A guiding light near Brighton

THE RIVER ADUR rises in Sussex and flows through the county, reaching the sea (the English Channel) west of Brighton and Hove at Shoreham-by-Sea. Facing the rivers opening to the sea and close to the Brighton Road (A259), there stands the slender, tall Shoreham Lighthouse.  The stone lintel over the small, narrow door at the base of the lighthouse bears the date “A.D. 1846”.

Shoreham lighthouse

The lighthouse was built in 1842 and was at first supplied with oil lamps (https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2011/08/26/shoreham-lighthouse/). The structure was first used in 1846, the date on the lintel. In the 1880s, the lighting system was modernised, and the new lamps were powered by gas. It was only inn 1952 that the gas-powered system was replaced by electric lights (http://shoreham.adur.org.uk/lighthouse.htm). Major repair work was carried out in 1985-86, and the lighthouse is still in service, its beams can be seen from up to 15 miles away.

The tower, about 39 feet high, is made from blocks of limestone. The lamp housing topped with a weathervane mounted on a perforated, spherical base. It was rotating very keenly when I saw it on the second day of Storm Eunice (20th of February 2022). The weathervane is above the lamp housing that has and polygonal roof. At each corner of this, there a metal sculpture depicting the head of a fish with its mouth open.

The lighthouse stands facing a largely industrial stretch of the coast and a row of unexceptional looking two-storey residential buildings. This part of the coast is a complete contrast to the grand (and quite as grand) buildings lining the seafront at Hove and Brighton.

The lighthouse stands a few yards away from the new lifeboat station, built in 2010. It was so wet and windy when I stepped out of the car to take some photographs that I did not linger long. However, I noticed many hardy individuals setting out boldly to stride along the shingle beach despite the horrible weather.

Constable and the clouds

THE ARTIST JOHN Constable (1776-1837) loved Hampstead and eventually lived there. It was in that part of London, then a large village, that he became fascinated by the depiction of clouds. Here is an extract relating to this from a book about Hampstead, which I am in the process of writing:

In the last of a series lectures he gave to the Royal Institution in Albermarle Street in 1836, Constable emphasised his systematic approach to depicting nature, by saying:

“Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, may not landscape painting be considered a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?”

Clouds over Hampstead Heath by John Constable

One of Hampstead’s attractions for Constable was its wide expanse of sky, which, as the historian Thomas Barratt wrote, the artist:

“… regarded as the keynote of landscape art, and so assiduously did he study cloud, sky, and atmosphere in the Hampstead days that Leslie, his biographer, was able to become possessed of twenty of these special studies, each dated and described. Constable was a man of Wordsworthian simplicity of character, fond of all things rural, and devotedly attached to birds and animals.”

The website of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum reinforces what Barratt wrote:

“While living at Hampstead, Constable made a series of oil sketches of the sky alone, each one marked with the date, time and a short description of the conditions. His interest in clouds was influenced partly by the work of the scientist Luke Howard, who had in 1803 written a pioneering study, classifying different types of cloud …”

In “The Invention of Clouds” by Richard Hamblyn, a biography of the chemist and amateur meteorologist, who devised the modern classification of clouds (cumulus, nimbus, etc.), Luke Howard (1772-1864), it is noted that Constable, who was familiar with Howard’s work, focussed his concentration:

“… on the extension of his observational range and clouds were the means that he had chosen for the task. After years of searching for an isolated image, seeking a motif upon which to weigh his technical advancement as a painter, he had found it at last in the unending sequences of clouds that emerged and dissolved before his eyes like images on a photographic plate.”

During the summers of 1821 and 1822, Constable made over one hundred cloud studies on the higher ground of Hampstead and its heath.  Writing in 1964 in his “The Philosophy of Modern Art”, the art critic/historian Herbert Read (1893-1968), who lived in Hampstead, commented that Constable was:

“… rather a modest craftsman, interested in the efficiency of his tools, the chemistry of his materials, the technique of his craft. His preparatory ‘sketches’ are no more romantic than a weather report. But they are accurate, they are vividly expressed, they are truthful.”

Read next contrasted Constable with Turner, pointing out that the former was far more attentive to depicting nature accurately than the latter, who became increasingly extravagant in his portrayal of it, always moving towards what is now called ‘expressionist’. Barratt wrote that although Constable admired Turner, he had no desire to imitate him and:

“He knew his limits, and recognised that within those limits were to be found subjects worthy of the highest aspirations. “I was born to paint a happier land,” he wrote, “ my own dear England ; and when I cease to love her may I, as Wordsworth says, — ‘never more hear her green leaves rustle or her torrents roar..’”

Catching the wind

Cambridge, UK

LOOK UP AND if your eyesight is reasonably up to scratch, you might well be lucky enough to see a weathervane on top of a church steeple or some other high point on a building. The ‘vane’ in weathervane is derived from an Old English word, ‘fana’, meaning flag (in German the word ‘Fahn’ means flag). Weathervanes are simple gadgets that indicate the direction of the wind. They usually consist of an arrow attached by a horizontal straight rod to a flat surface that catches the wind. The rod is mounted on a vertical support in such away that it can rotate as the wind catches the flat surface. The horizontal rod with the arrow rotates so that it offers the least resistance to the prevailing wind. Beneath the rotating arrow are often indicators that are labelled with letters denoting the four points of the compass. If, for example, the wind begins to blow from east to west, the horizontal rod will rotate so that the arrow is above the ‘E’ denoting east. Some weathervanes substitute the horizontal rod with a single flat asymmetric object that can catch the wind and rotate. Often the object seen above churches is a cock or other bird, whose beak will indicate the direction of the wind. I suppose that for birds wind direction is quite important.

The weathervane is not a recent invention. It was invented in the 2nd century BC both by the Greeks and the Chinese but separately. Some of the oldest Chinese weathervanes were shaped as birds and later, at least by the end of the 9th century AD, bird shaped vanes became used in Europe. Although avian weathervanes are still very common, a wide variety of other shapes have been used. Sundials, weathervanes, now archaic, only give an approximate indication of time and wind direction respectively. However, unlike sundials, which do not work when the sun is not shining, weathervanes work in all weather conditions and in day and night, although they are somewhat difficult to see at night-time. Despite their relative inaccuracy compared with modern instruments for measurements of  wind, weathervanes are attractive adornments to buildings both old and new.

Drama in the Peak District

WE DROVE TO BUXTON from Macclesfield, crossing part of the Peak District, which was shrouded in dense morning mist despite it being mid-September. The town, once an important spa, is delightful. Its centre is rich in Victorian buildings, as well as some 18th century edifices, such as The Crescent, now a hotel. In appearance, the Crescent, which was built for the 5th Duke of Devonshire between 1780 and 1789, rivals the fine crescents found in Bath. Another notable structure in Buxton is The Dome, now a part of the University of Derby. This huge dome was built to cover a stable block for the horses of the 5th Duke, which was constructed between 1780 and 1789 to the design of John Carr (1723-1807). The dome itself, which is 145 feet in diameter and larger than those covering Rome’s Pantheon and St Peters, was added between 1880 and 1881, by which time the building it covered was being used as a hospital. It is the second largest unsupported dome in the world.

In common with great cities such as Vienna, Milan, Paris, Manaus, London, New York, and Sydney, tiny Buxton also can boast of having an opera house. Located next to a complex of Victorian glass and iron structures including a plant conservatory and the Pavilion with its attached octagonal hall, the Opera House was designed by the prolific theatre architect Frank Matcham (1854-1920) and first opened its doors to an audience in 1903. Live theatrical performances, not confined to opera, were held there regularly until 1927, when it became a cinema. Between 1936 and 1942, the Opera House, although then primarily a cinema, hosted annual summer theatre festivals, two of which were in collaboration with Lillian Baylis (1874-1937) and London’s Old Vic Theatre company (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buxton_Opera_House). In 1979, the theatre was restored, and an orchestra pit added. Since then, the Opera House puts on a programme of live performances, which include a little bit of opera.  Unfortunately, during our visit to Buxton, the auditorium was closed, but we did manage to enter the lovely foyer with its mosaic-bordered floor and its ceiling painted with a scene evoking the style of 17th and 18th century painters.

The Opera House, the Crescent and the Pump Room opposite it, and The Dome, all add to the charm of Buxton. They are all close to a lovely park, through which the River Wye (not to be confused with the river with the same name in Wales) runs through. Buxton’s Wye flows into the North Sea via the River Humber. High above the park, runs the High Street, where we stumbled across a fabulous bookshop, Scrivener’s, which boasts five floors packed with books, many of them second-hand or antiquarian. So, if it is literature (fiction and non-fiction) rather than drama that appeals to you, this shop is a place that must be visited. 

It was well worth winding our way across the hills to Buxton through the low clouds, which made visibility very poor. The town is filled with interesting things to see, some of which I have described above. However, it was the Opera House that intrigued me most. Had it been given a name other than Opera House it might not have fascinated me quite as much. That a town or city can boast an opera house, gives the place a certain ‘caché’ that places, which do not possess one, lack.

The triumph of hope over experience

Cambridge, England

IN A COUNTRY SUCH AS ENGLAND, the profusion of sundials seems almost ironic given how often the sky is grey and the sun is hidden. Since the year 2000, the average monthly sunshine ranges from less than 50 hours to a little over 250 hours per month (https://www.statista.com/statistics/584898/monthly-hours-of-sunlight-in-uk/), the variation reflecting the different seasons of the year.  The average number of daylight hours varies from 8 in January to 16.5 in July (http://projectbritain.com/weather/sunshine.htm). Using these figures and a bit of basic arithmetic, one can estimate that there is sunshine for about 20% of the daylight hours on an average January day, and about 89% of the daylight hours on an average July day. Roughly speaking, a sundial, which can only be of use when the sun is shining, is likely to be helpful for telling the time in England between 20% and 89% of daylight hours on an average day. Nevertheless, there is a great number of these partially usable timepieces in existence in gardens and on buildings in England. The figures I have calculated make the words of my opening sentence only slightly less drastic than they seem. Yet, relying on sundials as timepieces is, as my wife pointed out, a good interpretation of the words of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), quoted by his biographer James Boswell (1740-1795):

“The triumph of hope over experience.”

This was not said in relation to sundials, but to:

“…Johnson’s hearing of a man who had remarried soon after the death of a wife to whom he had been unhappily married.” (https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/hope-over-experience.html)

In other words, enjoy the sight of sundials in their many shapes and sizes but do not become wedded to them if knowing the time is of importance to you.