Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson
Showing posts with label photography. Show all posts
Showing posts with label photography. Show all posts

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

An Easter Tale: In Pursuit of Spring and Edward Thomas’ photographs from 1913.

As I write it is almost exactly 101 years since the poet Edward Thomas cycled from London to Somerset. Navigating via the cathedral towns of Winchester, Salisbury and Wells over an Easter weekend during the tail end of winter, in what was a late Spring. It was, he said “A north Easter". That journey was to become the basis for his prose work ’In Pursuit of Spring’. And amongst his archive at Cardiff University are some remarkable photographs made along the journey, most have never before been published. You can see the route taken on the map below; Alison Harvey at the University’s archives has geotagged the spots photographs were taken along the route.
Image courtesy of Zee Maps.

About two years ago while researching Edward Thomas’ poetry as possible inspiration for a photography series I was lucky enough to visit the University's Edward Thomas Archive. Surrounded by boxes of manuscripts, notes and letters I was shown a small brown battered Manila envelope labeled with Thomas’ home address and ’53 photographs’. Inside there were actually 60 brown, faded photographs most noting on the reverse, in pencil, the locations along the route.
The envelope containing Edward Thomas' photographs from In Pursuit of Spring, 1913.

I was entranced, my literary studies fell somewhat by the wayside as, try as I might to concentrate elsewhere, my attention was continually drawn to these visions of the past. They are not only images of a lost era, but an era that was about to change suddenly, dramatically and irrevocably in only a few short months' time. And that change was to be witnessed as much as any by Thomas himself.

The power of this tale lies in its moment in history, Easter 1913, just before the outbreak of the First World War. While there were suspicions of war, Thomas was certainly unaware of the terrible tragedy that was about to engulf the world. Thomas cycled west to rediscover a joy for life and an appreciation for nature as the seasons changed to one of hope and renewal.

It is not yet spring. Spring is being dreamed and the dream is more wonderful and more blessed than ever was spring. What the hour of waking will bring forth is not known, catch at the dreams as they hover.

Turner's Tower, Hemington, Radstock, Avon.
Escaping the claustrophobic confines of the city, and sheltering from the rain under the awning of a pet shop, his companion (or altar-ego) The Other Man buys a caged bird only to set it free a few moments later. There's a metaphor here for the escape and freedom of the journey and perhaps for the caging effect on the mind of the onset of war. Cycling into the uncertainty of a rain swept countryside "the road was like a stream on which I floated in the shadows of trees and steep hillsides".

As Thomas cycled west his mood lifted as the weather improved and the seasons began to turn. Where, finally in the Quantock Hills of Somerset  "on a glorious sunlit road the million gorse petals seemed to be flames sown by the sun", Spring finally arrives. He had found Spring and was “confident that I could ride home again and find Spring all along the road."

Nr Croscombe, Wells, Somerset.

In Pursuit of Spring was to be one of Thomas’ last prose works. Encouraged by his friend, the American poet Robert Frost, he became convinced the purer literary form of poetry was his future. Despite his four short years as a poet, Ted Hughes later declared Thomas to be the "Father of us all", meaning modern poetry, and poetry with a strong connection to the natural world in particular.

In Edward Thomas' hand "nr Tinkerswood".
One of the mysteries of these photographs is how two appear to be from Tinkiswood burial chamber in South Wales. How they made it into this selection of photographs is unknown, because it wasn't part of his route for In Pursuit of Spring. Despite being virtually opposite Kilve on the South Wales coast, a little inland from Barry, there's no evidence that Thomas crossed the Bristol Channel at this time. Written in Edward Thomas’ hand on the reverse is ’Nr Tinkerswood' which is how it was known until acquiring its non-racist recent name in the 1940s. I've included them because of the associated legend that anyone who spends a night at this site on the evenings preceding May Day, St John's Day (23rd June), or Midwinter Day would either die, go raving mad, or become a poet. Which seems rather apt in this context.

Edward Thomas.
When war broke out the following year Thomas struggled with the question of whether to enlist. Despite being, at 37 years old and married, exempt from the requirement to do so, he joined the Artist’s Riffles in 1915. His decision is often attributed, in part, to his friend the American poet Robert Frost whose book The Road not Taken was intended as a gentle mocking of indecision. Perhaps Frost (who had returned to the U.S.) underestimated the pressure to enlist in the UK and the febrile atmosphere surrounding the war. There was also a considerable government propaganda effort that must have swayed the mood of both Thomas and so many of his contemporaries.

When asked why he'd enlisted, he reputedly picked up a handful of soil, and said simply, ’For this.’ Today that gesture feels shockingly nationalistic, but perhaps that is an illustration of the skewed patriotic sentiment generated by the war, as wars have a tendency to produce. Indeed, Thomas had had bitter arguments with his nationalistic father and the poet Ralph Hodgson had accused him of being a German sympathiser. 

Edward Thomas in military uniform.
He died on the fields of Arras on another Easter; Easter Monday, 9th April 1917. At 7.36 am he was killed by the concussive blast wave of a shell as he, reportedly, stood to light his pipe. A concussive blast wave doesn't, as we might imagine, blow a person to pieces, but it sucks the air from their lungs and stops their heart. Life was literally sucked out of one of the English language’s greatest literary talents, as it was from so many millions.

The photographs themselves speak strongly of travel, of movement through the landscape. They are of (car free) roads and paths, views, and buildings discovered along the way. Far better literary experts than I have tried and failed to tie the photographs to passages in the prose. Which leads us to wonder at their purpose - were they an aide memoir a method of illustrating his journey to friends and family, or simply a record made from the joy of photography and traveling itself? Perhaps a mixture of them all.

The authority of the photographs lies as much with who made them as of the depictions within images themselves. They are ’journeyman’ photographs, in the both senses of the word. Yet, of course, one of the joys of photography is its accessibility, its democracy. And in 1913 it was becoming widely practiced and Thomas had only taken up photography two years previously.

An unnamed road along the route. 
To profess the images as art would be to risk the veracity of history. And, yet, the question of what is the art of the photographic record or document is one that goes to the heart of photography itself. As Gerry Badger wrote of Eugene Atget “one can be enveloped in reserves of poignancy, for which the extensively modest functions of the not prepare.”. And I think there's as much poignancy for us for that lost era before the First World War as there was for views of Atget’s pre-Haussmann Paris.

There is something in Thomas’ photographs of what Walker Evans describes as the ’projection of the person’. They reflect his passions and preoccupations, the English countryside as seen by that particular poet. If they are common preoccupations, those shared widely, then that is in part what the photographer who doesn't apply himself fully to the craft will generally produce. Despite that there is undeniable photographic skill here, and if it is necessary for every good photographer to be part poet, at least Thomas had that advantage already.
Castle St. Bridgwater.

Even the visual failings add to the poignancy. The darkness of some of the early images (a result of poor weather or technical errors?) creates for us, with the benefit of hindsight, a feeling of foreboding. As the journey progressed and the weather improved the photographs noticeably lighten. This was surely not intentional, but it does add to our viewing experience from the perspective of history. These are shadowy glimpses into the mind of the photographer and history obscures as much as it adds the false perspective of time.
Unknown location.

Indeed, the majority of the images were made at the end of his journey, 30 (out of 60) of those identifiable were made in Somerset. So it seems that as the weather improved and his mood lifted he was happier making photographs, as the growing happiness is also revealed through his prose.


Appears to read "The Darns nr Salisbury".
We will never know the internal motives of these images, we can only speculate. Perhaps they were the result of the simple joy of looking? I’d suggest they illustrate a more personal relationship with the land and the journey itself because photographs are inescapably personal. Even if we try to make them otherwise our choices in subject, framing and atmosphere define them as ’ours’.

Of course he should be better remembered by his poetry, such as In Memoriam, written only two years later, at yet another Easter, in 1915:

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

And that is the final connection with Easter for this story; the Easter of 1913 when he set out In Pursuit of Spring; The Easter Monday 1915 of In Memoriam; and the Easter Monday, at Arras where he died. Easter, of course, is when we traditionally celebrate The Resurrection, and it is perhaps fitting that Edward Thomas’ words and now his photographs outlive him.

All photographs by kind permission of Special Collections and Archives, Cardiff University, and the Estate of Edward Thomas.

I've added the remaining images below, please click on them to enlarge. 

Above Nettlebridge.
Appears to read "Warren near Laughton".
Approaching Edington, Somerset.
Arlesford, Winchester.
Bishops Sutton, Hampshire
Bradford Canal, Wiltshire.
Bradford on Avon.
Brook, Timsbury, Bath, Avon.
Croscombe, Somerset. 
Croscombe, Somerset. 
East Quantoxhead, Somerset. 
Edington, Somerset.
From Polden Hills, Somerset. 
From Polden, Somerset.
From Polden, Somerset.
Headbourne Worthy, Winchester.
Kilmerston, Avon. 
Kilve Priory, Somerset.
Leathered, Surrey. 
Mendips, Somerset.
Nr Froyle, Hampshire.

Nr Shapwick, Somerset.
Nr Ashcott past Walton or at Shapwick.
Near Grimstead, Wiltshire.
Nr Kilve Priory.
Nr Kilve.
Polden Hills, Shapwick, Bridgwater, Somerset.
Rudge, Frome, Somerset
Rudge, Frome, Somerset.
Salisbury Plain.
Shapwick, Somerset.
Swell nr Taunton, Somerset.
Swell, Taunton, Somerset.
The Hog's Back, Surrey.
Quantocks, Crowcombe.
Rear of above, mentions Coleridge.
Walton, Street, Somerset.

Wells Cathedral moat.
West Dean, Salisbury.

All photographs by kind permission of Special Collections and Archives, Cardiff University, and the Estate of Edward Thomas.