This is a picture I have known for a long time. There was a copy of it in the hall at my primary school. I’ve had a postcard of it in the ‘box of nice postcards’ for more years than I’d like to remember.
I hadn’t seen it for real, though, until a few weeks ago. I’d gone to the National Gallery on a cold and miserable day to see if the Australia’s Impressionists exhibition could lift my spirits a bit (it did).
The first thing was that I was surprised by its size. A picture I’d known in print and postcard is, in reality, BIG. And the second thing I noticed was that on the horizon wasn’t just the sky, as the reproductions seemed to show, but a factory.
This picture, that I had held up in my mind as painting of an idyllic spot, is actually part of the industrial landscape. It shows people relaxing and taking a break along the river from chimneys and smoke and less-than-idyllic workplaces.
And I was stopped in my tracks.
I’ve not found it easy living in Chingford. The traffic, the Edmonton incinerator chimney, and the unfriendliness of the landscape around the reservoirs have been hard to get used to. I have been frustrated that there is no easy (read: pleasant) path to the Lea Navigation, which is only about a mile from my house. I have nearly cried at seeing beautiful little wagtails hopping across bleak pavements, pecking at cigarette ends. Something about the way nature persists even in urban landscape sits uneasily with my soul.
Seeing the Bathers at Asnieres in all its detail had something of an effect on me.
At its simplest, it was the recognition that people and nature and relaxation have happened in industrial areas for a lot longer than I’ve lived in E4.
Yet there was also something a bit deeper – first steps, I think, in reconciling me to the environment. To be able to, for the first time, think about what it means to live in a place….to be incarnational in a place… because the struggle with the place has lessened.
I don’t think I will ever stop wondering why people are so incapable of using bins, or public transport.