Visions of life on the edge of oblivion

SEASCAPES: An artist and a photographer have pooled their talents to do justice to the changing face of the Yorkshire coast. Stephen McClarence reports.

It is a glorious view and it’s getting nearer all the time. Only about eight feet of lawn separate Kane Cunningham’s bungalow from the cliff edge at Knipe Point, overlooking Cayton Bay just south of Scarborough.

He bought the house 18 months ago for £3,000 after discovering the unsettling story of Knipe’s crumbling cliffs. Erosion is gradually eating away at the almost surreally spruce estate built on top of them – and at the security of the home-owners, many of them elderly or retired.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Since he moved in, about six feet of land have slipped, three houses have gone – demolished for safety reasons rather than tumbling over the edge – and, as Cunningham says, “mine’s next on the list.” As an artist – he has a joint landscape exhibition with the photographer Joe Cornish opening today at Scarborough Art Gallery – he bought the house not to live in, but to use as a studio and “installation”, symbolising – well, what?

Thoughts tumble ebulliently out. “It’s about destruction, mortality and time,” he says, shouting over the gusting wind as we stand outside the patio windows that command a sweeping view of the coast down to Flamborough Head.

“It’s about challenging assumptions of life and how you can’t fight Nature. And ultimately it’s about the tragedy for the residents here, who have bought properties that they expected to live in for the rest of their lives, but are now facing catastrophe. The problem for them is that their life savings were tied up in their houses.”

As we talk, an estate gardener rounds the corner of the bungalow with a lawnmower and trims the grass right up to the edge of the cliff. “They still make sure the estate is manicured as well as it can be,” says Cunningham, head of fine art at Yorkshire Coast College.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“It’s like shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic. It’s as though we’re all Englishmen and will sing Rule Britannia as the houses go over. There’s a feeling here that ‘the right thing’ would be done. But it hasn’t been. The residents have been left high and dry.”

The gardener carries on mowing. Little England keeps up standards as this most suburban estate confronts elemental forces. “I had a letter from residents,” says Cunningham. “It said: ‘We notice the outside of your house is dirty. Can you paint it? Two coats’.”

He has turned the bungalow into a chaotic studio – canvases, models, tubes of paint, an upturned bath, Mario Lanza LP sleeves, jam jars, splattered paint, wine bottles. Suburban it is not. “I don’t tidy up,” he says. “This is an evolving, dynamic space, layered in time and memories. A friend who’s an archaeologist is coming to do a dig.”

One wall is covered with letters sent in response to the massive media coverage his House Project, as he calls it, has attracted. “It seems to have hit something deep within the psyche of people across the world,” he says.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

One letter is addressed simply to “House on the edge of the sea”, another to “The Artful Lodger”, another to “Last Post Bungalow”. Someone has sent a message in a bottle: “A message lost is still a message sent.” Many of the letters are sealed in envelopes labelled “Do not open.” They’re intended to follow the house when it finally tumbles down the 200ft cliff. Cunningham plans to mark the event with a New Orleans jazz band – a “big performance piece” which Joe Cornish, waiting at the Scarborough gallery for us, hopes to photograph.

Cornish, who lives at Great Ayton, near Guisborough, is one of Britain’s leading landscape photographers: a quiet, thoughtful man but passionate in defence of his chosen medium. Don’t patronise it as a poor relation of the fine art which he studied at university, where some teachers were “very sniffy about photography – they’d say: ‘It’s just technique, just technical, shallow’.”

His pictures – patiently observed, superbly crafted and with an infallible instinct for atmospheric light – have an almost enchanted beauty and clarity. Their careful consideration contrasts with the spontaneous energy of Cunningham’s landscapes. Cornish talks of “thinking of composition as balance and energy... It’s managing chaos in the wild world.”

The joint exhibition, linking fine art and photography, was the idea of curator Jan Bee Brown. “It’s about the changing landscape we’re in now, certainly on this coast,” she says. “And our relationship with it in terms of art.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

She encouraged Cornish and Cunningham to browse the gallery’s collection, which includes townscapes by the newly-refashionable Atkinson Grimshaw, and use some as starting points for their work (though not necessarily as places to revisit).

Almost inevitably in Scarborough, both opted mostly for coastal scenes, as Brown demonstrates on a “virtual tour” of the exhibition. By some digital magic, we can swoop and swirl around on-screen images of the pictures already up in the galleries, even though, as we speak, they haven’t yet been hung.

Fine art and photography, she points out, have been closely linked in Scarborough since the mid 19th century, when the photographer Oliver Sarony set up Europe’s biggest photographic studio here. “This was a great watering place where the rich and famous used to come for their holidays – the sort of people who would buy his photographs.”

Some were persuaded to have Sarony’s portraits transformed into more prestigious-looking paintings – particularly after the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) visited the studio. Sarony came up with a profit-making scheme: for a fee, he would incorporate a painted version of a customer’s portrait in a composite canvas of the Prince on the Spa Promenade (a walk he never in fact took). The closer the customer stood to the Prince, the higher the fee.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It’s the sort of misrepresentation that would cut no ice with Joe Cornish, an authenticist to the core. I ask why his pictures have such tremendous depth-of-field (with details close to the lens as clearly focused as those in the distance). “What I like to do is stand somewhere and share what it’s like to be there with the viewer,” he says. “If half the picture is out of focus you’re not conveying that; we see everything sharp.”

The National Trust has commissioned a lot of work from him. Does he therefore feel an unspoken, perhaps unconscious, need to produce “beautiful” pictures that flatter the trust’s landscapes, give them extra allure? He seems startled by the suggestion. “My job is to be an eye-witness. There’s a difference between inspiring and ‘beautiful’ pictures.”

He gives the impression of living the landscapes before photographing them. “I’ll walk past something one day and think: ‘There could be something in the way the curve of that hill mirrors the curve of the path in front.” And then he waits for the right condition – but not indefinitely. “People say ‘You must wait hours.’ But I’m a very impatient person. If you stay with it for too long, you can get bored with it.”

Cornish talks interestingly about the almost unchallenged assumption that photographs should be rectangular – whether framed or reproduced in books – with straight lines replacing the curves which Nature prefers. One irregularly shaped picture here, for instance, is a long panorama of the wild environment at the bottom of the Knipe Point cliff. The landscape of landslip.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Up at the bungalow, Kane Cunningham launches into criticism of groups who seek to anchor evolving landscapes as “heritage”.

“It’s about the power of organisations who have a vision of how the countryside should look. It’s a romantic vision of landscape, that it should be preserved in aspic. Some of these landscapes are only 150 years old, but for me, the National Parks and National Trust are keeping them in formaldehyde. And in reality they are working landscapes.”

The house has hosted an event called The Last Supper, a sort of environmental issues-filled dinner party whose guests included the MP Clare Short. Now, as he waits for the end to come, Cunningham sleeps here once a month or so.

“At night you can feel the whole house creaking and shaking and vibrating. It rocks me to sleep. I know if it goes over I can get out pretty quickly... We came from the sea. Now it’s coming back for us.”

* Landscape Revisited is at Scarborough Art Gallery (01723 374753; from today until December 4. Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm.