There are, Robert Macfarlane believes, people ‘for whom northerliness is a mode of perception as well as a geographical position.’ Artist David Bellamy is perhaps one of them. He voyages to Greenland and Svalbard to capture the coruscating light in watercolour, and allows the hardship and restrictions of the Arctic to shape his work.
Sketching while bouncing off husky-drawn sledges, or tied to ice screws above unfathomably deep moulins, he’s drawn to the Arctic wildlife – musk ox, polar bears – and the dramatic shapes that ice creates as it’s broken apart by oscillating temperatures. He writes in such a mild manner, amused by all he encounters – from the walrus who appears to be telling a bedtime story, to the rented boat that comes with a free leak – that it’s easy to forget how brutal these landscapes can be. But the horror lurks in his tales like a dark shadow beside a sunny afternoon.
A guide tells how he attended the funeral of his self-slain brother, only to lose 20 of his 23 siblings in a snowstorm on their way home. Elsewhere, Bellamy watches fulmar chicks force-fledged by their parents from cliff-top nests – less than a third survive, most die from their injuries or are picked off by Arctic foxe
Bellamy is cheerful and pragmatic in the face of such extremes, offering practical advice for painting in the Arctic – always bring a small square of closed-cell foam to sit on, dip your brushes in gin rather than frozen water – and tidbits of information about polar life.
But the paintings themselves are the real highlight. Reminiscent of the watercolours Wilson made on his expeditions with Scott, they achieve what photography longs for but rarely pulls off – to convey not just the details of a place, but the experience of being in that place.
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