When I lived in Richmond, Virginia, we often spent the summers on the Northern Neck, a long spit of land bounded by the Potomac River to the North and the Rappahannock to the South. Initially, I found it an unprepossessing area, patch-worked together by the relatively poor truck farms of the locals and vacation homes for the wealthy gentry from Richmond and Washington, DC. My first impressions of the area were not favorable; I found the brackish land to be too flat, too monotonous, too scrubby.
One thing that caught my attention, however, were a number of old farm houses that had been abandoned and left to collapse in the middle of their respective farmlands. The demographics of the area were such that when the farmer’s children grew up, they moved off to the cities, leaving no one to work the farms. And when the farmers themselves died, the houses were left to fall apart and litter the landscape like wooden carcasses.
I remembered Kenneth Clark’s idea that landscape painting, in Clark’s view, was supposed to engender a “sense of well-being”—a peaceful, life-enhancing sense that God’s in his Kingdom and all’s right on earth. Well these houses did no such thing. They gave off a tragic, deathly sense of being far from well that I found extremely moving.
I have frequently thought of the relationship between houses and people. The house is a fertile metaphor for many human qualities. Firstly, they remind us of our own bodies. They are freestanding and autonomous, with areas around them (lawns, yards, plazas) that act much like our own ‘body boundaries’. Children pick up on this similarity immediately, when they draw the facades of houses like faces, with window ‘eyes’ and a mouth-like front door. Like people, houses have most of the important features on the front; the backs tend to be plainer and are reserved for the removal of trash. By extension, houses also remind us of our families, as in the “House of Atreus”, or the general concept of ‘household’. They stand in for our communities when we build a Court House, and for our government, enough so that we appoint a House of Representatives. Lincoln understood the power of this metaphor in reference to how the question of slavery was dividing the country by saying, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”.
These abandoned houses made me think of how hard we constantly have to fight against entropy and disintegration. Any homeowner knows this; something is always breaking and in need of repair. And any aging person can tell you the same thing, as visits to the doctor and the pharmacy become increasing parts of life. These houses reminded me that life is a constant struggle, and of what it takes to stay healthy and functional.
The abandoned houses that I came across were in very different stages of disintegration. Some had merely lost windows and doors and had sagging rooflines. Others were starting to completely come undone; pieces of the roof had fallen off and vines were ripping apart the clapboard.
I once decided to enter one of these houses. As I hacked my way through the foliage, I found what used to be the front door of the house. I stepped on the doorsill and the whole house started humming, like the string section of a symphony orchestra warming up. Termites were buzzing and making the whole house move. Snakes slithered, birds darted, mice scurried; the entire animal world had taken up residence even as the humans had departed. If a house had been abandoned for a very long time, it became completely engulfed by vegetation. Some, so much so, that I barely knew that there was a house within the verdant mass. In these last stages of abandonment, it was as if the earth were starting to reclaim the house and to take it back into its arms.
In this case, the house was lost. But the fields to the right were lush and abundant, still farmed and productively organized into rows. It was the contrast between these two things- loss and abundance- that I found so poignant.
These houses are powerful statements about the human condition and meditations on the passage of time and the struggle to remain whole. But one couldn’t possibly live in them. Ultimately, I think that Clark is correct, that landscape painting has the capacity to impart a ‘sense of well-being’ unlike any other genre. Woodley, the 19th-century Maryland plantation house that I live and work in, is one of those magical places that does just that.
The house immediately makes you feel at peace. It has strong bones, grand without being in the slightest way pretentious. Its forty-seven windows let in light from every direction, and help the rich polished wood-paneling from feeling too dark.(Illustrations #6 and #7, “Woodley, Sunlight I and II”). There is a marvelous flow as you walk through the house. This is created because each room has at least two doors in it, so you never have to turn around and exit a room the same way you entered it. Rooms unfold onto rooms- there are no obstacles, no dead ends.
Likewise, the grounds are lovely and spacious, a haven within which we host dozens of birds, rabbits, fox, and deer. The grounds still has the original smokehouse as well as a set of magnificent 18th century boxwoods that originally acted as a natural gate for a carriage path.
These two subjects, the ‘abandoned house’ and the ‘house of well being’, have acted as emotional poles- metaphors for loss and abundance- between which I have oscillated, depending on the circumstances of my life. Because I have been battling serious illness in recent years, I have gone back to identifying the house with the ravaged body- the body that is falling apart and can no longer function. The major painting I worked on when I could work was of a set of abandoned row houses. It is a very moving sight, these houses which used to be homes to real families, now breaking apart, sagging, splitting, doors and windows all smashed and useless.
Illness and surgery tell you what it feels like to be broken- to have the normal barriers between inside and outside violated. Structures like these remind us that it is work to remain upright everyday, to stand up in the face of gravity, sickness and entropy. Jamie Wyeth said that even a bale of hay could be a self-portrait, if it was painted with feeling and conviction. So can a house.