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Enduring landscape

Joanna Banham sees a mood of melancholy and disquiet pervading William Dyce's landscape exploration of the nature of time

William Dyce 1806-1864

William Dyce was born in Scotland and entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1825. He made two visits to Rome, where he was influenced by the German Nazarene artists. In 1829, he returned to Scotland and painted portraits, before moving to London in 1837 to become superintendent of the School of Design. In 1844, he won a commission to decorate the Palace of Westminster (see The Inside Story, Teacher, January 15 2004, pages 8-11). A devout High Churchman and authority on church ritual, as well as a keen scientist, he also painted religious subjects.

This intriguing image is deeply rooted in the culture of its time. William Dyce's Pegwell Bay, Kent - A Recollection of October 5th 1858 was first exhibited in 1860. It recalls an afternoon spent by the artist and his family at Pegwell Bay, a popular holiday resort on the coast between Ramsgate and Sandwich. The bay was also renowned as the spot where St Augustine first alighted on his mission to bring Christianity to England.

Dyce knew the area well, having spent two holidays there in 1857 and 1858, when he made several sketches and a watercolour that formed the basis for his painting. Ignoring its religious associations, he focused on the site's natural beauty and, in particular, on the chalk cliffs that dominated the coastline. His painting shows the beach at low tide, towards the end of an autumn day. Figures inhabit the shoreline, including distant strollers walking on the seaweed, men fishing in rock pools, and a group leading donkeys. On the far right stands a man - probably Dyce himself - carrying artist's materials. In the foreground, his wife, her two sisters, and one of his sons are collecting shells.

Beachcombing became fashionable in the mid-19th century, one of several pastimes that reflect the Victorian enthusiasm for self-improvement and for hobbies with educational overtones. The collecting of shells and fossils was especially popular; it was deemed particularly suitable for women, combining fresh air and gentle exercise with a pleasurable but undemanding introduction to the history of nature and the physical world. Yet few of Dyce's family appear to be enjoying themselves; his picture conveys none of the boisterous fun and exhilarating freshness that often characterise Victorian views of the seaside. It represents a highly unconventional kind of family portrait, exhibiting little of the domestic contentment or togetherness usually associated with paintings of informal family groups.

Instead, the figures appear curiously aloof from one another, strung out in a disconnected line and engaged in their separate tasks. They also seem oddly detached from the landscape. The bright colours of the women's clothes stand out sharply from the sombre greys and muted browns of the desolate setting; their fashionable bonnets, balloon skirts and plaid shawls appear disconcertingly modern beside the timeless harmony of nature.

A mood of disquiet and melancholy pervades the painting.

What are we to make of these discordant elements - the bleak landscape, the impassive and isolated figures, and the sombre stillness of the day? Although Dyce presents a faithful record of a family outing, Pegwell Bay can also be understood as a complex response to some of the scientific discoveries of his day, especially those concerning geology. The mid-19th century saw the emergence of revolutionary new theories about how the world was formed. Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-33) was especially influential and helped establish the view that changes in the landscape were brought about by powerful natural forces, including erosion, sedimentation, and movements in the Earth's surface. He argued that this process was not, as had previously been thought, the result of a series of cataclysmic events, but was gradual and continuous, taking place over a long period of time. Clues as to how the landscape had been formed were still visible and could be discerned by contemporaries in the world around them.

Pegwell Bay was a spectacular example of this phenomenon, where coastal erosion had worn away the ancient cliffs by up to three metres a year. Dyce painstakingly and realistically records the effects of this process, showing the chalk cliffs embedded with layers of flint and pierced by caves hollowed out by the tide, and the pebble beach where the flat, sedimentary rock of the shoreline had been ground into stones. The painting's title also alludes to a contemporary event of even more significance - the appearance of Donati's comet. First sighted in July 1858, Donati's comet was reputed to be the largest and brightest ever seen and it was alleged to be at its most brilliant on the night of October 5. In Dyce's work, it is reduced to a barely discernible streak in the sky, and is ignored by everyone except the artist.

Comets were traditionally perceived as omens, frequently foretelling the death or overthrow of kings. However, advances in the study of astronomy meant that by the Victorian period correlations were no longer made between heavenly and human affairs. The near invisibility of Donati's comet in Dyce's painting seems to endorse this view. It suggests his acceptance of the idea that the stars and planets were governed by natural laws that operated independently of god or man.

Pegwell Bay, therefore, brings together several themes - geology, natural history and astronomy. It was also a personal meditation on the nature of time. The painting includes references to many different timescales - geological (the erosion of the cliffs), evolutionary (the presence of fossils), astronomical (Donati's comet), and diurnal (the ebb and flow of the tide) - and it contrasts the vastness of space and the ancient forms of the landscape with the fleeting nature of human existence. Compared with the millions of years involved in the shaping of the physical world, man's existence seems to amount to little more than an autumn afternoon.

Confronted by the immensity of nature, Dyce's figures appear strikingly vulnerable and insignificant. Their apparent indifference to its power - indicated by their ignoring of the comet - expresses something of the confusion characteristic of an age in which, for many people, the expansion of scientific knowledge threatened to undermine religious certainty and to call into question the validity of human life.

Joanna Banham is head of public programmes at Tate Britain Further readingWilliam Dyce 1806-1864 by Marcia Pointon (Oxford University Press, out of print)The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape by Allen Staley (Yale University Press, pound;75)Pre-Raphaelite Vision: Truth to Nature edited by Christopher Newall et al (Tate Publishing, pound;29.99)This painting is part of the exhibition Pre-Raphaelite Vision: Truth to Nature at Tate Britain from February 12 until May 3. Teachers' notes available free on request. LESSON IDEAS

Art: KS1

* Describe the different activities going on in the painting. How many can you see?

* How does Dyce's view of an afternoon at the seaside compare with an outing to the seaside today? What are the similarities and differences?

* What things might you expect to see on a beach now that are absent in his painting?

* How many different shells and types of seaweed and rock can you see in the painting?


* Write an account or paint a picture illustrating your memories of a visit to the seaside.


* Dyce's work has often been compared to photography. Why?

* What features of his painting resemble the effects of photographs?

* Compare Dyce's view of the seaside with paintings of beach scenes by artists such as Claude Monet and other French Impressionists. How does the representation of the light and atmosphere differ?


* Why do you think Dyce has been linked to the Pre-Raphaelites? Compare his technique to theirs; how are they similar and how do they differ?

* Make a drawing of a group of shells or stones, using as much detail as possible.

Humanities: KS3

* What is meant by coastal erosion? Discuss its effect on the landscape and think about examples of today.

* What famous comets have existed recently and in the past?

* Why do you think they were seen as omens of political upheaval?

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