Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Mussenden Temple

I love holidays. You get to travel the world, encounter unfamiliar cultures, get ripped off by bureau de change officials and robbed blind by taxi drivers. You complain how the natives make no attempt to speak English, you eat dodgy food, suffer chronic diarrhoea and when you finally get off the loo, you're forced to murder all manner of cockroach, lizard and spider who were laughing at you from the shower opposite for fear you’ll not sleep at night with them prowling around. And that’s not all! You head out to the hotel swimming pool or go lie on the roasting beach and you slap on the sun factor oil only for your poor white skin to redden and blister beneath a punishing and unfamiliar sun. You don sunglasses and pretend not to stare at the topless 19 year old Swedish girls who have decided to sunbathe beside you – the sad sunburnt man in the large union jack shorts and white stringed vest.

Life might be a beach on a sun splashed Mediterranean shore but today I’m flying nowhere. I hate flying, no wait – I love flying, it’s the notflying bit that scares me senseless! Especially in turbulent weather being rocked about everywhere wondering what it's like to splat smack into the Alps or be plunged screaming into shark infested waters. With these images fixed scarily in my head I dragged myself off by car to a rain-soaked Mussenden Temple perched dramatically on a 120 foot cliff top high above the rolling waves of the Atlantic ocean – with not a shark in sight!  

I’d seen this stunning site on many photographs in Northern Ireland tourist magazines but never knew where it was – except beyond Portstewart somewhere. I wasn’t even sure where Castlerock was or how to get to it! It’s hard to believe I have travelled all over Europe and never really been to my own back yard. Enniskillen Lakes? Marble Arch Caves? Londonderry? Carrickfergus? Donaghadee? Seriously folks – I have never been there!

The sun came out as I walked, camera in hand, through heavy grassland, past a large pond/lake and then uphill towards a stone wall that ran along the cliff edge and led to the temple. The view was stunningly spectacular as I looked westward over Downhill Strand towards Magilligan Point and Country Donegal and then back east towards the caravan parks of Castlerock and the beaches and towns of Portstewart and Portrush. As I looked down I saw the Belfast to Derry train winding its way along the coast after passing through a tunnel directly beneath where I was standing.

I dandered inside the Temple, looked around at the bare walls and emptiness and contemplated how this place would have looked like as a summer house. It was certainly much bigger than I had imagined it and people have been known to have had their weddings here.

With erosion eating away at the the cliff face over the past century I doubt if the lady of the house had the precarious view I had as I shot off numerous photographs through the fantastic, long-length west facing window. I studied the outside like a wisened architectural student might and then read the inscription that circled the building "Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem.” At times like this I wish I’d listened to my teacher Mike Faulkner in his Latin class as - "Cool sophisticated man in a turban goes outside for an ice cream before work!” just didn’t seem to be the sort of thing that gets inscribed on a prestigious building like this! And I had no 50/50 or Ask a Friend options left! 

The reason I wanted to do this paintling was mainly architectural – the temple itself. It’s an iconic landmark in Northern Ireland! There were secondary points too as I had never done waves coming in on a sandy shore, tackled so much grass before or as many wild and windy rainclouds that threatened in the sky that day. These were new challenges. There were people in the painting too which I could have ignored but included them because they added a few spots of bright colour to what was a drab blue/grey/green painting. I have never been someone who has drawn, photographed and now painted by the rule of thirds so I when I was happy with the composition I started to get to work.

For something like this it’s always the sky first and this was fun - probably the most expressive and releasing part of the painting. I loved working up angry looking clouds with my fingers – making sure they were not too cross as to dominate the picture. With them in position I started the temple. Roof first! Yes, breaking all known construction work rules I started on the roof and worked down and methodically left to right. It was painstaking work and I often questioned my sanity especially when things weren’t going to plan. Today I would do it differently but back then I had less pastel knowledge and was probably a bit of a ‘cowboy’ builder. I would not use soft pastel as a base now as the pastel pencils were not blending with them the way I would have liked. I maybe rushed everything too, instead of enduring with the patience I am known for. I had rubbed out many of my ‘scaffolding’ lines so that hadn’t helped my work process. 

I got to the point where I was getting frustrated and had to leave the temple and do something different. I guess that happens in the real construction industry too! So I took my builder’s bottom off home to Moy for a few weeks and started a commissioned job for a lady who wanted me to do not one house but a row of Seven Houses as a birthday gift for her husband who owned them. More about that elsewhere on this blog.

With the summer almost over I came back to the temple fresh and with new eyes. I put the distant mountains of Donegal in, careful to get the colour and light right. I didn’t want them to appear too close. They looked the part! It was the foreground next and I was rightly brassed grassed off by the time I had finished the gardening. The wall I wanted to be rough and textured – it was very different from the smoother temple stonework and I spent ages trying to make something out of my initial dog’s dinner attempt. Today that wall is the bit I grimace most over. I know the evenings  that went into me building it and I just don’t think I got it right. That just left the houses and promenade area at the foot of the cliff, the railway, the beach and the sea to do. It was satisfying that they all came together sweetly and I contemplated that I was maybe in the wrong job. Instead of being a master builder and craftsman, I should just apply for ‘God’ because that sea, its waves and its sandy beach, just like the faraway mountains and clouds had obeyed my every wish! Amen!
MUSSENDEN TEMPLE [as shot through a glass frame ]
The Latin in the inscription was exactly as I thought: 
"Tis pleasant, safely to behold from shore
The troubled sailor, and hear the tempests roar. 
Those more educated than myself, will recognise that as a quotation from Lucretius De Rerum Natura, 2.1-2.  

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