Guest blog – On natural beauty, a cautionary tale by Andrew Painting.

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Andrew Painting, 27, is an ecologist working in the Scottish highlands. He studies human/environment relations at Aberdeen University, and occasionally writes about environmental issues.

Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life

Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying

A few days ago I was out on the moor and I saw an exquisite little creature. A young merlin, with a single white speck of down on its head, flew onto a patch of purple heather close by. It was a perfect little killing machine. It was, I thought to myself, the apotheosis of natural beauty (though in truth, I don’t think I was so verbose at the time). I had a fancy camera with me, and I nearly took a picture, but decided against it. A photograph, I thought, could never do the creature justice.

Which begs the question: is it possible to reproduce the beauty of wildlife in art?

Imagine if I had taken a photo, and that photo had happened by some miracle to be the most beautiful photograph of a merlin ever taken. Even then, that photo would not be a beautiful merlin, only a beautiful picture of a merlin. It would be representation, rather than pure, untrammelled, natural beauty.

What if it were such a good photo that it was more beautiful than my merlin? What if my photo suggested a beauty in the creature that actually did not exist, as it were, in the wild? Imagine if my photo showed the merlin, but failed to show a rubbish heap just out of frame.

This is the often forgotten tension that lies at the heart of ‘wildlife art’. A work of art is not the same as the thing that it depicts. A photo of a merlin is not a merlin. A la Magritte, ceci n’est pas un Faucon émerillon.

While ‘wildlife art’ can often be beautiful, depictions of wildlife in art are the imposition of a human worldview of beauty on an inhumanly beautiful subject. When this imposition is not recognised as such it can have significant cultural and ecological repercussions.

Let me show you what I mean. One of the most famous ‘wildlife paintings’ around is Landseer’s ‘Monarch of the Glen’, completed in 1851. You know, the one from the Glenfiddich label. A wild, enormous, noble stag stands proudly against a rugged wilderness. It is a wildly popular picture of a natural, noble, sublime scene.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert fell in love with the Scottish highlands in the 1840s. They believed they had stumbled upon a rustic utopia. Far from the madding crowds of over-civilised London, they saw in the highlands a land of sublime wilderness, sparsely inhabited by clansmen they saw as noble savages, all tartan and whisky and claymores. A land where noble pursuits like stag hunting were the order of the day. In the Queen’s own words:

The solitude, the romance and wild loveliness of everything here [The Trossachs], the absence of hotels and beggars, the independent simple people, who all speak Gaelic here, all make beloved Scotland the proudest, finest country in the world. Then there is that beautiful heather, which you do not see elsewhere.’

They bought Balmoral in 1852, the well-to-do followed them up to Deeside, and the ‘highland lifestyle’ took off. The Queen commissioned Edwin Landseer, a personal friend who just happened to be the most popular painter of the day, to paint their experiences – to show the world the rugged, natural beauty of the Scottish highlands. And boy did he. Landseer rattled off painting after painting of hunting scenes filled with rustic ghillies, noble animals and empty, heather-clad hills. So it was that ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ caught the world’s imagination.

The thing is though, in all honesty, it is not a great picture. Look at the stag. The proportions are out. And most importantly, a brute of that size never endured a harsh highland winter. He’s a ringer. If Keats is right, and beauty is truth, then ‘The Monarch’ is ugly as sin.

It is, to say the least, a misleading picture. By the 1850s vast tracts of Scotland were recently deforested. People had been driven from the land by centuries of clan wars, occasional fits of English oppression, Jacobite rebellions and, finally, the clearances. To this day it is possible to find the ruins of homesteads and farmhouses in otherwise empty hills that were filled first with people, then sheep, then deer, and finally with grouse. The Royals had not, in fact, stumbled on a rustic utopia, nor on a natural wilderness. They had walked into a society, and a landscape, struggling to survive.

Landseer’s stag may be noble, and the empty wilderness sublime, but these qualities are merely the picturesque masquerading as the beautiful. Indeed, George Monbiot (who is far more splenetic than my constitution allows me to be) goes so far as to say of the painting that ‘there could scarcely be a greater contrast with either the squalid reality of dispossession or of the weedy, stunted deer living there today.

Landseer, then, did not create art, and nor did he portray natural beauty. The legacy of his paintings is, at best, a mixed bag. He put too much of himself, and his culture, into his wildlife paintings. ‘The Monarch’ screams his worldview in every brushstroke.

The ecological impact of Landseer’s work reaches into the present day. Most people think of the highlands as a natural wilderness, rather than as a landscape primarily managed to facilitate the ‘highland lifestyle’ made popular by Queen Victoria all those years ago. ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.

In a final, fitting twist, the painting is now owned by Diageo, which is the company that owns Glenfiddich. They own it so that they can use it for marketing purposes. As Wilde would no doubt say if he were around today, ‘life imitates marketing far more than marketing imitates life’. That is, after all, the point of marketing.

Does all this mean that depictions of wildlife in art are dishonest, or even dangerous? Of course not. ‘Wildlife art’ hangs on my walls, and my life would be infinitely poorer without it. But it is always worth remembering that ‘wildlife art’ is an expression of human creativity and never a ‘truthful’ depiction of wildlife.

Let’s return to my merlin, briefly, perched in the heather. Was she truly beautiful, or did I just think that she was? There are certainly others who would have thought of her not as beautiful, but rather as vermin. Is it the case, then, that wildlife is not inherently beautiful, but rather that we only think it is because of our own cultural prejudices? Is the natural beauty of wildlife as subjective as beauty in art?

No. Natural beauty speaks of the true nature of things. The truth of the universe is not to be found hanging in the National Museum of Scotland, courtesy of Diageo. But it can be found in the song of a blackbird sitting on an overhead wire in the forlorn suburb of a nameless town.

 

Note added later: On 17th November Diageo announced that it would ‘part gift’ the Monarch of the Glen to the Scottish National Gallery, which has now launched an appeal to raise four million pounds to purchase the painting. Here is a link to a pretty good article about the sale in the Financial Times (subscription)

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15 Replies to “Guest blog – On natural beauty, a cautionary tale by Andrew Painting.”

  1. What a thoughtful and wise article by Andrew. Much appreciated and will look forward to reading more articles by this young man.

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  2. Indeed, a good write by such a young fellow, though I shall have to consult the dictionary in order to understand some of the words printed.
    I do wonder why Andrew didn't take a photo of that Merlin - maybe he's not as good a photographer as he is a writer?

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      1. Probably took the camera to take a beautiful picture of a game keeper and a very ugly deed!

        That aside thank you, Andrew, for a very accessible and well crafted article which led me to new places in my thinking. Much appreciated.

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  3. Great blog Andrew, thank you. And you have a great name for writing on this subject - life imitating art?! (sorry...)

    You might enjoy some of Richard Mabey's Beechcombing where he discusses the picturesque movement amongst other things. Recently republished as The Ash and The Beech.

    Thanks again.

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    1. And the winner of the 'Sour Sh*te From Under a Bridge' Award is you, Trapit.

      Great piece Andrew, I particularly chuckled as your paraphrasing of Magritte, choice!

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  4. Its worth re reading John Berger's book 'Ways of Seeing' which invites us to question society's values around how we are trained to look at original art and reproductions.

    Like art, nature is constantly being re invented by society.

    Because nature is of itself neither good or bad, ugly or beautiful, society seeks to impose these values upon it. As individuals we (in theory at least) have the ability to see nature for what it is, though this means unlearning societal values around beauty and adopting a more existentialist approach to life.

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  5. Eloquently written version of "Balmorality" and its legacy is still writ large in the social and cultural attitude to the Highlands. Its this attitude belief and approach which still impacts the delivery of public goods in the scottish highland landscape. See for example the John Muir Trust's difficulties in managing deer to protect SAC woodland at Ardvar...“I really don’t get the reasoning behind birch trees being of such great importance. Tourists aren’t going to pull over to see trees.” So says Andy Hibbert who runs a sporting enterprise on the 2000-acre Loch Assynt Lodge as quoted in the Northern Times - http://www.northern-times.co.uk/News/Trusts-stag-cull-plan-causes-fury-04102012.htm

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  6. For me, this is a tremendous article for a whole range of reasons.

    It challenges conceptions which I for one would admit to taking for granted much of the time - only allowing myself to be challenged when looking hard at wildlife - the gem of a tiny beetle, such a perfect piece od design and colour that it leaves one wondering how it can be worthwhile for humans to compete in painting, photographing or designing. Or the fine feather patterning on a dabbling duck, or shimmering water.

    It is original, fundamental, questioning , thinking. Worth pondering in a conservation movement that can all too easily get caught up in the fine detail of rules and how we've always done it.

    And finally, the great highland dilemma: for me, standing on a hill in Coigach admiring the stark grandeur of the superb, wild landscape - but all the time conscious of the lawn-mown turf beneath my feet, the glaring evidence of a landscape pushed to the brink by man's interference.

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  7. Yes Queen Vic.and Alby have a lot to answer for, although to be fair they had no idea all the other useless upper crust wankers would follow suit. Great article pity Queen Vic never turned Balmoral into a reforested paradise as I believe Alby loved forests.

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  8. Thanks, Andrew, for your multiple dendrite tweaking thoughts. Write more please.
    As an art dunce, I’ll assert my 2.5 pence worth of rounded opinion: that Landseer job is kitsch. Plus, the peak on the left, is it OK? Looks a bit young – thought the Highlands were ancient and rounded. Never mind, should get out more.
    Your final singing Blackbird comment in the forlorn suburb. Nice, but there tends to be loads more bird song in residential streets compared to a lot of wild countryside these days.

    There's plenty of natural beauty in the everyday and commonplace. But it's so difficult for any of us to be still in order to travel in our own backyards ....

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  9. An interesting, thought provoking piece. A few ideas have come to mind.
    Beauty; it has been said 'is in the eyes of the beholder'. Well, does this make all experience of beauty of the same value? Similarly, truth, is one person's truth another person's 'truth'?
    In my opinion there is a depth of quality and sincerity needed to experience the essence of beauty and truth. An openness and honesty. It can not be translated purely by a painting or a photograph (this is a translation, as Andrew says), it has to be experienced directly, personally in the moment with a pure connection. Solitude helps, with no distraction, one is more able to experience a moment of clear insight, a pure appreciation and connection with nature, the earth and all around us. I was lucky enough to have had such an experience in the mountains recently, where everything became one and I felt part of the whole. It was profound and emotional. Such experiences of intimacy with nature feed the soul and make one critically aware of the importance of a healthy planet to us, our health and survival. Buddhists and Van Morrison would call this a transcendence, scientists may say it is a deep awareness of our dependence on nature and resource.
    The Romantic poets have examined and written about beauty and the sublime. They would describe my experience in the mountains as sublime. There is an excellent article by Sai Diwan on the Literary Yard website which examines in depth, the experience of the beauty and the sublime in nature:
    www.literaryyard.com search 'The romantic sublime'
    Thanks Andrew

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