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27 April 2016

Light can make artists of us all – if we look carefully

Together, Ann Wroe and Bruce Watson's new books illuminate – no other word will do – the brilliance all around.

By Erica Wagner

Even before birth, we are ready to see the light. As the visual system develops inside the womb, signals flow from the retina to the brain, a rehearsal of sight, neural connections building and strengthening until the infant’s eyes open and the world bursts in. Light is everywhere, mysterious in its ubiquity, as both those who follow religion and those who study science know. Ann Wroe quotes the monk Thomas Merton, who had a vision of brightness in the unlikely environs of Louisville, Kentucky, in 1958: “There is no way of telling people,” he wrote of that moment, “that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

There is the light that pours from the star at the centre of our solar system; there is the light of lasers and light fixed on photographic paper – all the light that can be studied. Then there is the light of the mind, the light that artists have tried to capture in oil, or water, or ink, on paper, or canvas, or even on stone (think of the pride of lions in the Chauvet Cave in southern France, painted more than 30,000 years ago, which seems, if a flame flickers across the surface of the rock, to run forward in search of prey). Light makes artists of us all, if we choose to look carefully at the world in all its brightness and shadow.

It is this careful attention that concerns the biographer and critic Ann Wroe. Her Six Facets of Light is a sequence of essays on the perception of light, as the author walks along the Downs and the coastline of East Sussex and responds to what she sees, all the while considering the work of artists such as Eric Ravilious, Samuel Palmer and William Blake, and that of writers including John Clare, Gerard Manley Hopkins
and R S Thomas.

Her own poems and recollections are threaded through the book, so the experience of reading it is almost that of a conversation, shifting lightly (pun intended) from one topic to another, from life to art and back again. As she writes about Thoreau choosing his pure life in the woods near Walden Pond, Wroe recalls her youthful confession “in a gloomy church called St Joseph’s in New Malden, in south-west London”. She had been taught at the age of seven that ­after confession, she would emerge “wildly shining, pure and good”.

Darkness is sin; virtue is light. “Where is the way where light dwelleth, and as for darkness, where is the place thereof?” So speaks the Lord to Job from the whirlwind, his question an epigraph for Bruce Watson’s investigation of mankind’s relationship with light. This is a book to put in your rucksack along with Wroe’s as you set off over the Downs. Describing itself as “a radiant history from creation to the quantum age”, it is a wide-ranging and imaginative work of non-fiction, from an author whose previous books have largely centred on 20th-century US political history.

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Watson leaps with brio into a story that encompasses the history of art, the history of religion, the history of philosophy and the history of science. The book’s pages are tightly packed with everything from arc lamps to Zoroaster and much in between, but it is never less than engaging. Aristotle, he reminds us, referred to students of nature as phusikoi, from which Greek word the term “physics” derives and “under whose umbrella the study of light still proceeds”. All those found in these pages are phusikoi, including the author. The same can be said of Wroe’s book and its author.

Wroe brings in the great scientists who expanded our understanding of light but their discoveries are not at the heart of her investigation. Rather, she sits on the path leading up to Firle Beacon, in East Sussex, with a new notebook open in her lap, recalling Samuel Palmer’s feelings of anticipation in 1824 when he, too, had a fresh sketchbook before him, hoping to work “with a child’s simple feeling”, as the painter wrote. She thinks not only of Palmer but of Ravilious, walking on the hills with his lover Helen Binyon, and how his complex paintings and their colour washes brought new life to the land. “If all the light by which we see is ancient,” Wroe writes, “having journeyed from the first crack of time, it surely carries with it all manner of memories, disturbances and ghosts.”

Just what it is that light carries intrigues both writers, as it has intrigued artists and scientists through the ages. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’” Wroe thinks, sitting on the hill. “Light and word emerged together.” Watson’s book is more overtly scientific but he is happy to make connections between the nature of light and that of belief. Watson notes that photons, unlike other subatomic particles, have no mass and therefore do not decay. “Because it is eternal, there is no end to light . . . Whether begat by God or an indifferent cosmos, the first photons of creation are still out there – somewhere.”

Just occasionally, Watson’s book can feel rushed in its attempt to pack so much into a small space. He is at his best when he allows himself to expand into a story: his account of the development of photography has the pace of a thriller, setting the reader by the shoulder of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre as he coats his glass plates with silver iodide to seize “the fleeting light”. Together, Wroe and Watson illuminate – no other word will do – the brilliance all around. 

Six Facets of Light by Ann Wroe is published by Jonathan Cape (320pp, £25)

Light: a Radiant History from Creation to the Quantum Age by Bruce Watson is published by Bloomsbury (304pp, £20)

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This article appears in the 20 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater