Painted and screen-printed leaded glass panel, 2019, Andy Brooke
“No two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither was there ever two leaves of tree alike since the creation of the world.” John Constable
This panel is a personal homage to and lament for the land around and increasingly under the University of Essex – land which has become part of our shared cultural and ecological mindscape through Constable’s famous painting (below) of 1816.
But it also forms part our own experience (our cultural commons perhaps) of enjoying the landscape with our families over the decades, and seeing it being relentlessly transformed by forces outside our control.
Working in stained glass brings new layers to the subject in two ways:
- A visual response to the silvery luminosity of light in the painting which creates the intensity of emotion and a defiant statement of nature’s beauty.
- An emotional response using the medium of stained glass to evoke the sense of loss and lamentation for what is abandoned in the process of land development.
The sketches from photos and direct observation show a personal response to real landscape – direct, honest and flawed – which is painted onto glass.
The photo-screen printing onto glass brings a documentary immediacy into the frame which hopefully reacts against the usual expectations from stained glass.
There is a certain irony even in Constable’s work which celebrates the sublime in nature while depicting a controlled, semi-domestic landscape. He was aware of a disappearing pastoral ideal in the face of the First Industrial Revolution. Today this irony is much more savage when a university can be given a Green Flag Award for managing historic parkland (2017) while also destroying large segments of the very land which allows it to exist.
Mourning the loss of our cultural heritage
Nearly 30 years ago, we took our little boys to walk and play in Wivenhoe Park, the grounds of the University of Essex, around and near the lake that John Constable had painted in 1816. They ran in and amongst the trees, peering out from between the two which grew close together. They played in the autumn leaves of the oak and sweet chestnut trees. Our eldest son rode his first bike down a path which ran through the trees and along the slope parallel to the lake.
A few years ago, many trees were cleared in the lower park, and all the scrub, to make way for more student housing. Suddenly the river could be seen from the main road into Colchester from Wivenhoe, which had never been possible even in winter before. The bus route from Wivenhoe to Colchester passed through the devastated ground, churned up by heavy tyres of diggers and bulldozers, clearing tree stumps and making smooth plateaus of formerly sloped and hummocky ground. I had to read a book, or look at my lap as we passed through what had been woodland and grassy meadow. I couldn’t look at it.
New student housing, business units, several new car parks. Natural habitat destroyed to put up quick buildings to make profit. Private land, so no pretence of planning controls.
My Cherokee forbears would have wondered, “How can you own the land: can you possess the rivers, the waters, the wind which blows from place to place, the rain which falls upon it ? Do you own the creatures, whose places and numbers you do not know ? This livestock cannot be counted and paid for, for it is wild.”
Or the Bard of my other forbears, Robert Burns:
I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
“To a Mouse: On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough,”
Earlier this week, the end of January 2020, I walked down the path my son rode his bike down more than two decades ago. I walked past the taped-off bench where I sat in the cold to find peace amongst the trees as an MA student of the university. The bench had been a refuge and escape where I would not be overlooked back then—but now can be clearly seen through the windows of the more-recent student centre. A small act of destruction was being carried out by workers “tidying” the shrub borders beside the lake. What of the hibernating creatures in there, I wondered. A shame the Biology Department couldn’t have a word about what constitutes “maintenance.”
These remembrances show that we all have a claim on our landscapes, for they are part of our personal histories. More than that, they are our cultural heritage, an asset which is beyond private ownership and profit, for it belongs to all those for whom it is significant.