Francis Greenacre, longest standing member of the Downs Committee and retired curator of paintings at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, describes how The Downs have always been a draw for artists. He talks about some special paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries. Dru Marland paints the wildness of the Downs today.
Well there’s a good collection of pictures in the Museum and Art Gallery. They’re mostly views looking down the Avon Gorge, across the Bristol Channel to the Welsh hills at sunset, when the whole thing looks spectacular. It’s the same moment of the day when enormous numbers of people used to go up to Sea Walls to enjoy the sunset. I mean from the 18th century onwards it was a feature of going to the Hotwells spa, the landscape was part of the cure as it were – the fresh air of the Downs, riding on the Downs, and people went up to Sea Wall to actually enjoy the view and at a remarkable early date they were riding on donkeys sot here are pictures of just that happening. Initially certainly the artists were celebrating the Avon Gorge and the Downs because there was a market amongst the visitors to takeaway a sophisticated souvenir of their visit. The Hotwells were probably most popular in the mid 18th century when very fashionable people were visiting in the summer. One of the earliest views of the Gorge is of the 1750s, you’ve got in the distance the edge of Sea Walls where you get the best of the views, and you can see a wall that was built especially so the coach and horses wouldn’t go over the edge. And beyond the wall you can see a ‘coach and four’ pulled by four horses, a pretty elegant affair, with a postilion, that’s a jockey, a rider, on the front horse, and another on the back. So pretty smart stuff. I think the 1750’s is when Bristol begins to be known as it were countrywide for its spectacular landscape of the Avon Gorge and the Downs together. The finest paintings are really painted another seventy years on, at the beginning of the 19th century when there were a group of artists working in Bristol inspiring one another, the Bristol School they are known as, and they did particularly beautiful pictures. In the Museum and Art Gallery in Bristol there is a marvellous painting by James Baker Pyne, of sunset looking down the Avon Gorge with the welsh hills in the far distance, and the setting sun glinting off the Bristol Channel. What’s fascinating about it is that it reminds us that the Downs were virtually treeless until mid to late 19th century. There was hardly a tree on the Downs because of the grazing that took place there and the sheep prevented trees from growing up. But James Baker Pyne has put pines trees on the left hand side for purely compositional reasons. An artist needs to link the sky and the landscape itself together. He uses them to give a sense of distance and so forth, you naturally look around them and beyond them. Pine trees weren’t there but that’s a picture painted in 1833 I think, and with the Downs Act in 1861 one of the first things the Downs Committee did was to set up a sub committee concerned with planting, the planting of trees, beautification of the Downs as they called it, so the pine trees that he’s put in began to appear just 40 years on. He was anticipating precisely what they were going to do. In the foreground of the picture you’ve got two artists sitting sketching, enjoying the view. It was certainly very often the habit of the artists, when painting a landscape to put an artist into their picture, as if to say ‘this is a beautiful view’ before you’ve decided it in your own right in terms of the picture you’re looking at. What’s also a little romantic is that you’ve got two children who appear to be looking for works as if they were going fishing – that’s just to give a little interest to the foreground I think. You have to manipulate the landscape. Artists still today you see sitting on the edge of the gorge and they suddenly realise what’s in front of them is a great empty space. Composing a picture is a no mean problem.
I like to get to know the landscape around me as thoroughly as possible and every fold of the land here has got a story behind it. I illustrate, I sort of fell into it, through a friend who is a local publisher so I worked on a few wildlife books, these days I collaborate quite a lot with Geraldine Taylor who is a local writer and broadcaster. I tend to get the text and then go out and visualise the scenarios and get the raw material through sketching and photography and then start to get a picture in my head. Geraldine described how she was walking on Zoo Banks which are part of the Downs opposite the zoo, its wooded there, a thunderstorm just moved away and there was hail, there were hailstones falling and she saw a fox sitting there with its jaws wide open catching the hailstones in its mouth and it was such a terrifically visual description that I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to draw. For the sort of source material for it I took some photos of the suspension bridge from the viewpoint that I wanted in the picture and the vegetation in the foreground is brambles, bracken. I’m trying to catch a sense of the wildness that is going on alongside us I suppose. There are two cities, the animals like the foxes here, they’re carrying out their own little lives entirely separate but in parallel with ours, and I think it’s really good to be able to observe that.