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Winter wonderland; Richard Edmonds celebrates an artist who specialised in scenes of icy winter.

Hendrick Avercamp - Master of the Ice Scene P Roelofs (Rijksmuseum/Yale, pounds 25) Snow, ice, blocked roads, empty shops, blizzards, urban isolation and total misery. This is the picture of winter in England, where the weather pundits tell us that we are going through the worst winter in recorded history. But it's nothing new.

In the 16th and 17th centuries European rivers froze over for months on end. In London, the Thames was adapted into a huge frost fair, with sideshows, swing boats, hot food tents, circus performers and skating tarts, happy to take your money if you had any left after buying extra mufflers, knitted stockings and skates.

One of the most favourite spectacles during a freeze-up in the 17th century was an old bumboat woman who had been taking her girls and a couple of barrels of fruit out to the sailors moored on the river.

The tide overturned her boat, the girls drowned and the old woman herself sank into the mud at the bottom of the river. When the Thames froze over you could see her looking up at you through the ice still holding onto her apples and one of the girls.

But nobody cared particularly - this was a time of public hangings, floggings, people were put into the stocks and pelted with rotten fruit and disease was rampant.

So a hardened populous was quite happy to pay sixpence to gaze through thick ice at an unfortunate woman now a spectacle for public amusement fenced off in a tent.

The Dutch had their own (ice fever), a season which generally fell between December and March provoking a light-hearted national attitude towards extreme cold which had lost none of its excitement in the winters of 2008 and 2009 when statistics show that a million pairs of skates were sold in The Netherlands.

But a love of ice is by no means a recent phenomenon for the Dutch. For centuries, young and old had taken to the grand canals as soon as the ice set in and became safe to skate upon.

And this affinity for the ice and those who skated upon it has never been better expressed than by the 17th century artist Hendrick Avercamp who made the ice scene into a genre in its own right.

He was the first artist to specialise in painting winter landscapes that showed in a graphic way people enjoying themselves on the ice. Avercamp, known in his own day as "the Mute", because of his deafness and inability to speak, had a wonderfully keen eye for anecdote, and pictured couples swooping and whizzing across the frozen expanse showing at one moment gentlemen in elegant furs and velvets with metal skates playing golf in the freezing weather, colliding at the same time with ice yachts, fancy skaters who saw themselves as superstars or ordinary peasants pulling a sick cow on a sledge anxious to get the animal to a stable for treatment before sunset since skating in the dark - with roots and logs sticking up out of the ice - would have been something of a nightmare.

Today, we have Avercamps or at least their equals to show us the rigours of winter in endless television programmes and possibly postcards and calendars as follow-ups in the spring. It is the only way we can learn the news but a painter's vision is something else entirely.

It is interesting to note that Avercamp who probably, as a handicapped man, expressed his feelings in exquisite oil paintings which showed quite clearly an aspect of life lived to its full by a 17th century populous. The bleaker side of the harsh weather that spread through Northern Europe during what is known as "The Little Ice Age" is something Avercamp caught at perfectly.

We see TV clips of homes cut off for days on end and we sympathise with cars buried hopelessly deep in snowdrifts, but misery is no recent thing.

Almost four centuries ago Avercamp was showing people falling dangerously into snowdrifts, roughlyclad woodcutters gathering fuel for the family fire or unfortunate women struggling to do the family laundry through a hole in the ice. It was a struggle to stay alive and you were not helped as you fell fulllength on the corpses of horses that had frozen to death in the terrible weather, something which could leave a farmer bankrupt when the landscape opened up again and spring ploughing began, something for which a horse was a necessity.

At such times without horsepower to help, a farmer faced ruin and there were no government hand-outs to help.

As this beautifully-designed book with its lovely sketches of community life lived on the ice, shows completely, after 400 years our understanding of the long, hard winters is still largely shaped by Avercamp's intense humanism.

And it is cheering to remember that the artist was not always struggling in mittens, leaking shoes and a heavy greatcoat to make on-the-spot sketches in a subzero terrain. Fortunately, there were always the long, golden, European summers of the 17th century as compensation. Thus, Avercamp's sketches of summer life using pen and ink, graphite, chalk and watercolour remain with us like social photographs.

However, other artists could work incomparable summer scenes. But how many of them were willing when the seasons changed to spend long hours, probably frozen to death, recording human activity on the icebound Dutch canals? Finally, it was Leonardo da Vinci who first championed the idea of teaching lip-reading to deaf people. Whether these enlightened courses ever got to Avercamp in time, is not easy to say, although his mother's petition for an official allowance to be paid annually after her death, suggests that he suffered his affliction (along with hundreds of others) until his death in 1654.

CAPTION(S):

Winterlandschap met ijsvermaak, 1610 by Hendrick Avercamp
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 13, 2011
Words:972
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