Redlands Wood

redlands-wood

I’m fascinated by a platinotype image of a patch of rural Surrey by the Victorian photographer Frederick Evans. It is of Redlands Wood, a few miles south of Dorking, and shows a rough track running between an avenue of pines. No birds, no squirrels, nothing alive and kicking.

I admire Evans immensely. His pictures are all atmosphere – he loved light, but usually with an equal component of deepest shadow. He spent days camped out in sombre, draughty cathedrals setting up shots of aisles and transepts, waiting patiently in the gloom for the instant when the stonework was momentarily washed with sunlight filtered through the stained glass. As if he was waiting for the Holy Ghost itself to drop in.

What was Evans up to in Redlands Wood? I’m pretty sure he had no interest in wild life, and if he had spotted a badger in the viewfinder he would have waited for it to scurry through before opening his lens. I get the feeling he was using the trees as stage props. For a performance of what? And if so, where are the actors?

Nothing dominates, nothing grabs the eye, everything is misty, vague, and painterly. The conifers rise like the columns of a cathedral nave. Evans has cropped the crowns, so he had no interest in the trees as specimens. Maybe everything was a cathedral to him.

What I think I’m looking at is an image of nothing. This photograph is packed with nothing, congested with it. Evans has conjured a perfect image of absence and uncertainty.

There’s movement, but nothing moves. There’s a powerful sense of purpose, because the eye is drawn insistently along the track. But where’s the track going? My eye sprints along it and disappears off the end into God knows what.

Evans’s nothing is full of something. Something’s not there that could or should be. Maybe it was there and has gone. Or it’s just about to turn up.

I have a strong sense of sense Evans concealed in the trees, waiting. Whatever he was waiting for he believed he’d found – he was a master of his craft. But for me the photograph remains an enigma.

Oddly, the photograph of Redlands is one of the few to which Evans did add a commentary. He wrote:

A wind sways the pines,
And below
Not a breath of wild air:
All still as the mosses that glow
On the flooring and over the lines
Of the roots here and there.
The pine-tree drops its dead:
They are as quiet as under the sea.
Overhead, overhead,
Rushes life in a race,
As the clouds the clouds chase:
And we go,
And we drop like the fruits of the tree,
Even we,
Even so.

Yet when I look at the photograph I see no sense that the pines are swaying. And Evans says just two lines on that all is still. And he has made no attempt to capture the ‘glowing’ mosses and lines of roots on the woodland floor. Without the poem we would never know that overhead and outside the confines of the frame ‘rushes life in a race’, or that ‘the clouds chase’.

Finally, Evans includes a reference to the fact that, like the pine cones, we all die. So is the poem fundamentally about death? Maybe, yet there isn’t a fallen pine cone in sight.

I’ve always been very fond of this photograph, but I don’t think the poem complements it at all.

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About Terence Sackett

I am a writer and designer. I live in Nether Stowey, which is on the borders of the Quantock hills. I am a committee member of the Friends of Coleridge, and wrote and designed the booklet/visitor guide for the National Trust’s Coleridge Cottage. I look after the website for the Friends (www.friendsofcoleridge.com). My novel about Siamese twins titled ‘Riven is now on Kindle. It can be read with a free downloaded Kindle app for an iPad, smartphone, tablet, or computer. The book is available from Amazon. What’s it about? Brief blurb below: It is the story of the Victorian painter Thomas Tait Genoa and his desperate flight through the West Country to save his conjoined twin daughters from the surgeon’s knife. This was before the era of anaesthetics. A 5-start bAmazon review: 'A masterpiece, truly deserving of the five star rating I have given it. The very human experience described so eloquently could not fail to tug at the heart of any parent who has ever gazed on a poorly child in the dark hours of the night and anguished over what to do for the best. This novel might be set in a very particular time and space but the heartfelt emotions of the protagonists are timeless, I have no hesitation in recommending this wonderful work to anyone who has a heart.
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