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.