Orchards – from a distance

(Clarence Hudson White, The Ring Toss: Yale Visual Resources Collection; William Merritt Chase, The Ring Toss)

I noticed that today is the birthday of the photographer Clarence Hudson White, born in Ohio in 1871 (he died early, aged 54, in Mexico City). He became close friends with Alfred Stieglitz. I’d barely heard of White but, in a brief gallery of his photographs, my eye snagged on ‘The Ring Toss’ because I knew of the 1896 painting by William Merritt Chase, ‘The Ring Toss’. A lot of Chase’s paintings are very reminiscent of John Singer Sargent – who painted a portrait of Chase in 1902 (Museum of Modern Art).[1]

Clarence_White-The_Orchard.1902

(Clarence Hudson White, The Orchard)

This very evocative Clarence White photograph was published in 1905 (Camerawork, 9). Should the women seem to be practising social distancing, that’s probably mere happenstance.

Orchards are certainly evocative for artists and writers, perhaps because of their seeming to balance on the threshold of imposed order and unchecked nature, perhaps because they’re often associated with childhood, a lost paradise, or at least with a rural or semi-rural peace – and thus standing in stark contrast to the destructive forces of war. Edmund Blunden’s classic memoir, Undertones of War, refers to them often.

Early on in his ‘education’, in a chapter called ‘The Cherry Orchard’, he writes: ‘The joyful path away from the line, on that glittering summer morning, was full of pictures for my infant war-mind. History and nature were beginning to harmonize in the quiet of that sector. In the orchard through we passed immediately, waggons had been dragged together once with casks and farm gear to form barricades; I felt that they should never be disturbed again, and the memorial raised near them to the dead of 1915 implied a closed chapter.’ And of Englebelmer, ‘a sweet village scarcely yet spoiled’: ‘Its green turf under trees loaded with apples was daily gouged out by heavy shells; its comfortable houses were struck and shattered, and the paths and entrances gagged with rubble, plaster and woodwork.’[2]

Katherine Mansfield would also borrow the title of Chekhov’s last play, writing to John Middleton Murry from Menton two years after the war’s end: ‘You see it’s too late to beat about the bush any longer. They are cutting down the cherry tree; the orchard is sold—that is really the atmosphere I want.’[3]

In the midst of that war (22 March 1916), Ivor Gurney wrote to Marion Scott, from near Tidworth, in Wiltshire, of his beloved home county, ‘Glostershire where Spring sends greetings before other less happy counties have forgotten Winter and the snow. Where the talk is men’s talk, and eyes of folk are as soft as the kind airs. The best roads in England, the finest cider, the richest blossom in the most magical orchards, beauty content in security, strength quiet in confidence controlled, blood mixed of plain and hill, Welsh and English; are not these only of my county, my home?’[4]

Wilfred Owen never did see the war’s end – though he planned for it, writing in 1917 to his brother Colin, then working on a farm: ‘In my walk this afternoon, considering at leisure the sunshine and the appearance of peace (I don’t mean from the news) I determined what I should do after the war [ . . . ] I should like to take a cottage and orchard in Kent Surrey or Sussex, and give my afternoon to the care of pigs.’[5]

In May 1962, Guy Davenport wrote, in a letter to Hugh Kenner, ‘You see, my ambition is to put down roots and have a real library and workshop, a hearth & orchard, and STAY PUT.’[6]

GD-Balthus-Notebook

(The Balthus painting on the jacket is the 1940 The Cherry Tree)

Apples – and pears – were of central and lasting importance to Davenport: ‘Apple and pear, brother and sister’, he writes in the novel-length title story.[7] In Objects on a Table, he stated that: ‘Pear symbolizes a harmony between human and divine; apple an encounter between human and divine. The forbidden fruit in Eden became an apple through linguistic accident, punning on evil and apple. But the inevitability of the accident was ensured by centuries of Greek and Latin pastoral poetry in which the apple was eroticized.’[8] In A Balthus Notebook, he discussed the painter’s Balthus’s use of apples and pears—‘In Christian iconography, a pear symbolizes the Redemption, and apple and pear are frequently together in Madonnas, Mary being the redemption of Eve, Christ of Adam’—noting that apple and pear appeared together for the first time in the 1981 Painter and His Model.[9]

And in ‘Shaker Light’, he tells the story of a pear tree and an apple tree ‘that had grown around each other in a double spiral’ and had stood for over fifty years around the corner from Davenport’s house. Walking past them daily for twenty years, they got into his thoughts ‘and always benignly.’ He saw them as husband and wife, as in Ovid’s poem. ‘They generated in my imagination a curiosity about the myths our culture has told itself about apples and pears. Apple is the symbol of the Fall, pear of Redemption. Apple is the world, pear heaven. Apple is tragic. A golden one given first as a false wedding gift and later presented by a shepherd to a goddess began the Trojan War and all that Homer recorded in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The apple that fell at Newton’s feet also fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is right now embedded in thousands of bombs mounted in the heads of rockets, glowing with elemental fire that is, like Adam and Eve’s apple, an innocent detail of creation if untouched and all the evil of which man is capable if plucked.’ Finally, the trees were cut down by a developer, ‘in full bloom, with a power saw, the whining growl of which is surely the language of devils at their business, which is to cancel creation.’[10]

The painting that Stanley Spencer would later call his first ambitious one was called The Apple Gatherers. Spencer was one of that famous generation taught at the Slade by Henry Tonks – other Tonks pupils included Mark Gertler, Harold Gilman, Gwen John, Isaac Rosenberg, Stanley Spencer, David Bomberg, William Orpen, Wyndham Lewis and Winifred Knights. Tonks himself was clearly not immune to the lure of the orchard.

Tonks, Henry, 1862-1937; The Orchard

(Henry Tonks, The Orchard: Birmingham Museums Trust)

And I remember too one of the most memorable and thought-provoking moments in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, when the narrator John Dowell says: ‘For I can’t conceal from myself the fact that I loved Edward Ashburnham—and that I love him because he was just myself. If I had had the courage and virility and possibly also the physique of Edward Ashburnham I should, I fancy, have done much what he did. He seems to me like a large elder brother who took me out on several excursions and did many dashing things whilst I just watched him robbing the orchards, from a distance.’[11]

Next time you feel the need to do a dashing thing, then, you might well look out for an orchard. It it won’t be for a good while yet, of course. Best stay safely indoors and read about it for the present, watching from a distance.

 
Notes

[1] See Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent. The Later Portraits. Complete Paintings Volume III (Yale: Yale University Press, 2003), 81-84.

[2] Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928; edited by John Greening, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 25, 81.

[3] Quoted by Antony Alpers, The Life of Katherine Mansfield (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980), 327.

[4] Ivor Gurney, Collected Letters, edited by R. K. R. Thornton (Mid Northumberland Arts Group & Carcanet Press 1991), 75.

[5] Quoted by Jon Stallworthy, Wilfred Owen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 174.

[6] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 121.

[7] Guy Davenport, Apples and Pears (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 77.

[8] Guy Davenport, Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature (Washington: Counterpoint, 1998), 63.

[9] Guy Davenport, A Balthus Notebook (New York: Norton, 1989), 53.

[10] Guy Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 59.

[11] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 191-192.

 

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