Look harder

The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth, 1922-1968, William Feaver, Bloomsbury

How do we assess the life of an artist? How much does an artist’s personal life affect what they convey in their art? Does it matter, at least to their art, if artists keep bad company, think only of themselves, aren’t particularly nice? In the case of an artist such as Lucian Freud, could it be that a level of ruthlessness is actually required to create such intense art?

In the first of William Feaver’s two large biographical volumes, Freud is an almost comically picaresque character – morally reckless, unrepentantly self-indulgent, but in an inverted ethic, disciplined in his ‘unremitting’ self-obsession. Freud saw this as an awkward kind of honesty, emphatically telling another biographer, Martin Gayford, ‘I follow my feelings’ (in Man with a Blue Scarf, an insightful commentary on sitting for a portrait).

At school he showed a disregard for rules and learning. His father once introduced him by saying, ‘this wild animal is my son’. Freud claimed that in Paris at night he would bound across the roofs of parked cars. He fathered many children, with little commitment to them or their mothers (Feaver sardonically calls the children ‘complicating circumstances’), and said he might have been a career criminal without art.

He befriended gangsters and drunks, as well as members of the royal family. His social circle was wide and dazzling. He knew Giacometti, Picasso, Francis Bacon, George Orwell, Iris Murdoch, Ian Fleming, W H Auden, all while still a penniless up-and-comer. He got into fights, and had an upper-class disregard for money, driving a Bentley but living in dilapidated public housing. He threw away thousands gambling, saying it was not worth betting unless there was a dizzying anticipation of winning big or losing all. His friend and fellow painter Frank Auerbach said Freud couldn’t see the point of attending funerals, and described him as ‘spoilt’, ‘cruel’ even (though also ‘fun’), with his ‘own morality’.

He brought this intensity to his art. One art teacher told him to look harder, and he seemed to take this as a mantra. It’s uncomfortable to hold together an acceptance of his roguish nature and an admiration of the brilliance of his art, and admit that his often-inexcusable behaviour was related to the focus in his art. His tendency not to follow rules meant he was at the forefront of the post-war revival in Britain of the figurative tradition, and he continued to follow his own artistic feelings no matter what was fashionable in the art world.

Early on, critics lumped him with the surrealists, but that was just because of his odd choice of subject matter, often dictated by the sparseness of his surrounds. Whatever his subject was – animal, vegetable or mineral – they were all subjected to his unremitting gaze. Feaver, who with all the pages, has the luxury of not only documenting Freud’s social life at length, but also takes many pages to analyse the art, says, in case it wasn’t obvious, that Freud was never interested in abstract art, partly because abstraction tends towards the universal, whereas Freud was a painter of the particular.

In this regard, Freud was different to his friend and rival Francis Bacon, whose distorted paintings suppressed the individuality of his subjects (as well as, Freud suggested, hiding Bacon’s inadequate draughtsmanship). Freud was both lauded and criticised for the cold, obsessive detail in his painting, but there was a shocking loosening of his style in the 1960s, though with the same intensity, with Freud learning to use the fluidity of the paint to mimic texture, in particular skin.

He is largely a portrait painter, and became famous – notorious even – for his nudes, but, ironically, his are not conventional nudes – he didn’t do classical nude studies, which, traditionally, are a kind of generalisation and idealisation – anonymous bodies. Rather, Freud’s nudes are naked portraits. This can be confronting for some, but they are not pornographic or titillating, even if they show his typical disregard for decorum. They are a part of his capturing of the truth of his subjects, flaws and all, the detail making the person the individual (and the stark setting of his studio further focusses attention on that individuality). One could argue about the value of this frankness. It can seem sometimes that his honesty is a kind of brutality, a lowering of the beauty and interest of the human to corruptible flesh. But this teetering on the edge of pushing it too far is interesting, and this honesty is what is important in his art, and what links him to the great painters of the past, in whose company, surely, he can be included, even if he wasn’t very nice.

The flotsam tells stories

Mudlarking, Lara Maiklem, Bloomsbury.

‘I get down on my hands and knees, as close as I can to the foreshore, and pick a small patch of dark grey mud to analyse.’ If that sounds like your idea of fun, then Lara Maiklem’s Mudlarking is for you. She further notes that the Thames estuary is a ‘wonderful sight’: ‘mile upon mile of smooth sludge’.

In need of time away from a ‘soul-destroying’ job and a ‘failing relationship’ Maiklem discovered the joys of mudlarking, collecting all manner of things that wash up on the river’s mudflats, or, more accurately, that are exposed by low tides, a hobby that used to be a profession. Mudlarks used to be equated with thieves. They patrolled the mud around ships at the docks hoping to steal whatever might fall off ships, or even steal building supplies while the ship was still being built, though scavenger is probably a more appropriate term. These days you need a permit, and Maiklem describes a surprisingly vibrant community of mudlarks in London who are not afraid of getting their hands dirty and getting up at all hours to synchronise with the tides, and who have their favourite haunts and particular niches.

She describes the river as its own piece of wilderness in the centre of the city. After descending a ladder to the mudflats, she says, you enter a different world, and ascending again you re-enter the noisy twenty first century.

It begins to sound almost romantic until you read about all the rubbish that inundates the Thames when floods overflow the sewer system, even though the river has been cleaner that it has been for centuries, and especially since 1957, the Thames’s nadir, when it was declared biologically dead.

All the flotsam that gets into the river tells stories. And Maiklem relays them here, in her first book, which flows seemingly as effortlessly as the Thames itself. It helps that she is mudlarking on the Thames, a river with a thousand years and more of rich human history. The book includes kings and paupers, shop owners and criminals, not to mention porpoises and whales. She tells of the printer who threw thousands of pieces of metal type, which he considered parts of a perfect design (and which features on the cover of her book), into the river (in order to thwart his former business partner from profiting from them). Maiklem finds a comma.

What else does she find? Pins, nails, pottery pieces, beads, buckles, buttons, Hindu statues, coins, witches’ bottles, smokers’ pipes, ship-building paraphernalia, pilgrim badges, knife handles, shoes, earrings, wedding rings, cufflinks, musket and cannon balls, dice, dominoes, toys, Roman tiles, Tudor pot handles, a cat’s skull, animal bones, antlers, part of a human skull. Some she takes home, others are so plentiful it’s pointless. A city river is an astonishing trove, if you know where to look, and, importantly, how to look.

Manicured fields are not the best places

Wilding, Isabella Tree, Picador

In Wilding Isabella Tree writes about letting nature take its course on an increasingly uneconomic farm in England’s south. She describes spending vast amounts on fertiliser and equipment in order to keep up with modern farming demands, only to see little improvement on the bottom line. In the end, it was more effective not to farm, economically, and certainly for the health of the land.

This meant not doing nothing of course, and the book is a description of how much effort it was to let the farm lapse, so-to-speak. And conservation entails choices, as Simon Barnes notes in his recent book On the Marsh. Conservation is about deciding what to conserve, and one always chooses between species. In Tree’s case (interesting, by the way, that her name is Tree – perhaps she was predestined for conservation efforts?) she was only allowed to do things within certain limits, especially as to what animals her and her husband could reintroduce.

There was a fairly quick upturn in the health of the soil, abundance of birds and butterflies, and an obvious strengthening of symbiosis. Neighbours, on the other hand, were appalled that ‘good’ farming land was going to waste. Yet the farmland was marginal, and only worked heavily in the last century when the war effort prompted an upscaling of agriculture and ridding of hedges and small fields and verges, places that were important for wildlife and therefore the health of the land. (She notes that 97% of wildflower meadows have disappeared from the UK, and during and after the war 75,000 miles of hedgerows were removed. Imagine the size of the forest that equates to.) Elderly neighbours remembered the natural untidiness of the landscape and were more sympathetic to Tree’s ‘wilding’ efforts. Baby boomers, on the other hand, tended to see the land through the lens of agricultural industrialisation and modern tidiness.

This is all interesting in itself, but some of her asides are just as interesting – for example, her writing on oaks, which can live for hundreds of years (200 y.o. is just a youngster), and which, as they mature, hollow out and provide homes for a myriad of creatures, as well as being more resilient to storms. So many oaks die because of ignorance of how they live. On Tree’s farm, the oaks were dying because they were ploughing almost up to the base of the tree, destroying the vital shallow roots. Oaks spread as mature trees, and their boughs sag and rest on the ground, providing support, but on Tree’s farm they were cutting off low lying boughs, effectively destabilising the trees. We are as intolerant of trees ageing as we are of the human elderly, she says. And, indeed, only recently has there been widespread acceptance of the idea that dead trees need to be left standing in farms and forests as habitats for all manner of creatures.

Tree notes also that oaks rely on thorny scrub to protect the seedlings. So while oaks do well as solitary mature trees, open, manicured fields are not the best places for their initial growth. She also argues against the idea that Europe was once one giant, dense forest, as is often argued. It would more likely have been patchwork, because of the disruption that grazing and digging animals make. She sees first-hand on her farm how animals and plants interact, often in counter-intuitive ways.

Another aside is her Robert Macfarlane-esque observation about language for the land. In Landmarks in particular Macfarlane lists all the words being lost that are unique to places and as abundant as nature itself, but like nature, are being killed off in numbers, and homogenised. Tree lists all the words for the sticky mud used in her community: clodgy, gawm, gubber, ike, pug, slab, sleech, slub, slough, slurry, stodge, stug, swank. And more. All this diversity is healthy, and although Tree, as owner of a large estate, might seem to have the luxury to indulge all this diversity, it’s a necessary corrective to all that is being lost.

Theropods jump categories

The Dinosaurs Rediscovered, Michael Benton, Thames and Hudson.

When I was a child my favourite dinosaur book was a 1977 hardcover compendium entitled A Natural History of Dinosaurs. It wasn’t necessarily a kids’ book, but I had those as well. The book had colour plates with dinosaurs dragging their tails and looking very reptilian, certainly without any hint of a feather. Except, that is, for Archaeopteryx, which at the time was something of an anomaly, but was seen as a missing link between dinosaurs and birds, proof perhaps that a tiny thread had made it through the end-of-Cretaceous mass extinction.

There was no definitive conclusion as to why that mass extinction occurred. One kids’ book I had (a Golden Book, I think) simply concluded with the words ‘no-one knows why’, or similar. The authors of my 1977 history, being more thorough, discussed the suppositions, and, interestingly, suggested that climate change may have been to blame, with evidence of shifting continents (towards what we know of their configuration today) creating drier conditions and colder climates generally.

A lot has changed in dinosaur research since then, including the idea that dinosaurs held their tails upright as a counter-balance for the head. The much-publicised Chicxulub asteroid is generally agreed to have finished off the dinosaurs, though they might have already been in decline partly due to enormous volcanic activity in what is now India. And as for a select few scraping through as birds, this turned out to be more-or-less correct, because while many dinosaurs had feathers, a 2018 study suggested that only a few, small, ground-dwelling proto-birds were able to survive the post-asteroid apocalypse.

In The Dinosaurs Rediscovered Michael Benton covers the asteroid and notes that the Chicxulub explanation was resisted initially because palaeontologists were entrenched in thinking in models of slow change, as per, originally, Charles Lyell, and a catastrophic explanation seemed a too convenient, almost biblical theory. Benton also notes a brilliant example of how narrow research can enliven a discipline. One researcher found that the asteroid hit in June, such improbably specific date-fixing illuminated by the stage of growth lily flowers were at when they died and were fossilised.

The Dinosaurs Rediscovered also covers work done on origins, which is pushing back the date of creatures we can call dinosaurs, partly through research in the past decade on silesauridae, slender, dino-like relatives of dinosaurs. Even more recent are arguments that climate change may have accounted for the rise of the dinosaurs, which perhaps didn’t just outcompete their rivals. This is all a picture of life on earth as seasonal, times of proliferation and experiment truncated by mass die-offs. Or perhaps like the stock market. (Many ruminate on what this means for the survival of our own species.)

Computers help a lot more than they did in 1977, obviously, with explaining and mapping this multi-branched proliferation. But research doesn’t always clarify. Previously stable ideas in descent and species are being challenged, including a ‘bombshell’ rethink of the categories of bird and lizard hipped dinosaurs that many 8-year-olds are familiar with, whether now or in 1977. (Theropods – T-rex etc. – jump categories in this new theory.) Benton sticks to the old delineation but is generous enough to concede that the matter is nowhere-near settled. He seems delighted at both the refinement and the shaking-up. On other matters, he is less open, labelling ‘crackpots’ those who still suggest big dinosaurs lived mostly submerged in water. (He may be thinking here of Brian Ford, though Ford is not named in the book, who proposed that, amongst other things, T-rex lived its life like a crocodile.)

Otherwise, research on computer and in the field is producing hitherto unimagined detail, including how dinosaurs ate, how they got so big and how fast they ran (in T-rex’s case, not very fast, contrary to Jurassic Park). The authors of my 1977 book might be surprised by not only feathered dinosaurs, but also the knowledge of what colours the feathers were. The explosion in hunting and discovery of feathered dinosaurs in China shows that many dinosaurs had feathers, which were not initially for flight but later developed into flight feathers in smaller species of dinosaurs, and palaeontologists know colours from fossilised melanosomes, observable under microscopes in particularly well-preserved specimens. Sinosauropteryx, on Benton’s book’s cover, looked something like a chicken crossed with a fox, with a red and white stripy tail. Deinonychus, famed for its huge claw, now looks decidedly like a bird, rather than an ostrich naked of its feathers.

Wandering in the dark

Dark Skies: A Journey into the Wild Night, Tiffany Francis, Bloomsbury.

Until more recent centuries it was common for people to go to bed early, then rise at midnight to eat, read, even work for an hour or two, and then go back to bed again. (This time might of course also be spent in criminal activity.) Modern experiments have shown this pattern is good for health – the time of wakefulness between sleep phases contributes to more restful sleep. This is just one of the dark-related matters Tiffany Francis shines a light on in Dark Skies, while exploring the nocturnal history of London, chasing bats, birds and beavers at night, eating cheese and watching the northern lights.

Henry Beston, in his classic The Outermost House, about living in a cabin on the dunes of Cape Cod, complained about the way civilisation has lost touch with the night, and this was in 1928, mind you. The night gives a counterpoint to the frenetic day, to the inquisitive glare. The International Dark Sky Association, which advocates for less light pollution in the night skies, notes that light pollution affects human health, wildlife and the environment. The dark is good for us, as necessary as sunshine. Humans need darkness for the production of melatonin. Too much light makes us depressed. Wildlife are disrupted by city lights and car lights, and all that energy used in lighting the night contributes to climate warming and other adverse environmental effects. Nightglow is also bad for astronomers, of course.

In Francis’s book one topic merges into another, sometimes like the flow of dreams. The night is a huge topic, and she can’t cover everything. (Geoffrey Blainey’s Black Kettle and Full Moon, for example, has much about how in centuries past light from the moon dictated travel times and the like.) She writes about poets and astronomers, endangered birds and trees, but Francis’s journey through the dark landscape is also dictated by personal matters, and something of a travel diary. Like many young people she assumes her personal life is of more interest to others than might be the case, especially her love life. And she sometimes wanders off topic, as you would when wandering in the dark. (The night prompts perhaps a different kind of logic.) But her youthful enthusiasm means she often hits on what is important in life and what we should be focussing on. She points us to simple ways of doing things, laments the tendency of politicians to hoard wealth and encourage it in others, hates hunting. But she has a youthful enthusiasm for seeking new things, even if that means clomping through a cold forest in the middle of the night. This nocturnal bushwalking requires an adjustment, and attunes one to the ways wildlife operates quite differently to humans, its difference being one reason to make efforts to save it.

Where water meets sand

The Outermost House: A Year on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, Henry Beston, Pushkin Press.

Cape Cod was the first place the English Pilgrims landed, with a vibrant Indian history before that (but darker consequences when the two cultures met), a playground for the rich, famous and artistic, a residence for sea captains and an incubator of the science of oceanography. It is the epitome of idyllic seaside villages. In summer, that is. In winter much is left to the gulls and roaring wind.

In 1926 Henry Beston spent a year in a cottage he had built on the outer dunes of Cape Cod on America’s east coast, observing the weather, animals and occasional shipwreck, and the result was The Outermost House, a classic of nature writing (now re-issued). The book is something of an update not only of Thoreau’s classic book about the cabin near Walden Pond, but also of Thoreau’s book about Cape Cod.

In the introduction to this new edition Philip Hoare, himself a keen observer of the wind and waves, describes the Cape as a frontline of sorts, the first part of land to greet the morning sun and the Atlantic breakers, like the prow of a ship. It is a primal, rugged place, elemental (in a world greatly in need of connection with elemental things, says Benton – this was in 1926, mind you; we need this connection more than ever these days). But it is also ‘paradoxically soft and fragile’, a place forever shifting. Some of us love the seaside for just these qualities that put us in touch with the turning of the world and the seasons and put our human concerns in perspective.

Benton finds beauty and interest in what might at first seem a stark land-and-sea-scape. His observations of the world wash back and forth like the waves scrolling up and down the beach. Birds, deer, fish, butterflies and the gradually shifting location of the setting sun catch his attention. He notes the crest of a dune ‘smoking’ like a volcano as the wind blows the topmost grains into an airborne column. He listens attentively too to the rain, wind, waves and symphony of insect noise that enlivens a summer night. He likes the biblical phrase ‘mighty works’, a concept which can encompass both the Milky Way and an ant’s nest.

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that his writing is reverential. To contemplate the night sky is, he writes, to consider religious questions, and his observations of our planet’s journey through the cosmos are akin to metaphysical poetry, lyrical and philosophical.

His philosophy is born of experience not theory. He says that thinking of nature as cruel indicates too much time spent with one’s head stuck in books rather than outdoors. He, rather, thinks of the energy, cooperation, interconnections and astonishing complexity, even just in the space where water meets sand. (This reminds me of how medieval theorists, as Alexandra Harris tells it in her book Weatherland, had all manner of weird and wonderful explanations for the weather and how to predict it, harmonising seasons and the ‘humours’ of the human body and the motions of the heavenly bodies, with ideas partly borrowed from Aristotle, most of it rubbish. Harris notes that no-one bothered simply to take a look out the window.) Beston’s bright outlook extends to the human, even though he lived through the frontline horrors of World War I, or perhaps because his experiences with war drove him to seek out the better side of nature, as he observes a rare, lone swimmer. He takes the same approach to the naked swimmer as to the birds that wheel about his home, admiring the energy and purpose, and thinking that our coyness about the body is misplaced. The human body too is a marvel of nature, a mighty work.

God literally walked in the Garden

A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths, John Barton, Allen Lane/Penguin.

The Bible is meant to be a particularly familiar work, read widely, saturating Western culture with its phrases and stories, heard by millions every Sunday, but John Barton’s hefty and excellent history emphasises just how messy and unwieldy and even strange it is. A History of the Bible covers both how the Bible was compiled and how it has been read. Already with the former, this can be tricky, as the original authors are somewhat lost to us, and much of the Bible’s books, especially in the Old Testament, are patchwork in character (at times with obvious discrepancies between parts), meaning, as Barton puts it, we get, even within books, authors in dialogue, and styles clashing.

The Pentateuch is a composite work spanning centuries, and is not by Moses, there is not much before the Exile that historians can agree on in Israel’s history as outlined by the Bible, the Gospels are taken from earlier works, and have their own emphases and foci, and not all Paul’s letters are by Paul. As Barton, a scholar and Anglican priest says, taking note of the benefits of modern scholarship in illuminating the Bible’s messiness doesn’t have to undermine faith, but the fact that there are different versions of particular books, obvious contradictions, and differences in authorial tone make the ideas of inspiration and inerrancy complicated, to say the least.

The Bible has always been read through the eyes of faith. Jews and Christians, the Church Fathers and fundamentalists, Orthodox and Westerners, and even Luther and later Lutherans all read it in very different ways. And obviously the Bible contains a mix of genres, although what is what is disputed, Genesis being a prime example, and the Gospels – what exactly are they? They were written down long after the events described and are not verbatim transcripts.

It is perhaps an obvious point that Jews and Christians read the Old Testament (Tanakh) differently (which surprises some Christians, but the very name ‘Old Testament’, used exclusively by Christians, should make that apparent). In Judaism the Bible has been used as a guide for living, but it has been viewed as less uniform than Christians tend to do. Jews tend to see it as less self-contained than Christians also, as in dialogue with the Mishnah, and they play down the universalism that Christians read back into it. Barton also notes that original sin as a concept is nowhere near as widely held in Judaism. Christians of course often read into the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus (especially at Christmastime). But one has to use some creativity to do so.

The Church Fathers were happy to do so, reading much of the Bible allegorically. Origen and Augustine both thought the Genesis Creation account was obviously not meant to be read literally, with Origen particularly scathing. He asked how one could be so ‘unintelligent’ to believe that night and day literally existed before the Sun and Moon were created, that God literally walked in the Garden and that there was an actual ‘tree of life’ with real fruit.

But the allegorical reading got out of hand at one point, not just because allegory was possible, but because the whole point of reading the Bible was to find references to Jesus everywhere one looked. So, the Exodus story and even the Song of Songs are ‘really’ about Jesus’ relationship to the Church. And some reputable exegetes even added another layer of allegory onto the parables, which were already allegorical.

The Reformers rolled this back somewhat, though Luther had a far less reverential attitude to the whole canon than many Christians do today. He was famously happy to jettison (or at least relegate to an appendix) books that seemed irrelevant to the ‘core’ theological message of salvation through grace alone. (Although Barton says he appreciates much of Lutheran teaching, he notes that the rejection of a literal reading of the Garden of Eden story in Genesis makes the grand theme of sin and salvation – what he calls disaster and rescue mission – problematic. But then maybe he forgets that the non-literalist Augustine is usually blamed for the origin of the original sin idea, so maybe it’s not as problematic as Barton thinks, and one can hold, as Augustine supposedly did, both together.)

Interpretation, and even what was to be included in the Bible, is guided by belief. The two are in dialogue. (And to think that we can interpret the Bible free from any preconceptions is a fallacy.) An example Barton gives is the doctrine of the Trinity, for which there is rather slight foundation in the New Testament, and in Mark’s Gospel we have what might be counted as evidence against, when Jesus says, ‘Why do you call me good? Only God is good.’ (Although we could interpret this as a veiled way of saying, ‘do you realise you are recognising that I am God?’) This doesn’t discount Trinitarianism necessarily, it just points to the interaction of Scripture, belief and tradition.