Vernon Lee

The lie of the land

Notes About Landscape

I want to talk about the something which makes the real, individual landscape—the landscape one actually sees with the eyes of the body and the eyes of the spirit—the landscape you cannot describe.

That is the drawback of my subject—that it just happens to elude all literary treatment, and yet it must be treated. There is not even a single word or phrase to label it, and I have had to call it, in sheer despair, the lie of the land: it is an unnamed mystery into which various things enter, and I feel as if I ought to explain myself by dumb show. It will serve at any rate as an object-lesson in the extreme one-sidedness of language and a protest against human silence about the things it likes best.

Of outdoor things words can of course tell us some important points: colour, for instance, and light, and somewhat of their gradations and relations. And an adjective, a metaphor may evoke an entire atmospheric effect, paint us a sunset or a star-lit night. But the far subtler and more individual relations of visible line defy expression: no poet or prose writer can give you the tilt of a roof, the undulation of a field, the bend of a road. Yet these are the things in landscape which constitute its individuality and which reach home to our feelings.

For colour and light are variable—nay, more, they are relative. The same tract will be green in connection with one sort of sky, blue with another, and yellow with a third. We may be disappointed when the woods, which we had seen as vague, moss-like blue before the sun had overtopped the hills, become at midday a mere vast lettuce-bed. We should be much more than disappointed, we should doubt of our senses we found on going to our window that looked down upon outlines of hills, upon precipices, ledges, knolls, or flat expanses, different from those we had seen the previous day or the previous year. Thus the unvarying items of a landscape happen to be those for which precise words cannot be found. Briefly we praise colour, but we actually live in the indescribable thing which I must call the lie of the land. The lie of the land means walking or climbing, shelter or bleakness; it means the corner where we dread a boring neighbour, the bend round which we have watched some one depart, the stretch of road which seemed to lead us away out of captivity. Yes, lie of the land is what has mattered to us since we were children, to our fathers and remotest ancestors; ay, and its perception, the instinctive preference for one kind rather than another, is among the obscure things inherited with our blood, and making up the stuff of our souls. For how else explain the strange powers which different shapes of the earth’s surface have over different individuals; the sudden pleasure, as of the sight of an old friend, the pang of pathos which we may all receive in a scene which is new, without memories, and so unlike everything familiar as to be almost without associations?

The lie of the land has therefore an importance in art, or if it have not, ought to have, quite independent of pleasantness of line or of anything merely visual. An immense charm consists in the fact that the mind can walk about in a landscape. The delight at the beauty which is seen is heightened the anticipation of further unseen beauty; the sense of exploring the unknown; and our present pleasure before a painted landscape is added the pleasure we have been storing up during years of intercourse, if I may use this word, with so many real ones.


For there is such a thing as intercourse with fields and trees and skies, with the windings of road and water and hedge, in our every-day, ordinary life. And a terrible thing for us all if there were not; if our lives were not full of such various commerce, of pleasure, curiosity, and gratitude, of kindly introduction of friend by friend, quite apart from the commerce with other human beings. Indeed, one reason why the modern rectangular town (built at one go for the convenience of running omnibuses and suppressing riots) fills our soul with bitterness and dryness, is surely that this ill-conditioned convenient thing can give us only its own poor, paltry presence, introducing our eye and fancy neither to further details of itself, nor to other places and people, past or distant.

Words can just barely indicate the charm of this other place other time enriching of the present impression. Words cannot in the least, I think, render that other suggestion contained in The Lie of the Land, the suggestion of the possibility of a delightful walk. What walks have we not taken, leaving sacred personages and profane, not to speak of allegoric ones, far behind in the backgrounds of the old Tuscans, Umbrians, and Venetians! Up Benozzo’s hillside woods of cypress and pine, smelling of myrrh and sweet-briar, over Perugino’s green rising grounds, towards those slender, scant-leaved trees, straight-stemmed acacias and elms, by the water in the cool, blue evening valley. Best of all, have not Giorgione and Titian, Palma and Bonifazio, and the dear imitative people labelled Venetian school, led us between the hedges russet already with the ripening of the season and hour into those fields where the sheep are nibbling, under the twilight of the big brown trees, to where some pale blue alp closes in the slopes and the valleys?


It is a pity that the landscape painters of our day—I mean those French or French taught whose methods are really new—tend to neglect The Lie of the Land. Some of them, I fear deliberately avoid it as old-fashioned—what they call obvious—as interfering with their aim of interesting by the mere power of vision and skill in laying on the paint. Be this as it may, their innovations inevitably lead then away from all research of what we may call topographical charm, for what they have added to art is the perception of very changeable conditions of light and atmosphere, of extremely fleeting accidents of colour. One would indeed be glad to open one’s window on the fairyland of iridescent misty capes, of vibrating skies and sparkling seas of Monsieur Claude Monet; still more to stand at the close of an autumn day watching the light fogs rise along the fields, mingling with delicate pinkish mist of the bare poplar row against the green of the first sprouts of corn. But I am not sure that the straight line of sea and shore would be interesting at any other moment of the day; and the poplar rows and cornfields would very likely be drearily dull until sunset. The moment, like Faust’s second of perfect bliss, is such as should be made immortal, but the place one would rather not see again. Yet Monsieur Monet is the one of his school who shows most care for the scene he is painting. The others, even the great ones—men like Pissarro and Sisley, who have shown us so many delightful things in the details of even the dull French foliage, even the dull midday sky—the other modern ones make one long to pull up their umbrella and easel and carry them on—not very far surely—to some spot where the road made a bend, the embankment had a gap, the water a swirl; for we would not be so old-fashioned as to request that the country might have a few undulations…. Of course it was very dull of our ancestors—particularly of Clive Newcome’s day—always to paint a panorama with whole ranges of hills, miles of river, and as many cities as possible; and even our pleasure in Turner’s large landscapes is spoilt by their being the sort of thing people would drive for miles or climb for hours to enjoy, what our grandfathers in post-chaises called a noble fine prospect. All that had to be got rid of, like the contemporaneous literary descriptions: “A smiling valley proceeded from south-east to north-west; an amphitheatre cliffs bounding it on the right hand; while the left a magnificent waterfall leapt from a rock three hundred feet in height and expanded into a noble natural basin of granite some fifty yards in diameter,” &c. &c. The British classics, thus busy with compass, measuring-rod and level, thus anxious to enable the reader to reconstruct their landscape on pasteboard, had no time of course to notice trifling matters: how, for instance,

The woods are round us, heaped and dim; From slab to slab how it slips and springs The thread of water, single and slim, Through the ravage some torrent brings.

Nor could the panoramic painter of the earlier nineteenth century pay much attention to mere alternations of light while absorbed in his great “Distant View of Jerusalem and Madagascar;” indeed, he could afford to move off only when it began to rain very hard.


The impressionist painters represent the reaction against this dignified and also more stolid school of landscape; they have seen, or are still seeing, all the things which other men did not see. And here I may remark that one of the most important items of this seeing is exactly the fact that in many cases we can see only very little. The impressionists have been scoffed at for painting rocks which might be chimney-stacks, and flowering hedges which might be foaming brooks; plains also which might be hills, and vice versâ, and described as wretches, disrespectful to natural objects, which, we are told, reveal new beauties at every glance. But is it more respectful to natural objects to put a drawing-screen behind a willow-bush land copy its minutest detail of branch and trunk, than to paint that same willow, a mere mist of glorious orange, as we see it flame against the hillside confusion of mauve, and russet and pinkish sereness? I am glad to have brought in that word confusion: the modern school of landscape has done a great and pious thing in reinstating the complexity, the mystery, confusion of Nature’s effects; Nature, which differs from the paltry work of man just in this, that she does not thin out, make clear and symmetrical for the easier appreciation of foolish persons, but packs effect upon effect, in space even as in time, one close upon the other, leaf upon leaf, branch upon branch, tree upon tree, colour upon colour, a mystery of beauty wrapped in beauty, without the faintest concern whether it would not be better to say “this is really a river,” or, “that is really a tree.” “But,” answer the critics with much superiority, “art should not be the mere copying of Nature; surely there is already enough of Nature herself; art should be the expression of man’s delight in Nature’s shows.” Well, Nature shows a great many things which are not unchanging and not by any means unperplexing; she shows them at least to those who will see, see what is really there to be seen; and she will show them, thanks to our brave impressionists, to all men henceforth who have eyes and a heart. And here comes our debt to these great painters: what a number of effects, modest and exquisite, or bizarre and magnificent, they will have taught us to look out for; what beauty and poetry in humdrum scenery, what perfect loveliness even among sordidness and squalor: tints as of dove’s breasts in city mud, enamel splendours in heaps of furnace refuse, mysterious magnificence, visions of Venice at night, of Eblis palace, of I know not what, in wet gaslit nights, in looming lit-up factories. Nay, leaving that alone, since ’tis better, perhaps, that we should not enjoy anything connected with grime and misery and ugliness—how much have not these men added to the delight of our walks and rides; revealing to us, among other things, the supreme beauty of winter colouring, the harmony of purple, blue, slate, brown, pink, and russet, of tints and compounds of tints without a name, of bare hedgerows and leafless trees, sere grass and mist-veiled waters; compared with which spring is but raw, summer dull, and autumn positively ostentatious in her gala suit of tawny and yellow.

Perhaps, indeed, these modern painters have done more for us by the beauty they have taught us to see in Nature than by the beauty they have actually put before us in their pictures; if I except some winter landscapes of Monet’s and the wonderful water colours of Mr. Brabazon, whose exquisite sense of form and knowledge of drawing have enabled him, in rapidest sketches of rapidly passing effects, to indicate the structure of hills and valleys, the shape of clouds, in the mere wash of colour, even as Nature indicates them herself. With such exceptions as these, and the beautiful mysteries of Mr. Whistler, there is undoubtedly in recent landscape a preoccupation of technical methods and an indifference to choice of subject, above all, a degree of insistance on what is actually seen which leads one to suspect that the impressionists represent rather a necessary phase in the art, than a definite achievement, in the same manner as the Renaissance painters who gave themselves up to the study of perspective and anatomy. This terrible over-importance of the act of vision is doubtless the preparation for a new kind of landscape, which will employ these arduously acquired facts of colour and light, this restlessly renovated technique, in the service of a new kind of sentiment and imagination, differing from that of previous ages even as the sentiment and imagination of Browning differs from that of his great predecessors. But it is probably necessary that the world at large, as well as the artists, should be familiarised with the new facts, the new methods of impressionism, before such facts and methods can find their significance and achievement; even as in the Renaissance people had to recognise the realities of perspective and anatomy before they could enjoy an art which attained beauty through this means; it would have been no use showing Sixtine chapels to the contemporaries of Giotto. There is at present a certain lack of enjoyable quality, a lack of soul appealing to soul, in the new school of landscape. But where there is a faithful, reverent eye, a subtle hand, a soul cannot be far round the corner. And we may hope that, if we be as sincere and willing as themselves, our Pollaiolos and Mantegnas of the impressionist school, discoverers of new subtleties of colour and light, will be duly succeeded by modern Michelangelos and Titians, who will receive all the science ready for use, and bid it fetch and carry and build new wonderful things for the pleasure of their soul and of ours.


And mentioning Titian, brings to my memory a remark once made to me on one of those washed away, rubbly hills, cypresses and pines holding the earth together, which the old Tuscans drew so very often. The remark, namely, that some of the charm of the old masters’ landscapes is due to the very reverse of what sometimes worries one in modern work, to the notion which these backgrounds give at first—bits of valley, outlines of hills, distant views of towered villages, of having been done without trouble, almost from memory, till you discover that your Titian has modelled his blue valley into delicate blue ridges; and your Piero della Francesca indicated the precise structure of his pale, bony mountains. Add to this, to the old men’s credit, that, as I said, they knew the lie of the land, they gave us landscapes in which our fancy, our memories, could walk.

How large a share such fancy and such memories have in the life of art, people can scarcely realise. Nay, such is the habit of thinking of the picture, statue, or poem, as a complete and vital thing apart from the mind which perceives it, that the expression life of art is sure to be interpreted as life of various schools of art: thus, the life of art developed from the type of Phidias to that of Praxiteles, and so forth. But in the broader, truer sense, the life of all art goes on in the mind and heart, not merely of those who make the work, but of those who see and read it. Nay, is not the work, the real one, a certain particular state of feeling, a pattern woven of new perceptions and impressions and of old memories and feelings, which the picture, the statue or poem, awakens, different in each different individual? ’Tis a thought perhaps annoying to those who have slaved seven years over a particular outline of muscles, a particular colour of grass, or the cadence of a particular sentence. What! all this to be refused finality, to be disintegrated by the feelings and fancies of the man who looks at the picture, or reads the book, heaven knows how carelessly besides? Well, if not disintegrated, would you prefer it to be unassimilated? Do you wish your picture, statue or poem to remain whole as you made it? Place it permanently in front of a mirror; consign it to the memory of a parrot; or, if you are musician, sing your song, expression and all, down a phonograph. You cannot get from the poor human soul, that living microcosm of changing impressions, the thorough, wholesale appreciation which you want.


This same power of sentiment and fancy, that is to say, of association, enables us to carry about, like a verse or a tune, whole mountain ranges, valleys, rivers and lakes, things in appearance the least easy to remove from their place. As some persons are never unattended by a melody; so others, and among them your humble servant, have always for their thoughts and feelings, an additional background besides the one which happens to be visible behind their head and shoulders. By this means I am usually in two places at a time, sometimes in several very distant ones within a few seconds.

It is extraordinary how much of my soul seems to cling to certain peculiarities of what I have called lie of the land, undulations, bends of rivers, straightenings and snakings of road; how much of one’s past life, sensations, hopes, wishes, words, has got entangled in the little familiar sprigs, grasses and moss. The order of time and space is sometimes utterly subverted; thus, last autumn, in a corner of Argyllshire, I seemed suddenly cut off from everything in the British Isles, and reunited to the life I used to lead hundreds of miles away, years ago in the high Apennines, merely because of the minute starry moss under foot and the bubble of brooks in my ears.

Nay, the power of outdoor things, their mysterious affinities, can change the values even of what has been and what has not been, can make one live for a moment in places which have never existed save in the fancy. Have I not found myself suddenly taken back to certain woods which I loved in my childhood simply because I had halted before a great isolated fir with hanging branches, a single fir shading a circle of soft-green turf, and watched the rabbits sitting, like round grey stones suddenly flashing into white tails and movement? Woods where? I have not the faintest notion. Perhaps only woods I imagined my father must be shooting in when I was a baby, woods which I made up out of Christmas trees, moss and dead rabbits, woods I had heard of in fairy tales…

Such are some of the relations of landscape and sentiments, a correct notion of which is necessary before it is possible to consider the best manner of representing landscape with words; a subject to which none of my readers, I think, nor myself, have at present the smallest desire to pass on.


MLA Citation

Lee, Vernon. “The lie of the land.” . Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 27 Oct 2006. 04 Dec 2023 <>.

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