Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Portraying the Bristol Channel Floods 1607

Art can create a record of catastropic events so that long after they have been forgotten there is still a record of what it was like.

In recent days we've been reminded of the forces of natural events and how these can change the landscape.  I became interested in the extent to which art has been used in the past to
  • either record the event itself
  • or record how it has changed the landscape
  • or possibly, through memory painting, to record what was there before a catastrophic natural event
Which is how I came to discover the Bristol Floods of 1607, which many now believe may have been a tsunami.  What follows is a summary of what I've discovered.

The Deluge of 1607 - in England

Woodcut image from
"A true report of certaine wonderfull ouerflowings of Waters, now lately in Summerset-shire, Norfolke and other places of England...",
printed in London 1607

On 20 January 1606 there was extensive flooding in southwest England and South Wales.  This is now referred to as the 1607 floods because of the changes to the calendar made later in 1606 to correct problems with how days had been counted up until that point.

There are a variety of views which seek to explain what caused it - from a storm surge to a tsunami.

The wave height was some 4 metres in the outer Bristol Channel to more than 6 metres in the inner Severn Estuary.  (That's very nearly 20 feet high).  A number of churches in the area bear plaques which record how high thee water reached.  It's also estimated to have reached a speed of some 25mph.

More than an estimated 200 square miles (518 km2) of land were flooded on either side of the Bristol Channel along some 570 km of coastline and associated land in North Devon, Gloucestershire, Somerset and along the South Wales coast from Monmouthshire to Carmarthenshire.  It's clear that flood defences were inadequate for holding the sea back in a number of places.  There was scope for the water to flow a considerable distance inland where the land was flat - such as on the Gwent and Somerset Levels with the water reaching as far inland as Glastonbury Tor.

It caused 2,000 deaths and considerable economic loss. 

At the time of the great flood there were no newspapers.  However it was custom and practice to poduce and print pamphlets to mak news about some great event.  In this instance it would appear from the research done that these pamplets had been tailored to each of the counties affected.
“Many there were which fled into the tops of high trees, and there were inforced to abide some three daies, some more, and some lesse, without any victuals at all, there suffring much colde besides many other calamities, and some of them in such sort, that through overmuch hunger and cold, some of them fell down againe out of the Trees, and so were like to perish for want of succour. Othersome, safe in the tops of high Trees as aforesaid, beholding their wives, children and servants, swimming (remediles of all succour) in the Waters.

Woodcut images were used to convey how much of the land was covered and what it was like for the people affected.  I've looked for indications of other forms of artwork but can find none online which survive apart from various references to the pamphlet which was printed by printers who operated in the courtyard of St Paul's Cathedral and also printed William Shakespeare's plays.

I'm somewhat surprised as I'd have expected to have found at least some paintings which attempted to recreate what happened on canvas.

The water changed the coastline in places.  For those interested in the history of the changing landscape and/or geology and/or geomorphology (like me!) can.....

Sunday, 13 March 2011

The story of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849) is assumed by many to be a portrayal of a Tsunami off the coast of Japan.  In reality it's not - it's another type of wave.  However this does not stop this image having a fascinating story which is reviewed in this post and the documentary programme below.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai
Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper 25.7 cm × 37.8 cm (10.1 in × 14.9 in)

It was the first print in Hokusai's portfolio series of prints Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji - which was very much designed, produced and published as something tourists and religious buyers might want to buy.  The series shows everyday activities with human interest and a focus on the world of work while some are abstracted.

The 36 Views were also based on a vibrant new colour - Prussian Blue!

The construction of the design is based on geometry and arrangements of circles and triangles.  There is also a sense of space collapsing which is no doubt enhanced by his study of perspective.

On YouTube there are five videos of a documentary programme about The Great Wave. It explains
  • how it came about (Hokusai's grandson had gambled away all his money and he was destitute), 
  • what sort of wave it is (it's not a tsunami but rather a very large cascading pyramidal wave - which is a real wave)
  • explains the context for this particular woodcut print in terms of the fashion for the art of theoating world
  • identifies that Hokusai studied Dutch prints and that the design is influenced by European art and his knowledge of perspective
  • how he studied waves over 30 years prior to creating this particular image
  • explains how the print was produced
  • discusses the translation of the title
  • unpicks who the boatmen are and speculates that they may have been trying to get the first bunito tuna of the season to market - but for the fact they are facing the wrong way!  But then comments that since th Japanese eye reads from right to left the wave would be splashing into the viewer's face.
  • It also identifies that the secondary wave in the foreground is exactly the same outline as Mount Fuji - a tremendously important iconic image in Japanese art.
  • how it a print that we know was owned by Monet and Van Gogh - but how it went in and out of fashion.
There's a notion that the boatmen are not fighting the wave but rather going with the flow of life.  Hokusai also apparently had an obsession with long life and death - and Hokusai was nearing the end of his life when he produced it.  Possibly it represented the notion that disaster is always just around the corner - no matter what guise it comes in.

For all those. like me, who have read books about Hokusai by Matthi Forrer, you get to see and hear from him in this documentary

Note:  Kanagawa is part of a the southern Kantō region of Honshū, Japan and surrounds Tokyo Bay.

Links to more information about Japanese Art:

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Virtual Paintout is in Cape Town

The award-winning art blog The Virtual Paintout is in CapeTown, South Africa in March.

Cape Town on Google Maps
I'd never looked before at the configuration of Cape Town on a Map.  It reminds me a bit of the Bay of Naples scenario and I wonder if they too have had a big caldera out to sea in the past - inbetween Table Mountain and the Kogelberg Nature Reserve.

There's a terrific range of art being generated from urban to rural.

Instructions on how to participate can be found on Bill's blog - see Cape Town - March 2011

This is the South African National Gallery- but nothing apparently to see.  I'd have liked to see what South African landscape art looks like.