Wilderness and Nature

Biddy Nicholson (b. 1969), Peat, 1993, oil on canvas, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery (High Life Highland), © the artist. Image: Highland Council.
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Since the rise of landscape painting in the 18th century as a subject in itself – rather than simply a backdrop to figurative motifs – artists have looked to moors, marshes and bogs as ‘wild’ places, imbued with mood and emotion. The breadth and solitude of moorland, and the ambiguity of marsh and bog, where water merges with soil, but also reflects the sky, answered to early 19th-century Romantic interest in the elemental and untamed as metaphors of creative freedom and originality. Later, peatlands prompted images such as John Everett Millais’s Chill October (below), painted in Perthshire in 1870, where attention to nature’s detail, inspired by the influential critic John Ruskin, is combined with subdued colours that suggest foreboding at the advent of autumn. As the nineteenth century advanced, the open, empty moorland or the mysterious, mutable bog stood implicitly in contrast to the crowded, polluted environment of the industrial city, but were, of course, made accessible by the railway, the product of modern engineering. If Millais painted his picture close to the Perth-Dundee railway line, then by 1894 the railway had reached Rannoch Moor, one of the largest blanket bogs in Britain, and today a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and Special Area of Conservation. Here, the track had to be laid on a special bed of tree roots, branches, earth and ash, to hold its weight, and we include a dramatic early twentieth-century image of the Rannoch ‘wilderness’ by the Scottish artist D.Y. Cameron.

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In response to ‘Bright Edge Deep’, the Scottish painter Biddy Nicholson has noted that her 1993 picture Peat, our headline image for ‘Wilderness and Nature’, was painted following a week spent in Sutherland with sketch book and camera. “It was the first time I became aware of the extensive peat bogs and I was able to watch peat being cut and left to dry. There was something compelling about the unending landscape and the memories and feelings fed into the creation of my work. At the time I was unaware of the ecological importance of the peat bogs”.[1]

This sense of peatland as emotive space is vividly present in her picture. Like her related etching, it is devoid of figures; instead it uses the sweep of the wintry Sutherland moors to convey her sense of the past within the present – of ‘memories and feelings’. The seams of black peat, exposed by centuries of cutting, seem to scar the snow-bound moors like wounds, but they are also subtly reintegrated with nature as the snow drifts over them. Here, if only until the spring, when cutting would, in 1993, have resumed, is wilderness; nature as it was before human intervention.

Amongst the works in our exhibition, the nineteenth-century artist J.C. Wintour set the present moment – a shepherd in a Sutherland storm – against the ‘long’ time suggested by a prehistoric stone circle. This contrast implicitly absorbs into a larger, elemental cycle the traumatic events of Highland Clearance, which had radically changed the area from one of small-scale crofting to extensive sheep-grazing. We might see Wintour’s ‘return’ of the moor to a wilder state – with the sheep merely an off-centre glimpse, and the ancient stone circle the dominant motif – as referencing the artistic ideal of the ‘sublime’.[2] This had come to prominence with J.M.W. Turner’s work, and we include his Peat Bog in Scotland, a print from 1812, as a vivid example. The tiny figures cutting the turf in this picture are secondary to the drama of mountains, season, and stormy weather, but the rainbow adds a sign of hope or redemption. The pleasure of the image, meanwhile, rests in its being just that; an image, rather than actual experience of the storm and the fear it brings. Though Turner sketched from life in Scotland, his picture is actually generic; a vision of the peat bog as a type; a place of hard work, hardy people, and harsh nature.

Play between the observed and the imagined, as in Turner’s, Wintour’s and also Nicholson’s pictures, runs through the images in this exhibition section. If the ‘sublime’ was central to Turner’s imagery, many later artists tipped the balance more to the specific; the moor or bog as a particular kind of wild, often strongly sensory, nature. In the 1950s, the Scottish artist Tom Shanks thus exposes, as if with a scalpel, a Skye moor’s inner history, a fossilised tree. And Louise Annand captures in scumbled, textural brushstrokes the damp, dense, richness of a peat bog punctuated by a small silvery pool or stream. Such images now captured ‘wilderness’ less in the vastness of a peatland, than in its substance, inviting us to touch in imagination, and perhaps even to caress, or run our fingers through, the decaying organic matter that makes up peat or bog.

The late 19th/early 20th century artist Christiana Herringham painted a wilderness in miniature; a ‘bog-garden’. She helped support research that led to the establishment of the first wetland reserves. Yet her choice of medium – tempera – necessitated painting in the studio rather than on site, making her image again inherently a construct. And as shown in our text for it, she brings together acid and damp-soil plants that speak of her personal life; emotion again entwined with nature.

The Scottish painter D.Y. Cameron’s atmospheric Dawn on Rannoch, probably painted in the wake of the First World War when Cameron had served as a Canadian War Artist, might, in turn, be almost a direct illustration of the lines he quoted from Wordsworth’s autobiographical ‘The Prelude’ to commemorate Sir Walter Scott’s centenary in 1932: ‘the visions of the hills/and souls of lonely places’.[3] But if, for Wordsworth, the ‘lonely places’ were amongst the ‘Presences of Nature’ that ‘haunted’ him from boyhood,[4] then Rannoch Moor is something almost cosmic for Cameron, for he crowns it with a dazzling sunrise: a Scottish answer, perhaps, to the sunrise over the fjord painted in 1910-11 by Edvard Munch in his murals for Oslo University, and surely an expression of renewal after war.[5] Where Munch evokes a joyous, Vitalist unity of humans, light and nature, however, Cameron captures a quieter, meditative moment, where three tiny figures, silhouetted by the rising sun’s reflection in a lochan on the moor, balance two trees on the lochan’s other side. The tiny figures seem poised in the hand of time as they reach towards the shimmering water that registers the dawn, whilst all around, the sun begins to colour the moor: mustard, pink, soft brown. Space and hour, people and place, become as one in wilderness as harmony. 

Although, like Nicholson, the other artists in this section were almost certainly unaware of peat’s role as a carbon sequester when they found inspiration in moor or wetland, their sense of peatlands as evocative, emotive environments, that speak of time, memory, and the beauty of nature unspoilt by human hand, is surely a canary in the mine; a call to make peatlands wild places once again today, and thereby to help mitigate climate change.

Clare A.P. Willsdon

[1] Biddy Nicholson, email to Nicki Whitehouse, 24.8.21.

[2] See Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, London 1757.

[3] For his quotation, see Bill Smith, D.Y. Cameron The Visions of the Hills, Edinburgh 1992, p. 72.

[4] Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 1.

[5] The date of Cameron’s picture does not appear to be known, but its warmer tonality is in keeping with his work after the war.

D.Y. Cameron, Dawn on Rannoch, c. 1885-1945, oil on canvas, 35.6 cm x 48.3 cm, Glasgow Museums Resource Centre, Glasgow. Image: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/  
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Moonrise, Rannoch Moor, Scotland, by Martin Sojka .. www.VisualEscap.es is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

Tom Hovell Shanks, Skye, c. 1950s, gouache and watercolour on board, 42.6 x 72.1cm, The Hunterian (GLAHA:57908). Image: Gerber Fine Art, Glasgow.
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Bog oaks and Pines from Ballymacombs Bog, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland, showing an example of bog oak shown in the painting by Shanks, above. These are dated using tree ring dating to the period between 5024 BC to 509 BC. Photo: Phil Barratt.

Christiana Jane Herringham (1852-1929), Iris and Asphodel, c.1900, tempera and watercolour on board, showing a ‘bog garden’. Image: Royal Holloway, University of London.
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This high-magnification (x400) image shows the detailed cell structure of a Sphagnum austinii leaf, a species that was common in the past in some of our peatlands. Here, the ornate ‘hyaline’ cells are clearly visible. Sphagnum austinii is capable of forming large, firm hummocks on raised and blanket bogs, but has historically been considered particularly rare. Sphagnum is a critical component of the bog system.
Photo: with kind permission from Dr Tom Roland, University of Exeter.
A small section of Sphagnum stem with leaves still attached extracted from a peat core some thousands of years old demonstrates the excellent level of preservation afforded to scientists studying peatland history by the acidic and anoxic conditions frequently found in healthy, intact peatland systems. 
Photo: with kind permission from Dr Tom Roland, University of Exeter. 
A single Sphagnum magellanicum leaf under high-magnification (x 100). Sphagnum leaves are one of the most distinctive features of the genus, when compared with other moss types. The complex, interconnected network of hyaline cells allow the moss to absorb and retain water, to keep the plant hydrated and allow the nearby photosynthetic cells to manufacture ‘food’.
Photo: with kind permission from Dr Tom Roland, University of Exeter.   

John Crawford Wintour, A Moorland Storm, Sutherland, 1853 , oil on canvas, 45.7cm x 61cm, © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow. Click on the Images above for more information.

Right: Aberscross stone circle, Sutherland, the present day. Wintour’s painting likely represented this archaeological site. HES photo, with permission.
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Peat Bog, 1953
Louise Gibson Annand (1915–2012)
The Argyll Collection © the copyright owner*.
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John Everett Millais, Chill October, 1870, oil on canvas, 141cm x 186-7cm, Private Collection.
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Joseph Mallord William Turner, Peat Bog, Scotland, 1812, mezzotint printed in brown ink on wove paper, 21cm x 29.1cm, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.
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* All reasonable effort has been made to trace the copyright owner of this work, but without success; we will be delighted to receive any information that may help us trace them.