Greenwich, Greater London

29 12 2004

Today I have spent considerable time at Greenwich, five hours and thirty minutes to be precise, for precision is everything here when it comes to keeping time. It is a pleasant suburb of London with sweeping greens, gentle hillocks and easy walking paths. This is a personal estimation that is likely to be shared by many others. I found many enjoying this part of town just as I had done so myself. I obtained a different view of Greenwich from within the darkness of a Camera Obscura that stood on this hill. Of particular interest is the Old Royal Observatory where lies a line demarcating the zero meridian. Here tourists stand astride, proud of the fact that they can stand with one foot in the east and one foot in the west at the same time. They had perhaps not realised that one can do this anywhere on this earth; and a meridian is nothing more than a logical line drawn from pole to pole. Yes, geographically there’s nothing special but historically the zero meridian is special only by way of definition. At Greenwich, the history of world-clock was born. Today’s globalisation had found its orientation in Time.

I am impressed yet again, following my visit to the British Museum in London and the Science Museum in Oxford, of the unswerving dedication and passionate pursuit of the human mind and its enquiry into the secrets of the universe. Every piece of instrument that I found here is a marvellous invention – the earliest compasses of the Chinese, the qiblas of the Arab world, the astrolabes and quadrants of astronomers the world over, the armillary spheres, the complex orreries with their interlocked circles, the scaphe dials, the telescopes, the pendulum clock… the list goes on.

From this list, one stands out to embody the spirit of human enquiry and endeavour: the H3 clock made by John Harrison over a period of 19 years! Its immediate successor, the H4, completed in 1759, was the first precision mechanical clock that was used at sea and won the coveted Longitude Prize. H4 is compact and portable. Its predecessors, although unwieldy by today’s standards, are as much works of art as feats of engineering.

Thus it came to be that England continued its dominance of the seas and set the standard for precision time-keeping. Thus it came to be that Greenwich made a name for itself, by being strategically located on a hill from where the master clock could be visually derived by boats out on the Thames. Thus it came to be that the precision clock, sometimes called the chronometer, replaced sophisticated and complicated methods based on motions of the moon and the sun. Today, of course, we have gone further with the advent of atomic clocks. Does this say something to us? Does it not mean that the ultimate secrets of this universe are not in the great visible objects of space but lie hidden in the minute atoms of our own world, their nuclei and their constituent components? Does it not imply that Truth too can only be discovered by a persistent search from within and not from without?

These advances may have undermined the close association between time-keeping and astronomy but they have not divorced the two. We continue to scour the night skies with our telescopes and even send unmanned space probes to the outer limits of the Solar System. Only now are we slowly beginning to understand and hypothesize the history of the universe. At the heart of any observatory is the realization that we are but a small part of this universe, which motivates a quest for a companion world like our own.


The Stonehenge, Wiltshire

19 12 2004

By and large, if one is taking public transport, it is preferable to travel on Saturdays than on Sundays. The former has more trains, better connections and run into later hours. Nonetheless this is one of those weekends when I have had to tune my preferences to that of the weather. Yesterday was a day of rain and today is expected to be sunny. The prediction was right and it now remains for me to describe the wonders of the day.

The focal point of Wiltshire county is Salisbury that owes its charm to the stunning Cathedral as well as the lovely plains that surround it. Rolling hills stretch on all sides with a beauty that I can with familiarity claim to be typical of English countryside. The clear blue sky with scattered patches of clouds was a perfect stage for the sun to play its part. The charm of winter landscapes on a day as this was not lost on me. The River Avon flowed by at a leisure pace. It gleamed in its course winding around the town of Amesbury, 8 miles off Salisbury.

Prehistoric burial mounds on the horizon

Prehistoric burial mounds on the horizon

History is stamped on the face of the plains. The first glimpse is of the Normanton barrows from the Bronze Age. What appear as turf-covered mounds rising a few meters from the ground are in fact elaborate works of our ancestors. Each barrow contains the remains of some mortal buried with his tools, implements or ornaments. I had learnt at a museum in Exeter that these barrows consist of a cist covered with sand mound, then a turf mound and finally a layer of clay clapping. The barrows stretch sometimes for a mile in organised formation. As I pass these prehistoric monuments the majestic monoliths of the Stonehenge suddenly come into view as I climb to a moderate crest of the downs.

There are many theories as to the purpose of the Stonehenge, some of which have come about based on the remarkable features of the surrounding plains. At best they are only conjectures. After all, the entire landscape has been shaped in prehistory. We can only make educated guesses. Perhaps it is our education that prevents us from seeing the primitive wisdom of the ancient world. Whatever be the truth about Stonehenge, the mystery that surrounds it is far more interesting to our inquisitive minds. The chalky undulating New King Barrows, now overgrown with beech trees, are unmistakable even from a distance. The dramatic approach to the stones from the “Avenue” is aligned to summer and winter solstices. The approach is from a lower ground and thus emphasises the stones in silhouette against a brightened sky. The journey of the bluestones from the Preseli Mountains in Wales is a daunting 160 miles. The mighty stones of the inner circle, each weighing up to 40 tonnes are from the Marlborough Downs 20 miles away.

Sun setting behind the Stonehenge

Sun setting behind the Stonehenge

Being only two days away from the winter solstice, I saw the sun setting behind the Stonehenge. The golden rays touched each stone as a blessing, as a prayer, as an inspiration or as an embrace of familiar comfort. They share a special relationship, to meet thus every year as they have done for many centuries. The sun, as the giver of life and creative energy has been venerated not only here but also in many other ancient civilisations.

The Stonehenge is a work of art and a feat of engineering, a monumental expression of primitive folks. Today we may express ourselves in other ways for times have changed; but fundamentally nothing has changed. To think, to create, to express and to work incessantly is the essence of all human existence.

Stowe Landscape Gardens, Buckinghamshire

11 12 2004

Winter in England lasts from December through February. Today was my first winter’s day outdoors, daring to face the cold bite of the season. A winter’s day can be beautiful as it has been today. From the start it has been splendid. A foggy morning has both mystery and magic. One has to wonder: from where does the fog come and to what destinations does it travel enveloping everything in its path? The leaves fallen of autumn, litter the footpaths and soften my steps. It is a litter that has its place in the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The fallen leaves leave the trees to their basic elements. Colours are reduced to silhouettes. Forms are simplified to lines and curves. Every tree becomes identifiable not by its leaves, fruits or flowers but by the skeleton of its species. Yes, in winter one sees the landscape through x-ray eyes. In this simplification is also the uniformity of a wintry landscape. All trees wear the same dress – nothing. Hedges too hate to disagree. There is nothing that obstructs the eye. One sees clearly through the mesh of bare branches and the nests built of twigs and dried leaves. This bare simplicity is beautiful too but one that is distinct from the familiar beauties of spring or summer.

Landscape. That’s the key word for the day. I am sitting at a restaurant waiting for my dinner after a long walk in and around Stowe Landscape Gardens. Stowe is 3 miles from the town of Buckingham in Buckinghamshire. There is no public transport to Stowe and I had to walk to it from Buckingham and back. I think I have written something of it before following my visit to Bath; but today I felt the essence of landscape gardening. Everything seems to be in its proper place – the hills, the valleys, the trees, the avenues, the lakes, the groves, the temples, the monuments, the bridges, the arches, the bridleways, and even the sheep and cattle of the neighbouring pastures of the Deer Park. Here there are no pretty flowers. The garden beds are not to be seen. Formal parterres are a thing of the past, fallen out of grace and popular taste.

Decorative detail at the Grotto

Decorative detail at the Grotto

Here there is no beauty in isolation. The monuments are not the best of style or form. Some need repair. Others are in various stages of repair. The sculptures are few and not in any way spectacular. The beauty of Stowe, and landscape gardening at large, lies in the working together of these diverse elements. They work together to create balance and harmony. They work to surprise the visitor at every step. They form moments of anticipation and reward the inquisitive with stunning views that for most part could only be imagined. They revel in the perspectives they create, the lines of one monument seen from the portals of another or the beckoning facades of a temple framed by the arches of another. Each one in conjunction with another takes on a new dimension. Every monument adds to the landscape as the landscape adds to the monument. This, as I understand, is at the heart of landscape gardening.

Monument to the British Worthies

Monument to the British Worthies

At Stowe there are numerous perspectives to be had, each of which is a balanced composition. With two lakes and over 30 monuments and temples adorning the sweeping valleys and rolling hills, one could expect nothing less. The Gothic Temple at the top of a hill is truly remarkable. When seen from the ruins of the Temple of Friendship, it rises beautifully across placid waters in view of the Palladian Bridge in the foreground and the Cobham Monument in the far distance. The view of the classical Temple of Concord and Victory across the Grecian Valley is one of the best. The Temple of Ancient Virtue is one of a kind. The views of the Palladian Bridge and the Rotunda from the portals of the Doric Arch are both beautiful. The monument to the British Worthies is a surprise act, neatly hidden next to a path and springs almost unaware. In its semi-circular shape, one discovers a new face with every step. Among the worthies are Alexander Pope, William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, Queen Elizabeth I, Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake. Any serious admirer of English landscape gardening will do well to spend a whole day at Stowe. Those who are not, a visit is sure to change the perception.

The Art of Appreciation, London

3 12 2004

Today I was in London on business and in the evening I had the chance to spend a few late hours at the Tate Britain at Millbank. This is different from Tate Modern which is downstream by the Thames. I’ll have to visit this gallery again since only some of the rooms were open. Much of what was accessible today were paintings of the last century. Some of the paintings and drawings by Gwen John and Augustus John are worth a study. The portraits by Gwen John are most poignant due to a simple approach that blends abstraction and impressionism. The minimal use of strong colours adds to the success. In contrast, I was particularly impressed by the bold works of John Piper who has managed to capture vividly the character of crumbling buildings in the aftermath of the Second World War. They are colourful and charming despite the subject matter.

London City Hall

Modern architecture: London City Hall

A number of other works were too modern (that is, too abstract) that only descriptive words from the artist point the way towards an understanding. Still one does not feel any sense of awe or beauty in their creations. A piece that doesn’t speak for itself will never be a masterpiece. These days I rarely read the texts that accompany exhibits. I read them only if the work is able to get my attention in the first place. Even here, sometimes my own interpretation appeals better than the artist’s intent. After all, art is a personal experience. If it is personal for the artist, it is just as personal for the viewer. On other occasions, I am glad to have read the notes. These have enabled me to learn and develop the art of appreciating art.

In any event, appreciation must result in an open interpretation and should never be constrained by the artist’s intent. Thus the job of a modern artist becomes more difficult for he or she has to create a style of abstraction that does not become too abstract for meaning. The problem appears to be one of conscious effort on the part of an artist to convey specific messages in abstract terms. The artist should rather focus on form, style and medium to create a thing of beauty. As Keats confirms, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”. What about things of ugliness and repulsion? Do we not have enough of them in our lives? Do we need any more of them in the way of art and artistic expression? The answer is yes. Otherwise our understanding of life and reality will remain incomplete and inadequate.

St Paul's Cathedral from the Millennium Bridge

St Paul's Cathedral from the Millennium Bridge

If an artist is not able to evolve to such an abstraction, then the artist should move towards traditional or conventional forms. The situation is made worse by critics who profess to know much and misguide people into their ways of thinking. The Guardian has a thick supplement almost everyday full of art criticism. I have become weary of reading them. Such criticism is good because it comes from experts whose opinions matter. However, their opinions are only opinions. They are not enduring truths that speak for all ages. They are no more than comments to suit the tastes of an age. They are fortifications that perpetuate the survival of their own viewpoints. One must never be afraid to break free. The question before each of us is this: what do you think or feel about a particular exhibit at a museum?