THOSE WITH AN INTEREST IN THE ARTS cannot fail to have spotted a story in the Guardian relating to the work of Joseph Mallord William Turner. Perhaps the nation's greatest landscape painter, he is revered for his glorious evocations of sun and cloud and water.
There is an almost hallucinogenic quality to these studies: they blur the boundaries between sea and sky until both dissolve in a divine, golden mist. Turner's unique approach was always attributed to his soaring imagination and his masterful technique. However, the discovery of a diving logbook among his possessions suggests an entirely different explanation:
Saturday, August 6th, 1801: Went down to Brighton with the lads. Dived off beach. Set up easel at 6m - tried to capture the stanchions of West Pier but the viz was terrible. Also, the paint ran. Ended up a right mess. Showed it to Colin on the beach and he couldn't tell what it was. Asked if it was the right way up. Am surrounded by bloody Philistines. Must try to get hold of some waterproof paints. Depth: 6m. Time: 3 days.
Turner's faltering attempts at sub-aqua painting were the first examples of what has become known as Fin Art. It is hardly surprising, perhaps, that successive generations of artists have been impelled to work under water. Our primaeval aquatic origins exert a strange force on the human spirit.
For instance, Damian Hirst attributed his famous bifurcated shark in formaldehyde to half a tompot blenny he found during a drift dive off Ringstead. And the high priest of Pop Art, Andy Warhol, is thought to have derived the inspiration for his painting of Campbell's soup cans from rubbish at the bottom of a brick-pond near Bletchley.
The so-called Staithes Group of oil painters from the North-east coast of England were highly influential in the Royal Academy of the early 19th Century. But it is not generally known that they learned their art by painting in crude oil, scraped from the feathers of doomed guillemots following a spill off Middlesbrough. It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good.
More recently, Rachel Whiteread was forced to batter her way through discarded polystyrene packaging in Stoney Cove during her Advanced Diver underwater navigation test. The result: her astonishing installation at the Tate Modern, consisting of tens of thousands of white boxes.
As in every other field of creative endeavour, Fin Art has attracted its penumbra of bohemians who explore new realms of expression with the aid of mind-expanding drugs.
During his term as Equipment Officer of Wigan Branch, Dante Gabriel Rossetti smoked a particular type of seaweed known as "lobster pot". And it is well-known that Constable was addicted to the nitrous oxide that he secretly breathed from the emergency cylinder on his Fenzy horse-collar ABLJ. He was spotted by a jealous rival and duly blacklisted by the British Submarine Art Council (BSAC).
The coastal waters of the UK have provided a rich source of material for painters of the minimalist movement. A dive off Swanage is said to be the visual equivalent of John Cage's 4' 33" Of Silence.
The relationship between Fin Art and nature is a two-way street. For instance, the boxfish is actually a pufferfish drawn by Picasso during his Cubist period. The anglerfish is widely attributed to Hieronymus Bosch and the lionfish to surrealist Salvador Dali (who had his demand valve radically modified to accommodate his moustache).
Editor's Note: Edvard Munch's controversial portrait The Bream is currently on display at the London Aquarium
Deeper with Blackford
by Andy Blackford
£7.95 plus P&P, A5 format, 156 pages, paperback
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From Swanage Bay to the Redcar sewage treatment plant; from Bovisand Harbour to the wreck of the Wigan Shopping Trolley - Andy Blackford has been there, dived it, and recalls the experiences in this new collection of 36 of his best stories. Illustrated by Rico.
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