In the aspect of the beholder

In the aspect of the beholder

Until recently our feelings about views have usually differed. While my wife loves ‘untouched’ expanses of nature, the Cairngorms for example with not a house in sight, or miles of Atlantic rollers, my breath is taken away by man-made structures. The Roman aqueduct at Nimes blew my mind when I was a teenager, and for me there is nothing more exciting than looking at the eighteenth century crescents in Bath or Edinburgh.

Recently, however, there has been some meeting of minds. Although it is certainly not of the same order, both of us love the view from the back of our cottage in France and could happily stare at it for hours. The house sits with its back nestling under the summit of a small hill. From it we look south across a valley. Opposite is a simple rural landscape. There is nothing special on offer – no lakes, no cliffs, no forest in sight, just a few houses, fields and trees. But somehow it mesmerises.

The key is the lane that goes up the facing hillside and which threads its way between the trees, sometimes almost out of sight. When we moved in, all we saw at the end of our garden was a line of tall elms. These offered us a thick screen, which at the time we welcomed. Over the next year or two, and with much sadness, the trees died but their clearance revealed this hitherto unconsidered delight.

The pleasure from the sight is not unique to us. A fortnight ago we were sitting on our patio and, as often happens, the view entered the conversation. There was a consensus that the view simply draws one in – it is so easy on the eye and, with the occasional person, car or tractor moving up and down the lane, always absorbing. Then our sculptor friend Elona, who had been absorbed for some time, suddenly announced the reason for its beauty. It was the positioning of the lane. From where were sitting, the road opposite divides up the landscape perfectly. So if the view were a picture, the line of the road falls according to the ‘golden ratio’ of 1:1.6180339887…., such that if there is 1 unit of the scene to the right there is 1.61 of it to the left. Put another way, our lane divides up the canvas according to the golden ratio. Apparently we are privy to a ‘divine proportion’ that has an innate appeal.

The idea is both fascinating and unnerving.

It is fascinating because it suggests that there is some universal truth about beauty that can be described mathematically. Apparently the Swiss architect Le Corbusier believed in it and calculations have suggested that de Vinci felt likewise when he painted the Mona Lisa, as did Ictinus when he designed the Parthenon. I admire Elona’s work greatly, so to hear that the notion also contributes to her sculptures adds to its credibility. The idea is unnerving because it suggests that artists could be replaced by computers, and more importantly that if everything in art were predictable then there would be no such thing as originality.

Just a week later, at the same table and at much the same time of day, I asked another successful artist, this time a local potter, his views on the matter. In his opinion, the ratio was interesting but a distraction. There were two many exceptions to make it valid, beauty he said, ‘is a matter for the heart’. Certainly the figure never entered his mind when he was potting.

Whatever the explanation for the quality of our view, a few days ago the importance played by the position of our lane was given a boost. I found our next door neighbour busily planting trees expressly to hide the very lane opposite, which she repeatedly described as moche (ugly). Taken aback, I asked if I might see her view and found that from her terrace the lane ran plumb up the centre of the canvas, and moche was a very apt description. Although we were standing only ten metres to the right, the aspect had changed.

Whatever the role of 1.6180339887 in determining beauty, our neighbour quite literally couldn’t see it.


Illustration:  “The Golden Ratio”, with thanks to Sarah Campbell –

2 comments on “In the aspect of the beholder
  1. Man Mountain says:

    I very much doubt a computer could truly make art or design of our greats through human history. If such a thing was indeed possible anybody could copy anything, but art and great building or architecture has heart, has creation, has warmth if you will. Isambard Kingdom Brunel to name one such man. I’m sure those in Britain have seen his legacy, there is beauty and heart in that. But back to the point i also think one reason for Joe and his wifes joy of there view is a flash of PRIDE. To be the lord of your own property is a great feeling and as proven by his neighbours view. Joe owns the better seat to enjoy his framed small valley, this i feel by one aspect is that as laird of his tiny hamlet he can by home proud, and that added to the beauty makes his view the magic it is for him.

  2. Jack Humphrys says:
      I’m not surprised that your friend the potter didn’t give the golden ratio much mind space. Throwing a pot of such disproportions on a potter’s wheel, though easy for us beginners, would be quite contrary to his every instinct. My first attempts at producing vases and similar objects did seem to observe the golden rule. Even so, a pot whose proportions were 1:1.6180339887 would be more correctly called a scuttle, as my teacher wryly observed.

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