On my daily walk, I’ve found myself pausing indulgently in front of the window of my local fine art shop to take in the vibrant paintings of rolling Yorkshire landscapes and quaint seaside villages. Perhaps this is a meagre attempt at escaping the lockdown. To gaze at the exuberance of ultramarine and vermillion seas, and the emerald green of a gleaming mountainside, is to momentarily feel that you have escaped the confines of daily life. You can finally feel the sun on your face and the wind in your hair.
Pictures of the natural world have always offered an escape to those confined in cities, but it seems that now more than ever we all need the reassurance of these natural scenes to remind us that in the face of our all too human preoccupations – money, wars, pandemics – the cycle of life carries on. The sun stills rises and sets, flowers continue to grow, birds continue to sing and other species live on unperturbed.
William Holman Hunt depicts this sentiment perfectly in a landscape of vast intricacy entitled ‘Our English Coasts’. With nowhere to go, our eyes can become starved of stimulation, yet Hunt reminds us that everything is interesting if you look close enough. It is the flock of stray sheep on the hillside that first grabs our attention, but we are then invited to admire the aquamarine water, the multicoloured flowers, and the butterflies which are painted with epic precision. In fact, Hunt was so determined to get them right that he modelled them on live specimens that he kept alive in a jar in his studio. Although access to the outdoors is now permitted only for exercise, this painting acts as a reminder that we are part of a larger natural cycle, and soon we will be able to rejoin nature again and enjoy the landscape.
In times of crisis, art and culture are often regarded as luxuries: the real necessities being food, medicine, and bizarrely, toilet roll. What artists such as Holman Hunt demonstrate, however, is that in difficult times we need art more than ever. It not only helps us to appreciate the beauty all around us, but simultaneously allows us to escape our hardships and puts our struggles into perspective.
I think this is why, when scanning the art shop window for any new arrivals, I was most struck by Lisa Stubbs’ simple and homely illustration of wax flowers standing in a Colman’s Mustard jar. I’ve always loved the way that art can transform ordinary people and ordinary things. It has the unique ability to show us our modest everyday possessions in a new light, endowing them with a beauty that was previously overlooked and evoking in us a gratitude for the rustic.
Yet Stubb’s work seems particularly pertinent today; the flowers rebel against the confining flatness of the grey wall and are turned towards the sunshine, and the simple yellow mustard jar beams through the darkness, calling out for attention. It is a reminder that beauty and positivity can be found in even the most mundane places – all we need to do is stop and look for them.
Nevertheless, art doesn’t need to be particularly topical or relatable to be life-affirming. In times of hardship, beauty offers a form of therapy and raises the spirits. Although many children are stuck inside, John Singer Sargent’s ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’ encourages us to look forward to a time, perhaps in late summer, of playful evenings outdoors.
The depiction of two girls with Chinese lanterns has both aesthetic and sensory appeal; you can almost hear the laughter of the children and smell the thick fragrance of the carnations wafting through the nocturnal air. It has the ability to take us back to a time of preternatural innocence before the strain and stress of daily modern life and the current crisis. If I had to be trapped indoors for eternity, I think I’d want this painting for company.
For me, Singer Sargent’s work encapsulates the power art has over us: the power to bring us pleasure, to bring us comfort, and to offer us a flicker of light in the darkness. The tactile experience it offers reminds us that although we are spending the vast majority of our waking hours in a single room, going outside isn’t a necessity for escape. Art is an imaginative exercise; through it, we can enter other worlds, even in the confines of our own homes. After all, you can’t lock up or lockdown the human imagination.
Images: Tate Britain.