On steps leading down to the pebble beach at Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey, the words of an uncredited poem are painted. The white lettering has worn away to invisibility in some places, nor is it possible to see the text in its entirety in one view, as half has to be read from the position of the beach, the other half from the promenade. Its concluding words, laid out before you as you look out over the empty expanse of sea and sky beyond, read:
The truth of it, this wartime souvenir, is common knowledge
But whisper to yourself, that you can see the end of the world from here
The poem’s subject is the SS Richard Montgomery, an American Liberty Ship from WWII, the wreck of which lies off Sheerness, with some 1,400 tonnes of explosives still on board. At any time, so some say, the ship – parts of which are visible at low tide – could explode, consigning town and much of the surrounding area to oblivion. The wreck is considered to be too volatile to be moved. So Sheerness just waits, thinking each day to be its last, until the next day comes.
Though some cast doubt on this apocalyptic possibility, as a metaphor it could not be bettered. Sheerness is one of the most deprived areas in Kent, with 44% of children in Sheerness East living in poverty. Located on the north Kent coast, looking out to where the Thames Estuary meets the North Sea, it has a bleak, forgotten quality, a place neglected as much by nature as by society. Here are things at the end of their tether; here is where to look out on nothingness and the end of it all.
But it depends on your perspective. On a fine, chill Spring morning, Sheerness looks settled enough – plain to be sure, but with an honest charm about the place. Unhurried townsfolk sit on benches around the central tower, taking things easy in the sunshine. Joggers and dog walkers parade along the promenade that stretches far into the distance to the next town of Minster. Yachts play on the waters. There is a sharp breeze, but those of us raised by the North Kent coast relish the quickening of the senses that air from the north brings. The hard, pebbled beaches, the groynes reaching out into the sea, the lapping waves, the different shades of grey to green water as one looks further out, and beyond that sky and the splendid theatre of the endless horizon. Here is a place to get the measure of things, and oneself.
I was visiting Sheerness the day after having gone to the new exhibition of Sean Scully’s paintings at the National Gallery in London. I had been a little apprehensive about the exhibition, having seen a TV programme recently which championed Scully’s art but made rather too much of the money his paintings now fetch. I had thought of Scully as a private pleasure, not something so coveted worldwide. But the paintings worked their magic immediately, commanding your attention, concentrating your view. The exhibition, entitled ‘Sea Star’, focusses on the inspiration Scully has found in a J.M.W. Turner painting ‘The Evening Star‘ (c.1830), that features figures on a seashore, with sea, sky and horizon.
The highlight of the exhibition for me, however, was not one of the paintings but rather some words by the artist, recalling a rare moment of childhood happiness in the company of his difficult father. Scully’s parents came from Sheppey, and though he was born in Dublin then raised in London (in abject poverty), clearly the family retained a connection with the island. Scully’s words are an eloquent expression of the origins of the artistic impulse, a work of art in themselves:
As noted recently, I’m struck by the eloquence of great artists, who time and again find telling words when you might think they need only express what they see visually. Scully brings together childhood pain and delight, the intermingling of shore, sea and sky, and the resolution that he found for these things in painting. It is the key to understanding how place, artist and art, Turner and Scully, all meet. It explains where you are.
Those of us bred on the coast are all abstract artists in our way. We see the world translated into elemental horizontals. Scully’s fat, earthy brush strokes exemplify that inexplicable theatre one experiences on looking out to sea. It’s that sense of having stepped onto a stage with no script, but no audience either.
It seems it is not known where Turner painted ‘The Evening Star’, but he sketched and painting frequently along the north Kent coast, including Sheerness. It is a mysterious, possibly unfinished work, in which a boy with a shrimping net plays with a dog on the shore, with sea merging into sky behind him. In a video accompanying the exhibition, Scully reiterates the personal connection, recalling his visit with his father to Sheerness beach as a rare instance in which the two were ‘united emotionally’. The blurring of the horizon line, the confusion between land and water on the shore, created an ‘in-between world’ which reflected in some way the rare coming together of father and son.
There is something more. There in the receding water as the tide goes out are three posts, crossing over each other. What are they doing there? Are they connected with fishing, or part of a sunken object? They counterbalance the boy and his dog, realising the composition, but is there not an eerie echo of the visible masts of the Richard Montgomery, with its promise of the end of things? The inexplicable theatre of sky and sea contains such drama within, even if in this case it is just prophetic accident. All we can do is look out into nothingness, waiting for the cataclysm to come.
- ‘Sea Star’ continues at the National Gallery in London until 11 August 2019
- There is some information on ‘The Evening Star’ on the National Gallery site, which includes a long talk on the painting from a curator (not mentioning the three posts at all)
- Background information on the SS Richard Montgomery is in a series of government reports (“While the risk of a major explosion is believed to be remote, it is considered prudent to monitor the condition of the wreck”)