Friday, November 7, 2008

Back to the Futurism

A little while ago I wrote a post exploring connections between the Futurist art movement, a pre-war British racetrack and the phenomenon of the World Land Speed Record. This is a kind of postscript to that. It concerns another fatal world record attempt, another wreck and another strange conflation of futurism and the picturesque.

John Ruskin, proto-Socialist, inspiration for the arts and craft movement, patron of Joseph Turner and opponent of all things industrial lived in a house called Brantwood overlooking Coniston Water in the Lake District. The Lakes are a quintessentially English landscape, seemingly natural and wild but actually carefully managed and designed. Ruskin loved them and spent his last years living at Brantwood. He rebuilt and extended the original house constantly, adding turrets and deliberately ad hoc elements of a slightly wilful ungainliness. The house was both a reaction to industrialisation and to the purity of neo-classicism.

Ruskin would also spend hours walking the landscape, painting rocks and waterfalls and passing clouds. He was a keen rower and would take his rowing boat, the Jumping Jenny, out on to Coniston Water from the jetty he constructed at the end of Brantwood's gardens. Ruskin's veneration and aestheticisation of the Lake District was intrumental, however inadvertently, in the construction of a mythical English pastoralism.

(Waterfall, near Brantwood, by John Ruskin)

There is a Ruskin Museum in Coniston which contains a collection of his writing and drawings. Alongside Ruskin's work though there is another exhibition devoted to Donald Cambell who died attempting the World Water Speed Record on Coniston Water in 1967. Donald was the son of Sir Malcolm Cambell, an aristocratic racing driver and several times holder of the World Landspeed Record. Sir Malcolm had constructed a series of cars, all of which were called Bluebird, that began as eccentrically primitive vehicles and evolved into outlandishly shaped machines devoted to pure speed.

Donald Cambell also achieved the WLSR in 1964 at Lake Eyre in the ultimate derivation of Bluebird. This was a car of astonishing beauty, a continuous wave like form, a piece of rolling landscape in itself. It can be seen in contemporary photographs as a tiny dot travelling at 400 mph across the vast salt flats of the dried up lake bed. In a previous attempt the year before, rain had fallen on the lake for the first time in 20 years and the car had to be rescued to avoid it being submerged.

Donald Cambell devoted his life to an obsessional desire to be the fastest person on earth. Not content with the WLSR he attempted the same feat on water and built a hydroplane boat called Bluebird K7. In 1966 he took the boat to Coniston Water, the long linear shape of the lake lending itself to speed, like a natural drag strip. The following year during a record breaking run the boat flipped over and ploughed back down into the water and Cambell was killed.

There is something compellingly odd and alien about this blue jet streaking across the waters of Coniston. It is the same conflation of the futuristic and the antiquarian that occurs in science fiction.  In 2001, the wreck of Bluebird was salvaged from the bottom of the lake and is now being rebuilt. The photographs of the salvage boat show Ruskin's former home of Brantwood looking on in the background. 

It would be easy to see the absolute modernity of Cambell's boat as the antithesis of Ruskin's beliefs.  Or its wreck as a monument to modern hubris. The Lake District is a product of modernity too though, a cultivated wilderness designed to feed a growing consumption of the countryside as leisure pursuit. The countryside itself is an inversion of the city as much as the other way around.  The two are mutually supportive concepts. The wreck of Bluebird, dragged from the bottom of the lake seems to come from an alien world, although it as ingenious and natural as the lakes themselves. 


Kosmograd said...

You can view Campbell's fatal crash on YouTube:

Watching crashes and horrific accidents strikes me as being the definitive YouTube experience, the acme of the medium. I often find myself spending hours at a time exploring its many genres and combinations, of which the speedboat wipeout is just one.

It's a Ballardian pornucopia of violence and destruction played out for our viewing pleasure.

Charles Holland said...

Thanks for that. I posted it up together with your comment - hope you don't mind.

By the way, I notice you haven't posted of late. I hope you get a chance to write something soon.

Dr Mark Haywood said...

Just read your musings on Coniston, a few years ago I published an essay on Campbell and Ruskin which made some of the points in your blog; it also contained a number of further resonances and coincidences that you might find of interest

Charles Holland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles Holland said...

I would be keen to read it. It's a pretty obscure connection so intrigued to find someone else interested in it. My parents watched Cambell making some of his early runs as they lived quite near Coniston at the time so I have always had an interest in it. I also saw a film about it starring Anthony Hopkins a few years back but have not been able to track down a recorded version.

Is your essay available on line?

Dr Mark Haywood said...

I imagine it must have been a sublime moment to see (and hear)Bluebird on Coniston.

Thanks for the interest in the essay (you might find the bibliography useful too). It's not available online, as due to an unfortuante oversight, I don't actually have an electronic copy any longer. However I'd be happy to mail you a copy of the booklet. It was written for an exhbition I had at Brantwood and I've still got an e-copy of my gallery text, which describes the artworks and gives a flavour of the essays' contents.

I can't seem to find a cheap DVD of Across the Lake, but its available as part of a 5 disk set at:-

Charles Holland said...


Thanks I would be interested in reading it. You could send it to my work: FAT Ltd., Unit 2, 49-59 Old Street, London, EC1V 9HX.

And thanks for the link - yes, Across the Lake!

TomP said...

I just got home from a few days in Coniston and exactly what you write on your blog was what struck me. We took the Gondola ferry, a restored Victorian steamboat across the lake to Brantwood. I m really struck by the confluence of Ruskin and Campbell in the same place.
Another thing which stuck me after hiking around Consiton Old Man is this is an industrial landscape scattered with remains of copper mines, slate quarries and so. In the distance you ll see a huge wind farm, both on a ridge of hills and offshore. It reminds us the countryside has never been an arcadian landscape, it s always been a resource there to exploit.
As another commentator pointed out all very Ballardian.