Only a photograph can reveal these forms and the story of their origination in a way that renders them poetic and human.’  ‘Trees denuded of leaves,’ he claims, ‘reveal the similarity of their structures – not only is this a pattern in the objective sense but …. It is also true in the sense of there being a governing force revealed slowly over time.’

Photo: The Beechwoods, Cambridge, February 2017

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Paul at St Pauls

I had my best ever pain au raisin at the café/patisserie Paul last Thursday, moist and rich under a dark sticky glaze.  Only it wasn’t a pain au raisin, it was and ‘Escargot Raisin’ and that Gallic touch made it taste all the better.  The morning was chilly when I visited and I sat upstairs in the small and rather cramped room – the seating round the edge, a cross between settles and choir stalls was not the most comfortable.  Paul sits looking towards St Paul’s Cathedral in a sort of friendly French – British tete-a-tete; and the outdoor seating will be perfect in fine weather.  French pastries and English architecture, a little bit of much needed entente cordiale.

Photo: Paul, Paternoster Square, London, May 2017

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Dyke’s End, Reach

U3A walk at Reach today with lunch at the Dyke’s End. In 1997 the then owner of the pub applied for permission to change use to residential.  The community prepared a viable case for keeping pub open and ECDC refused planning permission.  Community acquired the pub, got it back on its feet, sold it on to the present owner and it’s very successful.  The owner is a descendant of Julia Margaret Cameron; six of her pictures are on the walls – Sir John Herschel, 1867, Charles Darwin, 1868, Sir Henry Taylor, 1867, The Kiss of Peace, 1869, Julia Jackson, 1867, and Mary Princep, 1866.

Photo: Mary Princep as Beatrice Cenci (also called the Kissed Mouth), 1866 – Cenci an Italian noble woman, 1577-1599, who was executed for her part in the murder of her abusive father.

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Photography & Painting

On the 11th May I went to London to see two Exhibitions: The Radical Eye – Modernist Photography from the Sir John Elton Collection, at Tate Modern; and America after the Fall – Painting in the 1930s, at the Royal Academy.

The Radical Eye is shown in six sections: The Radical Eye; Portraits; Portraits Experiments Bodies; a film about John and his collection; Documents; and Objects Perspectives Abstractions.  The exhibition focuses on the first half of the 20th century looking at how artists were experimenting with and transforming photography.  It includes 150 works from 70 artists, covering such seminal figures as Brassai, Imogen Cunningham, André Kertész, Dorothea Lange, Tina Modotti and Aleksandr Rodchenko.  There are wonderful individual images, revealing some of the creative possibilities that photography offers; and it is a useful introduction to the photographic history of the period, though some of the work is very familiar.  Overall, it suffers from the inevitable constraints of being drawn from one private collection – some significant work is missing and some of the images by minor artists seem like packing.

America After the Fall is shown in seven groups of paintings: New York; City Life; Industrial Life; Looking to the Past; Country Life; Visions of Dystopia; and Looking to the Future.  Forty–five works by around 30 artists, including Jackson Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, Philip Guston and Grant Wood, paint a riveting portrait of urban and rural America in this transformative period.  It shows how the artists responded to rapid social change and economic anxiety with some of the 20th century’s most powerful, largely figurative, art.  It embraces brilliantly optimism and anxiety, rural idyll and urban dystopia, social intercourse and loneliness, communality and segregation.  All of the work was new to me, with the exception of Wood’s American Gothic, and the impact was consequently all the greater.

Seeing the two exhibitions back to back inevitably lead to comparisons between the two media, photography and painting.  Given the very different nature of the exhibitions there is no point in trying to draw any general conclusions and opening an old, stale debate.  However, some of the work in The Radical Eye covers the same subject matter as America After the Fall and that does prompt a comparison of how the two media have addressed it as a nation-shaping story.  To make that comparison it is necessary to reflect on a wider range of work than appears in The Radical Eye.

Both media record, reveal and interpret the times.  Painting has the advantage of allowing the imagination free range; photography provides a factual record of a moment in time, a (not the) truth.  The same narrative is revealed in different ways, shaped by the inherent nature of the media.  It also depends on vision of the artist.  The domestic scenes and interiors painted by Doris Lee, Charles Sheeler and Helen Lundeberg and Morris Kantor are comfortably reassuring in a way that the lives shot by Walker Evans and Ben Shahn are not.  Whose vision is the truer?

There is undoubted power in the imaginative free rein given to the artist, but this does not always carry the greater weight.  As an expression of the disregard for the land that created the American dust bowl, Arthur Rothstein’s photograph of A farmer and his two sons during a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936, is far more potent than Alexandre Hogue’s Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare, 1936, which seems laboured and contrived in comparison.

silver Gelatin Print

Perhaps the most celebrated work in America After the Fall is Grant Wood’s American Gothic, 1930, which is rightly called iconic.  I don’t think The Radical Eye has a signature image, but one of its most famous works is Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, 1936, it too is iconic.  In these pictures painting and photography achieve an equivalence in creating two defining images of the momentous 1930s in America.





Photos: 1. From Objects Perspectives Abstractions, The Radical Eye, Tate Modern, May 2017; 2. America After the Fall, Royal Academy, May 2017; 3. Arthur Rothstein, A farmer and his two sons during a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936; 4. Alexandre Hogue, Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare, 1936, at the Royal Academy; and Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936

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Tate Modern










Photos: Tate Modern, London, May 2017

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Beechwoods Carvings

The lives marked in the beech bark are usually reduced to initials, dates and a runic symbol of love (see post 23/9/16).  They are enigmatic.  This is no less so.  Who was Harvey, why and when was he here and was he alone?  More than that: what motivated him to take the time to carve this literal message?  Not the impetuous trace of a love affair, this becomes a memorial, an epitaph carved on a living headstone.




Harvey has cut naïve letters; this face is the work of a skilled hand.  Is it a Green Man?  I imagine so. Green Man: a representation of a face surrounded by or made from leaves; often used as a decorative architectural ornament; and found in many cultures from many ages around the world, is often related to natural vegetative deities, a symbol of rebirth, representing the cycle of growth each spring.  Here nature provides the leaves usually created by the sculptor.

Photos:  The Beechwoods, Cambridge, 2017

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Sr Matthew’s Church

St Matthew’s Church, built to designs by local architect Richard Reynolds Rowe in 1866, has a distinctive plan: a Greek cross with octagonal centre.  Christ stands in the central lancet of the apse window.  The apostle (Matthew?) on the left looks to him with due reverence; St Luke on the other side gazes vacantly off to the right.  St Luke originally occupied a window on the far left, but was moved to his present position when the original window was destroyed by one of the few bombs to fall on Cambridge during the Second World War.

Photo: East window, St Matthew’s Church, Cambridge

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Beechwoods Regeneration

Beech woodland is shady and often characterised by a dense carpet of fallen leaves and mast husks, which prevent most woodland plants from growing.  Young beeches prefer some shade and may grow poorly in full sunlight, however. In the Beechwoods a lot of the ground is bare of new growth – the natural factors inhibiting regeneration are reinforced by the footfall of walkers and their dogs.  The paling fence is the remnant of an attempt to protect an area and encourage new growth.

Photo: Beechwoods, Cambridge, April 2017

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Beechwood Roots

The beech usually grows on drier, free-draining soils, such as chalk, limestone and light loams. The root system is shallow, even superficial, with large roots spreading out in all directions.  This makes trees susceptible to drought and high winds.  In the Beechwoods the roots emerge at the surface in varicose vein-like eruptions.

Photo: The Beechwoods, Cambridge, 2017

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Beechwoods Boles – Elephant Tree

‘Old trees: hugely domed, usually much branched; occasional survivors of the fellings of two wars with 15-20m straight, cylindrical bole’, is how The Field Guide describes the common beech.   Some of the trees in the Beechwoods fit the first description.  It’s the shape of Robert McFarlane’s beech in The Wild Places: ‘a tall grey-barked beech, whose branches flare out in such a way that it is easy to climb….Around the base of its trunk, its bark has sagged and wrinkled, so that it resembles the skin of an elephant’s leg.’



Some of the trees also fit the second description, a smooth grey trunk rising clear out of the ground from a small rim of toe-like roots.  This form gives rise to the occasional name of ‘elephant tree’ from its resemblance to the leg and foot of an elephant.  Elephant Tree is more usually a common name for several plants with swollen stems referring to a variety of trees, such as the Sudanese frankincense Boswellia papyrifera.  (It’s also the name of a psychedelic metal rock band!)

Photos: The Beechwoods, Cambridge, 2017

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Waresley Old Church

Waresley has had three church buildings. The original church, which stood in the east of the village, was destroyed by a storm in 1724. In 1728, it was rebuilt “in humble imitation of the chapel at Pembroke College” (Waresley was one of the founding villages, where tithes were used in 1347 to found the Cambridge College).  In 1856 Octavius Duncombe had the church moved to a more central position. The original churchyard continued in use for some time as a burial ground; the nave of the old church is marked by an avenue of lime trees and a cross marks the position of the altar.

Photo: Site of old church Waresley, Cambs, May 2017

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Beechwoods – Spring Leaves

The trees in the Beechwoods are coming into leaf, but in a strangely erratic way.  Many are almost devoid of leaves and retain their winter tracery of bare branches.  At the other extreme a few have dense crowns of green murmuring in the wind.  In between some are sparsely leaved towards the top, but have plenty of fresh greenery on the lower branches.  Young beeches in the emerging under storey have a good spring genesis of leaves*.  What’s the cause of this variation? Different varieties?  Temperature gradient? Soil and water conditions?

*’First leaves unfolded are on shaded, slender shoots deep in beechwoods; these are green in April, 2-3 weeks before the upper crowns show any green.’ Field Guide to Trees

Photo: Beechwoods spring leaves, April 2017

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Yesterday, a sunny early morning walk between banks of frothy cow parsley along the River Cam at Bottisham Lock.  Cow parsley Anrhriscus sylvestris: umbrels announcing spring today and summer tomorrow; the scent of flowers and crushed stalks redolent of secret childhood places.  Swallows; a common tern on stiff pointed wings; blackcap and whitethroat singing.

Photo: Bottisham Lock, April 2017

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Barry Lane

Today The Guardian reported the death of Barry Lane at the age of 72.  Sue Isherwood writes: ‘In 1970 he joined the Arts Council as regional art officer, organising 14 touring exhibitions over three years. As the council’s first photography officer and then head of photography he had a lasting impact on British photographic culture, ensuring that photography was formally recognised as an independent medium.’  An advocate of supporting photographers directly, in his role at the Arts Council he was also a good friend to the Cambridge Darkooom.

Photo: Angus McBean at the Cambridge Darkroom, May 1985

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Fenscape 29 – Landscape Memory

Landscape is built up through geology, biology and human land use.  It has an objective history, but as we view it we see only what remains, what it wishes to reveal, like the physical presence of a subjective memory.  Three posts stand below a riverbank in an artificial Fen landscape, fragments of something erased – landscape with dementia.

Photo: Middle Fen, Over, Cambs, April 2017

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