The Geology of Mount Sinai   four digital prints  2012

I have been occupied with thoughts of mountains over the past year. Not climbing them, I prefer to view them from a distance nowadays, but thinking of their significance and of their potential for making new work. “Mountains on the Moon”, a series of over 200 drawings, will be shown at Durham University’s Oriental Museum in September and my research for the show has involved a great deal of reading about the Himalayas, their spiritual meaning to people of many faiths (and increasingly no faith) as well as the history of their exploration.

Wade Davis’s recent book “Into the Silence” brilliantly describes the experiences of the generation of climbers who survived the horrors of the Great War and found reason to risk all to be the first to climb Everest leading to the tragic deaths of Malory and Irvine in 1924. Also published last year, “To a Mountain in Tibet” by Colin Thubron explores similar ground but from the view point of a pilgrim circling the scared Mount Kailas – reverence, hardship, grief, spiritual enlightenment, and of course, overwhelming landscapes.

As Robert Macfarlane points out in his “Mountains of the Mind” western sensibilities haven’t always regarded mountains in this way. Up until the beginning of the 19th century mountainous regions were regarded as desolate wastelands to be avoided at all costs. Mountain peaks were seen as ugly, ungodly wildernesses which might appear in the background of paintings but never as the subject. Even William Gilpin, doyen of the Picturesque movement, would only tolerate mountains in the far distance, ideally glimpsed through the arch of a ruined abbey or framed by mature planting.

Ironically the change came as English aristocrats began to seek out classical ideals of beauty on their tours of ancient Roman sites. Trips to Italy involved arduous crossings of the Alps and traveller’s tales of storms and avalanches fired a titilated interest in mountain scenery and a desire to view and record mountains nearer to home – the hills of Wales, Lakeland and Scotland.

To quote Macfarlane, mountains are “the products of human perception: they have been imagined into existence”.

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