Professor Peter Davidson's newest book The Last of the Light: On Twilight, is out later this month (available now for pre-order on Amazon). Elsewhere on this site, we have an exclusive Q&A with Professor Davidson on the new book, which is described as a "cultural history of twilight."
Here we offer you an exclusive sneak-peek excerpt from the book itself, by kind permission of the author:
By the time I come down amongst the trees around the house, the last reflected daylight in the west has faded to uniform grey beyond their branches, and the stream which feeds the big pond is loud over the stones. Still air, dimming and thickening. The light has gone completely where the boughs of the trees hang down to the grass by the water, where the pine branches brush the surface of the pond. This depth of twilight, when the one unseasonable white flower hanging on an elder bush jumps forward a hundred yards to meet the eye, is the solitary domain of those whose eyes have practise in navigating it.
Turning off the farm track onto the grass walk by the pond, I pause a moment as the lighted windows of our house come into view. But I turn, moving away from them, a manoeuvre which takes little thought once the eye has learned to work in the lowest light. Darkness is rarely absolute, particularly out of doors, and the merest outline or reflection is enough to show the way. One light bulb behind a half-open door will spill usable light from one end of a house to the other. What takes a lifetime’s practise is the move away from company into solitude.
My education has been, in part, the study of this manoeuvre: as a child moving into the scented dark of the formal garden, past the fountain, away from the barbed formalities of the adult conversation on the terrace. Moving away from lighted gothic windows as a student, down lanes leading to the river, moving away across water-meadows navigable by diffused light sparking on frozen grasses. Or in the blue-grey evenings of European cities, as the crowed ebb and flow in the streets as the lamps come on in the windows before their curtains are drawn. Or, ever since, on the Scottish hills, watching the sunset, perhaps, from the ridge beyond Glenlivet and the first lights coming on below in Tomintoul (startlingly clear, startlingly far) and turning belatedly eastwards, skirting the pinewoods with the light at my back, and picking a way down the stony, heathery path in the dark.
Or the same feeling of belatedness can come from the lighted world itself moving away. Like the Shetland boat, the Hamnavoe, putting out from Aberdeen at seven of a spring evening, moving with its portholes bright in the twilight, past the pier where I stand, past the lighthouse, past the headland and heading north out into the open sea. Such a moment becomes an epitome of all partings, all embarcations, all lighted ships or trains pulling away into the dusk.
As I stand by the pond dam, the two lighted windows of our house are reflected in dark water, and the lamplight is lying in long stripes over the grass. Nocturnes and nostalgias of Victorian England: lighted windows in late dusk. I have a recurrent dream-image not unlike the scene before me – a synthesis of scenes from nineteenth-century journals, verses, fictions. A nineteenth century rectory, a veranda hung with creeper turned orange with autumn, last light, a lawn sloping to a river. And as I turn away from our house, its yellow lights seem stronger as the sky fades to deepest grey. Autumn and winter England open in memory: Victorian loneliness, seashores at low tide. Eliot’s draughty church at smokefall. Northern England, Lowland Scotland: the streets of stone villas in their own grounds, the scatter of lit windows, the spectrum of industrial sunsets at the end of the hillside streets.
Perhaps the most haunting and most Tennysonian of Grimshaw’s pictures, In the Gloaming, 1878, gives a deserted Knostrop Hall (or a much aggrandised version of it) a moat, a bridge strewn deep with fallen leaves (thus implying unvisitedness, lostness, abandonment), and a water gate with steps leading down to a dim, limitless mere that stretches away into bare-branched, freezing woodland. The water glimmers in the fading light; the composition is framed by stark black trees. It is his most poetic invention and, for many reasons, the one which is most intensely of its time. It seems probable that ‘Mariana in the Moated Grange’ was indeed in Grimshaw’s mind when he painted it, certainly it has the same atmosphere of regret and decay, troubled by the inevitable question of ‘who, if anybody, lives in this house?’
Behind the trees and reflected in the mere is a band of cold rose and crimson, smudged by drifts of grey cloud, fading into the broken, whitened yellow of the empty sky. Intense sunsets are common to Grimshaw and many of his contemporaries, increasingly so in the 1880s, but the pallid upper reaches of the sky in this picture are a specific and eloquent record of the blanking effects of industrial pollution. In the Gloaming is thus even more a quintessence of the later nineteenth century perhaps than its painter knew: Tennysonian isolation and mourning, an ancient house apparently in deep country, lost in time in a deserted backwater, but under skies which are those of an industrial city of the 1870s.
As time passes, my student years in the 1970s begin to look like the last, fading decade of a sensibility of twilight which had persisted in one form or another since the 1790s, a sensibility very much formed by a whole sequence of perceived losses and falls and endings, by awareness of passing time and the attrition of time, of the slow nuances of the misted winter afternoons passing into evening in remote and unregarded places. A movement which appreciated loss and cold afternoons, and the measured sadness of English music. This aesthetic was prophetically defined by Ruskin in his contemplation of Venice, his meditation on ‘the city and the shadow’:
Perfection of beauty is still left for our beholding, a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak – so quiet – so bereft of all but her loveliness.
These feelings for belatedness and the past, which are visible in Britain in the Kerrich circle in East Anglia in the later eighteenth century, and find their first great exponent in John Sell Cotman, continue through the nineteenth century and have a memorable last manifestation in the conscious ‘picturesque revival’ of Regency sensibility in the mid c20 Shell Guides, with their monochrome plates of misted towpaths and coverts. It ended in the imaginations of my contemporaries, our adult selves formed in a world where John Piper was still editor of the last few Shell Guides to be published before the series was abandoned.
Gone and lost those cold twilights, lost as the England through which we moved, lost as the selves who travelled there. The decade of our explorations was itself a dusk, the last glimmering of a way of seeing – the darkening afternoon of post war, provincial England before the wholesale demolitions and reconstructions of the 1980s. It is lost and built over and gone now: and the only way to go back there is to stare into the black and white photographs in the out of print guidebooks – gazing alone by the light of the reading lamp, as if longing to be absorbed into their substance – to inhabit once more their fogged streets and ploughlands, their soot-skied provinces. Always to be damp-haired, never to be in a hurry. Always to have a cold coming on, the chill striking in from the wet tweed of your jacket. To see your breath in the air of winter rooms, half-thawed by gas or anthracite fires, and there to be ‘unhappy and at home’.
** T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays (London, 1969), p.173.
Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate.
John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice (Orpington and London, 1894), p.1.