Brown Development

Victor Pasmore, Brown Development (Peat) oil, peat (?) & wood on board, no date​, Victoria Gallery & Museum, Liverpool​

Velvety brown spiralling gently, letting fall a drip. One of the pioneers of abstract art in Britain, Pasmore here evokes peat as process – an evocative, mysterious ‘development’. He is thought possibly to have used actual peat to make this picture, one of his 1950s-70s ‘Spiral’ and ‘Development’ series. In the slivers of white, meanwhile, at the edges of the picture, we might perhaps see suggestions of a spade’s ‘bright edge deep’ [1] – and in the thicker dark lines at the base, a shaft or handle, whilst the blueish dot at lower right seems to hint at the will o’the wisp, the flickering bog light that in folklore lures travellers to their deaths. During the 1950s, whilst teaching art in Newcastle, Pasmore was, after all, geographically close to the Pennine blanket bog, ‘one of the largest bogs and carbon stores in Europe’, and a historic site of myth and legend.[2]  

In this sense, we might read Brown Development (Peat) as deconstructing an entire peat landscape into elemental parts – moor, bog, water, and light – that nonetheless weave a magical or mystical harmony of forms. Influenced by Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1910), Pasmore saw colour as emotive, and likened abstract art to music.[3] The spiral motif in Brown Development is, indeed, loosely reminiscent both of a bass clef, and of a Greek ‘meander’ pattern (Apollo, Greek god of music, was born in unstable or marshy environs[4]).

However, Pasmore was also much interested in science, and had studied D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s book On Growth and Form[5]. This proposed mathematical bases for nature’s forms and rhythms, such as the spiral arrangement of sunflower heads, shells, and plant fibre.[6] Brown Development thus also tells, along with myth and magic, of peat’s very structure as decomposing plant matter, just as Thompson identified a ‘time element’ in spiral forms, and archaeologists call peat an ‘archive’; a substance that embodies evidence of times past.  A sense of peat’s structure may be seen in Figure 1.

Clare A. P. Willsdon

Figure 1: Peat just removed from an auger (shown in the background), a small chambered piece of equipment we use for understanding peat deposits. Photo: Ben Gearey.

[1] Seamus Heaney’s phrase; see Introductory essay.

[2] (accessed 16.8.21). For legends of Ilkley Moor, part of the Pennine peatland, such as the ‘gatherings of the Pendle and Fewston witches’, see Abbi Flint and Benjamin Jennings, ‘Saturated with meaning: peatlands, heritage and folklore’, Time and Mind, 2020, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 292-4,  (accessed 17.8.2021).

[3] See (accessed 17.8.21).

[4] In J.G. Landels’s translation of the Second Delphic Hymn in Music in Ancient Greece and Rome (London, 1999), Leto gives birth to Apollo in marshes. She also turned peasants into marsh frogs. This association, as well as the Apollo space mission, is perhaps referenced in Pasmore’s controversial abstract ‘Apollo pavilion’ of 1969 at Peterlee in Durham, a part of the North Pennine peatland area.

[5] First published 1917. There was a revival of interest in Growth and Form after it inspired a 1950 Institute of Contemporary Artsexhibition by Pasmore’s colleague Richard Hamilton; see . Thompson was a colleague of Sir Patrick Geddes, leader of the late nineteenth-century Celtic Revival (see text Henry’s Head of the Holy Loch, and Murdo MacDonald, Patrick Geddes Intellectual Origins, 2020,Ch. 5).

[6] See Chapter XI, ‘The Equiangular Spiral’, in D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, On Growth and Form, Cambridge and New York, 1945.