We feel we live a long way from the coast but actually very few places in Britain are indeed a long way from the coast and, in North Essex, we are technically quite close (20 miles). Mist descends frequently in the autumn and our proximity to the sea is possibly one reason. Some people hate mist but I love it.
In the east of England, we have an ample population of elm and maple which in some years achieves a full canary yellow, and so it is that flames appear to lick through our hedgerows in the Autumn. This annual display always manages to seem visually unexpected, as if a year is just long enough to partially reset the visual memory.
When the mist rolls into our autumnal garden it is better still. The flickering yellows and oranges reveal themselves momentarily before the mist covers them again. I remember these visual moments and their special quality. I can turn them up in my mind’s eye and feel them anew. Occasionally I try to describe them in words. The moments when the garden is moated by mist are among the most delightful.
The impressionist painters were initially considered radical and criticised by more mainstream academic painters for failing to portray accurately the world they painted. Charles Wellington Furse, himself an artist of enormous talent, defended Impressionism. His argument essentially described the distinction between attempting to capture so many facts on a canvas and the effort to convey the single, essential truth of the moment. I am with Furse – and, for that matter, with Monet and his water lilies. This really is gardening territory, these heightened moments of visual delight roll around in the garden too, when you spend long enough in it. I am grateful to be both a gardener and an art dealer. Both activities are concerned with the pursuit of beauty. Fleeting moments of complete rapture. This happened to me the other day with a modern British portrait from the 1930s, a painting of exquisite skill, the sitter rendered as a sort of articulation of Spring. I still have barely any words for the piece. I can’t stop thinking about it. I may yet buy it.
We could dissect the painting in question according to its period, composition, the nature of the brushstrokes used, the quality of the paint and so on. It is interesting to do so. But for me, when all this is done, there has to be something more, something one simply can’t explain in any easy way, something that delights. Trying to find paintings like this, lurking in the mist so to speak, can be a hard business but when I do come across them, I have a physical, as well as an emotional, response. Something starts buzzing and jumping within me; I get a sort of fluttering.
Is there something in this experience that closes the loop Keats articulated in his Ode on a Grecian Urn between beauty and truth? Is there something in the beautiful that points us inevitably back to God? Are the visible shards of beauty nestling among the shipwreck of a fallen world a link back to its creator? Is this why beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder?
I wonder if this closing of the loop between beauty and truth is why I have always felt that a painting by Van Gogh has as much to tell us about truth as an equation by Einstein? They both contain a truth, and it is a truth that delights and in some way balances before us.
In Zephaniah we read of a God who delights in His people, who rejoices over them with singing. Is this what happens when we see beauty in our friendships and family? Is this what happens when we find glimmerings of beauty scattered among the ruins?
Moving through the mists and back to the garden, garlic is a fairly delightful substance, at least as far as I am concerned. If you wish to grow some, get on with it – it benefits from a good long chill over winter. Seeds can still be saved, if you can see them through the mist, and this is also a good time to plant trees. Gather logs, the first few fires of the season are a novelty but as soon as the north-easterlies start, they become a necessity and the hearth is the very best place to pursue your musings on the nature of beauty and truth.
Image caption: Sunrise in the fog, near Horicon, Wisconsin. (Credit: Dori) CC BY-SA 3.0
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