Published  25/09/2008

To Die For, images of Castle Howard on a certain day

To Die For, images of Castle Howard on a certain day

Photographic images by Nick Howard
Castle Howard, Yorkshire
1 September-30 December 2008

'To Die For' at Castle Howard in Yorkshire presents 13 large photographs by Nick Howard taken in 99 minutes between 7:26 and 9:05 on 19 October 2007. The 200 images taken were not conceived as a sequence as such. Indeed, Howard went specifically - paying attention to the details of the weather forecast - to photograph one image, which would complete a series on which he had worked for some years. A clear autumn morning was required to capture the rare beauty of a tree in the lake at Castle Howard. The swamp cypress grows in the water and for a brief time in the autumn it glows scarlet.

Positioning himself by the lake, in anticipation of the dawn, Howard realised that the light was not going to be ready for another half hour or so, and so he walked to the other side of the house, to the south front. There, the classical landscape of Castle Howard with gardens, lakes, temple, mausoleum, monuments, hills and woods was resplendent before dawn with '... mist swirling everywhere, brushing almost audibly against the frost'.1

The realisation that a sequence of images could be made took place in minutes; it required moving at considerable speed from place to place within the grounds. A drama unfolded as rays of golden light touched the mist, the buildings, statues and objects in the landscape.

There was a sense of mutable process, of knowing that there was something to be had if I could keep up and if it could sustain itself - could the unfolding light continue its brush with perfection.2

The resultant images evoked an integral narrative. They alluded to a filmic process, a series of stills within a narrative. The process, the drama of the day became an orchestrated dance with nature. It was poetic and exhilarating. It established a greater potential for the way in which they could be perceived. A literal interpretation became inadequate, so Howard sought a more original and interactive response to the works, as images and metaphors. The shoot was a triumph. He recalled, 'A performance began: the rays touched the mist, the mist ran to hide in the shadows, spiralling every shade of orange and yellow out of its devious greyness, the shadows leapt from obscurity to reveal places everywhere that live their lives as mundane corners for 364 days of the year in their one morning of absolute splendour'.3

After the images were reduced in number and printed, however, Howard identified a conflict between his conscious intent and the result thus far. The planned image of the scarlet tree, swamp cypress, taken at 8:54:11, was no longer able to form the centrepiece of the series. Howard believed it would in fact weaken the whole. By redefining the pivotal role that had first been perceived for the scarlet tree, the whole was in turn strengthened - it was allocated a minor role in the performance. He observed with hindsight that the process was not unlike that applied to Hollywood movie endings where alternatives are shot and tested, and where a reductive process is often the most effective one.4

Howard's editing process asserted the value of individual images over the sequence: he felt that hanging in chronological order would merely tell the story of a sunrise, diminishing the impact of the individual works. Drawing a parallel to his encounter with the painting of Francis Bacon, Nick Howard recalls, 'I first saw paint, then form and movement, and finally, subject matter. The little I've read since, makes me think that that was his intent'.5

A random hang for the exhibition involves a twofold interactive process. It was intellectually conceived and acknowledges that layers of experience and irony exist in the highly charged subject. The photographer becomes a theatre director in the footsteps of Sir John Vanbrugh, architect of Castle Howard and himself a theatre designer. The initial stage, Act I, where individual images are encountered, indicates that the chronological sequence has been fragmented. In the second stage then, Act II, the viewer is effectively 'asked back' - to partake in the encounter. The second stage is tantamount to the viewer experiencing an ownership of the encounter.

Howard's photography operates on various levels. The present exhibition reveals a rigorous search for perfection in nature, where irony and historic references are used to explore contemporary issues and art practice. Where commentators have claimed that landscape has been at odds with modern society and modernist and postmodernist theories of art,6 Howard's powerful images succeed not only in his unique experience and familiarity of his subject matter, but in awareness and commitment to his art. Since dedicating himself full time to photography six years ago, he has in particular been concerned with a continuous process of experimentation with light. White areas, textured and smooth, offer endless possibilities for Howard as numerous early works reveal. In the iconic photograph by Don McCullin (b. 1935), 'Shell Shocked Marine' (1968) - which he describes as one of the most powerful images he has ever seen - Howard identifies meaning, not in the subject itself, but in the background to a very large version of the image that he acquired, in the abstract areas of white behind the figure, '... the fragmented abstraction does more to make that a haunting image than any other part [of the photograph], including the eyes. It's fear come to life'.7

Nick Howard photographs sculptures and statues for their formal qualities, such as the purity of texture or tone. 'Two Statues, Temple of Four Winds' is in stark contrast to the images in 'To Die For', emitting the surreal qualities found in experimental photomontage, a highly experimental form explored to great effect by artists in the 1930s and 1940s. Hungarian emigré László Maholy-Nagy (1895-1946) - whose famous photographs of Eton in 1937, and also of Oxford, Howard could well have encountered8 - was a Bauhaus Professor, as well as a stage designer and theorist, who photographed contemporary architecture. He was highly influential in England over the two years, 1935-37, before moving to Chicago. In a contemporary context Howard admires the work of Annie Leibowitz, whose very personal account of Susan Sontag's death he suggests, '... perhaps achieves a new iconography of death'.

Nick Howard was born in 1952 and grew up at Castle Howard. He read English literature at Oxford for one year before being disillusioned by the antiquity of the course and moving to London to replace Shakespeare with the Sex Pistols. In London he worked for Terrence Conran, as well as running Castle Howard with his brother Simon. Howard's aesthetic sensibility was forged by the sublime beauty of Castle Howard. It fuelled a passion for architecture and the visual arts. In terms of his artistic evolution, the current exhibition represents a personal closure in aesthetic terms in the sense that he pays homage to his formative influences; furthermore, it affords an opportunity to create a dialogue with the genius of Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor, who designed the landscape and building of Castle Howard. As a photographer, he claims, it's easy to feel like you have cheated because it was fantastic architects who did the work. There are echoes of the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Gallery in 2000, where 24 artists were invited to choose a work of art in the famous collection as a starting point for a work of art or series of works. Neil MacGregor wrote, 'Every day, in the rooms of The National Gallery, similar conversations go on. Rembrandt talks to Titian, Velàzquez looks at Rubens, Seurat nods to Piero della Francesca, and Turner, by his own express wish, hangs forever beside the artist whom he revered and admired above all else, Claude Lorrain'.9 Nick Howard has chosen Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor as his inspiration. That Vanbrugh was a theatre designer is of great significance for he saw the landscape as his stage; his interaction with nature and with classical civilisation was a profound dialogue.

In 'Caught on Film as Never Before', John Woodcock, for the Yorkshire Post, conveyed the great pleasure Howard's work provided locally. He observed in Howard's work a personal responsibility to '... give something back'. He also recognised that the images on show belonged to a wider audience; and that in certain images, the results of the Impressionist painters; in others he believed, '... a Turner could be captured'.10 By citing Turner, Woodcock identifies the haunting, at times fearful, beauty that can be described as the sublime. Nick Howard's photography renders the debate as to whether fine art and photography could ever be equal, superfluous, for the works are both painterly and evocative. 'Temple Hole with Duck' (7:56:39) captures Turner's sublime treatment of nature and has the intensity and mystery of a Bach fugue. Technically, 'Temple Hole' is most accomplished, the colour being true and haunting.

'Lantern Under Mist' (7:44:55) uses mist to evoke an abstract image where superfluous detail has been removed. Its strength lies in its emptiness. Howard's technical facility and his relentless pursuit of the perfect image creates the subtlety of watercolour or painterly glazes, enabling him to create the meditative palette of Mark Rothko, whose work Howard finds, '... haunts me and calms me'.11 An interest in texture and a reductive process can be found in his early works such as 'Broom Wall 1' where the play of light on the window provides endless formal relationships, reminiscent of Giorgio Morandi's metaphysical still life paintings. Textures are created by the layers of light - light through the tree, casting shadows through the window. A double refraction strikes a small Joan Miró painting on the wall. The glazed work creates further refraction. On the fabric, white on white creates a range of light and dark. Although they are in stark contrast to the large landscape photographs in the present exhibition, the formal development can be seen to move from one to the other quite seamlessly. Fascinated by the notion of mathematical 'fractals' Howard focuses on the minutiae of life in which visual poetry is created from light effects and textures of natural and man-made surfaces. In 'Fallen', Howard explores the apparently infinite formal relations between sticks and branches accentuated by the frost. The romantic grandeur of fallen trees fits Howard's subsequent treatment of the sublime.

Zooming in and out of the natural vistas of Yorkshire, Howard manipulates the picture plane with a deftness of touch that is the product of extensive visual processing. Discovering that an iconic status could be achieved by significant enlargement of photographic prints, Howard has amplified the drama of his recent work. The urban image 'Platform' indicates that his methodical and sensual approach to picture making can be applied to the built environment. Beauty is found in the unexpected harmony of formal components of such works. The composition is beautifully framed, as if it were a staged work by Jeff Wall, for example. In fact Howard has photographed York station, as he found it, but on scores of separate occasions. The backdrop is now so utterly familiar, endowing the process with a confidence to snap the image the moment the players are in place. Chance provides a satisfying tension. The confidence for the recent Castle Howard images can be traced to the countless studies of natural and man-made materials. Grids enable a sense of control over the picture plane. He applies a grid approach to studies of bark, fencing wire and the shadows formed against wooden planks, themselves dividing the picture plane. The image becomes a minimal orchestration of memory and ideas. By isolating and flattening aspects of nature within the picture plane Howard is decontextualising his subject. His abstract images are patterns, ciphers, fractured units. He claims that it is easier to find perfection than create it. Nick Howard's work is powerful and extraordinary, worthy of widespread critical attention and curatorial recognition.

There are subtle clues in Howard's work that reveal his aesthetic homage. In the present exhibition he uses natural light to show what Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor did to create the 'absolute performance.' In 'Temple Hole with Ripples' (8:03:31), the exquisite mist is lit from behind. Shadows form in the mist and on the water. The faintest outline of a car, like a charcoal drawn line is apparent in the mist - an actual car was driving along the road at 8:03:31 on 19 October 2007. The mist makes it look airborne. Howard left it in place for it makes an amusing reference to Antonioni's 1966 film 'Blow-Up', '... the story of a jaded photographer enlivened by the mystery of his photos'; 'single-mindedly concerned with life on quicksand'; 'the enigma of what you see, what you don't see and what the camera sees,' (it is for the viewer to solve!). Antonioni has repeatedly used abstract art to suggest modern man's uprootedness and instability.12 Howard's work indicates an awareness of fear and chaos but he finds purpose, and therefore freedom, through his art.

At the end of Howard's race against the sunrise, on 19 October last year, he found that his lens was by chance fixed on Hawksmoor's mausoleum where his family are all buried, and where he will himself be buried. He upset the ducks with his laughter. It seemed a perfect irony that the expression of his own sensibility, which he attributes to the lessons learned from Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor, should reach a climax as a confrontation of his own mortality. It was a joyful not a morbid realisation, fixing a line between the present moment and ensuing death. This series of painterly photographs is a highly personal quest fuelled by the need to find acceptance of the past and the present, and to move on in aesthetic terms. There is an unexpected poignancy in their sheer audacity.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Artist's statement, To Die For, Castle Howard, 2008.
2. Nick Howard. Email interview, 11 September 2008.
3. Artist's statement, op.cit.
4. Nick Howard. Email interview, 11 September 2008.
5. Ibid.
6. 'Yet gardens have mediated the deepest symbolic meaning and myths that nature holds for us. The demise in [the twentieth century] of the garden's previous form and the absence to date of any vital new tradition are two of the more troubling aspects of contemporary culture.' From: Wrede S, Adams WH. Introduction. In: Denatured Visions: Landscape and Culture in the Twentieth Century. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1991: 6.
7. Nick Howard. Email interview, 12 September 2008.
8. Bernard Fergusson. Eton Portrait. London: John Miles, 1937.
9. MacGregor N. Director's Foreword. In: Encounters: New Art from Old. National Gallery Exhibition Catalogue. London: National Gallery Company Ltd, 2000: 7.
10.Yorkshire Post. Caught on Film as Never Before. (last accessed 23 September 2008)
11. Nick Howard. Email interview, 12 September 2008.
12. Cameron I, Wood R. Antonioni. London: Studio Vista, 1968: 128.

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