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Posts Tagged ‘rydal mount’

In May 2007, I was at Rydal Mount, the house Wordsworth occupied from 1813, until his death in 1850. While I was there, I took this photograph:

Rydal Mount, May 2007

But cameras don’t take images the way we see them. They make a recording that might be faithful in detail, but not in the mood. That has more to do with imagination and emotion at the moment we press the shutter. For the technically minded, I used a 12 megapixel Canon A640, set on aperture priority, with the lens stopped down to F8. At ISO 100, the shutter managed 1/125 second. On the plus side, the picture is evenly exposed, and sharp, no clipped highlights – a thing to which the A640, in common with many digital cameras of the period, was prone. On the downside, it looks flat, and dull, and certainly not as I remember it.

What I want to do is go back in time, to 2007, take this old photograph and see if we can liven it up a bit, using the tools and techniques we have now, that I didn’t have then. I want to make it look more like I saw it, and felt it on the day. To achieve this, I’ll be using two pieces of free, but powerfully sophisticated software: Luminance HDR, and GIMP,

Of course, the common objection among photographers is that if we have to manipulate an image to make it shine, then we should have taken a better image in the first place. That’s fair enough, and I shall always bow to greater skill. But I’m an amateur, not a pro, and if I can salvage a picture from the mess I’ve made of it, it’s all good.

The world’s earliest known, surviving, photograph was taken around 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, using a technique called heliography:

World’s earliest surviving photograph – Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/View_from_the_Window_at_Le_Gras.

Image manipulation began almost at the same time, either as an aid to overcome shortcomings in rudimentary equipment, or to enhance details for artistic effect. Film negatives or glass plates would have areas scrubbed with wire wool to blur them out, and make other details prominent, and prints would be hand-tinted. Indeed, without significant image enhancement, even this grainy image of Niépce’s is barely recognisable as anything at all. But back to Wordsworth.

He was nearly evicted from Rydal Mount, on the whim of the rentier, Lady Anne le Flemin, who wanted it for a relative. But by now he’d developed a deep love for the place, had invested much effort and emotion in landscaping the garden, and he was understandably desperate not to lose it. But he was up against the local Aristocrat, so had to fight canny. He purchased an adjoining meadow, and let it be known he intended building on it, thus spoiling the view from Rydal Mount. He even went as far as having designs for a house drawn up. The ruse worked. The Wordsworths kept their home, and their garden.

Nearly a century after Wordsworth’s passing, the house was bought by Mary Henderson, his great-great-granddaughter. It remains in the possession of the Wordsworth family today, and is open to visitors. I’ve been a few times since 2007, but something about that morning sticks in the memory, and I was never able to capture the garden again, without people in it. My digital archive goes back 20 years, and it was while browsing I discovered the photograph. What struck me was the gap between my memory of the day, and the image. Digital images do not fade over time, of course. But something clearly happens to memory, and it’s more complex than simply fading away. Perhaps it becomes more idealised over time, or those impressions that are important to us begin to crystallise more.

Anyway, first we take our original image and load it into Luminance HDR. HDR stands for high dynamic range, which we’re not going to bother with today. All we’re going to use are the tone mapping algorithms, and apply them to this single image. Tone mapping is a way of taking what’s there – the light, the tones, the contrasts, and amplifying them, simulating the wide dynamic range of the human eye and allowing them to be displayed on a screen or in a print. Not all images are suited to the method, but one that’s well exposed with a good balance of tones and brightness to begin with will usually respond well. Then it’s just a question of fiddling about to get the effect you want. It can be overdone, and I’m as guilty as all amateurs of overcooking images. But I think this is a big improvement:

It’s lifted the various greens, brightened up the rhododendrons, and the azaleas, even uncovered some detail and texture in the rendering of the house. I’d say we were nearly there with this one, but there’s more we can do.

The garden at Rydal Mount is very much in the Romantic in style. Wordsworth, along with Southey and Coleridge, were the founders and champions of the English Romantic movement. Wordsworth was the author of its manifesto, which stands as a preface to the Lyrical Ballads. One of the tenets of Romanticism is that we should not seek to command nature. We should cooperate with it, and learn from it. Hence, the garden is very informal, flowing with the lie of the land, using natural elements for decoration, rather in the fashion of the Taoist inspired gardens of China. Does the photograph capture that? Perhaps we’re asking too much. Perhaps we’re going to end up overcooking it, now, but let’s have a look anyway.

We can add a touch of the romantic to any photograph by adding a layer of blur, or soft focus. But having just restored all that detail, it would be a shame to lose it in blurriness. What we want is something impressionist, but not too much. So we turn to a technique mastered by the photographer Michael Orton in the 1980’s. Orton experimented with superimposing photographs of the same scene, one sharp, the other deliberately defocused. As a professional fine art photographer, he was aiming at something very abstract, but the method was thereafter widely adopted by others for the impact it can add to an image. In the days of film transparencies it took a lot of technical skill and a professional darkroom to make this work, but since the digital age, anyone can do it. If you have filters on your phone camera, the chances are there’s an Orton effect among them.

We’ll be using GIMP for this bit. GIMP stands for GNU image manipulation program. GNU means it’s free and holds to a certain standard and a set of egalitarian values. GIMP is an amazingly versatile tool for a photographer. Your alternative is something like Photoshop, which, last time I checked, you couldn’t even own. You have to rent it. No thanks.

GIMP allows us to take our image, overlay a blurred copy of it, then blend the two together. There are various ways of blending, and the best one depends on the image, so we have to experiement. I most commonly use the “Soft Light” merge, or sometimes just “Overlay” with a degree of transparency. Here I find the “Multiply” option works best, with about 50% transparency. It deepens the greens, and the shadows, and lends a more dreamy feel to the image, while preserving the highlights:

We’ve perhaps lost a bit of the crackle in the detail, though, and part of the joy of that garden lies in its textures, so we bring back a bit of sharpness and texture by blending in another layer to which we’ve added a high pass filter. This basically preserves all the sharp corners, like in a line drawing. Thus, we get the impressionist blur, while the detail is still there to draw us in. The difference is subtle, on a screen, but certainly looks better as a print.

If you’ve ever done the Wordsworth thing at Grasmere, you’d be forgiven for thinking he spent his entire life at Dove Cottage. He didn’t. He was there for fourteen years, and, having, escaped its poky confines, and its gloomy light, I can well imagine his delight at discovering Rydal Mount. The EXIF data embedded in my original photograph tells me I took the picture at 10:30 am, which suggests I left the hotel after breakfast and went straight there. I’m sure it gets busier later on, but for a good hour we had the house and grounds to ourselves. There was a timeless atmosphere. I could imagine turning a corner to find the man himself in dreamy contemplation. He smiles, he nods in gentle welcome, before wandering off, counting meter, in his head.

FAREWELL, thou little Nook of mountain-ground,
Thou rocky corner in the lowest stair
Of that magnificent temple which doth bound
One side of our whole vale with grandeur rare;
Sweet garden-orchard, eminently fair,
The loveliest spot that man hath ever found,
Farewell!–we leave thee to Heaven’s peaceful care,
Thee, and the Cottage which thou dost surround.

I’m glad his ruse worked, that he didn’t actually have to say farewell to Rydal Mount, though from the depth of feeling in his poem, he clearly felt it was going to be a close run thing.

Thanks for listening. And enjoy your photography.

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Grasmere

Grasmere

Grasmere boils in a soporific heat. The air weighs heavily on arms and legs, sapping will and thought. There are spy cameras on the Broadgate Meadow carpark now. They read number plates, and a computer is delegated the task of detecting dodgers. It’s £7, if you want to park your car for over four hours – a day’s walking. The sign says you can pay by debit/credit card – no need for all that loose change, which is as well because £7.00 worth of  change weighs a lot in your pocket. The machine will even text you when your ticket is about to expire, which is useful, but I note there is a surcharge for this service. There are plenty of spaces, but I don’t need one. My lady’s Corsa is on the hotel carpark where the sign says they will clamp you, charge you £25 to release you, and won’t do so until after 10:00 pm, so you’d better have a really good reason for being there. We do; we are guests.

My lady and I buy a £5 bottle of wine from the Cooperative store and sneak it up to the room rather than pay hotel prices. We sneak the empties out again in the morning, deposit them surreptitiously in the bin on the village green. We have difficulty accepting we are grown up enough not to be told off for such things. The hotel boasts four stars, and is expensive, but you only celebrate your silver wedding once. The food is mostly very good. The portions are small but very pretty on the plate, and flavoursome. You rise from the table gratified, but not uncomfortable. I do not rave over haute cuisine, often getting annoyed at those pompous celebrity chef programmes where they enthuse over mashed potato as if it were the answer to the middle east crisis. I am weakening to the aesthetics now, but not the price.

We walked around Grasmere lake, which is mostly road and busy, but flat, as suits my lady. There were disposable barbecues burned out and disposed of down by White Moss Common, little bags of dog poo and suspicious bits of brown smeared tissue under the bushes. It discouraged us from sitting down to picnic. This has always been a popular area, but the stress is showing, town-greyness seeping in. People smiled and said hello.

I stole a look at the Rock of Names up by the Dove Cottage visitor centre, but I thought it looked a touch jaded, though in retrospect this was probably my imagination, still suffering the assault of those bags of dog poo and bits of tissue. The light was difficult, so I did not bother with a photograph. We were not tempted to pay entrance to the visitor centre itself, which had ingeniously linked the work of Wordsworth with Matsuo Basho. I would not have made that link myself, but as I think of it, I see the connection in some of Wordsworth’s lines – he could be very Zen, though in the main far more wordy than the master of Haiku. Both poets walked immense distances, and used plain language. Basho is as revered in Japan as Wordsworth in the UK. There are many Japanese tourists still making pilgrimage to Grasmere.

Rydal Mount

Rydal Mount

As an attraction, I prefer Rydal Mount. Wordsworth spent most of his life there, but is more associated with Dove Cottage, his years in that place being reckoned by the literati to have been his best, poetically speaking. But one has only to visit Rydal Mount to intuit this house must have given him by far the greater joy and comfort. There is not the room to swing a cat at Dove Cottage and only one room with any decent light at all. Rydal Mount, by contrast, is flooded with it.

St Oswalds church in Grasmere has installed musical bells now. At certain hours we are treated to a few verses of a hymn. At 10:00 am we have “Morning is broken”, at 4:00 pm we have “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended” which my lady dislikes as she says it is for funerals. “To Thine be the Glory” is at 2:00 pm which is more jolly. I have visited Wordsworth’s grave twice, the second occasion to look for Hartley, eldest son of STC, and who is located just behind the Wordsworth family. While there I was able to point out to fellow visitors the correct Wordsworth, as there are a lot of them in the cemetery and it can be confusing. I used to struggle as well, but the clue is he died in 1850. To his left is beloved brother John, to his right, beloved daughter Dora. To John’s left, beloved sister, the ever enigmatic Dorothy.

The musical strikes remind us this is a Christian, Anglican, sacred place as well as a tourist attraction. There’s a lot of nature mysticism in Wordsworth’s poetry, but the bells also remind us he sang hymns with gusto. On a busy day in Grasmere, with tourists spilling from the pavements, it’s hard to imagine anything like a profound, spiritual stillness, but if you sit a while in pew at St Oswald’s, you will find it.

At Rydal Mount there is a copy of Wordsworth’s letter declining the poet laureateship on account of his advancing years. It is very beautifully worded. We do not write like that any more. Friend Robert Peel – the PM – assured him nothing would be required of him in return, so Wordsworth accepted.

I have the impression, mostly subliminal, I owe a lot to my reading of this man’s life and work – though his life be tending now towards myth. His work is like the Dao De Jing, meaning nothing without the ears to hear, except for Daffodils – but I think that was more Dorothy’s bidding, and beautiful in a different kind of way. I hear him more clearly now than I used to do, but still have a long way to go. I find it easier to read his poems in a plain north country accent. I don’t know Shakespeare at all, find him inaccessible by comparison, but I understand this is my own ignorance talking.

By coincidence fellow blogger Bottledworder posts an excerpt from Intimations of Immortality which I pick up via the hotel’s free wi fi.

Dinner here costs £38 per person. Coffee is extra. I do not aspire to a lifestyle where such things can be taken for granted. Wordsworth made nothing as a poet. The Prelude was published posthumously to little applause. Only now is it respected. Again, a north country accent helps in the reading of it.

£5.00 for two coffee’s in the garden centre, but the staff were friendly, unlike their trip advisor review which accused them of being surly – which only goes to show, one must treat all publicly voiced opinion with circumspection, to whit:

In my current work in progress, the protagonist, Timothy Magowan, a jaded teacher of English literature, and tweedy man of middle years, has nothing good to say about Grasmere. I have been known to say unkind things about it myself, so it’s something of a turn-up to be temporarily resident again. I dislike the cost of things and the apparent disdain in which the tourist is held, whilst being simultaneously milked as a cashcow, but I’m willing to make an effort if Grasmere can prove itself to be more accommodating, meet me half way. But then we do not see the world – including Grasmere – as it is, but only as we are.

The weather is set to cool by midweek, with the promise of a light, refreshing rain. I may venture up to Alcock Tarn, seek company among the skylarks.

So, to finish, Wordsworth and Basho,… on the Skylark!

ETHEREAL minstrel! pilgrim of the sky!
Dost thou despise the earth where cares abound?
Or while the wings aspire, are heart and eye
Both with thy nest upon the dewy ground?
Thy nest which thou canst drop into at will,
Those quivering wings composed, that music still!

To the last point of vision, and beyond
Mount, daring warbler!—that love-prompted strain
—’Twixt thee and thine a never-failing bond—
Thrills not the less the bosom of the plain:
Yet might’st thou seem, proud privilege! to sing
All independent of the leafy Spring.

Leave to the nightingale her shady wood;
A privacy of glorious light is thine,
Whence thou dost pour upon the world a flood
Of harmony, with instinct more divine;
Type of the wise, who soar, but never roam—
True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home.

William Wordsworth – 1770-1850

Above the moor,
not attached to anything,
a skylark singing.

Matsuo Basho 1644-1694

The contrast is breathtaking!

Matsuo Basho.jpg

Matsuo Basho

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