‘Imeant nothing by the lighthouse,’ Virginia Woolf said of the novel she published in 1927. ‘I trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own emotions.’ To the Lighthouse, her fifth novel, outsold the previous four and readers have been depositing or discovering their emotions in it ever since. In the story, the Lighthouse (it is capitalised throughout) is barely more present than Godot. An often postponed trip to carry supplies to the keepers takes place only at the end of the book, and when Mr Ramsay springs ‘lightly like a young man’ out of the boat and onto the rock, he disappears from the narrative.
As an enigmatic symbol, the lighthouse has long held an imaginative appeal. The Pharos at Alexandria was remarkable among secular buildings, E.M. Forster wrote, in having ‘taken on a spiritual life of its own’, being, in effect, worshipped, so that ‘long after its light was extinguished, memories of it glowed in the minds of men.’ A secular age still feels a need for the light that shines in the darkness and for comfort in places of danger. The Greeks placed shrines to Poseidon at points where the risks to ships suggested it would be wise to placate him and, as Veronica della Dora points out in her book, neither the advent of Christianity nor advances in technology have quite eclipsed older faiths. On the island of Kea in the Aegean, the chapel of St Nicholas stands on a rocky promontory, a bright, whitened landmark by day and, by night, a working lighthouse.
The myth of the Pharos still resonated powerfully enough in 1941 for it to be plausibly rumoured that the British illusionist Jasper Maskelyne and his assistants, the Magic Gang, had been ordered by MI9 to build a Potemkin village-style model of the harbour at Alexandria further along the Egyptian coast. This decoy harbour, complete with dummy lighthouse and rotating searchlights, was supposedly successful in fooling the enemy. In reality, if anyone was taken in, it was the British who were fed this tale (reinforced by Back-Room Boy, the propaganda comedy of 1942, starring Arthur Askey and set in a lighthouse). Maskelyne, whose Magic Gang never existed outside his memoirs, was of little practical use to the camouflage unit to which he was seconded, but was nevertheless encouraged, for a time at least, to take credit for achievements that would boost confidence at Allied High Command.
It is one of the curious qualities of the lighthouse that while its raison d’être is to be visible, durable and stable in the most adverse conditions, it is often seen as a site of ambiguity and insecurity. As Dora says, quoting the film critic Guy Lodge, ‘in cinema … nothing good ever happens in a lighthouse,’ and things don’t usually go much better in fiction. Edgar Allan Poe’s final story, which is set in a lighthouse, has a double ambiguity: it is unclear whether it was left unfinished when he died or whether the abrupt ending of the lighthouse keeper’s diary entries indicates that some awful fate has overtaken him. Even the Moomin family can’t make a go of Moominpappa’s ambition to be a lighthouse keeper. Tove Jansson’s Moominpappa at Sea may well owe something to Poe. In it, the trolls find the lighthouse deserted, the light broken and on a table hundreds of tiny scratches in groups of six, with a seventh drawn through to mark the weeks: ‘Week after week all the same, except one which had only five scratches.’ Eventually, despite these sinister indications and other difficulties involving the mechanics of lighthouse management, local insects and a strange and hostile inhabitant, order is restored. In a rare happyish ending to a story about a lighthouse, the Moomins leave but the light resumes its proper function, the beam sending ‘long, even waves’ into the darkness of the Finnish winter.
Some of these examples find their way into Dora’s loosely thematic ‘story of the lighthouse’. The book is not, as she explains, either a history of lighthouses or an anthology of lighthouse imagery and it is, as a result, a rather disappointing and inconsequent muddle. Surprisingly, given that she is a professor of human geography, Dora gives no indication of having ever been inside a lighthouse, even one as glamorous and comfortable as the Capo Spartivento light on Sardinia. Built in 1866 and still working, with a beam visible for 22 nautical miles, it is now a luxury hotel. The conversion saved the building from dereliction and the website looks fabulous, with pictures of the still functioning light and the hotel’s two swimming pools. Dora, however, is dismissive of what she sees as the banality of such repurposing. Nor is she much interested in the detail of lighthouse mechanisms, which are shunted off into an appendix, or the lighthouse builders’ and keepers’ milieu, so fruitfully explored in Bella Bathurst’s The Lighthouse Stevensons (1999), an account of Robert Louis Stevenson’s immediate ancestors and their pioneering contribution to lighthouse design around Britain and beyond.
There is a pervading vagueness about Dora’s free-associating meditations. The word ‘liminal’ is tested to destruction, appearing on nearly every page (and four times on page 196). This vagueness extends to a loose grasp of chronology. Burke and Baudelaire are invoked together for sharing a sense of ‘oceanic sublimity’, which is true as far as it goes but too general to be revealing. The same could be said after all of Homer and Iris Murdoch. Dora tells us that Woolf’s childhood holidays in Cornwall, which inspired the setting of To the Lighthouse, belonged to an age of ‘elite seaside tourism’ that came to an end only in the 20th century with ‘the emergence of neo-Romantic taste for picturesque sceneries and for the past’. But the Victorians had been going to the seaside in droves by the time William Frith started work on Ramsgate Sands in 1851, while the artists who are usually thought of as 20th-century neo-Romantics had hardly begun their careers when Woolf was a child. There are many good anecdotes in the history of the lighthouse, but not all of Dora’s bear scrutiny. The reconstructed Eddystone lighthouse at Plymouth Hoe in Devon is indeed a monument to its designer, John Smeaton, arguably the first civil engineer in the modern sense, but it does not ‘host’ his remains. Smeaton was an eminently practical man who would have thought such an idea outlandish. When he died in 1792, he was respectably buried in his parish church at Whitkirk, near Leeds.
It was Smeaton’s Eddystone that gave the world the archetypical flaring lighthouse silhouette, a prototype that Dora describes as an icon of ‘pure functionalism’, which is surely a contradiction in terms. Smeaton was a maker of scientific instruments at a time when civil engineering had yet to be recognised as a profession. He designed bridges, drained part of the Norfolk fens and felt able to describe himself as ‘a private artist who works for hire, for … those whom I can conveniently and consistently serve’. There had been earlier attempts to secure a light on the Eddystone Rocks. The second, by John Rudyerd, lasted 47 years, despite being made partly of timber and suffering, periodically, from woodworm. The light came from candles, and in December 1755, the keeper, Henry Hall, found the lantern room on fire. No lives were lost that night but Hall himself died twelve days later, after complaining that his insides felt as if they were burning. It was not, as his friends had supposed, some form of post-traumatic shock. While gazing up in open-mouthed horror at the conflagration he accidentally swallowed some molten lead that was falling from the roof. A postmortem found seven ounces of it in his intestines.
When Smeaton was called in to build a new and more durable light, he decided to adopt the shape that in nature seemed most obviously able to withstand gales. Instead of the conical form that Rudyerd had adapted from the windmill, Smeaton imitated the oak tree with its more aerodynamic outline. The tapering base made for greater security on the rock and the upper part was thus buttressed. ‘We seldom hear,’ he noted, ‘of a mature oak being uprooted.’ There was no wood in the new Eddystone: it was built of masonry throughout, with each section as closely fitted to the next as the rings of a tree. It took three years to construct and became the pattern for lighthouses in the open sea, though the lantern’s light still came from tallow candles, 24 of them, no bigger than those on a domestic dining table. When the Stevensons succeeded Smeaton a generation later, they pushed the technology forward. Experimenting with reflectors and debating the merits of revolving versus floating lights in different locations, Robert Stevenson was, as his grandson recalled, passionate in his pursuit of improvement. ‘The joy of my grandfather in this career was strong as the love of woman. It lasted him through youth and manhood, it burned strong in age, and at the approach of death his last yearning was to renew these loved experiences.’
The experiences were physically and intellectually demanding. As well as having to ‘toss much in boats’ and scramble on windswept rocks, Stevenson encountered considerable hostility to the very idea of lighthouses. Wreckers saw them as a threat to a profitable and semi-legal trade, for while it was a criminal offence to lure ships onto the rocks, there was no incentive to aid a vessel in distress, and once it was stranded a rescue party could claim a percentage of the cargo. The obligation to prioritise saving lives was not always observed. The wreckers’ attitude was only to be expected, but there was also a remarkable lack of official enthusiasm for improving the safety of seafarers. The bodies nominally responsible for building lighthouses, Trinity House and, in Scotland, the Northern Lighthouse Board, were highly resistant to doing so. Although the NLB employed Stevenson, it took years for him to persuade them that it was both possible and necessary to build a lighthouse on the lethal Bell Rock, east of the Firth of Tay off the Angus coast. On average, six ships a year were wrecked there, and, according to Stevenson, this ‘breathed abroad along the whole coast an atmosphere of terror and perplexity’. In the end he prevailed, and the resulting combination of the Smeaton and Stevenson models, finished in 1810 and still working today, set an international standard. Later developments in lighthouse design were chiefly in the technology of the light, as candles and open fires gave way to safer and less laborious oil lamps, then brighter and steadier Argand lamps, and in due course electricity. Many modern lighthouses use LEDs and some are solar powered. The principle, however, of an arrangement of light and mirrors remains unchanged since the Pharos at Alexandria, which is thought to have had reflectors.
The arrival of the lighthouse in the imagination coincided with the perfection of the thing itself. It came at almost the last moment before art and engineering were hived off into two cultures. Nine years after Bell Rock was finished, Stevenson commissioned a watercolour from Turner to be engraved as the frontispiece of his memoir, Account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse. Turner had never seen the Bell Rock, but he was an experienced sea painter. Given the nature of the commission, it is unsurprising that his image shows the lighthouse as hero, rising strong and steady above the waves, just right of centre, as ships pitch and toss nearby well clear of the rocks. It is strikingly unlike his later Longships Lighthouse (1834-35). This, too, was a commission for a series of engravings but the original is a violent depiction of a storm. It runs the gamut of techniques from transparent washes to thick body colour. Turner created the highlights by blotting and scratching to let the white of the paper show through. The result, as Ruskin wrote, is to render ‘the whole surface of the sea … undirected, bounding, and crashing, and coiling in an anarchy of enormous power’. Only the very top of the lighthouse is visible; its beam, striking mistily through spray and clouds, illuminates a flock of seabirds rising from a rock. In the foreground, the wreckage of a boat is little more than ropes and splinters, with no sign of life. Romantic poets and their Victorian successors had little more to offer in terms of celebratory lighthouse metaphors. Wordsworth’s ‘watchman on the top/Of lighthouse, beaten by Atlantic waves’ is the very image of solitude, and across Dover Beach, where there has been a lighthouse since the Romans’ day, Matthew Arnold’s light ‘gleams and is gone’. It is not the solidity of the structure but the ephemerality of its comfort that catches the imagination.
Dora does find some more cheerful depictions of lighthouses, but they tend to be on travel posters advertising seaside holidays, and often the lighthouse is shown on the horizon or far off in the margins of the scene. Land-based lighthouses offer more graphic potential and seemingly generate less unease. North Foreland, which featured in the advertising campaign ‘You Can Be Sure of Shell’ in the 1930s, was shown close up, from the landward side, in Elwin Hawthorne’s design, but it has some of the brooding, uninviting quality that pervades the nearly contemporary Lighthouse at Two Lights by Edward Hopper. Hopper painted the light at Cape Elizabeth, Maine, by day in strong sun with his characteristic hard shadows. The lighthouse is unlit; the keeper’s gothic cottage beside it looks empty and the atmosphere is, if not sinister, then desolate and oppressive. Perhaps the greatest lighthouse image of the 20th century, as awe-inspiring in its way as Turner’s, and similarly illustrative of the power of the sea and the comparative frailty of the lighthouse, is Jean Guichard’s photograph of 1989, which Dora reproduces. It shows Théodore Malgorne, the 82-year-old keeper of the light at La Jumet, off the Brittany coast. The picture was taken during a storm that had broken the lower windows and swept away the door of the lighthouse, flooding the tower. Malgorne heard the photographer’s helicopter, and thinking it was the coastguard coming to rescue him, stepped out just as a titanic wave was about to hit. In the split second it took him to realise his mistake, step back and save his life, Guichard took the picture that has gone on to sell a million poster prints.
Lighthouses may not evoke warmth in art but they inspire loyalty and affection in life. Dora includes several accounts of lights that have themselves been rescued. As well as Eddystone and Spartivento, monument and hotel respectively, there is the Danish Rubjerg Knude onshore lighthouse in Jutland. It operated from 1900, when it was about two hundred metres from the coastline, until 1968, when the encroaching sands had buried the associated buildings designed to house the gasworks that powered it. By 2019, it was only six metres from the sea and destined to collapse by 2023. Although it had neither the historic significance of Eddystone nor the glamour of Spartivento, the Danes were fond of it and decided it should be saved. The government duly declared it a national treasure and spent the equivalent of £580,000 building a railway to move it eighty metres to safety. The Souter Lighthouse, an onshore light on the east coast of England between the Tyne and the Wear, the world’s first all-electric lighthouse when it was built in 1871, now belongs to the National Trust. A classic design in red and white stripes with an elegant, low accommodation range on the landward side, it was decommissioned in 1988, made redundant, like many others, by the advent of GPS. On its sea side is a foghorn house. When foghorns too were decommissioned in 2013, the trust invited the artists Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway to mark the occasion at Souter and the result was a remarkable and haunting piece of performance art. Dora pays it scant attention, but it had huge coverage at the time and it lives on in film. With the composer Orlando Gough, Portway and Autogena created the Foghorn Requiem. An experiment in ‘sound shaped by landscape’, it was performed by more than fifty ships of varying sizes, each of which had been equipped with custombuilt horns and controllers. Beginning onshore with a 65-piece brass band, the Requiem ended with the last, expiring wail of the majestic foghorn of Souter Lighthouse. An elegy for more than foghorns, it evoked the dying world of coastal fishing, the brass band traditions of the North-East, the mixture of nostalgia and comfort evoked by the shipping forecast, and all emotions that can be deposited in a lighthouse.
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