WHEN Henry Raeburn painted his Skating Minister on Duddingston Loch in 1795, he was working within a specific, if fleeting, genre – the serious thinker depicted in a moment of solitary commune with raw nature.
Winter: Five Windows On The Season
By Adam Gopnik
Quercus, 256pp, £18.99
Visiting American artist Gilbert Stuart had done something similar with the prime minister, William Grant, shown skating in London’s St James’s Park in 1782.
Adam Gopnik includes both images – and an altogether raunchier one of Goethe observed by a clutch of women on the ice in Frankfurt – among the illustrations in this lively collection of reflections on the darkest months of the year.
Gopnik is interested in how our relationship with winter has changed in the last two centuries. Tellingly, he includes no canals-frozen-over Hendrick Avercamp scenes from 1630s Holland. He sees such celebratory representations as a blip in a generally grim pre-modern view of the season more accurately conjured in Shake-speare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, in which icicles hang by the wall, blood is nipp’d and greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
He allows Vivaldi, composing in 1725, his Four Seasons Winter as an intimation of attitudes to come – the poem that accompanies it, having listed the harsh inconveniences, ends in optimism: “That’s winter! But of a kind to gladden one’s heart.”
Philosophers and students of western thought could spend many a happy hour discussing whether Gopnik’s theory is right – that somewhere around the time we began to tame winter, but not before, we started projecting on to it our romantic sensibilities; saw beauty in it, in other words.
He calls on Wordsworth’s 1799 homage to the season in The Prelude – in which owls hoot and night-time skaters hiss along the polished ice – to underline the new romantic vision. Schubert’s settings of Wilhelm Müller poems in his Winterreise song cycle of 1827, and Pushkin’s 1824 poem Winter Morning, are likewise summoned to the witness box; and, in the visual arts, he cites Turner’s Swiss Alpine landscapes and, later, the vogue for Japanese art – which saw winter as coolly stylish – as pivotal moments of change.
The invention of central heating also had a lot to do with it. When the Houses of Parliament were built after the fire of 1834, a steam-driven heating system was integral to the plan, and Scottish engineer David Boswell Reid was called upon to design and install it.
Elsewhere, garden glasshouses were acquiring hot water pipes to protect plants from frost. By the mid-19th century, with the harnessing of coal power, winter was gradually being brought under control. Few people beyond the aristocracy had the luxury of a heating system at home, admittedly, but the notion of looking out on a wintery world rather than actually trying to survive in it had been planted in the collective psyche.
Hence Gopnik’s subtitle: five windows on the season. His thoughts turn from the romance of winter to the perilous appeal of going looking for it, in a chapter devoted to the madcap search for the north and south poles. Snow and ice form a backdrop to mythical exploits of courage and heroism that with the benefit of hindsight seem closer to hubris. The poles, after all, are just notional places on a map; surely not worth dying for.
Another chapter is a rumination on Christmas and its twin role as festival of reversal (kings kneel before the baby Jesus in a world turned upside down) and renewal (families gather to celebrate tradition) – universal themes, recreated by every faith and every society.
He traces the reinvention of Christmas in the Victorian era with a critique of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and considers its significance as a secular festival in more recent times. His account is clear-eyed and thoughtful; spiritual, even. Illuminating, too – appropriate for a festival of light.
Gopnik, a Canadian by birth, presents winter through the prism of a Canadian sensibility. You feel his passion for a land where snow can lie in drifts from November to March. Occasionally, he leaves the rest of the world behind, as in a lengthy discourse on the meaning of ice hockey.
But in his final chapter one point is easily grasped: what fuels our delight in the notion of snow that’s deep and crisp and even is not just nostalgia for times past, or a vague longing for times never had, but the suspicion that one day we could lose the concept of winter altogether. Global warming: there’s a sobering thought for a lone skater on a loch at night.