Haunted by a strange green world: ‘Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers’

Recently I have been thinking a lot about green as a colour. As with all colours, there is no single, definitive ‘green’. I’m a little obsessed with attempting to mentally calculate and name the full spectrum of greens – I suspect it’s an impossibility. 

Later in spring, once all the leaves are back, take yourself to a park, or a wood and try staring across and into the tree canopy for a while. How many shades of green, can you pick out? Have a go, you may see what I mean. 

This line of thinking has drawn me back to a painting I used to see often in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. By the artist David Inshaw, the title, borrowed from a Thomas Hardy poem, is: ‘Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers.’

The painting is amongst my earliest, maybe the first, encounter with artistic depictions of green – or greens. As a child, I found it strangely flat, but over the years began to uncover the depths. 

Below is a short tribute to the painting and the museum that houses it (I have a feeling it’s not currently on display). 

* * *

How many times we went to the museum when I was a child I couldn’t say. Enough for some items to become lodged in the vaults of my own memory.

If pressed, I could probably list at least a hundred items, but if I cast my mind back, the first exhibits I recall are always these: a vast canvas hung above the stairs, filled with purple heather stretching across a hill somewhere in France, Peter Blake’s multi-layered, playful Owl and the Pussycat, the stuffed Indian Tiger, doomed to crouch forever in the jungle, as some Imperialist hunting party hoves into view – fatal shot fixed eternally in paint, a moment before it’s fired. 

I particularly liked to gaze up at the Romany Caravan or vardo, its elaborate decoration faded, but still bright enough to marvel at. For small visitors, a short set of bright red steps led up to the door, from where you could peer inside through glass and peek at pots and pans, a table, drawers; objects from another kind of life. Watching the recent non-demise of Tommy Shelby, my mind went racing back through multiple impressions of staring at that particular wheeled chunk of wonder.  

Also on display for years during my childhood, was a painting, by David Inshaw that I can’t say I ever exactly liked, although for some reason, it haunted my imagination long afterward. Its name was taken from a Thomas Hardy poem – Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers. The scene depicts a woman standing amidst gravestones in a country churchyard. 

Compared to then nearby Victorian paintings of Egyptian ruins, or of the Ark of the Covenant, emitting, or receiving, heavenly rays (Raiders style) as it is carried through a rocky valley, ‘Our days..’ seemed a little static for my young taste. 

Especially when looked at after first passing through the prehistoric galleries nearby – jammed with fossil bones and panoramas, monster dragonflies and a giant Irish elk – its skeleton towering over a graphic backdrop, filled with cartoonish rocks, scattered grey and green across mile after mile of desolate ancient terrain. 

How could a mere painting compete with this? And yet, something about it got my attention. Superficially, it was all surface, a muted world of green planes, and shade. The woman at the centre, a human shadow, held there in a snooker-table landscape. Her smooth realm, urged eyes away, to slide off the surface. Except, something about her seemed resistant. That funereal black dress, looked almost chic next to the graves. In my mind she was half turning, facing out of the canvas, perhaps defiant, daring onlookers to stare. In fact, she doesn’t peer out, but looks back down towards a grave. 

Over the years and countless visits, I began to find new things within the scene. Noticed hedges, fields, neatly clipped yews, low rounded headstones, white flecks on legs of distant cows in pasture and massive trees in full leaf, crowding in – life perhaps, looming over death. All of this suspended there, captive in dry paint and time.

As I got older, the woman grew younger. So much so that the last time I saw the painting, I half-fancied she was no longer alone, waiting there amongst the dead, but joined now by a startled face, a boy, I think used to know, caught there, looking back. 

Link & References

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

View the painting at Bridgeman Images

The David Inshaw website and online gallery

One thought on “Haunted by a strange green world: ‘Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers’

  1. Interestingly, Matt, during the first lockdown I had a similar experience to what you’re describing at the beginning. A very small local park became something of a refuge for me and, it being the spring, I was noticing the amazing variety of shades of green of the newly emerged leaves. What occured to me is how inadequate language is to express all these differences. In itself, I’m sure that’s one
    reason why we paint and enjoy paintings…

    Liked by 1 person

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