I once owned a painting by Scottish artist William Dyce (1806-1864). It wasn't that I personally owned it but that the office I held brought with it the custodian trusteeship of the painting. Anyway, the connection has made me alert to any mention of Dyce. Consequently when I came across Dyce's Pegwell Bay as an example of Victorian 'wistful atheism' in David Fergusson's brilliant little book 'Faith and Its Critics' (OUP paperback 2011) I was bound to consider the painting again.
|Pegwell Bay, Kent - A Recollection of October 5th 1858 by William Dyce|
I'm not sure Fergusson has got it right. As I understand it the painting evokes for him the mood of a kind of reluctant atheism that admits the changing perspective brought by geological study and Darwin's new theories but somehow struggles to admit the consequences of the earth now known to be so much older than previously thought. Perhaps that was the mood of the age, but I don't think Dyce shared it - after all his paintings of biblical scenes are wondrously lively.
What then might the picture be saying?
It's usually analysed in terms of the various kinds of time portrayed: the ancient geological time in the detailed rock strata, fossils and chalk cliffs; the fleeting life-time of beloved people (Dyce's family members collecting shells in the foreground); earth-time as portrayed by the dying light and the receding tide; and astronomical time in Donati's comet just visible in the sky. These aspects coupled to the muted, fading light colours are, it is suggested, Dyce's way of stating human frailty in comparison to the immensely aged and vast universe.
I wonder whether that's actually it, or whether that is a reading back into the mid-nineteenth century something of our contemporary worries. The figure standing at the right, near the cliff, is Dyce himself with artist's equipment under his arm. He is staring at the comet. A brilliant view against the fading sunlight, no doubt. He and his family were on holiday. That the others in the party are so engaged in shell collecting could be a very positive sign of enjoyment. Certainly the colour of their clothing in comparison to the mute shades of the natural forms around them draws attention to them. The final clue may be the title Dyce himself gave the picture. Might not 'a recollection' mean exactly that? Could it be that far from being a statement about humanity and an uncaring universe, the painting is a recollection of family and belonging where the universe is the playground of enjoyment, appreciation and a sense of at-one-ment? Collective memory certainly works via such recollections.I'd love to hear the opinions of anyone who knows more about Dyce.