The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Fésole Club Papers.

by W.G. Collingwood.
Volume 2, 1891/92, pg. 841-846

[William Gershom Collingwood, 1854-1932, was an artist in the Lake District. He spent part of his life as John Ruskin's assistant, and became a family friend of Arthur Ransome, "who based his book Swallows and Amazons on his experiences of sailing with the Collingwoods' grandchildren" in Collingwood's boat, called Swallow. He loved Viking/Norse culture.]


The One and the Many; this is the old difficulty of religion, of philosophy, and of art. The One, Unity, as the symbol of something above and beyond the Many, and yet, to be right, embracing them, reconciling them, overspreading and vivifying them; at first by mere co-ordination of their jarring and discrepant individualities doing the business of creation, as we have seen; and then, going on to perfect the primal intention of reducing to divine orderliness and law-abiding even the last survivals of chaos which have their stronghold in the soul of man; reconciling the many under one spirit, bringing about that process so often named, so rarely understood--at-One-ment.

No surprise, then, if with all these associations "the one and the many" should have come to be a sort of magic word; if an enlightened vision of the idea which the phrase denotes should have been held to explain all difficulty and to catch the neophyte up straight into the seventh heaven. Even in art they thought in old times "are not all our difficulties centered upon this problem--the one and the many; our impressions, the sights we see, the details of nature, not to say the requirements of tradition, the necessities of circumstance, the demands of patrons; are not all these things bewildering and distracting, and tormenting, and conflicting, and self-contradicting? The secret of art," said they "will be ours when we find out how to reconcile the many in the one form."

And, as you know, they went on to argue that the great Artist of the world had once for all achieved what they desired. God in making Nature had effected the at-one-ment of the one and the many, of unity and variety, of mind and matter, of principles and individuals, of the whole and the detail; just as a sagacious governor might bring a mixed multitude into civilization under his code, or as a skilful artist might join the parts and members of his figure so that it should represent one expression, in one body, of one soul.

Thinking on these lines, the elder philosophers of art traced the whole essence of it, and especially the doctrine of the Beautiful, to various applications of this principle. They said that the beautiful is created by the union of variety. Without variety no beauty, without unity no beauty; and this is indeed one of the laws by which beauty consists, though not the only one: and if in this paper and the subsequent month's work we dwell upon it, according to our custom, exclusively, we must remember when all is said and done that this law too is only one of many.

It happens curiously that I need not look far for an example of the importance to beauty and to art of variety in unity. When I began these Fésole papers I hardly expected to continue them so soon within view of Fésole. But there, as I look up, are the white houses among the trees, deep grey-green this winter day, and clear at last above the morning mist; there is the monastery rising on the hither summit of the hills, while all the valley is iridescent with shifting vapour, that coils among the ranks of leafless vines and sparse trees, brown-leaved like the background of an early painter.

It is wonderful, the vitality of this country; the thickly clustered houses, the crowded populations; villas and villages all along the valley "continuous as the stars that shine," and on either hand cast up like foam on the slopes that mark the shore of this broad land-lake.

And with all the chance and change of history throughout decay and renewal always the same place--the same Italy.

Last night I walked round the Cathedral of Florence, and the shadows fell, as they did from Dante, on the strange polygonal, cyclopean pavement; the moon in a stormy sky blazing and flashing on the marbles of Giotto's tower; and, do what the century will, triumphing over the bottled lightning-stuff with which modern Florence illuminates her streets. But it is not only the moon that is the same; in Italy everywhere you are in the old world. The thing that interests you so much is the unity of its history throughout unparalleled variety. We have historic ground in England; Roman remains under any busy street of London city, but not in evidence. At Hardknot of Silchester we have relics, but antediluvian as it were; a gulf between them and us; no continuity, no unity, to bind them to our own days and doings. Here you can hardly disentangle the stages; from that column, first reared for an Etruscan temple, to the advertisement posted beside it yesterday; from the antique form of the language to its latest adaptation of scientific or social slang; from the features that look out of golden aureoles to their counterparts under silk hats and cotton kerchiefs; you find here more than anywhere an all-embracing unity in which every phase of variety finds its place and is reconciled to it.

As in the history so it is the aspect of the place. Away from Italy one cannot conceive, one clean forgets, to what extent picturesqueness can go. At home we are content, and rightly content, with fewer elements of variety, and we can make our picture of a grey cottage or that green field whose sight "makes us pardon the absence of a more sublime construction." But here there is the more sublime construction! A dozen Skiddaws, clouds on every head, drifting into an ampler sky and tossing like spray from every ravine: and halfway up the mountain-slopes multitudinous sparkling of white houses, among forests of chestnuts; maize and olive and vine massed and mingled together on terraces of every slope and slant terraces tumbling like spellicans down the hill sides, hanging over edges nestling under brows, curling round breasts; and all dashed through and through with deep chasmy ghylls and torrents smothered under the richness of foliage: rock and sward interchanged; rough walls with the remnants of noble architecture; trim villas with rambling farms; and roads and paths of every kind and size, winding and climbing, lost and found again among the branches and the by-ways of the Apennines.

And then as you go back to the city,--and there are many walled cities scattered about the valleys, each such as you see in old pictures, like a group of gems with a bracelet thrown round them, standing aloof from the country side, but not alien to it, as are the Malebolge of smoke and slime we call towns in these parts,--as you enter the city the variety of the place redoubles itself. Variety! But that has been better told than I can tell it in the street scenes of many a painter and in passages of word-painting for which I have no skill. Read only the approach to St. Mark's in [Ruskin's] Stones of Venice (vol. ii., chap. 4) to fix this one idea, that the great feature of Italian scenery, the thing that excites one so much, the thing that we cannot parallel elsewhere, is the unlimited variety of material, form, colour, suggestion, appeal, light and shade, texture, origin, story. And the wonder of it all is that nothing jars; it does not seem like a dislocated world, or a ragbag; but it is all bound together by the life that pervades it, the vivacity of local character, the real "Italian Unity," in the spirit that accepts all, the light that bathes all, the air that breathes through all, and leaves no room, when once you are in broad sympathy with the scene, for antiquarian regrets and retrospective criticism.

There is unity in other places, but not variety; unity in the monotony of an English town: but that is as different from the bustling harmony of Italian street life as a frog pond from the glittering repose of a sunlit sea. And so the variety of a new country, of jarring elements unblended, is not beautiful as Italy is, because it is not harmonized into unity. We are expressing one great principle of beauty when we say that the charm of Italy over other lands north and south of it, east and west of it, lies in its balance of variety with unity.

But out of Italy we can apply our principle to anything we find beautiful; and it is worth while studying a few examples, any one of which would serve for the subject of our drawing this month. Take, for first instance, a mountain or a hill; and ask yourself why you find it more beautiful than a pyramid, or an artificial mound of rockery. In the pyramid there is unity, if anywhere; but what variety in the millions of its monotonous bricks. And in a rockery; does it not gradually reveal itself to you, as you regard it thoughtfully, as a monster, misshapen and chaotic, fit only, if a little one, for earwigs; and if ambitious in its building like one I have seen in Derbyshire, for dragons and owls? In the real hill, it is the sense of structural unity, the ordainment of its parts by natural forces and natural laws, the parallelism of its cleavage, the radiation of its sweeping curves of debris, or the soft harmony of its glaciation, that compel the infinitely various detail into beauty.

So again in trees, of which we have talked enough in a former paper; so in flowers and leaves, and in the detail of vegetation. For the wonder of nature is that every part of her work is a whole in itself; and her laws are "as full, as perfect, in a hair as heart." A mountain is her most beautiful work in what they used to call the mineral kingdom; a tree, in the vegetable; and these between them make up all possibilities of our landscape-painting, for we cannot bid the skies stand to be studied; and the painting of living creatures is out of our course this year. But as mountains and trees are out of season, the best we can get will be a bit of each; quite enough for nature's teaching and our learning.

A stone; and a stick. A stone that exemplifies the normal structure of stones, and through them of mountains. Not the squared or carved stone of the builder; nor even the broken stone in the roadway, or the pebble rounded on the shore; for these only dimly bear the marks of their origin. These marks are, first, their deposition in successive layers, or strata; next, their breaking up by joints--nobody quite knows how or why. And to see and study these a clean bit of coal is as good a specimen as any; for though coal is not mineral in substance, it is mineral in form. The ease with which it may be split into thin leaves is due, they say, to the "bedding"; that is, to the fact that it is made up of many thin successive layers of frail rotted vegetable material. I have read in a magazine for young ladies that coal splits so easily because it was once wood; and wood always splits like that, don't you know? Whether this bit of scientific information was irony or ignorance it does not now matter; it seemed serious; but the interest of our lump of coal is in this,--that it is an epitome of great rock, of a mountain. In drawing it you will notice the two kinds of splitting that it has already undergone and might still undergo; the bedding or foliation, and the jointing which crosses the bedding at right angles and in various directions. This is the unity of structure, to which is opposed the rough and apparently accidental fracture of the surface. So far as a piece of coal is pretty, and when you look at is carefully you will see that it is not without prettiness, it is because throughout its rugged broken bulk there run lines, and planes, making constant angles, and curving corners, emerging here and there from the mass which at first you thought shapeless, and repeating over and over again their appeal to the law of mineral structure, recalling the principles of creation, and acknowledging the unity of the whole in the midst of its apparent accidentality and variety.

And for illustration of the same in the vegetable world take a piece of split--not sawn--firewood, and follow out its structure in the same way. You will trace the grain of the wood, its springing curvature restrained by the bark-ring; its radiation to the junction of branches, and its writhe--the struggling line of life so different from the crushed helplessness of the layers of the coal. And in this example the variety is to be sought in the continual change of direction in all these lines; curves indeed, but not curves that can be struck with a compass; restraint, but not rigidity, for every inch up the stem the section of the bark varies both in shape and in size; and writhe, suggesting a spiral ascent, but how different from a Jacobean chair-leg.

By and by, as you draw, you will see for yourself things that are indescribable in words in the way of beauties, and learn laws that cannot be formulated, secrets inconceivable to people who only read and talk about nature. You have noticed an artist's delight over something that seemed to you of little significance? You asked him to explain himself, and he could not; and you thought him a fool? Believe me, there is a whole new realm of sensation and enjoyment opened out by this power of careful and patient drawing; it is like a new sense--untranslatable into any terms but its own. And it can be gained, more or less. Among the blind the one-eyed is king; though he cannot explain to them what he sees. It is worth while taking the trouble, then; such a little trouble--a few days' work with a chip and a coal! "If the prophet had asked thee to do some great thing wouldst though not have done it?"

Typed November 2014; Proofread by LNL, June 2024