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Self-Control

Catalogue entry

From:
Susanna Avery‐Quash (ed.), Ayla Lepine (ed.), Isobel Muir (co‐editor), Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart, digital edition (London: The National Gallery, 2022).

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (NG538), 1844, oil on canvas, 91 × 121.8 cm, The National Gallery, London, Turner Bequest, 1856

Acrid soot and pressured steam mingle with moisture‐laden cloudy vapour in Turner’s painting. Perhaps the obvious subject is the train, such a contrast from the blues and yellows of river and sky, hurtling along the Maidenhead Railway Bridge, which was built as a triumph of engineering by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1837–8. In all of Turner’s paintings, however, the deeper subject is light and atmosphere, always hovering on the edges of keen observation of the natural world. Here we find poetic metaphors of time passing and life in an ever‐changing state of flux. The picture presents a challenge in our own time of climate crisis. Fear for our planet’s future can interweave with a renewed commitment to care for the Earth and to recognise that without moving beyond a view of the world that only celebrates industrial progress, our environment cannot recover.1 As a meditation on self‐control, which holds us back from destruction and gives us space to reflect on the importance of not taking more than we can give, Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed brings us face to face not only with the artist’s experience of Britain in the 1840s, but also our own experience in the 2020s.

Turner’s machine is not generic, but a sleek state‐of‐the‐art Firefly train heading west, carrying passengers out of London towards Berkshire on the Bristol line. A cluster of people wave, impressed as passengers enjoy the pleasures of speed and its convenience, experiencing the rush of the countryside as an abstract blur. The train, aptly named ‘Greyhound’, is racing against a barely visible and formidable competitor: a hare seen ahead of the train, which can run at speeds of up to 45mph. The train’s maximum speed, as the fastest train available in British travel, was 60mph, though it usually travelled at an average speed of 33mph.

The hare might survive, or it might not. The hare’s place in the world, threatened by the industrial power of the train’s pollutant‐laden blackened brilliance, may yet be preserved. It may escape. Its potential death, pursued by the metal ‘hound’, would be no great loss to the passengers and no obstacle for the train. And what of the bridge, leaving its indelible mark carved through the landscape, forever changing it? These huge projects granted people unprecedented access between packed cities and growing towns, but they came at a cost to the environment. With its class divisions partitioning its passengers, the train speeds along, impervious to the weather and yet constrained by its tracks. It is more monumental but less agile than the intrepid hare.

In the 1840s, an MP complained of the environmental devastation caused by train travel. He wrote not just of change, but of intemperate loss in the pursuit of speed: ‘mountains were to be cut through, valleys were to be lifted … the earth was to be tunnelled’.2 His phrasing is an ironic reference to God’s glory, celebrated in the biblical Book of Isaiah, chapter 40, verse 4: ‘Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low.’3 Perhaps this is the perspective of two figures in the painting, on the lower left, in a little boat, with an umbrella at one end and a pole at the other, reminding us of the differing rural and urban interactions with the environment. Their view of the train and its rhythmic noise is just one passing moment in an otherwise calm river journey. Turner’s smooth, tiny brushstrokes are in vivid contrast to the thick smears and clods of paint he used to evoke rain and sun.

Turner’s picture inserts – glorifies, even – the force of modern travel into the sublime landscape, leaving more questions than answers. Is Turner in favour of the train’s power to cut through the rain, steaming along at an alarming mechanical rate? Or perhaps Turner is on the side of the vulnerable dashing hare, observing the disruptive chaos that breaks into nature’s ecosystems with its brute order. In Modern Painters, the artist and writer John Ruskin wrote uncompromisingly about the need for fresh, new perspectives on classic subjects by British artists including Turner: ‘If we are to do anything great, good, awful, religious, it must be got out of our own little island and out of these very times, railroads and all.’4

Turner’s work focused on local landscapes, urban and rural, to raise challenging topics about modern life, environmental pressures and the consequences of the industrial revolution in particular. His painting doesn’t cast a deciding vote about whether the train is a sign of destruction or development, and the viewer ends up in the ambivalent zone of knowing that it’s both at once. The pace of Ben Hartley’s gentle walk through a Devon lane across rolling hills in his painting could not be more different from Turner’s confrontation with mechanical power at 60mph.

The theologian Kosuke Koyama’s response to the restless pace of technology was a focus on what he called the ‘Three Mile an Hour God’. This is an average walking pace, and it’s utterly countercultural, as each footstep walks softly on the earth. Koyama writes: ‘It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It goes on in the depth of our life, whether we notice or not, at three miles an hour. It is the speed we walk and therefore the speed the love of God walks.’5 Turner’s train, hurtling forward, will swiftly leave the countryside behind, with its hares and its rain‐soaked clouds. The image of the train is a reminder that nature is precariously available for exploitation as well as contemplation, and that there is always a cost to progress.

Terah Walkup

Ben Hartley, Devon Lane, Westlake, 1968, gouache on paper, 71 cm × 57 cm, Plymouth, The Box, Gift of Bernard Samuels, 2022 (PLYBX.2022.21.19)

The viewer is positioned in the centre of a pair of hedgerows, parting like the Red Sea, to reveal a rural vista. Were it not for the hills, this view would otherwise be concealed by the sheer height and bulk of the road‐side banks of abstracted golden flora. The artist Ben Hartley often walked these roads.6 From 1960 to 1979, he taught at Plymouth College of Art a few hours per week. The remainder of his time was spent in relative solitude at his cottage in Ermington, a small village several miles outside Plymouth in Devon. For most of his career, Hartley existed in intentional obscurity. He did not seek to promote, market, exhibit or sell the works of art he produced. At his death, he left around 900 paintings and more than 300 sketchbooks to Bernard Samuels, founder of the Plymouth Art Centre, who also brought self‐taught Plymouth artist Beryl Cook to public celebration.

This painting is one of nineteen recently acquired by The Box along with the hundreds of notebooks the artist kept throughout his lifetime. The notebooks are all handmade and contain musings, snippets of conversation and observations made on his daily walks around his rural cottage as well as his travels in Britain, France and Ireland. Among his notations are drawings of humble plants growing along the side of the road, farming equipment, neighbourhood pets and small oddities that caught his eye, such as a chocolate box lid, discarded along a woodland path. The notebooks are astonishing documents of rural Devon and daily farming life. Hartley even used them to record regional dialects and phrases. The artist was no stranger to rural life, having grown up on a farm in the Peak District. After his training at the Royal College of Art in London, he taught in at an art school in Manchester for two years (1958–60) before moving to Plymouth in 1960 and then into the Devon countryside, where he lived for over two decades.

This painting from 1968 is based on sketches Hartley made on 21 April that year. He noted that it was ‘Low Sunday’, the first Sunday after Easter, and remarked on the mustard yellow of the upper right house and a ‘storm of vivid lightening [sic] in the night’.7 The contrast between the moody purple sky – a familiar warning to any walker in the countryside of impending nightfall or rain – and the vibrant ochre of the houses and hedgerows is indicative of Hartley’s use of colour. Hartley was a great admirer of the French Post‐Impressionists Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) and Henri Matisse (1869–1954). Though he was not directly engaged in their circles, Hartley can also be considered in the context of post‐war British modernist artists, such as Ben Nicholson (1894–1982), Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975), Wilhelmina Barns‐Graham (1912–2004) and Peter Lanyon (1918–1964), who came to the south‐west and responded to and represented its landscape using a riot of colour.

Despite Hartley’s vibrant hues, there is a quietude to this scene. If it were not for the puffs of chimney smoke, we would be tempted to think that we, the viewers, were alone on this path. This smoke, probably from a wood‐burning fire, is the opposite of the churning coalsmoke of J.M.W. Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed (1844), painted over 120 years earlier. Turner’s train and clouds of smoke were heralds of modernity, mechanical power and the promise of progress. It was painted when a flurry of railways and stations were built across Britain. Trains began to connect rural places to thriving cities. Lines were established throughout the south‐west, primarily to deliver fish and farm produce to London, as well as coal and tourists to the West Country. But in the decade Hartley painted the Devon lane in Westlake, over half of those lines had closed because they were considered unprofitable. This contributed to economic isolation for many communities. Tourism, however, continues to be one of the main industries in the south‐west. Since Hartley’s death in 1996, the politics around housing has gained new urgency as local communities and younger generations struggle to afford homes in an aggressive market driven by the purchase of second homes and short‐term holiday rentals. It is impossible to imagine today an artist of Hartley’s very limited financial means, whose sole income was a few hours of teaching per week, being able to afford a home nearby. He would not have been able to sustain his meditative walking and acute observation in notebooks which were the bedrock of his practice.

Devon Lane, Westlake is typical of Hartley’s approach: it takes the viewer along for one of the artist’s meditative walks around his local area. The billowing, abstracted hedgerows make it tempting to situate Hartley’s painting in the sublime tradition of early nineteenth‐century Romantic British landscape painting. However, the landscape Hartley depicts is entirely shaped by human activity. A millennium of demand to supply both heating and shipbuilding caused gradual deforestation of this area. In place of the great forests, the land was cultivated for farming and grazing, the very life Hartley documented in his colourful, warm, often humorous paintings. The lines of hedgerows serve as a reminder of manmade private boundaries. With no visible entrances or exits, the viewer imagining a walk along Hartley’s narrow lane is left without access to the land or homes depicted. The fields and houses may belong to individuals, but the quiet lane belongs to everyone.

Hartley led a temperate lifestyle. His cottage was described as bare, and friends, family and colleagues often worried that his self‐imposed austerity had a negative impact on his health.8 His practice as an artist, too, was marked by quiet temperance. Most of his paintings were made using humble, often reused, brown parcel paper. His stoicism is often attributed to his spirituality. Quotations from Christian theology appear in his notebooks. The year he completed Devon Lane, Westlake was the same year he converted to Roman Catholicism. Beyond exercising temperance in his life as well as his art, Hartley embodied many of the values celebrated in the Fruits of the Spirit exhibition and catalogue. The quiet landscape of Devon Lane, Westlake helps us contemplate self‐control in limiting the human impact on the landscape and consider our commitment to social and climate justice.

Members of The Village Hub

The Village Hub is a resident‐led organisation based in the Stoke and Morice Town neighbourhoods of Plymouth. We operate a daily drop‐in and food larder, and run workshops and activities from our Hub, located in a formerly derelict shop on the local high street. Following the interests of the community, two of our activities are communal gardening in our courtyard and adopted back lane, and rewilding our local park in a community‐sensitive way.

The quotations and poem below are from various community members of all ages, who thought that writing about a painting might be fun, especially around climate change and self‐control! We looked at the painting by Ben Hartley, Devon Lane, Westlake, and here are some of the responses it generated:‘As inner‐city community members, diverse and fruitful as the hedgerow, we welcome the incomers. Many have travelled long lonely roads looking for healthy boundaries, belonging, space and hope.’ ‘After a short while contemplating the painting Devon Lane, Westlake, it seems like a journey, a story, someone’s story. We need to visit the small scenes individually and then come back to the whole picture. We wonder, what is there, who is there and why?’

The Road and the Way
A poem for temperance around climate change
Ancient ways flowed – no straight lines, no fields existed. Gifted old growth as warmth and trees, never lonely. They had each other, so did we. We knew each other. This went on for thousands of seasons.
At first receiving, we learnt to borrow. We always gave it back, this was the time of tending. Too short because it was beautiful. Something was lost and trees became lonely, so did we but nobody noticed.
Once there were no boundaries, but we felt compelled to impose. Gentle it once was, with no fences or walls, only hedgerows. The boundaries, though not as good as before, held life still, respected Mother Earth. A track in a place that was its own, now covered in concrete began to groan. Nobody noticed, all our elders ignored.
Time seemed to move faster and everything changed. It’s unlikely we’ll be allowed to simply tend again. The hedgerows continue diminished and the tree is a solitary individual. The smoke of warmth still drifts away to the west. What wisdom is left tries to decide what is acceptable and what is not. We dread what’s on the horizon, yet do little to change it, grey and looming, we hurtle towards it.
Some more time has passed since then, though not as much yet quicker than before. This concept of time, the one we made up is not working. Our souls and our energy – the Earth is full steam ahead – declining. Everyone says, ‘I know’ but most have never looked or seen. Never shown how.

‘The road starts off wide and powerful. The dark house looks cold, barren, as if signifying the death of a loved one. As you get older the path gets narrower and steeper as you slow down. The sky is dark grey and threatening as it often is here.’

‘Humans suffer from need greed, we lack self‐control. We go too fast for clear thinking but too slow for real progress as we fight to save the Armageddon of places and species that threaten everything the painting represents. Death on Devon lanes – insect, pollinator, hedgehog, fox, badger. You’d be wise to slow down on Devon lanes. The hedges are so tall you can’t see what is coming.’

‘The charging train of Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed rushes towards you. Some see progress and excitement – escape from rural poverty, isolation and stagnation in the past. Others see danger, industrialisation, pollution. Everything that moves is damaging the environment.’

‘The farming methods of the 1960s encroaching on the painting. These removed many of the hedges, even in Devon. Farmers are continually squeezed between insufficient subsidy and cash king retail giants. Mass production, produce is sold at a pittance to intemperate consumers. Temperance is a virtue badly needed right now: no finger wagging if we can’t control our own behaviour.’

‘None of us can live in such sheltered, small communities if they have been snapped up by developers and used as second homes! Just a little bit of land allows us our veg patch and a way of life that many crave, more connected to the seasons, the elements.’

‘You slow down on Devon Lanes to experience shelter and the feeling of being safe and cocooned by nature.’

‘We are re‐establishing city hedgerows, planting trees and sowing wildflowers to discover the balance we feel in a Devon lane.’

‘We rest and unwind. We feel liberated in the long walk, or the mad cap cycle down the hill as the artist would have done. The arrival of the bicycle brought the catchment area for marriage up from two to thirty miles! “There is joy in journeying. Not all roads are evil.”

‘Rows of roads wind through Devon hills, joining loved ones from A to B, whilst hedgerows reach from moor to sea for bats and bees, birds and bugs to find new mates and neighbourhoods. These connections like roots bring people, fauna, life to place.’

Inspired by the painting, the Village Hub took a group of young people to visit the lane in Westlake about fifteen miles away. Walking over the brow they noticed that much had changed, and yet also so little. Fifty years after Hartley had recorded the view, we walked nature’s highway with those young people – who have the greatest stake and the most to lose – away from the ease of online instant gratification. The snaking grey ribbon road still winds hopefully ever upwards towards the purple skies. A wind turbine gently hums overhead. Here are some of the things that the young people said:‘Wind turbines are good for the environment. High up in the sky they don’t cause any harm.’ ‘There’s a need for the wild and the re‐wild. It’s making space for the green in the grey.’ ‘I would live here in this lane with safe passage for snails.’ ‘The only sound is our footsteps and the birdsong. I like it that way.’ ‘We CAN work with water, wind and soil
We CAN tread lightly on the earth
For our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren
Fifty years on.’

Notes

1. For recent perspectives on climate change and lament in relation to spirituality, see Malcolm 2020. (Back to text.)

3. NSRV 1989, Isaiah 40:4. (Back to text.)

4. Ruskin 1903–12, vol. 3, p. 231. (Back to text.)

5. Koyama 2021, p. 36. (Back to text.)

6. Samuels 2001, p. 15. (Back to text.)

7. Plymouth, The Box Archive, [Ben Hartley], notebook number 82, 9 April–8 June 1968, p. 46. (Back to text.)

8. Samuels 2001, pp. 11–12, 19. (Back to text.)

List of archive references cited

  • Plymouth, The Box Archive, [Ben Hartley], notebook number 82, 9 April–8 June 1968

List of references cited

  • Concannon et al. 2021
    Concannon, Amy, ‘Steam and Speed’, in David Blayney‐Brown, Amy Concannon and Sam Smiles, eds, Turner’s Modern World, London 2021
  • Koyama 2021
    Koyama, Kosuke, Three Mile an Hour God, London 2021
  • Malcolm 2020
    Malcolm, Hannah, Words for a Dying World: Stories of Grief and Courage from a Global Church, London 2020
  • NRSV 1989
    The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, London 1989
  • Ruskin 1903–12
    Ruskin, John, ‘Modern Painters’, in E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Collected Works of John Ruskin, 39 vols, London 1903–12 (vol. 3)
  • Samuels 2001
    Samuels, Bernard, Ben Hartley, Bristol 2001

About this catalogue

This online born‐digital catalogue accompanies the National Gallery’s virtual exhibition Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart. It is downloadable for free, and any part of the catalogue can be easily accessed or printed. This format maximises the flexible ways in which these texts can be used, enjoyed and shared. Any mistakes or omissions are the editors’ own.

The exhibition has been curated by Ayla Lepine in close collaboration with Susanna Avery‐Quash. Fruits of the Spirit pairs nine paintings from the National Gallery’s collection with nine paintings from regional partner collections from across the UK. The catalogue and virtual exhibition are accompanied by a series of UK‐wide events, a Smartify audioguide and, from November 2022 until April 2023, an in‐person tour through the National Gallery’s collection.

The catalogue has been co‐edited by Ayla Lepine and Susanna Avery‐Quash, with assistance from Isobel Muir as part of her Student Development activity supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The catalogue’s structure places the nine themes of the Fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity and self‐control – in dialogue with the exhibition’s 18 paintings. Each theme features short essays by a National Gallery curator, a UK partnership museum curator, and an individual or group connected with the regional partner. These community voices provide an exciting and dynamic layer within the project and the catalogue structure. Community contributors include art therapists, artists, refugees, people from Quaker, Jewish and Methodist backgrounds, children, and climate change activists.

Additionally, the London‐based Jewish poet Aviva Dautch was commissioned to write a poem responding to the Fruits of the Spirit themes. Dautch is also a participant in the National Gallery’s new Interfaith Sacred Art Forum, which has been focusing on the theme ‘Crossing Borders’. She selected the Fruit of the Spirit’s theme of Faithfulness in relation to Orazio Gentileschi’s The Finding of Moses. Her words connect this painting to the importance of women in scripture and the significance of Artemisia Gentileschi (Orazio’s daughter) as an artist with her own story to tell. Dautch’s poem also makes a profound connection with the Foundling Museum’s contributions to the Faithfulness theme and the biblical account of Moses’ birth. Dautch’s work speaks of faith in uncertain times, the enduring strength of women in painful circumstances, and the enduring qualities of faith, hope and love in every person’s life.

About the authors

Ayla Lepine

Revd Dr Ayla Lepine was Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery (2021–2) and is now Associate Rector at St James’s Piccadilly in London. Following her PhD from the Courtauld Institute of Art, she held fellowships at the Courtauld and Yale, and was Lecturer and Fellow in Art History at the University of Essex. Her publications include co‐edited books on monastic architecture and modern visual culture, as well as articles on art and theology in Architectural History, the Sculpture Journal and British Art Studies. She is a trustee of the UK charity Art and Christianity, a contributor to the Visual Commentary on Scripture and a member of the Visual Arts Committee at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Terah Walkup

Terah Walkup is art curator at The Box, Plymouth, where she oversees the fine and decorative art collections as well as the Cottonian Collection, which holds Designated Status. She joined the team in 2017 to assist with the redevelopment of the former Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, including its major collections move, gallery design and installation, to become a new cultural institution. She has recently curated the museum’s first exhibition dedicated to its costume and textiles collection. She holds degrees in Art History from Northwestern University and the University of Texas at Austin.

The Village Hub

The Village Hub wishes to do things with, rather than for, people. Community members have deep veins of creativity which it has been a joy to untap for this collaboration with The Box, Green Minds Plymouth and the National Gallery. We invited everyone to be involved: old, young, local, ‘not from these parts’, comfortably off and not so, in work and out of work, able bodied and less able, single people and families, all with varying degrees of neurodiversity and mental wellbeing. A diverse group of 10 was formed for the writing of this response – a truly collaborative creative experience.

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