From Pen to Photo
Fifty years of Lakeland history comparing the sketches of Alfred Wainwright to contemporary photographs of the same scenes
The Story of the Sketchbooks
In his concluding notes to Book 7 of his Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, Alfred Wainwright looked forward to future projects in the hills. As he explained: “What I have in mind is A LAKELAND SKETCHBOOK which, all being well, could be the start of a new series that would aim to show the best of Lakeland in pictures and, by indicating the changes taking place in the district, in valley and on fell, serve to supplement the present series of guidebooks”.
Those words were written at Christmas 1965, and A Lakeland Sketchbook was published in 1968, with four further volumes in the series appearing in 1969, 1971, 1972 and 1973. Each contains 80 sketches, although they would perhaps be better described as pen and ink drawings of the landscapes and buildings of Lakeland.Few people would consider them a useful supplement to the guidebooks, but together they constitute what is probably his finest artistic achievement.
From the bare facts stated above, it might be assumed that Wainwright set to in 1966 or thereabouts, executing drawings for publication in his forthcoming sketchbooks. To some extent he may have done this, but he also used sketches made previously (but not previously published). For example, sketch 331, Serpentine Woods, Kendal, was printed from an original drawing Wainwright made in 1944. How did Wainwright go about producing the books? He was nothing if not a great recycler. Having penned the title page for A Lakeland Sketchbook, he then reused that same page to make the title page for a Third Lakeland Sketchbook by writing “A THIRD” on a small piece of paper which he pasted into place; similarly the sketch of Eagle Crag is pasted into place where the sketch of Grasmere and Great Rigg appears in the first sketchbook.
The contents pages for the sketchbooks were done by drawing a table in pencil, and then writing into the rows and columns, so that everything appears perfectly in line. In a few cases he made a mistake, and a slip of paper with the correction on has been pasted over the error. The pencil lines could then be rubbed out.
The captions, comments and location maps were done with up to six per page. For example, these details for sketches 81 to 84 were done on the same piece of paper, only one side of the page being used, however. Again, some corrections were pasted over; and in one case a “window” was cut through one page to show a drawing underneath. Some use was also made of correction fluid; this looks very obvious on the original, but printing doesn’t pick it up. The size of the original is the same as the size of the printed version, and AW has obviously used different nibs for fine detail and bold writing etc.
One remark I would make about Wainwright’s drawings is about his use of ‘atmospheric perspective’. Mostly there is little in the image to provide perspective from scale so he does it with different tonal values and clarity of detail with huge expertise.
As Wainwright explained in Fellwanderer, his drawings were not done out in the fells and valleys, but in his study at home, based on photographs taken earlier. Unlike the subsequent series Scottish Mountain Drawings, where Wainwright meticulously planned where he needed to go to get photographs on which to base his drawings, there is no evidence that he planned forays to take photographs for the Lakeland Sketchbooks. In some cases he may have done, but in many cases it seems that the Lakeland sketches were based on photographs taken earlier. 124 of the 400 sketches can be identified as effectively the same views as drawings in his seven Pictorial Guides and therefore, by definition, the photographs must have been taken prior to 1966.
Stylistically, too, there are significant differences between drawings included in the Lakeland Sketchbooks. For examples, sketch 21 “The Jaws of Borrowdale” looks more intense and detailed than sketch 169 “The head of Borrowdale”; sketch 60 “Tarn Hows” contrasts similarly with 325 “The head of Coledale”. Wainwright started doing full size drawings of Lakeland as early as the 1940s, and when at Christmas 1965 he wrote the words quoted above, he must already have had a significant collection of completed sketches that could be used in this new series of books. Other drawings would have been done specifically for the Lakeland Sketchbooks, though not necessarily from photographs taken contemporaneously.
Although Wainwright was an artist, and could and did use artist’s licence, in the end his drawings are based on photographs, and are predominantly true to life. As he wrote in the Introduction to the first sketchbook, an artist may “omit the temporary disfigurement of pylons and poles and aerials added to the scene by man, while being faithful to the permanent features endowed by nature”. Subject to that, his drawings are a valuable record of Lakeland, as it looked around the middle of the 20th century.
The fiftieth anniversary of the publication of A Lakeland Sketchbook occurred in 2018, and I made it my objective to obtain a photograph of all of the 400 scenes shown in the sketchbooks, as they now are; and thus to supplement Wainwright’s record with one of my own. In this, my aim was not just to take a photograph of something Wainwright had drawn; but rather to take a photograph which (as closely as possible) was from the exact viewpoint Wainwright used, and with the exact same content. Only in this way could the changes wrought by time be most clearly shown. I was certainly not the first to have the idea of taking photographs based on the 400 sketches. As early as 1977, Peter Messenger of Carlisle conceived the idea of finding the exact locations of the drawings and taking a photograph of the same scene. I later joined him in this activity. We both took the photographs on colour slide film, but neither of us acquired a complete set of all 400 scenes. Much later, Andy Beck took on the much larger project of photographing, and then painting in watercolour, all of the 1500 drawings in the pictorial guides; an immense undertaking which resulted in his multi-award winning The Wainwrights in Colour. The Wainwright Society, too, had its’ own project to obtain photographs based on the five Lakeland Sketchbooks – launched in 2012, it was completed in 2018. I managed that project throughout its six years duration; the results can be seen on the Society’s website at www.wainwright.org.uk.
A simple comparison of a modern photograph to an older drawing can be very interesting. Prominent features shown in the drawing may have disappeared. Features not shown in the drawing may appear in the photograph – either because they are genuinely new, or because the artist deliberately omitted them. Sometimes it is physically impossible to reproduce the sketch with a photograph: a sure sign that artistic licence has been employed. In this way, light is cast on the work of the artist.
But in documenting my own project, it seemed to me that more value could be added than would result from a mere album of 400 photographs. So, I included notes as to how to locate the viewpoints, and what times of year and times of day might produce the best photographic results. I have included some information given by Wainwright – or obtained elsewhere – which casts light on the history or development of the scene over time. I have also listed where, if at all, the same view appears elsewhere in Wainwright’s published works, which shows his remarkable propensity for recycling.
For some of the sketches, I have included photographs from the 1970s, taken by Peter Messenger or myself. And there are personal notes about the circumstances in which I took the photographs.
Wainwright was not infallible. Some of his notes on the viewpoints for particular drawings are inaccurate. There are also a few errors which probably resulted from drawing from a photograph, rather than from direct observation. But in general, these drawings are a remarkable artistic achievement, which will almost certainly never be equalled. I only hope that my photographs form a complementary historical record.
Maybe in 2069, someone will update the record again….
Notes on the pictures in this Introduction
(1) This view of Eskdale is on the title page of A Fourth Lakeland Sketchbook. The picture was taken from the Hardknott Pass road, on 23rd July 2019
(2) Wainwright includes this drawing in the introductory pages of A Third Lakeland Sketchbook, with this caption. The church closed in 2013. This picture was taken in 2019, whilst I was walking Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk with Anne Setright.
(3) This view is on the title page of A Lakeland Sketchbook. The viewpoint is on the road out of Grasmere towards Red Bank. This photo was also taken on 23rd July 2019.
(4) This sketch of a street in Hawkshead is on the introductory pages to A Fourth Lakeland Sketchbook. This photo was taken on a foray with Sheelagh Hughes Hallett on 3rd August 2019. AW doesn’t name the street, though a photograph of the same place by Joseph Hardman is captioned “Grandy Nook”.