Strangling the sublime

Enthusing about the sort of things that goes through an artist’s mind in responding to place is thought-provoking. I biked around Hindhead’s Devil’s Punch Bowl distilling what I felt were the most visceral parts for me – a sublime landscape partially reborn, a heinous murder and narratives of good versus evil. Conan Doyle couldn’t have planned better, and indeed his Hound of the Baskervilles was written at Undershaw, the house he built and lived in for a decade, less than a mile away. We are considering a ‘legacy’ sculpture for the lottery-funded A3D project, involving 30 children from 6 different schools influencing the choice of material and location in response to a project budget and timescale. I have five months to finish a large new work, whilst being receptive to their creative prompts. 200 children are also involved in the creation of ten other works that link to the landscape, history, literature and wildlife of Hindhead, now liberated from the A3 trunk road with a remarkable new tunnel under the Surrey Hills.

This image exemplifies Gilpin’s Picturesque, a phrase coined from his Wye Valley Tour written up in 1782, but perhaps the landscape sense is heightened to one of sublime here. Though clearly artistic licence (such as the dark shadowed hill in the mid-ground), the heathland plays a vital part in showing this lowland topography to its best.

Heathland is special because it is our rarest habitat type nationally. It also allows the underlying topography to appear in all its raw glory – an amazing visual display as the views created are so far-reaching. We have very few ‘bleak’ places left in the South East now and the Sailor’s Stone memorial presently sits in a sylvan landscape far removed from the treeless, gale-blown wastes of 1786 when an innocent man on way to board his ship in Portsmouth was robbed and his throat cut on the turnpike road. Six months later, the trio responsible were hanged in iron cages from a Gibbet on the hill close to the site of the murder, their tarred bodies remaining as a warning to others. Selborne’s Naturalist Gilbert White recorded a ‘terrible thunderstorm’ in his 1790 Journal: ‘on Hind-head one of the bodies on the gibbet was beaten down to the ground’. J.M.W. Turner’s 1808 mezzotint shows the ominous gibbet (with its hangers-on), in a view from the other side of Hindhead Hill.

In 1851, a Celtic cross was erected (visible top right in this 1898 postcard) – perhaps to dispel the fears of local residents about evil spirits in an area of supposed disreputable activities. As heather and birch twigs were harvested for brooms by the broomsquire, the area also had witch, pagan or heathen associations. The latter words are literally ‘dwelling in the country/heath’ which may be perceived as not being interested in the sophisticated religions of the cultured urban areas.

So, a Christian landowner accentuating the good to quell thoughts of evil. This, in an area in which Medieval myth sees the Devil flinging out great handfuls of the ground to create his deep chasm; Europe’s largest natural amphitheatre, of which geologists more recently suggest is due to sandstone collapse from the actions of a freshwater spring eroding softer clay beneath.

This view of the road (extant 1828-2011) is easy to  contrast with the same line in the postcard image. The J.M.W. Turner view is perhaps from top-right, towards the Gibbet on the lighter patch to the right of the point where the tunnel line crosses the route of the old road.

Woodland is very emotive but its insidious presence gnaws away at the rarer heathland areas as well as masking the visual definition of the soaring heights and dizzy gradients. Trees give enclosure and a feeling of security from the elements, but ironically we are less able to ensure we aren’t being lurked upon. Taller vegetation has developed through losing sheep grazing as land management has changed through two World Wars and beyond. Commons also used to be a source of everyone’s fuel in rural areas… now we do not burn firewood in ‘modern’ homes. The more mature trees that develop, the more new seedlings grow into remaining spaces.

The children have soap blocks to start carving the essence of their own ideas; I will be watching those with interest as the two and a half tonne block arrives for them to scribe onto – yielding an ideal unplanned start for me. Watch out for progress on the stone to be situated near Hindhead National Trust car park (GU26 6AB) from mid-December 2012 to March.