My favourite painting: Sally Clarke

Restauranteur and writer Sally Clarke chooses The Great Piece of Turf by Albrecht Dürer, which depicts a jungle in miniature.

Sally Clarke on The Great Piece of Turf by Albrecht Dürer

‘Any of the works of Dürer, The Hare showing each and every hair in such great detail, or his woodcut Rhinoceros – surely a most unusual subject in 16th-century Europe? – could have been my firm favourite, but I have chosen The Great Piece of Turf, which depicts a “jungle” in miniature: a multitude of green (my favourite colour, of course) weeds and grasses and earth.

‘The more I look at this image, the more I see, and the more I find myself being drawn into the mud. Sometimes, I expect to see an ant or a snail crawl out from underneath a leaf, but it remains still.’

Sally Clarke is a restaurateur and writer. Her latest book, First Put on Your Apron, is published in September.

John McEwen comments on The Great Piece of Turf

This picture was first drawn on paper with pen and ink, then painted with watercolour and gouache (body colour) — a thicker watercolour made by additions to the pigment, notably of opaque white derived from clay or barite. It was painted the year after Dürer’s equally meticulous and famous The Hare, also drawn and painted on paper by the same means, and does, indeed, present a grassy hunk of hare habitat.

The Hare is signed, Turf is not, yet both remain unsurpassed in their reality and charm, then as now. The Hare is marginally smaller, 10in by 8in, and, therefore, even when habitually and mistakenly called The Young Hare, is clearly not as realistic because it is not life-size; whereas the Turf is as great as in reality. Perhaps Dürer kept it for himself with no need for a signature.

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What Leonardo-like curiosity and bravado of him to choose literally a slice of life, not an isolated specimen or picked arrangement. Doubtless, it was cut as a sod, roots and all, the better to enable him to paint it. Nonetheless, it is a miracle of observation for such a frail and complex subject. Botanists have named the contents of the arbitrary clump: cock’s foot, creeping bent, smooth meadow-grass, daisy, dandelion, germander speedwell, greater plantain, hound’s tongue, yarrow. The left side is cropped, depth and space conveyed by the contrasting horizon line on the right.

It becomes micro and macro, a turf in a landscape. As our enchanting miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard (1547–1619) wrote of Dürer: ‘The most exquisite man that ever leaft us lines to vieue.’

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