Nature never meant grey to me until I saw the mysterious tidal mudflats of the Baie de Somme of Le Crotoy in Picardie, France. The receding tides leave swathes of unique greys, tinged blue, green, and cream, divided by strips of mirrored water reflecting skies from bright blue to hazy white. It is an ever-changing landscape, minute by minute, which can only fascinate, demanding that it be captured. And none capture it as well as Pippa Darbyshire.
Pippa has been painting these landscapes for two decades, each as unique as the next. These are subtle, meditative works without clear boundaries between beach, seascape, landscape and sky. My immediate favourites are her abstract paintings with their horizontal bands. Look at them, over and over, anchor your eye and take the time to really see.
In the landscape below, I was first drawn to the purple rectangle. The more I looked, it became ever more clearly purple water, divided by a narrow bank of sand, from blue water above, itself edged with green, a beach, the dunes and a hazy blue-grey sky. On the lower side of the purple band is a yellowish line that almost defines the middle of the painting but is decisively just above the centre, creating tension, energy. Towards us, the abstract shapes become more like a beach, or almost a beach with a delicate line of a wavefront, and closer still, perhaps an echo of the line of white seashells left by receding waters. The mind moves, seeking recognisable features, making sense of them, making them real, then moves out again, to be immersed in abstract colour patches and simply feeling the colour.
I was initially tempted to say it was like a landscape by Mark Rothko, where each colour space envelops the viewer and elicits an emotion. But that gives too much credit to the abstract. Here the power comes from the landscape itself, captured by hazy paint that bizarrely takes ever clearly form the more I looked. The painting is a discovery of a landscape that is itself a constant discovery, each experience new. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus in 500 BCE said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and not the same man.” The same is true of the Baie de Somme two and a half millennia later, as evidenced by Pippa’s paintings.
Claude Monet painted his famous haystacks in different lights of day. Pippa takes this further, covering different times of day, days of the week, seasons and even different years, exploring not just the play of light but the play of nature. The bay is changing. Today there is more green on the left (from the perspective of standing in Le Crotoy admiring the bay) – the invasive North American smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) creates an encroaching vegetative mass from the left. The sandbanks also move. Before, there were ribbons of water snaking a path punctuated by seagulls waiting for breakfast. This time, I saw larger sandbanks emerging from the receding waters. There were fewer birds but far more lazy seals absorbing the sun. But next time with be a new landscape.
A cursory glance at Pippa Darbyshire’s paintings may give the impression that they are variations of a theme, but look again. The picture below captures a different time of day and season. The colours are bluer, colder, more likely an autumn afternoon, not yet warmed by the stunning sunsets.
While the bay’s greys and blue hypnotise, the sunsets inspire awe. Pippa Darbyshire captures this with her subtle art, not like the intense, expressionistic Emil Nolde skies, but more a Turner reality (she admits the landscapes remind her of Turner) with a delicate touch.
The landscapes above are reflective and poetically calm. But the Baie de Somme is hardly static. Insistent winds often blow across the expanse. There is something about walking along a beach, filling up with fresh air, that somehow whips away the million niggling thoughts of yesterday and cleanses. It is addictive.
The coast here is not only a quiet land inviting meditative reflection or awe, but also a place where nature roars – gusts of wind whip up the waves, and the calm bay becomes a furious ocean, blowing stories of fisherman’s fates into minds. This, too, inspires and troubles in its reminder of the power of nature or the threat of storm surges and sea level rise.
How the Baie de Somme will metamorphosise with climate change is unclear (and worrying), but what is clear is that it changes by the minute. While it lasts, it is worth going and marvelling at the subtlety, the grace and the power of nature. It is also worth contemplating Pippa Darbyshire’s personal takes on this nature that renders a great honour of being momentary windows onto this massive estuary’s soul.
The Baie de Somme and Le Crotoy are open all year round. Pippa Darbyshire’s paintings can be seen on her site and her workshop (upon demand) in the nearby Noyelles Sur Mer, on a direct train line from Paris.