Touching the Surface
In Felbrigg Hall, a National Trust property in the east of England, there is a statue of an urchin examining the sole of his foot to remove a thorn. As usual in museums, you are not allowed to touch but, if you were, the sensation would be of cold smooth marble unlike that of a real foot roughened by trotting around without shoes.
The way things feel to our hands, feet, or tongue is an important part of human experience. That impulse to reach out and touch whatever seizes our attention is very strong and similarly we speak of ‘being touched’ by poignant events. We stroke friendly dogs; the physical contact creates a bond. When people are buying clothes, they finger the fabrics to judge what they might be like to wear. After all, the word ‘texture’ derives from the Latin ‘textura’ for weaving. A couple of centuries ago an ancestor of mine was apprenticed to a cloth-dresser, a specialist in improving the surface of newly woven bolts of woollen cloth. In the City of Leeds there were fifty tradesmen practising that craft. However, should you ever be wracked with remorse, one garment you won’t find on an outfitter’s rail is a hair shirt. Fashions change, even among penitent sinners.
Upstairs at Felbrigg the four-poster in the master bedroom is adorned with sumptuous hangings. You need to restrain an urge to let your fingers flirt with the tassels that dangle from the fringes. At a humbler level you might recall that Rupert Brooke in his poem The Great Lover celebrated both
. . . the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss / of blankets . . .
These days we have created a culture of tactile keyboards and touch-screens that makes us even more ‘hands on’. Through our finger-tips we enter the world. Just now my right hand rests on a mouse that controls my computer. But as a photographer I have long enjoyed recording the visual quality of different surfaces beyond what textiles offer. In my pocket I carry a small camera capable of taking good close-ups wherever I go. Etched by salt-water the blistering paint on a fisherman’s tractor can be revealed as an abstract masterpiece. Or I might see the spiky hoar-frost edging dead leaves, or a discarded viper’s skin, part of a creature you otherwise would not dare to contact.
Tree trunks bear close study and appreciation for their subtle variations between species. Scots pines have bark that breaks into islands, richly coloured especially when wet, whereas the bark in sweet chestnuts is incised with dramatic swirling ridges. In my garden there is a kind of birch where, as the trunk expands with growth, paper-thin bark peels off in curls tinted green by algae. In the creviced surface of trees lurk spiders and beetles, often the prey of small birds. Springtime snails venture upwards across this rough terrain in a search for the succulent fresh leaves in the woodland canopy. Ivy, of course, constantly exploits trees as a passage-way towards the light. Even when torn away the ivy’s clinging roots get left behind as tracks across the bark.
Walls too are worth inspection. In the area where I live, East Anglia, bricks were in short supply and those made in the region weathered badly as time passed. So many buildings were faced (and still are) with flint cobbles dumped by retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age. The resulting walls are full of character, supporting small ferns, moss tufts and colourful crinkly lichens.
Text itself literally acquires ‘texture’ on the spines of leather-bound books, where the lettering may be embossed in gold leaf. However, you could say that a printed page assumes a virtual texture arising from the nature of the typefaces used in all their different forms, serif, non-serif, italic, bold . . . Contrast ‘Impact’ with the refinement of ‘Palatino Linotype’ or the eccentricity of ‘Crazy Loot’. As you read, let your eyes, as it were, caress the words. For the non-sighted, they are trained to feel words through the medium of Braille. But in doing so, I wonder, can they ever hear the surfaces they touch by the process of synaesthesia? That’s an attribute known among small children but mainly lost in adulthood, whereby a stimulus to one sense raise a response in another.
By analogy, music may be described as having texture. Performers touch their instruments with their hands or lips and we talk of being touched. How running your fingers across harp strings evokes the ripples in the surface of a lake. Composers meld complex layers of sound, fabric for the ears. Harmony relates to smoothness, discord to rough edges. The ‘minimalists’ Steve Reich and Philip Glass arouse one’s feelings with repeated phrases in constant variation that manage to haunt the soul.
Human sensations are richly textured. Do keep in touch.