Prospect/Refuge Posted on April 14, 2014

I shall bungle the quote, I know, but Sir Kenneth Clark once wrote that there were two things all humanity is keen on. One is love; the other is a good view. He could easily have expanded his list, with pizza, a soft pillow, a crafty goal, a foot-tapping beat; but only love and a view made the cut. He was saying there is something pretty Pavlovian about views.

I agree. On family car journeys we used to laugh as the children chorused ‘Look at that view’ every time we came to the top of a hill. Little Kitty would have none of it and hid her eyes.

These are panoramas; views commanding broad sweeps of lower ground; Kent from the top of Wrotham hill for example, or The Isle of Dogs from Greenwich Observatory (the view K. Clark used as the coda to his Civilization; he was distressed by the first towers of Canary Wharf.) View-classification is clear on this point; the narrow focussed view, along, for instance, an avenue or a forest ride, is a vista. They both, it seems, give pretty universal pleasure – except to Kitty. But why?

I stumbled on an exhibition just now at The Royal Geographical Society which makes it all clear. Image, Instinct and Imagination: Landscape as Sign Language is the work of the nonagenarian geographer Jay Appleton and the photographer Simon Warner. They propound the theory of Prospect-Refuge, a system of thinking Appleton first proposed in his book The Experience of Landscape – and has since expanded in poems that are a cross between Hillaire Belloc and Milton’s Allegro.

A Prospect is a primitive need; to survey the surroundings to look for threats and opportunities. A Refuge is its counterpoint; a place to hide or shelter from dangers or bad weather. Our pleasure in landscapes can be traced back to these two instincts or urges – to which Appleton adds Hazards: water and fire, for example, from which we recoil.

The exhibition analyses a series of striking landscape photographs, explaining their appeal on an instinctive level – which transposes, with no wrench at all, to our appreciation of gardens. Now I understand why I have dreams of looking down from a wooded height onto a coastal scene – a bay stretching away in the sunlight. Branches frame the view. When I found myself in that precise situation, looking out over Cardigan Bay from the woods we now own above Caer Deon, out came my cheque book. Can there be no stronger proof that Appleton hits the nail on the head

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