The artist who taught me how to see…

What with one thing and another, I haven’t had much to say recently. 

Part of that is down to having been reading The Challenge, a quite monumental history on the War of 1812 by Andrew Lambert.  And I shall be talking about that at a later date. 

Once I’ve calmed down and am no longer throwing things at the jingoistic journalists of 200 years ago who just made stuff up rather than reported anything like the truth.

(Breathing in.  Breathing out.  Am calm.  Very calm…)


But also of late I’ve been doing  a bit of garden writing for another blog.  And one of the subjects which I chose to visit was Gertrude Jekyll, the famed Victorian/Edwardian artist and gardener…

And this is a funny thing, really.  Because in collecting all my books about her together, and in reading through many sections of said books, I was suddenly struck by how much about her I’d known but had forgot.  Which came as a bit of a surprise.  But most of all, I was reminded of how much she’d taught me.  Not just about gardening and plants, but about writing, about seeing, about life, about beauty.

So I’ve continued to just read her collected works.  And it’s been a marvellous homecoming.

You see, I’d never really considered it before, but it’s Gertrude Jekyll who taught me to write what I see.  I mean, the woman was utterly brilliant.  And possessed of a pioneering honesty.  And the process begins first with seeing.  Not seeing what we believe is there, but seeing what is there.

Jekyll writes about it this way: 

“Those who have had no training in the way to see colour nearly always deceive themselves into thinking that they see it as they know it is locally, whereas the trained eye sees colour in due relation and as it truly appears to be.  I remember driving with a friend of more than ordinary intelligence, who stoutly maintained that he saw the distant wooded hill quite as green as the near hedge.  He knew it was green and could not see it otherwise, till I stopped at a place where a part of the face, but none of the sky-bounded edge of the wooded distance, showed through a tiny opening among the near green branches, when, to his immense surprise, he was it was blue.” 

Or this:  “On some of those cold, cloudless days of March, when the sky is of a darker and more intensely blue colour than one may see at any other time of the year, and geese are grazing on the wide strips of green common, so frequent in my neighbourhood, I have often noticed how surprisingly blue is the north side of a white goose.  If at three o’clock in the afternoon of such a day one stands facing north-west and also facing the goose, its side next one’s right hand is bright blue and its other side is bright yellow, deepening to orange as the sun ‘westers’  and sinks, and shows through a greater depth of moisture-laden atmosphere.” 

Wow!  Holy wow.  That is seeing!  Seeing what’s truly there, embracing it really, in all its brilliant or soft and wonderful glory. 

And then, once seen, written…

And behold, a whole world is created with those words…a whole scene…you can picture it…you can see it, taste it, feel the mist of it falling on your face, soft as lamb’s wool, cool as spring.

I remember her talking about bark–how it’s grey and black and ridged and often greened over with moss.  She saw what was there…and through her seeing, shews us.

But Jekyll listened too.  She knew how to listen. 

“I can nearly always tell what trees I am near by the sound of the wind in their leaves, though in the same tree it differs much from spring to autumn, as the leaves become of a harder and drier texture.  The Birches have a small, quick, high-pitched sound; so near that of falling rain that I am often deceived into thinking it really is rain, when it is only their own leaves hitting each other with a small rain-like patter.  The voice of Oak leaves is also rather high-pitched, though lower than that of Birch.  Chestnut leaves in a mild breeze sound much more deliberate; a sort of slow slither…”

She’s a wonderful guide, and it is most assuredly thanks to her that I have turned my whole being to this business of listening and seeing–with all pores open to the world around–which is at the heart of any effective descriptive writing.

As I’m sitting here, I’m recalling many of  the things she shewed me, scenes I could never have fully appreciated without her opening my eyes to what was there, scenes which I wrote in Of Honest Fame off the back of that seeing and which are as dear to me as the portraits of my children.  And thinking on that,  I believe I must owe her an enormous debt of gratitude. 

Though possibly–as she was such a wry and winsome creature–the thanks she might hope for and those I can most certainly give, rather as a disciple, is a going forth and seeing likewise…

8 comments on “The artist who taught me how to see…

  1. Debra Brown says:

    I love the post. Gertrude is very perceptive. Artists are trained to look for color in things so they can put it down properly on the canvas. Painting snow, for example- you would think that you would dip your brush into white, but you don’t. Take a good look at snow in the sun. It is full of color. Some good snow paintings have no white at all- yet the viewer thinks they are looking at white!

    Like you, I am impressed and will start listening better, as well as looking closer. It is really important to good writing. Thanks!

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Funny you should mention snow. We don’t get a lot of it here–so when we did get quite a dumping of it, I took long walks, several times a day, so that I could see how it reflected the different lights, so I could see how the colour of the water changed under the leaden sky, so I could listen to the sound of new snow and old snow under my boots…so I could hear how the cry of the moorhen was different when it bounced off snow.

      All of which wholly transformed the winter scenes I had to write in Of Honest Fame.

  2. mesmered says:

    The power of observation is quite simply the most wonderful thing. I remember my son walking along the beach with me when he was very young, pointing out things in detail -sounds, sights – that in my rush through motherhood, I had forgotten existed. I credit him with the complete change in how I observe now. He’s almost 30 and I’ve had 26 years to hone the skill and redevelop the art-form.
    Not only that, what a waste of life would it have been not to appreciate nature’s and life’s spectrum.
    As a writer, in order to give any sense of depth to my work, I think the power of observation is intrinsic.
    I do love this post and must seek out some of my old gardening books and re-appreciate.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I think I should have a “Like” button or a “hear, hear” button that I can click when people leave me wonderful replies. I need that button now.

      Yes, children are wonderful at teaching one to see and hear. One can rediscover all of life through their eyes, if one will only take the time. They’re magic. But then, so are artists.

  3. I was trained by my mother who was an artist. I loved your descriptive passages in Of Honest Fame, M. M. I enjoyed Mary Stewart’s too.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Mary Stewart’s grand, isn’t she? Her husband was an archaeologist from the University of Edinburgh and she used to go on digs with him to Greece, which is why her descriptions of Greece are just so breath-taking and just put you right there in the scene. Fabulous stuff!

      And thank you.

  4. Beautiful post. Thank you!

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