On 3rd October, 1769 Thomas Gray, the poet, rose at seven o’clock and walked from Keswick towards Borrowdale. “The grass was cover’d with a hoar frost, which soon melted and exhaled a thin blewish smoke.” He walked to the foot of Walla Crag there he found “the ground gently rising, and covered with a glade of scattering trees and bushes on the very margin of the water, opens both ways the most delicious view, that my eyes ever beheld.”
Before him he saw the Newlands Valley “with green and smiling fields embosomed in the dark cliffs”, but to the left lay “the jaws of Borrodale, with that turbulent chaos of mountain behind mountain roll’d in confusion; beneath you, and stretching far away to the right, the shining beauty of the Lake, just ruffled by the breeze enough to show it is alive, reflecting rocks, woods, fields, and inverted tops of mountains, with the white buildings of Keswick, Crosthwait-church, and Skiddaw for back-ground at distance.”
“Oh Doctor!” he wrote, “I never wish’d more for you.” The Doctor was Thomas Wharton who had been unable to come on the short trip to the Lakes because of illness. Gray, a fine and sensitive poet and a well-travelled man, was writing to him about the wonders he had seen as a small compensation.
Gray’s letters were among the first to appreciate the beauty of the Lakes, to respond to the beauty, horror and immensity of the scene. The area became a charmed landscape, one to be viewed separately as though it were a series of pictures or paintings by artists such as Salvator Rosa or Claude or Poussin. Thomas Gray looked at it as though it were pictures. He enthusiastically wrote, “Only think how the glass played its part in such a spot.” The glass was a Claude glass, an odd contraption whereby the curious traveller could view the landscape in a mirror and frame it as though it were a picture and even change its mood by seeing it through differently shaded pieces of glass.
Tourists followed where Gray and other writers had led. And the artists came as well, painting the views the tourists had experienced or might experience. One of the leading artists was Joseph Farington. He painted perhaps ten pictures round and about Derwentwater. In the book of his engravings of the Lakes, Lowdore Falls are described: “The stupendous crags between which the torrent precipitates itself broken onto the boldest forms, are shagged with trees hanging everywhere in the most fantastic shapes, from the fissures of the rocks.” Farington’s painting shows the craggy rocks and vast turbulence of waters, a placid lake with a small fishing boat and a cow-herd driving cattle along the shore.
Well over two centuries later, John Murray, the head of the distinguished publishing house that first published Gray’s poems and still owns the original manuscript journals, has followed with his camera, just like Thomas Gray, photographing the same scenes. The camera lacks imagination. Lowdore Falls is hidden behind the trees. The crags are not so high and nowhere near so craggy and the trees fail to dispose themselves elegantly around the shore. We appreciate the beauty of the landscape in a different way.
This beautiful book is a treat for all who enjoy the scenery of the Lakes. Thomas Gray’s enthusiastic descriptions enable us to see familiar scenes with other eyes and Joseph Farington’s harmonious paintings and engravings of all the main lakes – Ullswater, Bassenthwaite, Thirlmere, Rydal and Windermere as well as Derwentwater, - show a landscape that is subtly different from the one seen through the steady eye of John Murray’s camera.