Saturday, September 24, 2016
The art of seeing
My recent post about the wonderful mosaic floors in the National Gallery prompted a couple of people to say to me that, having spent years telling people about the discoveries they can make by looking up, I am now telling them to look down as well. How true. But there’s a bigger message, best summed up in the instruction: ‘Be inquisitive’. It was a point I first heard made years ago by that fine natural history writer Richard Mabey, who was talking about being inquisitive about the natural world; his books, especially classics like Weeds and The Unofficial Countryside, exemplify this virtue, teaching us to look at familiar plants in unfamiliar ways, and at unlikely places in open-minded ways.*
So. Be inquisitive. Go around the back, poke about in corners, talk to people in pubs, walk up unlikely alleys…and you’ll find unexpected interest and delight. In Shipston-on-Stour the other day I was reminded of this as I passed an alleyway I’d glanced up on previous occasions. The building at the end is a former Baptist chapel.With Y-tracery windows and attractive banded masonry around the window heads, it’s a good if unobtrusive example of what a local builder could do in the mid-19th century. I was pleased to see that the chapel is mentioned in the newly revised edition of the Pevsner Buildings of England volume on Warwickshire† (it wasn’t in the first edition) – and the new book supplies a date for the building: 1866. It’s a quiet corner worth a few moments of anyone’s time.
‘Commit no nuisance’ was a command, aimed particularly at men leaving the pub and answering the call of nature in the street rather than holding out until the proper place is reached. Such signs are not common now, so I was pleased to find this one, put up by the chapel trustees maybe 100 years ago. The Pevsner book doesn’t mention it – its business is with architecture after all – but it’s a nice example of the rewards of keeping the eyes open, of being inquisitive, even in familiar places.
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*The Unofficial Countryside, which explores the animal and plant life of such apparently unpromising places as docks, canals, railways, factories, and waste land, originally appeared in 1973. I bought it a few years after it came out and it taught me as much about looking as any architecture book. There’s a good reprint available from Little Toller Books.
† I hope to review this excellent addition to the Pevsner series later in the year.