Cookworthy’s perfection of porcelain in the 1760s — the experiments, the gathering of materials — appears now as the pioneering work of a scientist. But he was governed by a more traditional mindset. Like Isaac Newton, he believed in the wisdom of the past, the Prisca Sapientia, the notion that in antiquity there existed a clear understanding of the world which had since vanished. Scientiﬁc inquiry was not so much a pursuit that would in time reveal nature’s laws, as a process of re-discovery.
For him, tackling the big questions meant an understanding of place – not the regional or provincial, but the local, where a single ﬁeld or a lone cove can conjure up a whole world. In his painting he was trying to recreate a ‘mile of history in a gesture’. The past was not something dusty and ossiﬁed but raw material from which to build a picture of our own time.
“I believe that landscape, the outside world of things and events larger than ourselves, is the proper place to ﬁnd our deepest meanings”
Like Charles Henderson, Colonel Hirst was horriﬁed by his age’s carelessness of the past, by the eradicating of all that made one place distinct from another. Neither man is a part of the roll-call of national ﬁgures, but intheir modest way their championing of the local, their snatching of records from the ﬂames, makes them look like heroes now. ‘A little thing is a little thing,’ said Hirst of his collection, quoting St Augustine, ‘but a little thing well done is a very great thing.’
All from Rising Ground by Philip Marsden