The sea is within us all, says Rabi Thapa, regardless of where we are
I’ve never been one for stories of the sea. I was born in Plymouth, but have seldom returned to the southwest coast of England, favouring the sunny disposition of the Kathmandu Valley, the centre of the landlocked topographical scrum that is Nepal. I am a poor swimmer, cannot tell which way is starboard or port, and find it easier to tell north by the Himalaya rather than the Pole Star. I suspect most Nepalis are no different.
When the 19th-century Nepali despot Jung Bahadur Rana travelled to Queen Vic’s Great Britain to assess her empire’s power, he had to overcome Hindu anxieties about ritual pollution in crossing the kala pani—or black water—to heathen land. The solution was to cargo two casks of holy water from the Ganga, with which he purified himself. In the present day, Nepalis such as myself shuttle back and forth in pressurised cabins 40,000 feet above the earth’s surface, experiencing wholly different anxieties, the oceans a nameless blue far below.
But one can make too much of this disconnect. The Tethys Sea lay between the Indian subcontinent and the Tibetan Plateau before the epochal collision of these masses pushed the Himalaya five miles into the sky. Even the Kathmandu Valley, until 30,000 years ago, was a large lake. Today, uncounted torrents born of Himalayan glaciers and springs percolate down to the Gangetic plains and thence to the Bay of Bengal. So perhaps there is something of the sea in all of us. When my wife, herself born and bred on the pretty coast of Wales, handed me the obscure-sounding The Voyages of Alfred Wallis, I was intrigued, and stepped down from familiar heights to plumb the depths.
This slim book by Peter Everett is a fictionalised account of the life of a Cornish sailor-turned-artist. Alfred Wallis was born in Devonport in 1855, adjacent to the shipbuilding city of Plymouth, at that time in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. A sailor in his youth, he was witness to many a shipwreck before he came away from the tempestuous waves to live off their flotsam and jetsam as a scrap seller in Cornwall. In his late sixties, as relations with his adopted family soured and his own mind curdled, Wallis took to rendering his memories of the sea on pieces of cardboard and wood to fill up a lonely existence in the small cottage he could barely afford. His untrained executions of sailing ships, lighthouses and local towns were original enough to lure arty London types down to see him. But their support could not keep him out of the workhouse, where he died neglected and half out of his mind in 1942.
His stock has risen considerably in the decades since. One of his most ardent collectors, Jim Ede, organised an exhibition of his works in London in 1962, introducing him as “THE Primitive of the twentieth century”, valuing him as “someone who can paint out of his experience with an unsullied and intense personal vision”. While Ede felt the response to that first show was underwhelming, Wallis was recently honoured by inclusion in a major exhibition at the Tate Britain, British Folk Art. His menacing, heavy seas of blue and grey, upon which float airy schooners, barques and brigantines, appear artless at first glance. However, his mastery of colours is evident (remarkable considering he often used cheap yacht paint), and the lack of perspective only emphasises the directness of the artist’s desire to represent, as he put it, “what used to be”.
A decade ago, living across the Thames from the dry-docked Cutty Sark, I’d found it difficult to reconcile the static clutter of masts and rigging to the idea of a world-famous clipper slicing through the high seas bearing cargos of tea and wool. Now, I wondered what Wallis might have made of the Cutty Sark, one of the last of its kind. He may never have considered himself an artist. But he was working as one in a singular sense, impelled by an inner dynamic that threatened to consume him, just as the vicissitudes of the sea did for many of his shipmates.
The abstract painter Ben Nicholson described Wallis’ art as “something that has grown out of the Cornish seas and earth and which will endure”. In Aberystwyth this summer, on the Welsh coast, I encountered a different kind of artist in Marged Pendrell. Though trained, Pendrell creates work as primal as that of Wallis, fashioned equally out of the place she works in. Her latest exhibition at the Gas Gallery in Aberystwyth, Vessels: Land and Sea, employed a fascinating iteration of found objects and bowls forged of the earth. The effect was hypnotic, first anchoring and then freeing the mind to consider the nature of journeys. Repeating patterns of bowls, hewn of beaten metal and the contrasting hues of clay, loam and sand, stood out like markers for the elements of our landscapes. More obvious representations of boats were found in the miniature improvised masts jutting out of bleached sections of wood or cuttlebone; curved hollows of gold, silver and copper that resembled oversized jewellery; wire, lengths of metal, a horseshoe.
The manner in which Pendrell employs the driftwood of our civilisation to craft delicate symbols for it is delightful. “Vessels can contain anything,” Pendrell explained later that day, as we admired a perfect view of the bay from Aberystwyth’s Constitution Hill. The invitation to open interpretation is clear; Pendrell herself is inspired by her intimate knowledge of the Welsh landscape, gleaned from countless walks across the rugged heaths of the coastal Snowdonia National Park. In a more conscious way, she is as rooted in her subject as Wallis.
Pendrell might have added, “Vessels can take you anywhere you want.” And so it was that I embarked on a petit tour of Lisbon and Faro. The Portuguese were peerless seafarers. The art that materialised out of the exploits of such men as Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama reflected this bond with the sea, their sense of mission. The reign of Manuel I (1495–1521) marked the age of discovery for the burgeoning Portuguese empire. Manueline architecture, characterised by ornate, nautically embellished elaborations of the Gothic style, underpins some of the most striking buildings to be seen in and around Lisbon today. In the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Tower of Belém and the Monastery of the Hieronymites, armillary spheres and twisted ropes and knots in limestone make it clear how important the sea was to Portugal’s fortunes. The Manueline offshoot only lasted for a few decades, however, before being subsumed into the Renaissance sweeping across the rest of Europe. It was perhaps inevitable that such an extravagance of expression would be reined in by a movement claiming to draw from “classical” roots. Intriguingly, Jim Ede declared that Alfred Wallis was an antidote to “over-sophisticated” art.
From Lisbon, I travelled to a wedding at a resort near Faro. Away from the golf and tennis and swimming pools lay a private beach sheltered by striking red and white cliffs barely held in check by low pines. But the guests, burdened with prams and toddlers and summer bestsellers, seemed happier to neck beers and cocktails by one of the five pools, honing tans, and who could blame them for the convenience? Yet it struck me how distant the experience of the sea had become. In Faro, thousands of holiday-makers intent on their time in Portugal-by-the-sea left content with a mere glimpse of the waves. Very little of the country that hosted them—not to mention its extraordinary stores of art—permeated the seaside resorts.
Flying out from Barcelona a few days later, I remarked on the homogeny of sunburned British tourists, many sporting sleeve tattoos of the kind that have become ubiquitous in the Western world. I likened the fad to a similar detachment, not just from Nature, but art, too. In bygone days sailors returned to port with tattoos marking their journeys to distant horizons. As the lyricist Irving Berlin had it, “A sailor’s not a sailor (‘til a sailor’s been tattooed)”. Tattoos of pigs and roosters—hopeless paddlers both—were meant to elicit the sympathy of the man upstairs if you ever found yourself overboard. Anchors, dragons and fully rigged ships indicated where you’d sailed—across the Atlantic, to the Orient, around Cape Horn. These days, you choose your design online, corroborate it with your local tattoo parlour, and Bob’s your uncle, vamos a la playa. So many have tattoos now that you can be sure the intricacy of the art needled into you will go largely unnoticed. The body can be transformed into a work of art, but the body politic is indifferent to it.
Last summer, we journeyed to Mustang in northwestern Nepal. Wrapped up against the desiccating wind and dust, we trailed the sinuous lines of the Kali Gandaki river, overhung by the massifs of the two eight-thousanders, Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. We were headed for the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lo, founded in the 15th century. It seemed nothing could be further from the sea than a medieval walled town at an altitude of 3,800 metres, in the shadow of the Tibetan Plateau.
But the clue to an ancient connection lay in the river wending its way across the broad valley floor, grey ribbons meeting and parting in a languid dance. While marvelling at the twisted folds of variegated sedimentary rock rising above us, we paused to observe solitary figures sifting through the pebbly sandbars. Every so often, they stooped to scrutinise a stone. These pilgrims were combing the river bed for saligram—the glossy black stones that crack open to reveal the fossils of marine ammonites, prized as manifestations of Vishnu, Preserver of the Universe. The Himalaya was once at the bottom of the sea, this tells us: the truth of this incredible geological paradox testified to by Nature’s art, from a watery time when the only art was that of Nature itself.
Wallis complained that artists put colour where they should not, implying that their work was in some way unnatural. A god-fearing man, he would have been struck by the simple perfection of the saligram, impressed upon rock in ribbed coils of pitch black. As for the divinity drifting upon the cosmic seas on a bed of serpents, what better earthly representation than the traces of a creature that lived in the waters of prehistory, millions of years ago?
Rabi Thapa is a writer and editor based in Kathmandu, Nepal. He is the editor of La.Lit, a literary magazine from Nepal, and his collection of short stories, Nothing to Declare, was published in 2011. He is currently working on a novel about a journalist who goes mad.