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Art & artists

Sea power: British art arising from the waves

— June 2014

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

Associated media

Sydney Mortimer Lawrence, Waves Breaking on the Shore, Sunset; 1984, oil on canvas, 137.2 cm x 274.5 cm. Southampton City Art Gallery.

Lindsey Shaw-Miller welcomes this ‘expansive, interdisciplinary discussion of what the sea means to us as human beings and as artists’

The Power of the Sea. Making Waves in British Art 1790–2014 edited by Janette Kerr and Christiana Payne

In theory, there is a gravitational attraction between every drop of sea-water and even the outmost star of the universe (Rachel Carson)

The Power of the Sea is an expansive, interdisciplinary discussion of what the sea means to us as human beings and as artists. Its contributors – an art historian, two artists, a cultural geographer, two mathematicians and an oceanographer – write about wave energy, the visual magnetism of the sea, maritime culture and geography, and the practice of representation. These disciplines also combine: Simon Read is an artist whose home is a Dutch sea-barge, and he interacts daily with the science of the saltmarsh where he lives. Janette Kerr is an artist (and President of the Royal West of England Academy (RWA)) who has been working with an oceanography institute in Bergen, Norway.

The book is published in association with an exhibition at the RWA in Bristol, which is on until 6 July 2014. The exhibition is terrific, and the full power of the publication only exerts alongside the gallery experience, the third dimension. Installations bring the theme to life, and some artists are more fully represented than they appear in the book. Will Maclean, for example, is a great inclusion, his strange, talismanic mythology embedded in sea-relic boxes. But the book shows one piece, whereas the show has four.

While the range of work is thrilling, there are some puzzling absences. I particularly missed the vital, running seas of William McTaggart (1835–1910) and the caustic, coastal abstracts of Jeremy Gardiner,  for whose monograph last year Christiana Payne wrote an essay, making his omission especially perplexing.

Those who have read  Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn (recently dramatized on British TV) will find echoes in the earliest painting in the book, George Morland’s The Wreckers, which exactly reflects Du Maurier’s gruesome narrative. The fragility of our equilibrium with the sea, its tumults and calms, its mood swings, is a common thread through both art works and essays. Verbal language varies from scientific to poetic; visual language ranges across media and through representation to abstraction. Pragmatism is also conveyed, from the physical challenges of the sea for the artist, to the mathematical measuring of a wave.

Simon Read’s involvement with the politics of his domestic geography, on the Deben estuary in Suffolk, is profound. He makes large maps of the saltmarshes around Falkenham (not Fakenham, as misprinted in the catalogue), incorporating historical features and technologies, ecological predictions and solutions. The saltmarshes form a dermis between sea and river – what he calls the ‘ooze’. His conviction of the care and vigilance required to live well in the fluvial borderland bleeds through his essay, even though, like his annotated maps, he uses esoteric terminology that can makes the viewer/reader feel decidedly ‘landlubbed’.

The difference between looking at the sea, and being in it, is beautifully explored. With some images we are distinctly on shore, no matter how close the sea may be: Henry Moore’s Winter Gale in the Channel, or Sydney Mortimer Laurence’s huge, expressionist Waves Breaking on a Shore, Sunset. In others, we are on and in the sea: John Brett’s keening swell of Christmas Morning, 1866, and Janette Kerr’s astonishing I Hold My Breath.

For me, Kerr’s essay is the best thing in the book. It’s a wonderful exploration of what it means to experience and to paint the sea in a technological and scientific age; to know its history, sensation and philosophy, and make deep enquiry of its meaning, phenomenological and experiential. Indeed, the essay bears out her notion of art as ‘a resonance between an internalized world and an external one’, with reference to Peter Lanyon, whose fascination with the nature and variance of the sea’s energy led him to lie down with it, above it, look into it, and then try to make paintings in which he was embedded as an artist, but without narcissism. Kerr is also vivid in her conviction that our love and dread of the sea are powerful because we come from it, hefted ourselves out of it and onto dry land during evolution. ‘Each of us has in our veins a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as sea water. This is our inheritance.

Entering and leaving the sea is for most of us the experience that leaves the greatest impression. Owain Jones overturns the idea of the sea as a void between landmasses, representing it instead as a place, one of constant change and, at times, unknowable geography. Kerr illustrates this too, with a series of photographs of an island emerging from the sea in the aftermath of a marine eruption. Yet the idea of the sea as a place of reconciliation of dichotomies, in human nature and experience, is endlessly fascinating. I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson’s small, beautiful poem:

Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea, –
Past the houses, past the headlands
Into deep eternity!

Bred as we,among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?

The Power of the Sea. Making Waves in British Art 1790–2014  edited  by Janette Kerr and Christiana Payne is published by Sansom & Co., 2014. 160 pp, 60 colour  & 15 mono illus. ISBN 978–1–908326–57–7


Lindsey Shaw-Miller

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