British flags flying from Admiral Anson’s fleet off Cape Finisterre but could nowhere locate the French ships against which the action had been directed. We could only conclude that the Scott had captured the engagement’s end, and so the French ships had to be sought amongst the spars and timber, flotsam and foam about the painting’s lower sections, in which case the painting’s precondition proved mostly absent from its dabs and strokes.
John Constable’s 1829 work, Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’, similarly fixed its sights on ruin at sea, though of a different sort. For Constable’s ruin was not to be found on the sea but beside it. Ruin had moved inland and laid waste to what little remained of the castle of the title. About its base there bobbed cowherds and dogs rather than wood and canvas.
Higher above the strand, William Holman Hunt’s 1852 Our English Coasts dazzled us with its color array. Ruddy sheep reclined, their shadows melding with the red-purple earth beneath. Mossy rocks, heath and brambles separated them from the green Channel waters where the shadows of a few clouds could be glimpsed. There, the greens and browns introduced by Siberechts emerged in new form, refined as it were, by advances in optics.
The accompanying sign drew our attention to Hunt’s membership in a secret art society, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which sought, per the sign, to fuse romantic intensity, religious symbolism and scientific accuracy into a new genre, “symbolic realism”. Although I might admire the strength of their realism, on the basis of colored shadows and optical effects, I deemed the symbolism lacking. In the milling sheep and crumbling cliffs I could find, with time, signs of civil and religious unrest as suggested by the documentation.
Yet I felt that a similar effect might better have been obtained through refining their color palette still further, even to saturation, such that the hues strained the eyes to the point that unease communicated itself not through meaning but through perception itself.
At work, I had been caught up in a philosopher’s experiment by the placement of a malfunctioning clock on the wall. While off, it still managed to show the right time twice per day, and my clockwatching habits led me on at least one occasion to pronounce, unjustifiably though truthfully, the correct hour before my students. Behind one of these walls there surely lurked an epistemologist malignus readying his next deception in the form of a fake barn.
After a ride on the Overground and transfer at the Shard, my companions and I found ourselves before the Palace of Westminster. Tourists milled about the pavement, dutifully awaiting the clocktower to sound the hour. We chose to press on, and our steps carried us past the overly wrought doors and portals, the façade too fine by half.
The crowds began to thin somewhat as we left the Palace behind and drew nearer the Tate Britain. Once inside, we wandered about with neither rhyme nor reason. All the same, half-narratives for the paintings sketched themselves inside my head, such as the green palette work of 17th century British School and landscapists.
In the 1636 Portrait of William Style of Langley, the titular person looms over the foreground in almost comical fashion while at his back stands an ivy-colored garden à la française. A small fence encloses the geometrical flowerbeds, the fence in turn surrounded by a colonnaded walkway complete with gatehouse, bower and arch, to which the same ivy coloring had extended. Indeed, the ivy seemed to coat every structure of the garden complex and rather brought to mind the green seen on tree trunks in rainy climes.
By contrast, Jan Siberechts’ 1696 View of a House and its Estate in Belsize, Middlesex had retained the portraiture theme but eliminated its human subject entirely in favor of an bird’s-eye view of said estate. From above, the park’s rectilinear forms jumped out at the viewer. A series of interlocking garden squares stood behind the main house. Such was the care given to the detail of each individual leaf that the sight induced a certain dizziness and gave one the impression of a hedge maze on the verge of formation. So had the Golden Age Flemish “landschap” and its own vocabulary of greens been translated into 17th century English landscapes and country house portraits.
With the end of the 17th century there came the formal Acts of Union between England and Scotland, as a historical panel recalled for the reader. If the English had sought union to neutralize the Scots’ ability to pursue alliances contrary to the former’s interests, the Scots had in turn profited by escaping financial ruin due to the Darién Scheme. The Scottish Parliament had attempted to establish a trading company to rival the English East India Company. The proposal met with royal assent from William III, and the company was granted the right to settle unclaimed areas in the New World.
Due to intrigue on the part of the English, the company’s directors had had to raise capital in Scotland alone, even though the sum required represented roughly a third of Scotland’s liquid wealth. Funds at last in place, 2,500 Scottlish settlers set out in 1696 for the Panama and established a trading colony at Darién. The settlers, numbering among them ex-soldiers, pastors, merchants, seamen and third sons of the landed gentry, soon gave way before famine in the Lowlands and New World disease, limited goods like wigs and wool, shoes and pipes. Perhaps most decisively, the Spanish maintained a strong presence in the area.
Not wishing to offend the Spaniards, the English left the Scots to their own devices at Darién, and the colony collapsed before the calendars reached 1700. Upon reading the preceding, I was struck with a curious sentiment and tried to picture for a time present-day Central America where individuals haggled at the market not in Spanish but in Scots and Scots Gaelic. Though still mestizos by present terms, these people would then have been known by another name entirely, gathered under another category entirely.
On my way from the boroughs to the inner, I thought to formulate the through line of this travelogue and found particular inspiration not in the dull, uniform bricks common to the buildings, so many taupe outposts. Instead, I caught myself examining with an eager eye undeveloped plots, forbidding thickets and fallen fruit underfoot. In them, I saw the confirmation of my earlier experiences with this city, which I had always experienced from the fringes rather than its center.
Perhaps it owed to the center being unlivable and arid; this would account for my always being flung from the center to its edge. No one could occupy that center. Only at that edge did anything bear fruit and, even then, only in the forgotten parcels of land adjoining the railways or behind the hedge of an empty court. At this late date, the fruit remained ungathered. Plums lay where they had fallen and sundered with passing feet. The more or less continuous shuffle had reduced skin and flesh to stains and viscous pools.
In the brownish purples and golds spread over the pavement, I could almost detect a certain hostility, or at least in the footfalls which had rendered them so. From these points at the edge, this hostility might ooze back into the center, emanate from everywhere and everything, and so drive the people living there back to the very fringes from which the hostility had emerged. I imagined that everyone in London was caught up in a such a cycle, between center and fringe, even the royals.
My flight met with turbulence over the channel. From my seat, I watched the land bob with the plane’s movement. From above the water, I could see both island and continent and tried as best I might to hold at once both sides in my vision without losing sight of either. Glued to the portal, I must have seemed a strange sight to my seatmate, a German fellow whose considerable girth spilled over the armrest between us. The channel crossed, the plane regained a certain steadiness and eased into the slow descent into London City Airport.
An hour later, and none the worse for wear, I stood before the front door of my residence for the weekend. I noted that, of the numbers adorning the buzzers, not one font matched another. Serifs mocked sans-serifs, and italics called out boldings. I then climbed the stairs to Flat 4 and its high-ceilinged interior, complete with moldings and bare hardwood. My things safely in the assigned room, I spent a few minutes exploring the sitting room.
There, I attempted to reconstruct its occupants from the furniture, possessions and knickknacks arrayed more or less haphazardly about the room. A painted blue cat in a leopard spot frame particularly resisted my efforts to integrate these people into any one of the various character models with which I was acquainted, so I abandoned my task and went to the window.
The sill, piled high with unread mail and brochures, opened onto the summer garden surrounding the building. Sufficient light came in through the single pane to blind the onlooker, such that I had the impression that the garden drowned in the midday sun. Still at the window, I tried to parse the greens before and find their place amongst my mental catalogue. The lawn and shrubbery rather recalled a hedge maze that I had either glimpsed in a painting or from a memory of another summer day some years before behind Hampton Court. For their part, the leaves and blooms joined a green hue that I had seen still earlier in a revival tent at a local fair where I had pleased the preacher with my answers and gained access to brighter, more esoteric hues which remained elsewhere in my mental catalogue.
With a knot of French tourists, I watched a groundhog fest on grass clippings. It never strayed far from the nearby bushes and trees. Upon closer inspection, I could make out the negative space which to another more knowledgeable might mark out the entrance to its burrow.
I turned on my heel, made use of the museum’s publicly accessible facilities before pressing on to leave park and country behind. I took a last minute to consider the cross section of the structure’s aluminum shell, helices and triangles no thicker than my arm. Eventually, this could hold my attention no longer, so I took the last steps necessary to leave my mark upon the place.
Without knowing precisely why, I set about scattering through the park childhood knickknacks which had been foisted upon me by my traveling companion. These ranged in kind from a ribbon, with which I bound two saplings, to a badge which I affixed to a public bulletin board. I also left a number of books and leaflets to join the growing pile in the hostel common room. Of it all, there remained only a small pewter dinosaur, with which I have yet to part, perhaps from sentimentality or some other pathology.
My final hours in Montréal, in bus and plane, did not bear much worth mentioning, with perhaps the exception of one event for which I have been otherwise unable to account. For, at some point in those final twenty-four hours, there had appeared on my phone an image which I had no memory of taking and about which I speculated for no little time. Try as I might, I was unable to attribute a source to this image, that of a group of demonstrators marching beneath the carbon streetlights of a nighttime thoroughfare, as far as the eye could see.
If I assumed, in the end, that I had merely saved the image with an inadvertent finger as waking thoughts gave way to sleep, it still did not account for the state of mental agitation in which this image left me. This explanation in no way prepared me for the phantasm which it set me, to which it resigned me, bound me. I could not help but find in my fascination and extension of this image the whole of my trip, reduced to the movement of visual fancy.