When I was seventeen something unusual happened to me.
I was watching a film about the civil war in a local cinema.
There was a cavalry charge, and as a horse leapt a wall of pikes
something snapped inside me. I walked out of the cinema and towards
the countryside. In half an hour I was pacing down a lane, walking
towards the afternoon sun, not knowing what was happening. I felt I
didn't know where I was but I had a purpose I couldn't express. I
was tense, crying, and although I couldn't stop walking I felt my
body begin to lock up.
As this became more unbearable I saw nature change. Instead of
hedges and trees I saw green fire, solid things shone and
everything about me was filled with a common life, a moving fire
that I saw as revelation.
From horizon to horizon the sky became a single convex light,
and a wave of emotion passed from the centre of my body out along
my limbs through my hands and feet. The sky seemed to come down to
touch me. I felt unspeakable relief. I seemed to be leaving my
body. I fell on my knees facing the sun, prayed, and fell
When I awoke I was under an oak tree, looking up. Through the
branches I saw a pigeon flying. I felt I had left my body: the bird
was me. After a while the world quietly reurned to normal. I got up
and went home.
Had I seen God ? Was this Hopkins's Heracletean fire of The
Resurrection ? I didn't know. But I was grateful for The Bible for
giving me a language to think about such things. I began to find it
difficult to deal with everyday life, so to get my barings I went
to stay with some monks at an Anglican Franciscan friary. I was
given a mentor. The crucial theological point became "Did my
experience make me behave more kindly to my fellow man?" If
it did, then it may have been a sign of Christian Grace. I looked
into myself and, over some time, I found that it did not.
If anything, the experience cut me off from others. I read
Marganita Lasky's "Ecstasy, a study in secular religious
experience" and found that historically my experience was quite
common. (John Carey mentions Lasky in What Good are The
Arts? and William James , whom I've not read, also deals
with this in Varieties of Religious Experience).I realised
it could be interpreted in different ways. A girl friend said,
wryly, that it was all to do with sex.
Now, much later, I see this event as something that can happen
to people and that, when it does, needs support and context
for it to be bearable and, even, useful. It's the sort of thing I
recognise in the poetry of Traheren and hear in the music of
composers like Finzi and Vaugh Williams. I also see it
bubbling through the letters of John Constable. The most important
thing these artists have in common is that they take intense
private experience of nature - nature in the senses - and
turn it into something that can be shared by others, a man made
nature that shares a sense of wonder at being in the natural
A few days afterwards I made this drawing in the back of a
I remember not liking the expressiveness of the paintings I
produced in the next few months. Too much fantasy. This is a view
of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal:
I thought Emile Nolde's landscapes were wonderful but, even at
school, John Constable seemed the real deal in landscape painting:
passionate, but closely involved with the world around him and
taking an interest in many branches of knowledge.
Since then, I've felt that the real challange in visual art is
to get closer to the realities of the visual world. You can see
this reaction in the approach I took at art school, and it drives my sometimes
unusually 'scientific' methods now.
But there are many limits to objectivity, and I hope my new work with
water will be intimate with imagination - that's the best
I can say for now.
On reflection, the visual quality of the experience, which
would be utterly unnerving if experienced in
isolation, has helped me to think about painting.
Sight is a miraculous interface between the internal and
external worlds. So an observational painting is a negociation
between the outer and the inner. Polarising this as objective
external v affective internal is literally non-sense. Think of
the glance of a loved one's eye.
This tells us something internal about visual tradition too,
because ways of painting are ways of seeing that exist without us
as individuals, thank you. When we learn to make art in a certain
way the tradition thinks us.
A great tradition like European observed landscape is there to
learn. Encouraged by market forces perhaps, some artists have
difficulty in seeing how much tradition gives them. In art, the ego
only goes so far.
Without understanding the technical detail of his thought, a
philosopher who seems to me to be close to my feelings about
realism in art is Don Cupitt, who's much broader view is somewhat
confusingly called "non-reaism".
Cupitt refers to Richard Rorty's idea that beliefs are 'tools',
not copies. I like that, and I feel it squares with the idea that
there is real information about the world in perception (it's not
fantasy) but it is the perciever who, astoundingly, creates a
representation of the world in his or her own brain - or on the
As a visual artist, I feel the primary discoveries are somehow
"out there" and "in here" at the same time.
Here is a link.