Memoir: It's NOT all Wine & Roses


You’ve heard me say that I’m always searching for a ‘Sense of Place’; for the ‘Genius of Place.’ Those words of Alexander Pope, written in 1731,‘..let Nature never be forgot. Consult the genius of the Place in all,’ seem the perfect motto for traveller, architect, landscaper, writer and photographer. And this search has taken me to some interesting, and, at times, terrifying, locations.

As I’ve explained, in 18th century England an appreciation of the work of the three great (French-born) Italian landscape artists - Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin and Salvatore Rosa - became the epitome of taste and education. The perfect romantic landscapes of this trio had become the focus for the pilgrimages of young aristocrats, who returned home to create their own classical Elysium, that state of perfect happiness. And for more than a century after Claude Lorrain’s death, in 1682, his ideal of the sublime beauty of nature influenced English landscape design.

It was thought that a landscape painter, with his understanding of light and shadow, of composition through the relationship of mass and void, and by his sense of line and proportion, would know best how to design garden and landscape. Such lessons are followed also by landscape and garden photographers. As a self-taught photographer I fell in love with this concept.

The 18th century aestheticists like Horace Walpole, Edmund Burke and William Gilpin referenced the importance of these earlier artists, writing of “Precipices, mountains, torrents, wolves, rumblings, Salvator Rosa.” (Walpole, 1739)three gorges 11

Edmund Burke in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) extolled the stupendous, rugged and bleak “Crags, precipices and torrents, windswept ridges, unploughed uplands,” that became the epitome of taste, precisely because they could not be ruled and refined by the human hand. The aesthetic dictated by these landscape artists did not escape the plant hunters who travelled East in search of horticultural treasure. Of the mountains of northern Tibet, Joseph Hooker wrote, in 1849, “as grand as any pictured by Salvatore Rosa; a river roaring in sheets of foam, sombre woods, crags and tier upon tier of lofty mountains flanked with crests of black firs, terminating in snow sprinkled rocky peaks.”

While such observations must have seemed a long way from the considerations of daily life in the colonies, some colonists, particularly those from the more successful tenant farms in England, would have been well aware of the dramatic landscape changes occurring there. Such observations provide an important context for the settlement of Australia by an elite group of immigrants. And such a picturesque view of the landscape - what Wordsworth called ‘a strong infection of the age’ - was further encouraged by colonial artists.[1]

Water-colourists, including Louis Haghe, Conrad Martins, Joseph Lycett and, later, Eugene von Guerard, rode the Australian countryside, sketchbook in saddlebag, creating views and landscapes they would then offer for sale. The Arcadia they depicted for their increasingly wealthy settler-clients reflected a rise in colonial taste while echoing the cultivated tastes of those whose estates they had observed at ‘home’. And I was searching for this Arcadia - for the sublime, the picturesque, and the terrifying. Influenced by Ansell Adams and the extraordinary Peter Dombrovskis, I wanted to explore, and to photograph – to capture - wild, majestic, untamed mountains.

No state in Australia preserves the paradigm of transferred vision better than Tasmania. Early English and Scottish settlers to the colony commented that Tasmania ‘felt like home’ and that being in Tasmania was like ‘being on the right side of the world again.’ In Tasmania, the building of a grand Georgian-style house and the creation of an important garden was attendant to the success exemplified by land and stock acquisition. And in 21st century Tasmania, the ‘Genius of Place’ is alive and well.

One January, only a few years ago, I was staying with the artist Robyn Mayo and her husband, John Hawkins, at their property, Bentley, in the beautiful Meander Valley, in the north of Tasmania. Their house and landscape, with its extensive lakes – the leitmotif of the English landscape garden – lie in the shadow of the Great Western Tiers, a shimmering blue rib of ancient mountains that run north-south through the state, like a spine.Bentley

The property looks onto another mountain range that runs east-west, with its mountain known as ‘Claude.’ I was photographing Bentley for my book, ‘Gardens of Eden’, a showcase of many of the world’s most beautiful gardens. I said to John, “I’d like to drive to the top of the Tiers to capture ‘on film’ the spirit of this place.” (I meant ‘on disc’, of course, as we were now in the digital age.)

“Well, we won’t drive. We’ll climb,” John replied, and told me the story of Mother Cummings Peak, a high point in the Tiers to which a school teacher had led a group of children more than a century ago. That was fine with me. We set off mid-morning, with an ex-SAS officer as our guide. He knew the secret entrance that would allow us to enter the ancient eucalypt forest to access the narrow track that led us, after two hours, to an alpine meadow of unique mosses, Chinohebe ciliota. This is a botanical hotspot, and just a kilometre away as the crow flies, at Cradle Mountain, a different species of the genus grows. (And another species at Mount Kosciuszko, in the Snowy Mountains.)Alpine meadow1

The climb seemed easy so far; but that was just the beginning. The next part of the climb - to the peak - took two hours of scrambling, on hands and knees, over volcanic scree. I didn’t dare look down. John, who had been an officer at England’s Sandhurst officer-training academy, was standing a little way up the mountainside, gallantly carrying my heavy camera gear, and instructing, “Stand up tall: that will make it easier,” adding, “at Sandhurst; this sort of excursion was how we sorted out who had leadership potential.” “Well, now we know that I have no leadership potential,” I wailed. “Get me a helicopter.”                                                        

When we reached the peak there was only a tiny piece of rock on which to stand. And then we had to get down. I told you the garden photographer's life can be dangerous!   On Mother Cummings Peak


[1] Wordsworth, of the picturesque movement, in The Prelude, 1805.