I read The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard for the first time in 2013. Since at the time I was making mostly paintings of windows and other domestic interior details, I took the text as a backbone for my work. I have selected some of my favourite passages from the book to reflect on in relation to my current practice.

Memories are located not only, or not even firstly, in the landscape. Bachelard makes a case for memories being located in the house:

‘Of course, thanks to the house, a great many of our memories are housed, and if the house is a bit elaborate, if it has a cellar and a garret, nooks and corridors, our memories have refuges that are all the more clearly delineated. All our lives we should come back to them in our daydreams. A psychoanalyst should, therefore, turn his attention to this simple localisation of our memories. I should like to give the name of topoanalysis to this auxiliary of psychoanalysis. Topoanalysis, then, would be the systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives. In the theatre of the past that is memory, the stage setting maintains their characters in their dominant roles.’ 1

In the manner of Jungian archetypes, sections of the house become ‘characters’, each playing its distinct role in housing different types of memories. Of course, Bachelard’s theory rests on an assumption that all or most of us grow up and live in houses, with nooks, an attic, a cellar, a bedroom, a kitchen, cupboards, windows and doors. For any of us at least one or two of those are likely not to have existed. I never lived anywhere with a cellar, but the shadowy, irrational, primal part of my childhood home might have been part of a garden behind two trees where it was always dark and I was afraid to go. Or the cupboard under the stairs. In a later home it might have been the upstairs hallway, where I’d creep in the dark, terrified, to go to the bathroom or my parents’ room, and if a door was ajar I’d imagine what creatures were lurking behind it.

‘If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace […] the places in which we have experienced daydreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling-places are relived as daydreams that these dwelling-places of the past remain in us for all time.’ 1

This idea that places for daydreaming become places in daydreaming reminds me of the much-quoted words of the late Alasdair Gray, from this dialogue in Lanark:

‘“Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?”

“Because nobody imagines living here…think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.”’ 2

Gray hits on a point here which is significant to me: first hand experiences are extremely difficult to cognise. We understand so much of what is actually around us by recourse to received knowledge, to prior interpretation, and we look for what we’ve already seen, read, or heard about. All it takes is to capture a place in a certain way, and for enough people to see it, and it will become fixed that way in the collective imagination. By the same token as daydreaming begets daydreaming of the dreamful place, representations beget each other, the first image of a thing lingering through subsequent reappraisals. Iconic images of the English landscape were first made by the likes of Gainsborough and Constable, and it is these images that we return to when we imagine it, again and again and again.

‘What would be the use, for instance, in giving the plan of the room that was really my room, in describing the little room at the end of the garret, in saying that from the window, across the indentations of the roofs, one could see the hill. I alone, in my memories of another century, can open the deep cupboard that still retains for me alone that unique odor, the odor of raisins drying on a wicker tray. The odor of raisins! It is an odor that is beyond description, one that it takes a lot of imagination to smell. But I’ve already said too much. If I said more, the reader, back in his own room, would not open that unique wardrobe, with its unique smell, which is the signature of intimacy. Paradoxically, in order to suggest the values of intimacy, we have to induce in the reader a state of suspended reading.’ 1

Bachelard points out that there’s a right amount of specificity. The personal is collective, but only up to a point. There’s an intense allure for us in our own personal memory and its details, but we have to allow some room for the reader’s own reveries. I can talk about England, maybe even the south of England, and trust that people will have their own concept of this place. But if I talk about the small market town called Romsey, or the small village called Braishfield, or even the county called Hampshire, I might lose the reader, as Bachelard risks doing when he begins to talk about raisins.

It’s an instructive idea for painting, too. I sometimes consider it a weakness to have areas of uncertainty in my paintings, elements that don’t make sense together or fit into the narrative I’m trying to suggest. I’m reminded by Bachelard that I shouldn’t want to reign everything in. Where my understanding ends, the viewer’s might take over.

‘A house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability.’ 1

As above: we need images of the place we live in - house or nation. We need to see it represented to be able to say what it is, to determine its most important characteristics and feel that it has some kind of enduring essence.
1. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. By Maria Jolas, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969) pp6-17.

2. Alasdair Gray, Lanark: A Life in Four Books (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2007), p.234 (first published by Canongate Press in 1981). Since Gray’s death very recently, this passage has been quoted in many, many articles. ‘Lanark’ is a heavy book and reading it is something of a project. I did so in 2015, on an 11-hour train journey from Glasgow to St Austell (at the time, it was the longest single train journey possible in the UK). I was already familiar with this dialogue exchange, because it was part of the context for the city’s cultural history that was recited to visitors on the tours I used to conduct for The Glasgow School of Art, my alma mater.