Sunday, August 14, 2005

This Enchanted Isle: The Neo-Romantic Vision

There’s a book that’s been haunting my imagination off and on since I first read it some years ago and, not for the first time, I pulled it off the shelf last night to show Brian Hinton, who was on a brief and unexpected visit to HQINFO. Brian is Chairman of the Julia Margaret Cameron Trust and is the author, amongst other things, of 'Message to Love: Isle of Wight Festival, 1968, 1969, 1970' . He catalogued the Mike Moorcock collection for the Bodlean Library, is a friend and colleague of Ian Sinclair’s, and is an enthuastic biographer, historian, archivist and collector in a huge variety of interesting areas including modern poetry, the Beats, folk music, the psychedelic underground, the works of J.G. Ballard and on and on…Needless to say, we had a long and fascinating conversation.

The book in question is ‘The Enchanted Isle’ by Peter Woodcock, subtitled ‘The Neo-Romantic Vision from William Blake to the New Visionaires.’ This largish format fully-illustrated book has at its core the work of a group of artists in Britain, dubbed the ‘Neo-Romantics’ by Raymond Mortimer, who shared a similar vision were brought together by the war-torn circumstances of their age, but never became a movement or issued a manifesto.

Tow artists in particular inspired them – William Blake and Samuel Palmer. They key artist was Paul Nash, whose work is treated here in some depth. Next comes Graham Sutherland, John Piper, John Minton, Michael Ayrton, Keith Vaughan, John Craxton. They all had a sense of the ‘spirit of place,’

‘What distinguishes Neo-Romanticism from traditional romanticism,’ writes Woodcock, ‘is the feeling of danger, the juxtaposition of the urban with the countryside, the element of darkness, dissolution, an almost pagan reverie breaking through the ruins of post-industrialism.’

Woodcock maintains that, historically, Neo-Romanticism died in the mid Fifties but that the imaginative doorway opened by Nash at al was an inspiration to filmmakers like Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, David Lean, Carol Reed, Michael Crichton and Humphrey Jennings - who ‘captured both the realistic and imaginary world of Britain,’ in a body of work that is rightly seen as a ‘golden age’ of British film – as much as one loathes the term.

Similarly, there were the writers – John Cowper Powys, Arthur Machen, Denton Welch, Elizabeth Bowen, Geoffrey Household and, in recent times, PeterAckroyd and Ian Sinclair and Chris Petit - who shared similar sensibilities about the resonant power of the landscape, the psychogeography if you will.

Naturally the marvellous Derek Jarman is here, whose work delighted, inspired and provoked and gave a marvellous neo-rom edge to punk` amd Woodcock also profiles the painters David Blackburn and Derek Hyatt.

The book ends with a chapter ‘Re-Enchanting the Land’ that concludes: ‘The spirit of place is still deeply embedded in our national consciousness. Every new motorway is questioned, every ancient wood fought for. The old Neo-Romantic world has long gone, but the dream persists.’

All of which rings a loud bell with me, triggers off lots of connections, thoughts and reveries. Not least because I feel definitely more than a little neo-rom myself. The Sussex landscape, its mysteries and stories, entered my soul and consciousness from an early age, the world of W.H. Hudson and Richard Jefferies, of Conan Doyle and the Piltdown Man, of a murderer who was pursued across the downs by biplanes and shot himself in an oak grove.

Incidentally, this is just one of a range of interesting titles published by the admirably independent Glastonbury-based Gothic Image, including ‘The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred England’ by John Michell.

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