The 20 or so drawings by Guy Allott in the book you are
holding fall into two over-lapping clusters, firstly the ‘sad
trees’ with their dappled hints of Samuel Palmer and the
later English neoromantics, and secondly a larger group of
off-world landscapes, populated by occasional jolly dancing
tree-people, with towering mountains at 360 degrees, obedient
to no mere earthly laws of physics or geological time.
Throughout the history of European art one recognises
the pleasure particular artists have derived from depicting
wood-grain, from Giotto and Piero della Francesca, to
Braque, Magritte, and Guston. Here paint remains deliciously
and timelessly itself in the very act of signifying woodness,
and the age of trees that grow to an entirely different
time-scale to our own, and on which our entire civilization
has depended, from hearth and home to boats and funeral
pyres, to say nothing of charcoal, paper or stretchers. The
trees in which we hid as children, which we climbed and fell
out of, were here long before our earliest ancestors. Acknowledged
and revered in almost every known society,
their branches stretch out from the ancient Norse legend of
Yggdrasil, the tree of the world, to the sadly speaking tree of
Anglo-Saxon poetry, and so on to Avatar.
The conventions of landscape were of course largely redundant
for most of the last century, but generous and inclusive
they now feel alert and meaningful again, and instinct with
our sense of the present, as Allott’s work so powerfully
demonstrates. Here real trees invade imaginary planets, to
paraphrase Marianne Moore. They remind us, if we need to
be reminded, that the landscapes of the old masters are always
real places, from the craggy cloud-capped azure peaks
which surround the little town of Pieve di Cadore high up in
the Dolomites where Titian grew up as a child, to Constable’s
Suffolk, or Joseph Anton Koch’s majestic Wetterhorn,
or Allott’s native Yorkshire.
Always the moon presides indifferently over our sleep and
dreams, but who could have guessed that when we finally
got there it would prove to be so anti climatic, so very unlike
the sci-fi film and comic landscapes of which twentieth-century
adults and children alike dreamed? It was not however
the real surface of the moon that so affected our perceptions,
for after all we know that for most of its history our own
world was just as vastly lifeless. It was on the contrary the
shockingly vulnerable beauty of planet earth as visible from
space in that first astonishing ‘blue marble’ photograph
that so jolted the imagination. We are hardly the first to
envisage Gaia, the animate mothering earth, but has any
previous image ever shown her more isolated and defenceless?
One could argue that modern mapping techniques are
changing the way we envisage landscape.
Meanwhile the galaxies and constellations continue to
swing above our heads sublimely indifferent to our mortal
ideas of progress. Besides, the pastoral vision has never been
restricted to depictions of our planet, and many of its most
poetic expressions have always lead us up into the skies, and
it has moreover always been the nature of Romanticism to
think big as well as tiny. One wouldn’t really be that suprised
to find Keats sitting on one of Allott’s lonely planets listening
out intently for the plaintive beep of an orbiting satellite.
The beautiful imaginary paradoxical worlds to which he
takes us obey their own physical and pictorial rules, defiantly
flouting the familiar conventions of binocular
earth-bound human vision. Who is to say if his melancholy
wrecked art historical space ships are what they seem at all?
They might after all be monuments, or alien art-works?
With their constant confusions of upand-down, and infront-
or-behind, Allott’s radiant other worlds remind us of
happier past visions of outer space, imagined as a universe
of far-off utopian destinations safely ready and waiting for
us in the face of possible global catastrophe. But in the
meantime as he has suggested: ‘It seems we will be earthbound
for some time’ 1.
Guy Allott, ‘2010