SIMON BILL’S WORLD
Come on a journey into Simon Bill’s world… Simon is our writer in residence for the festival with a project comprising three strands:
Firstly, as a BLOGGER: writing a regular blog recording and responding to the project and its contributors.
Secondly, as a CURATOR and ORGANISER of publications and online EVENTS in which Dover’s writers – poets, journalists, and local historians – respond to Dover’s people and complex socio-political profile through the prism of its geography, history and culture.
Thirdly, as an EXPLORER: by leading exploratory walks engaging with Dover’s hidden treasures.
BIOGRAPHY Simon Bill is an artist and writer based in Dover, educated at Central St. Martins and the Royal College of Art. He has exhibited widely and has been represented by Cabinet Gallery (London), Stuart Shave/Modern Art (London), and Patrick Painter (Los Angeles). In 2014 his first major museum show, titled ‘Lucky Jim’, was at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. In 2011 his novel BRAINS was published by the ‘art writing’ imprint MUTE. In 2016 a fully revised version of the novel was published by Sort of Books under the title Artist in Residence; its TV & film rights were acquired in July 2020 by the production company Corestar Media. Bill is a regular contributor to TURPS magazine. The most recent issue features a dialogue with painter Phil King, an appreciation of the show of Antonin Artaud’s notebooks at Cabinet Gallery in 2019.
There’s an idea about painters that we’re especially preoccupied with qualities of light. This comes up if anybody mentions, say, the south of France or St Ives in Cornwall in relation to painters and painting. The thought is that there are communities of artists in those places, and that they all go there for the special light. We’re also supposed to be especially concerned about which direction the windows of our studios face. It’s not quite that none of that is true, but a significant number of the painters whose work you might encounter in contemporary art galleries are city dwellers, and they work in old factories and warehouses, under strip lights. Painters just are not that discerning about light. On or off is the only thing we really notice mostly. If we’re outdoors we’ll appreciate a nice sunny day, the same as anyone else, but a painter who sells their work is realistically only expecting those works to be seen under artificial light. If anything, you’d be slightly sabotaging yourself if you only made paintings under carefully selected natural lighting conditions, and also expected those works to be viewed that way. Collectors put your work in their houses, and museums put it, obviously, in the museum. It’s all indoors.
I have been to St Ives, and still didn’t get it. It was sunny, but nothing about that seemed distinctive. My near indifference to qualities of light only changed when I came to live in Dover. The experience was one of that rare and satisfying kind in which a metaphorical description and a literal description are the same thing – I saw the light. My eyes were opened. And so on.
I’ve been doing a lot of walking, and I’ve had a number of these experiences by now, so I can’t remember which was the first one, or when it was exactly. Pretty soon after I got here, April 2018. So, let’s say the first one was on the cliffs at Langdon. That’s the section of the white cliffs that is actually designated ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ (there are chalk cliffs going on for miles either side of it), so, it’s a tourist destination, but on a weekday, even in summer, you’re mostly on your own. (When I lived in Sheffield we’d visit the Peak District a lot, and it always seemed to be teeming with walkers and cyclists in these garish luminous ‘outdoors’ outfits, no doubt purchased at one of the many sporting and camping goods emporia in Hathersage. You got the sense there that going outdoors was very much a business.)
Atholl Terrace is a pleasing row of narrow, white painted, town houses at the eastern border of Dover, surprisingly not spoiled at all by its arm’s-length proximity to the busy Eastern Docks. When I first took the concrete path that leads from the end of Atholl Terrace up to the White Cliffs there were no signs to tell me I was going the right way, so I was guessing. It’s a long path, and at that time still a nameless one. Those omissions have since been put right in a way that seems somehow typical for Dover. Vera Lynn died in 2020, and it must have occurred to someone that this presented the opportunity to carry out two otherwise unrelated tasks – pay tribute to Dame Vera, and place a sign where one would be useful. They christened the path ‘Dame Vera Lynn Way’, and underneath that they’ve put ‘to the White Cliffs of Dover’ (the sign at the other end has the name plus a bit of the lyric from her famous WW2 song ‘There’ll be Bluebirds Over, The White Cliffs of Dover’). At the top you go past a booth where they take the car park money, and then the visitor’s centre. Through a gate that’s there to keep the Exmoor ponies in, and another ten minutes walking gets you to a picturesque fairy tale dell or vale called Langdon Hole. This lies between the actual cliff edge and the sea on one side (obviously), and a flinty field on the other. I think it was whilst crossing this field that I had, for the first time, the sort of response to light a painter ought to have. What was it about the conditions here that caused this? Light on its own is just undifferentiated glare, so its varieties are only really disclosed by the particular character of its effects on what is lit – the surfaces and objects.
First, though, there was scale. This wide and high field by the sea offers an encounter with the sky. Boy (you will think), the sky! It’s big, isn’t it. Why is it that I hadn’t really noticed this before? The great big sky above. There was a degree of surprise for me here, because I could certainly have imagined seeing a big sky somewhere, but I wouldn’t have expected it to be in England. You’d expect it to be something you get maybe in the desert. Not Kent.
The quality the light had that day was of a striking clarity. Again, a slightly surprising effect because I’d thought almost all the light I’d seen before was pretty clear anyway. Being clear just means there’s nothing in it making it cloudy, but here the clarity seemed to be an additional property that caused everything to look as if it was made of a crystalline material, even the grass. And this did something peculiar to the perception of distance. France is 20 odd miles away, and it looked about that, at the same time as seeming like you could have reached out and flicked it with a finger. Swimming the channel seemed completely doable (in reality of course I’d probably drown). The sense of space being both infinite and intimate was lent a synaesthetic dimension by the pervasive, quite loud, birdsong. And I couldn’t see the birds. I found out later that that’s a characteristic of the song of skylarks. They fly so high you often can’t see them, but the sound carries. The clear, clear, light yielded a great wealth of detail. Ships and other craft, sometimes a dozen or so at a time in the strait, and the crisp outlines showing you what sort – a ferry, or the Border Force, or a multi-storey cruiser, or someone’s posh yacht, or a cargo ship with a small city of containers, like a slow-moving model of Manhattan; the port, with its multiple intricate structures poking out in to the sea; horizontal patches of bright water where the sun strikes at full force through breaks in the cloud.
Anyway, what is light? This is something that interests me very much. Studying visual perception is a sort of hobby of mine. In art schools, where there is an obsession currently with wanting to call anything anyone does ‘research’, I’m often asked if this is research, or if it’s part of my research (‘research’ can now mean the work an artist does). Or could I just say ‘research’, please? It’s not research. Research is one of two things – Either it’s acquiring totally new knowledge in, say, a scientific study, and I’m not doing that because I’m reading other people’s results, not finding my own. I’m not a scientist. Or it’s gathering existing information for some project or other. If, for example, I was writing a novel about the Tudors my research would be reading a lot about Henry VIII and so on, by way of preparation. And it isn’t like that either because learning about visual perception is not a preparation for making visual art. I was doing that already. Beginning to understand something of how vision works doesn’t help me make visual art any more than it helps me to see. I can see anyway, can’t I – But how? The study of visual perception is in its infancy. Not surprising, that, because one thing we do know is that the whole of the occipital cortex, the back part of the brain, is devoted to vision, and around 40 other areas are involved in some way. Seeing is a breathtakingly difficult and complex task, involving a terrific neural workload and a great deal of energy drawn from the rich blood supply, and yet it’s achieved with no sense of effort. Every time you look at something your brain is working very hard indeed, and yet you don’t know that it is. The idea that we could apply current scientific knowledge of how vision works directly to the complex task of making a work of visual art is ridiculous. The understanding of visual perception is nowhere near ready for that. The reason I study visual perception is because it’s so interesting.
Light is the best medium for describing our surroundings in detail. That is, the exact form and deployment of objects we don’t happen to be actually touching, near and far. A lot of useful information can be derived from the vibrations of air waves, so hearing is useful, and a lot can be derived from airborne chemicals, so smell is useful too. But both of those media are diffuse, and quite slow moving. Light is incredibly fine grained, it moves at terrific speed and in straight lines (it does curve at the cosmic level but that doesn’t concern us at our scale – so, in effect, perfect straight lines). Being able to detect light, bouncing around in the environment, rebounding from various surfaces in lawful ways at predictable angles, gives extremely detailed, almost instant, information about your physical context. The fact that light, unlike sound and smell, doesn’t go round corners is actually an advantage, because the edges of an object, its corners, are what gives us an accurate 3D description of that object. That’s how objects are, as it were, drawn in space.
What is the stuff itself? Light. There are four known forces in the universe – gravity, the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force, and electromagnetism. Light is a sort of electromagnetism. Electromagnetism propagates at a great range of different wavelengths, from something smaller than the nucleus of an atom up to a single wave as wide as the planet, and beyond. Those different wavelengths give it very different properties. So, for example, gamma rays and x-rays are short, and radio waves are long. Between those extremes on the electromagnetic spectrum is light (sometimes, rather confusingly I think, called ‘visible light’), at between about 400 and 700 nanometers. A property of electromagnetic radiation within this range of wavelengths is that it causes some particular chemicals to alter instantly. So, if you have a quantity of the chemicals in question you have a light detector. And that’s what photoreceptor cells, the rods and cones in the eyes are – they are cells containing these chemicals. Note that there is more than one of sort of light responsive chemical, the ‘opsins’, and that different objects reflect or emit different wavelengths of light in the range between 400 and 700 nanometers. Having cells containing different opsins, the three types of cone cell, gives us the ability to detect those differences of wavelength, and this means you can know something additional about the objects and surfaces around you other than sizes and shapes. You have colour.
In the early days of vision research the prospect of fully explaining vision did not seem so remote, and within a cultural atmosphere of widespread enthusiasm for science among educated people there was a lot of interest from painters in vision science, especially about colour. Throughout the 19th century there were various ideas about the possibility of optimising the colour in a painting by applying scientific principles. There were a great many colour theories, producing exquisite ‘colour wheel’ diagrams, and the best known of these was devised by the French chemist Michel Chevreul. In the 1820s he was hired by a famous dye works that produced thread for tapestries to investigate the apparent fading of some of their dyes. It turned out those dyes weren’t fading, it’s just the colours looked more or less vivid depending on what colour they were next to. That seems like common sense now, and I’m sure most painters could have told them that, but he was the first person to note and actually investigate that phenomenon.
The most famous artist who was supposed to be using Chevreul’s principles to give a more scientific colour effect in painting was Seurat. Some art historians and critics will still claim he was producing his range of colours by so-called ‘optical mixing’, that is, instead of mixing paints on the palette then applying them you apply dots of primary colour in different densities and then the mixing is achieved optically. It’s the same principle as colour printing and colour on computers. Only he wasn’t really. If you look closely at a Seurat it’s obvious he was mixing his colours before applying them, the same as any other painter. None of this means that scientific principles about colour could never be used in a controlled way by artists and designers and so on, but the thing is we hardly understand it now. Vision is not well understood yet, and so colour isn’t well understood. It’s worth emphasising this – It’s amazingly complicated, and we have a long way to go. These are the olden days, basically. And, anyhow, we don’t need to understand the science of colour to use colour. You don’t need to instrumentalise knowledge. The interest of the science is to understand something we, some better than others, can do already. An additional benefit is wonder. The fact that we can see colour is wonderful, and appreciating the difficulty of the task cultivates wonder.
I didn’t start to think about Turner in relation to all this until I found the DVD of the Mike Leigh biopic ‘Mr Turner’ in the library by the museum in the square. How I managed to not think about Turner for so many months I don’t know. I mean, I’m a painter, one who admires Turner, doing just what Turner used to do exactly where he used to do it – walking along the cliffs, looking at reflections and rainbows and sunsets and glare and shimmer. Never crossed my mind until I saw that DVD. It’s a pretty good film. Lots of beautiful photography, terrific acting, and all the dialogue and costumes and everything seem authentic. Also, of course, as shown in the film, Turner’s interest in light was informed by, or, at any rate, inflected by, a belief that this pursuit was a kind of, or was related to, scientific research. He made diagrams and so on for his lectures. And he was very influenced in his thinking by Goethe’s famous, and in important ways quite wrong, colour theory. Goethe did consider his colour theory as a scientific enterprise, but he was also hostile to science (a lot of the romantics were), and he did not believe what Newton had discovered, that white light mixes all the wavelengths of the spectrum. He thought it can’t do because he imagined it would be like mixing all the colours of paint. You just get brown. (Keats had a problem with Newton too. He accuses him of ‘unweaving the rainbow’, as if knowing how rainbows are formed spoils them. But it doesn’t. It makes them even better.) The only thing I didn’t like in that film was a bit when he was supposed to be working on one of his paintings in a creative frenzy, and he spits on it. That’s to show how physical and passionate he was in his painting. Spitting on an oil painting wouldn’t do anything at all.
The other film that reminds me of the sense of light and space up on the cliffs here is Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’. Especially the aerial combat scenes. The cliché with filmed dog fights between Spitfires and ME 109s shows it happening over a patchwork of green fields, but Nolan’s film gives you these astounding, endless seeming, horizons. Also, I had a strange experience with a Spitfire once when I’d only been living in Dover a month or so. I was walking along the cliffs past Langdon, and past the lighthouse, with an idea that I’d go through St Margaret’s and all the way to Deal (there was a happy holiday in Deal I wanted to remember). Looking up I was noticing that the sky was just that sort of blue we think of when we think of blue skies, and there was a Spitfire. Just for a moment I thought something like ‘Ah yes, all that about it being the 21st century now, and there being “computers” and Donald Trump and so on was a mad dream, and really it’s 1940 and we’re in the middle of the Battle of Britain’ (where I happened to be standing there was nothing I could see around me that couldn’t have been there 80 years ago). The Spitfire did a victory roll and turned to go back to the airfield. Apparently there are three or four of them still flying regularly, and it costs two or three grand for a half hour flight.
Thinking about Turner doesn’t make me think of trying to paint anything I see when I’m walking. I wouldn’t dare. I take pictures with my phone. I’ve done hundreds, and once in a while I feel sure I must have caught some of those special qualities of light and space, but I haven’t really. Even if the picture is quite good it’s no good because it just looks like all those stock library pictures of this or that glorious vista you get for nothing, and without having asked, somewhere on your phone and your computer. All those pictures of deserts and oceans and ruins and forests and paddy fields and so on. It doesn’t feel like that when you’re actually taking the photograph, but really every picture is mediated and filtered out by the ubiquity of picturing.
There’s one photograph I got on my phone that’s alright I think, but it’s possible it’s only like that for me. It’s a picture of the view from a bench at Connaught Park, the Victorian park that occupies the slopes just below Dover Castle, and I probably only think it’s a good picture because I’m imagining it captures (pictures are often supposed to ‘capture’ something) the feeling I had when I took it. Come to think of it, as I took the picture I was lining up the camera so as to make the image comply with familiar Claudian pictorial conventions. The same set of rules for composition in landscape painting that Turner was still using 150 years after Claude Lorrain established them in the 17th century. The main rule has to do with how you position a tree. You have a dominant tree in the foreground, and this has a heavy workload, compositionally, giving scale and depth to everything else. It acts as a partial framing device for the middle ground and the rolling hills in the distance. Often the main tree will sit directly on one or other of the sides of the picture, only partly visible, giving a proscenium arch effect. Another way is to have almost the whole tree visible within the pictorial space giving a strong figure/field relationship, but still pushing out towards the picture plane to give maximum spatial contrast with the hazy hills, miles away. Or, like me with this photograph, you can have both in one picture.
Dover is in a valley, so if you stand on one side and look across at the other one you get exactly that ideal spatial effect, with a foreground, a middle ground, and then the far distance. And of course it’s a park, so all the trees are nicely arranged. But none of that would have mattered if the light hadn’t been so perfect. It was late afternoon, and it was late in the summer. There’s a certain kind of light that Titian was very good at, where everything has a coppery penumbra. You get it in a lot of English painting too, especially Samuel Palmer and Gainsborough. So, not the very clear sort of light I saw that time in the field next to Langdon Hole, where everything seems unnaturally well defined and exact. This was the sort of light that rests on things like a coating of fairy dust. It looks like a blessing. And the other thing I should mention is that I felt perfectly at peace, sitting on this bench by a tree and looking across at the hills beyond the Western Heights. (Thinking about this a bit more I’m aware now that, not fully consciously, what I seemed to be seeing in the distance were the hills in Alfred Bestall’s illustrations for the Rupert Bear stories I was so keen on as a child, in which the whole of an idealised England was a great playground for the little bear and his pals.) You know, about once every four or five years you experience perfect contentment and happiness, and that feeling seems to be a kind of recollection? It had slipped your mind that everything is wonderful. It was that. Everything made perfect sense. The photograph isn’t bad at all.
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