13 February – 25 June 2016
Opening of This Green Earth – Bridget Macdonald and the Landscape Tradition of Claude Lorrain, Samuel Palmer and Peter Paul Rubens
First of all, I want to thank Bridget and say how touched I was when she asked me to open this exhibition. It spurred me to think why it is that I appreciate her work so much. Paul Spencer-Longhurst has written a most illuminating essay, which sets Bridget in the context of the history of landscape painting. I’m not going to go over that again. Apart from anything else, I haven’t the professional competence. But I’d like to say something more personal – why it is and how it is that Bridget’s work speaks to me.
It is twenty years since I first bought one of Bridget’s pictures – a little oil painting of a sprig of bay that she had picked from Ezra Pound’s grave on the cemetery island of the Venetian lagoon. After twenty years I still love that picture. Interestingly, it is the only picture in the house of which one of my daughters has said to me, “I’d like to have that picture when you’ve gone.” The next picture I bought was a drawing, the study after the Rubens landscape which is in this exhibition. Its temporary removal from our wall has made us realise even more how much it is part of our life.
What is it about Bridget’s paintings and drawings that makes them pictures one can live with, pictures that don’t pall, pictures that nourish the spirit? It is, I think, their contemplative spirit. It seems to me that Bridget looks at a landscape or a bay leaf or a picture, or considers a story from classical mythology, in the way that a poem should be read, not imposing herself upon it, but respecting its integrity and letting it speak for itself. Yet, when she comes to draw or paint what she has seen, the outcome is unmistakeably her own. As she considers what she is looking at, she brings her own memories and associations to her reading and her seeing, and so enables us to see things we hadn’t seen before. It’s like a good production of a classical play or a musical performance. The more closely the director or the conductor attends to the text or the score, the fresher the performance. We see and hear things we hadn’t noticed before. It is an act of re-creation.
Last Sunday I had to preach on the transfiguration of Jesus. As I sat there thinking about what I was to say, I found myself looking at a little picture that hangs above my desk. It is one of Bridget’s – a little landscape in oil. It shows the same square white farmhouse and the same poplars and the same hills in the background as one of her drawings, Spring Landscape, which hangs in this exhibition. The sky and the hills in the background are dark with approaching rain. But the farmhouse and the trees and a green field are lit up by sunlight.
The picture, together with my consideration of the light of the Lord’s transfiguration, brought a poem came into my mind, “The Bright Field”, by the Welsh poet R.S.Thomas. I leave it with you.
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, not hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
Thank you, Bridget, for your contemplative eye, and for the hand that opens our eyes to the magpie and to the lit bush.
13 February 2016