Writers and artists have long held lighthouses as a symbol of sanctuary in rough and uncertain waters; but also drawn to living within them, embodying their apparent stoicism and even building them too.
Scotland’s Western Isles has some of the bleakest yet wondrous coastline in Europe; and cast your eye to its sharp edges and you’ll be confronted with beautifully indifferent concrete structures, abandoned to automation and devoid of human touch. They are elegies to a vanished profession and forgotten labour. No wonder their stark romanticism has held such enduring fascination for writers. They can tell us so much about our own resilience and impermanence.
Of course, utter the word lighthouse and Virginia Woolf comes to mind like Scotland and haggis. With the Isle of Skye as the backdrop, To the Lighthouse offers us moments of life as tenuous and elusive, expressed in “how life, being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.” This image of memories projected on and carried away by the sea suggests that memory is a flickering wave crashing into a mayhem of foam. It brings to mind Courbet’s ‘The Wave’ – flickering textures and half-remembered experiences.
In Woolf’s hands, memory is delivered in impressionistic brushstrokes rather than straightforward revelations. Sentiment bleeds through Lily Briscoe’s tortured painting of Mrs Ramsey “women can’t write, women can’t paint…”. It’s a fitting style in trying to navigate the muddy waters of the interior self. Thoughts as murky as a paint pot. Woolf exposes our inner monologues as shifting patterns rather than hard lines.
And where Woolf keeps distance with the deftness of a painterly blur, Amy Liptrot demands intimate surrender from the get go. Liptrot’s debut novel, The Outrun crosses parallel themes of disintegrating memory, with a perspective on how our environments act as diaries to mark the passing of time. Through it, Liptrot explains that her life is shaped by her islander perspective having grown up on Orkney. Landscapes shape-shift: she sees cliff in London whilst Hackney is projected in twilight hallucination on the deserted roads of Orkney.
"The sea is both loss and hope, like the lighthouses that flash across Cape Cod Bay”
In the way lighthouses paved the way to safety in remote territory, Liptrot navigates through her environment with GPS technology, as she writes “I feel omniscient, watching how global transport logistics dance and intersect, never crashing, like flocks of starlings.” Every embrace with the natural world is inherently fused with the world of addiction and craving. Everything is connected to the land, to craving – even wifi.
Liptrot “used to spill my heart out on the internet like red wine”. A dependancy on land and sea and technology has replaced her alcohol addiction. But she cunningly turns it into a benefit. She fosters a love of stargazing. And begins to furiously track weather systems, identifying oil tankers, researching space stations, a nod to passing planes as she creates new nightly rituals of sitting outside her house, just a folding chair and blanket, looking up. Liptrot is her own beacon following north, using the tools at her disposal.
Philip Hoare meanwhile, forgoes modern technology (and in particular its advice on weather warnings). He swims in the sea every day no matter the weather and is particularly drawn to other writers’ relationships to the sea. In Hoare’s book RisingTideFallingStar we see a marriage of writing about and within nature. He touches on the Stevenson’s relationship with lighthouses. Robert Louis Stevenson emerged from a long line of Scottish lighthouse engineers, and he bucked family convention to become a writer. Years of enforced trips to Mull’s lighthouses with his father proved the inspiration for his first novel, Kidnapped.
For Hoare, the whale is the symbolic counterpart to Woolf’s lighthouse, representing the best and worst in human nature. Or as Hoare puts it, “the sea is both loss and hope, like the lighthouses that flash across Cape Cod Bay.” From Scotland’s Mull’s shores way off to the west lies Cape Cod and Maine, home of endless inspiration for Edward Hopper. With its intermittent beam penetrating even the blackest night, the lighthouse is a fitting emblem for an artist obsessed with light and shadow. As a symbol of loneliness, the lighthouse sets a fitting mood that creeps into a Hopper’s paintings like an unforgiving sea mist. Hopper’s wife Josephine felt “those lighthouses are self-portraits”. Not his most convincing depictions of isolation, but nonetheless these landscapes give meaning to an elusive figure. [A fascinating deep dive into Hopper’s work and surprisingly cruel treatment of his artist wife Josephine Hopper, is explored in searing detail in Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City].
The lighthouse provides a feeling of connection to something that is no longer present – of looking for a port in the storm of our personal circumstances. It reflects both our point of loneliness and our means of sanctuary. The lighthouse possesses an enduring kind of power because these edifices were built to do something good — help us find light in the dark.