Northumberlandia, the Lady of the North: A supine land goddess makes her debut

November 22, 2012

The rural parking lot looks like any other in Britain receiving families for their “country walk” fix, but the passage through the adjacent dark woodland feels just a little too directed to be entirely natural.

At the end of the path, the sylvan curtain is thrown back to reveal something strange and wondrous, a hill rising nine stories and with the profile of a face, carved from stone and earth and skinned in grass.

At first, the visage appears androgynous in its skyward gaze, but then you notice the rest of the figure stretching a quarter of a mile to your right — the breasts, the hips, a delicate hand open and pointing, outlined by slivers of pond water.

Meet the supine earth goddess named, variously, Northumberlandia, the Lady of the North or, to the locals in this coal-mining area, the Lady.

Officially opened by a woman — Princess Anne — in September, it has become an apparent hit, with 25,000 visitors in its first few weeks.

And yet as Northumberlandia was in the planning or building stages, it was assailed for various reasons, not least by a tabloid press mesmerized by its nearly 100-foot breasts. At one hearing, local evangelicals said it was promoting paganism over Christianity.

“They were worried about it being a pagan love god that would inspire the locals to make love on her,” said Charles Jencks, the creator of the landform. “She’s not a pagan god, and people aren’t going to lose their moral compass if they walk all over her,” he said. Jencks, 73, is an architectural critic and land artist who was born in Baltimore (his grandfather, Raymond Pearl, was a fast friend of H.L. Mencken’s).

The figure is said to be the largest human form on the planet. From its summit, the face, you can see as you turn the distant North Sea, the city of Newcastle and, north, to the hill country of the Cheviots, whose undulations inspired the lady’s curves and contours.

At times, there is a Lilliputian feel to hiking on her, as you traverse four miles of paths that delineate her legs, hips, hair and the rest. The face, in particular, draws the eye. The nose forms a triangle of stone and turf, in cross section, and the enlarged forehead provides a sheltered seating area against the constant blowing winds. The stone lips are full. On his digital drawing board, Jencks exaggerated the features, knowing we are all wired to look at faces.

“What is the most interesting thing to people?” Jencks said. “Other people.”

Critics aren’t sure what to make of it. “It’s quite difficult to take it seriously,” said Tim Richardson, a London-based landscape historian and critic. “This massive woman you climb up.”

A joint project

The Lady is a joint project of the Blagdon Estate, a 10,000-acre family property that dates to 1698, and the Banks Group, an energy company. Banks is extracting coal from a surface mine next to the site. The entities wanted to create an iconic feature that would enhance a part of the site, given its visibility near a major highway and rail line, and they shared its $5 million cost.

The female figure was formed over two years by the miners and their huge earth-moving machines using 1.5 million metric tons of clay, soil and rock excavated from the mine site. Jencks made visits to check on progress and approve changes. The Lady, leased for 99 years to a charity named the Land Trust, draws her multisyllabic name from the county in which she sits, Northumberland.

The Blagdon Estate’s director, Bob Downer, sees the Lady as a gesture of environmental stewardship to the local people. Jencks also sees her as a gateway north to the Cheviot Hills and beyond, to Scotland. And like all his work, she is filled with cosmic symbolism.

If Gulliver was tethered to the ground by his tiny captors, Northumberlandia seems to be coming out of the earth. Indeed, the sideways orientation of the hip suggests she is dancing.

She inhabits a verdant and rugged corner of northeastern England, whose rich coal seams fueled the Industrial Revolution but where settlements reach much deeper into history. Farther up the coast lies Lindisfarne, a rocky island that drew Celtic monks in the 7th century. Earlier, the area marked the northwestern edge of the Roman Empire, today traced by the remnants of Hadrian’s Wall.

From atop her windblown face, Downer surveys the various aspects. “It’s just a view you can’t get anywhere else,” he said.

Other landforms that seek to speak to the cosmos exist from the time of the ancient Britons, and Northumberlandia shares that terrestrial DNA. The most famous primal solar instrument is Stonehenge, but Jencks also notes that there are six large figures of white horses in England, formed by revealing the underlying chalk in the hills on which they were drawn.

Jencks is known in Britain for his collaboration with his late wife, Maggie Keswick, in creating a series of high-design cancer centers. In a relaxed, bright and aesthetic setting, patients and their families have a place to get advice or simply to talk with other patients outside the drab corridors of the treatment hospitals. The first center opened in 1996, the year after Keswick, a garden designer and historian, died from breast cancer at age 54.

Jencks convinced leading international architects to design subsequent centers, including Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers.

But in the design world, Jencks was known first as an architectural critic who assailed modern architecture and then for his work as a land artist. Perhaps his best-known project is the Garden of Cosmic Speculation that Keswick and Jencks developed at Portrack House, Keswick’s family home in southwestern Scotland. Jencks had known and admired a radical Scottish land artist named Ian Hamilton Finlay, whose garden became a series of spaces and sculptures exploring the relationship of gardens to philosophy.

Forces of the cosmos

Finlay, who died in 2006, used to say, “Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.” Jencks has taken the aphorism to heart, except the subject of his landscape art is not Finlay’s clash of nature and culture but the self-organizing forces of the cosmos. For Jencks, it is a domain that includes the human animal and, at a molecular level, the universe of our bodies, with their 10 trillion cells.

Jencks notes that humans have been “speculating on cosmic events and existence for at least 80,000 years.” But only in recent decades have we come to understand the science of its origins and workings. This has led to a shift in our consciousness that he explores in his work.

“We are living in a new paradigm. We now know the universe back to the beginning; we know so many things that upset the modernist Newtonian worldview,” he said. Jencks and other contemporary artists — Maya Lin, for example — are finding inspiration in the cosmic patterns of a universe in constant metamorphosis.

While the old sciences “were linear, deterministic and relatively simple,” Jencks said, the new cosmic age brings a cauldron of fractals, spirals, soliton waves and other shapes. He sees their effects everywhere — in the chaotic dance of a hurricane, the stormy Great Red Spot of Jupiter, a draining bathtub or even the nerve impulses of our brains.

The double helix features in a number of his sculptures, including one in Cambridge unveiled by James Watson and in his DNA garden at Portrack House.

In one element of the 25-acre Portrack garden, Jencks designed a distorted checkerboard terrace beneath an old tree. The patterns of aluminum and turf evince the stellar tug of a black hole.

In another part of the garden, Jencks created a stone structure incorporating a seat paying homage to subatomic particles, including bosons. In April 2010, the demure physicist behind the idea of a universal generative particle, Peter Higgs, traveled from Edinburgh, Scotland, for lunch and to pose sitting on the sculpture. If the particle seat “is not quite the cosmos in the landscape I am pursuing,” Jencks later wrote, “then it is at least the cosmologist.”

These cosmically inspired shapes “are increasingly common in contemporary design,” said John Beardsley, landscape historian and director of landscape studies at Harvard’s research center at Dumbarton Oaks. “Everyone is about fractals these days, and Jencks provided a really clear theoretical exposition of how contemporary design related to chaos theory and complexity science,” Beardsley said. He wonders, though, if some of Jencks’s art suffers from being too literal.

Katie Campbell, a landscape historian based in London, said this newfound scientific knowledge of the cosmos is not yet part of the public’s consciousness, and she wonders whether observers of Jencks’s work will get it.

“Half of me thinks it’s pretentious bull, and half of me thinks, how intriguing, and it’s provocative,” Campbell said. For all the abstrusity of Jencks’s work, she said, “that we are talking about horticulture as a contemporary art form is pretty fabulous.”

Richardson, the London critic, finds Jencks’s sculptures didactic (“schoolmasterly”) and their reach so ambitious as to be grandiose, and yet he says the Garden of Cosmic Speculation works as garden design, a place of plants and crafted spaces. “It was the aesthetic beauty of the place that I admired,” he said.

Richardson also admires Jencks as a bulwark against a prevailing view that intellectual inquiry and symbolism have no place in garden design. Moreover, he thinks Jencks’s singular landforms — tiered, grassy, sinuous mounds, often in relationship to water — have made a significant contribution to landscape architecture.

In Scotland and England

Jencks divides his time between Portrack House and his home in Holland Park, the superexpensive district of west-central London known for its creamy, neoclassical villas and broad, leafy streets. The avenues are lined with Porsches, Range Rovers and the odd Maserati and Aston Martin.

Tall and willowy, Jencks is dressed entirely in black, and he suggests an interview in his Sundial Arcade, a small conservatory overlooking the garden and centered on a half-moon table painted to function as a sundial. Nearby sits his collection of Chinese viewing stones, mute but powerful memory sticks of sacred rock placements through history and prehistory.

Jencks speaks softly, in a posh East Coast accent edged a little by his time in England, and he appears to be a self-contained man who is often aghast but never enraged. He exudes a smooth urbanity in his measured speech and manner, and this softens the effect of his polemics, which can veer from examples of architecture to U.S. foreign policy. The Greco-Roman architecture of civic Washington? “My old professor called it pluperfect, dead on arrival.”

Jencks settled in Britain in the mid-1960s, fleeing the cultural turmoil at home. Even if he had not left for political reasons, it seems likely he would have joined the ranks of expats in London. There is something Jamesian about him.

“Europe has been in my bones,” he said. Art and design are in his genes. He is named after his great uncle, Charles Platt, an artist and engraver turned landscape architect. Platt is remembered as the influential champion of the Italian villa style in the Country Place Era a century ago.

Jencks moved from Baltimore as a young child and grew up in Westport, Conn., and Cape Cod, Mass. Packed off to boarding school when he was 12, he studied English and architecture at Harvard.

His family had been independently wealthy — a forebear had invented the safe-deposit box — a condition that no doubt opened creative avenues to the clan. Platt lived in the artist’s colony of Cornish, N.H. Jencks’s father was a pianist and composer. His mother, trained as a biologist, became a serious painter. His sister, Penelope Jencks, is a sculptor. His daughter, Lily Jencks, is a landscape designer who has teamed with her father for several international commissions, including a cosmically symbolic garden at the CERN Super Collider site near Geneva.

Campbell said she found Jencks’s writings pompous, but when she heard him lecture, her view changed. “He’s not arrogant. He’s sweet and naive and earnest,” she said. “It makes one feel less antagonistic towards him.”

Exploring primal landforms

For Jencks, Northumberlandia was a chance to explore the primal landforms that connect him not just to the cosmos, but humankind’s long-standing need to talk to it. The White Horse of the Berkshire Downs in southern England may have been formed in the 5th century B.C.; Jencks conjectures that its original users were farmers who used it in ritual celebration of the sowing or harvest, marching to a tune or chant.

“As you walk the white chalk,” he wrote in his book “The Universe in the Landscape,” “you are not aware of traversing a figure.”

The same can be said of Northumberlandia. Although it is at heart an immense effigy, much of it is abstracted, and its layers of meaning elevate it above kitsch, Jencks said. The Lady’s open hand, both a Christian and Buddhist symbol of welcome, point to the entrance mounds, themselves a play on her breasts. But as you walk around the Lady, much of the work reads as a series of winding paths past contoured mounds and spirals. “Fifty percent of the time, you’re not supposed to know it’s a woman,” he said.

As the anthropomorphism fades, certain details come to the fore, such as the way the shaggy grass blows in the wind. On this day, the breeze whips up the lake, but when it is placid and mirrorlike, the water provides a more striking visual contrast to the adjacent earth tiers, Downer said. Jencks has said his work is best experienced early or late in the day, when long shadows accentuate the features.

The figure provides a series of resting and viewing platforms, the uppermost on the forehead. From here, you get a view of the open cast mine, with its evident coal seams, several huge dump trucks (rendered toy-size) and the storage yard with its black windrows of coal.

The higher you climb on the Lady, the stronger the breeze gets. The wind is part of Jencks’s cosmic palette, as is the coal mine. Jencks notes that Cicero and others placed the terrain into three classes: the wilderness as First Nature, agriculture as Second Nature and gardens as Third Nature.

Jencks gives this order his own bookends. Zero Nature represents the underlying laws of nature, including gravity and electromagnetism. His Fourth Nature embodies human-generated waste, particularly industrial scrap. “Rubbish and leftovers,” he writes, “are as ‘natural’ to economic life today as perspiration is to exercise.”

The waste from coal mining, slag, caused the tabloid press to dub Northumberlandia “Slag Alice,” a play on an unflattering, fictitious character here named Slack Alice.

The name makes Downer bristle. “The local people are mightily offended when the popular press comes up with names like this.”

At his side is Katie Perkin, a spokeswoman for Banks. “People in Cramlington call it the Lady, their Lady, and there’s a real sense of ownership but also a real sense of affection,” she said.

Jencks seems sanguine about the digs. “Public art has to go through that crucible. I think she’s strong enough to take anything we throw at her.”

Richardson is reminded of the time he and Jencks were walking through the Garden of Cosmic Speculation when its creator turned to him. “Can’t you see, we are in a dialogue with the universe?”

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden."
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