Light on Beauty: An antipodean view


By Libby Robin

A piece in response to Peter Coates’ opening talk at the Quantocks “‘From the Environment to an Environment (of Outstanding Natural Beauty)’, 1 March 2011.

So much of beauty is about light. The sunset and the moonlight – classic ‘natural beauty’ moments – are measured by Bristol psychologists by pupil dilation. ‘Pupil dilation’ is a blunt tool to measure ‘response’, dreamed up in a land of soft lux. Dilation merely suggests more light, but more light is not always good. The charm of the Quantocks yesterday was the subtlety of the soft browns and greys, even the generosity of the green was muted by the dim light. Coming from a land of ‘pitiless blue skies’, I have learned to fear light – and to celebrate the nuances that high latitude light can draw from landscapes.

High latitude – or sun near the horizon, rather than overhead, is also a property of sunset. The appeal of sunsets is that they mark a shift from day into night, a moment in time, and the passing of the sun below the horizon marks this moment. In the tropics, where there is no gloaming, this ‘moment’ is short and precious. The ten-minute sunset is a moment when all the deck chairs at the Darwin (12 degrees south) Yacht Club face the sea to the west, and the patrons enjoy a celebratory drink. When the blazing disc dips finally below the horizon, everyone claps. The same thing happens when the sun sets in Greek islands, although the sun takes a little longer to set there.

Sunrises and sunsets are the only moments where the detail of an Australian desert landscape is drawn out: once the sun is up, it rises rapidly to the overhead position where it beats down mercilessly, bleaching the landscape of colour and interest, and forcing the viewer to squint or cover their eyes from the onslaught of brightly reflective landscape surfaces. Light should ‘highlight’ beauty – a shaft of sun through storm clouds brings out colours on the opposite hill in the Quantocks, perhaps, and famously in Scotland, but if you have full light everywhere, the landscape is deprived of its shape (shadow) and colour.

The discovery of Kodachrome technologies in the 1960s was the beginning of tourism to Uluru, then known as Ayers Rock. Ayers Rock was an identifiable (black and white) monument in a dead flat landscape that in the second half of the 20th century, transformed itself into the colourful and mellifluous Uluru. Uluru is filled with the rich stories of the local Pitjanjarra people who now manage the place for tourists, and encourage them to walk around the rock and photograph its sunsets, rather than to climb it in the 1950s tradition where it was like a Munro to be ‘bagged’. The sunrise and sunset there play between the orange of the rock and the purple of its secret shadowy places. Such is the view captured by every tourist camera. But you don’t see the purple in the middle of the day, unless you are lucky and there is a storm over the rock; you make your pilgrimage when the light is low to the horizon, low like it is all day in this beautiful, softly-lit country.

As Peter talked about a feminine beauty in landscape, I wondered how this ‘bedroom lighting’ assisted the femininity. The curves and the smoothness of the landscape are drawn by this light. But I am uncomfortable with the preferential treatment of the adult masculine viewer that this implies. Perhaps more primitive is the ‘home’ beauty, which often includes childhood nostalgia.


Looking around the 49 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is clear that we are celebrating places that people often visit on holidays – not working places, but places of summer contemplation. They are often ‘small’, almost islands in a wider landscape, places that can be encompassed in a short time frame, human in size. Are they attractive, therefore visited on holiday? Or is the beauty itself enhanced by the eyes of holiday consciousness, the step away from working life that a ‘break in the country’ imbues in adults, and echoes ‘limitless summer holidays’ of (middle class) childhood? How do the people who work in these landscapes feel about the sojourners? Such issues must be important to the work of the Friends of Quantock.

And what about the generational elements of landscape? It is not just about childhood – before working, and outside school. Sometimes the escape from working life is permanent: where do you choose to retire, for example, if you have the means to make a choice? I wondered where Francis Young husband finally retired to, as Peter talked about his ideas of ‘home beauty’. My friend who regarded Somerset as home, lived in Burma till she was 10, but came ‘home’ to England to a house in the Quantock foothills for the war years, until she want away to work as a nurse, then, after the war she lived the rest of her life in London with an Australian husband also displaced by the war. Somerset was home for her because of those few special years. This was the place chosen by her soldier father for retiring, a place of beauty and peace, after the wilds of life in Asia. Perhaps it was more an imagined home than a place of dwelling.

People in Australia (of a certain class) still referred to England (not Scotland or Ireland) as Home at the time of Federation in1901. It was a time of hesitant and anxious Australian patriotism that Dorothea Mackellar captures in her 1904 poem My Country. The 6 verse poem is most famous for its lines ‘I love a sunburnt country/ a land of sweeping plains/ of ragged mountain ranges/ of droughts and flooding rains/I love her far horizons /I love her jewel sea/ Her beauty and her terror/ The wide brown land for me.’ This is a vote for the ‘sublime’ in Peter’s terms. But it comes at a price. This is in fact the SECOND verse of the poem. First, there is a need to dismiss the race memory of Old England, the ‘home beauty’ that makes it harder to love Australia, perhaps. The first verse of the poem could be written for the Quantocks. It runs as follows:


The love of field and coppice

Of green and shaded lanes

Of ordered woods and gardens

Is running in your veins

Strong love of grey-blue distance

Brown streams and soft dim skies

I know but cannot share it

My love is otherwise.


Libby Robin

Halsway Manor, 2 March 2011


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  1. Peter Coates says:

    Libby was curious to know where Young husband lived on his return to Britain. Well, I’ve finally taken the time to find out. In 1921, he and his family settled thirty miles from London in Kent, in a house called Currant Hill, near the village of Westerham. Currant Hill was not a cute thatched cottage or venerable rectory, but what his biographer, Patrick French, describes as a ‘tall, modern, red-brick building’ (Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, 1994). From French’s biography, I’ve also learned that Younghusband was particularly smitten by the flowers and butterflies around Westerham, delighting in introducing the village children to the charms of white violets and wild roses. At this time, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, he concocted a grandiose plan for a Natural Beauty Association, with branches spread across the British Isles and Empire, though it remained just a gleam in his eye. He eventually re-married into a well-to-do family from Dorset, where he’s buried in the churchyard at Lytchett Minster. Younghusband, concludes French, ‘belonged in Dorset, not in the Himalayas. It was his last great joy, the place where he found a love and a peace and an understanding that he never reached elsewhere’. So, he didn’t come to rest in the Quantocks, but Dorset isn’t a million miles away. Picturesque ‘home’ beauty finally prevailed over the awesome sublime that had once intoxicated him in foreign climes.

  2. Libby Robin says:

    Thanks for this research, Peter. If the cottage isn’t cute, I guess one turns to the lanes and fields around – and to the white violets and wild roses. Maybe the industrial severity of the house flushes one out of doors with more alacrity!
    I have just spent a week walking clapped out ex-cattle landscapes in desert/deserted country in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. Sublime. Outdoors. But never beautiful – and pretty hard to get poetic about. More a way to sort out one’s inner peace than to extol qua landscape. Perhaps heat excludes conventional poetry, just as too much light drains conventional beauty. Landscapes like these need new writing and seeing … and a new mode of ‘dwelling’ that is transient and nomadic – rather than ‘in place’ all the time.

    Libby 8 November 2011