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the lure of the liminal

June 13, 2010

What is it about gateways that is so alluring? I came across a photo in a magazine today that made me gasp in delight. Here is a bad copy of it to give you an impression:

from 'Country Living' magazine, July 2010

It reminded me immediately of one of my favourite paintings, ‘The Gate to the Isles’ or ‘The Blue Gate’ by Winifred Nicholson. This was painted from the Gamekeeper’s Cottage on the island of Eigg, looking towards the Cuillins on Skye.

The Gate to the Isles by Winifred Nicholson, reproduced from (Trustees of Winifred Nicholson).

(You can read more about this painter of light at It is also interesting to see how others respond to her work: here at Cornflower Books is the response of a reader, while here at Gauguin’s Loft  is that of a sister artist.)

There is something about pathways, passageways and doorways that many of us respond to instinctively. It’s like vertigo, a pull which draws you towards the opening. I’m sure that Professor Freud could have explained it all to us very neatly in terms of biology. This ‘lowest common denominator’ explanation is not one that greatly interests me, however. The appeal of thresholds is both material and metaphorical: here, in both senses, is an unknown path to follow, a new experience to discover. And looking at other photos and paintings, I realise that it is the open gate in these two pictures which makes them so irresistible. If the gate were shut, or if there were no gate, there would be no invitation. For example, here is a photo of a view here at Castle Beastie which I love. The dark trees combined with the closed gate at the end, however, makes the general impression forbidding rather than inviting:

Interestingly, Winifred Nicholson’s marvellous painting – the computer cannot do it justice – is one that captures both senses of the word ‘liminal’. The word’s literal meaning is ‘threshold’, i.e. a physical doorway or gateway. More generally, however, it is used in the metaphorical sense of the threshold between metaphysical worlds or states. In ‘The Gate to the Isles’, Nicholson was apparently inspired by the Gaelic legend of Tír na n’Óg, the ‘Land of  Youth’, more commonly known as the Isles of the Blest. According to Scots-Irish myth, this ‘otherworld’ was located in the uttermost West, beyond the reach of maps. It was a paradise for the souls of the blest, a land of eternal youth, without sickness, misery or death. Interestingly, it was a concept borrowed almost unchanged by J.R.R. Tolkien in his own mythologies in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s detractors tend to think of his work as full of airy-faery Celtic magic: in fact his inspiration was robustly and deliberately Anglo-Saxon, with this notable exception. Who could not be beguiled by such a concept, after all? Anyone who has suffered, anyone who has lost a loved one, will understand the visceral pull of the idea of  Tír na n’Óg. In Winifred Nicholson’s vision, we have but to step through a rickety little garden gate, painted a heavenly blue: it is open already, inviting us on, down to the bright shore, across the hazy sea, to the far misty hills beyond.

For further reading, see Alice Strang, Winifred Nicholson in Scotland, National Galleries of Scotland 2003 (this may be out of print now but is a good introduction to her work if you can find it); Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle Earth , Harper Collins 2005 (an erudite but accessible exploration of Tolkien’s source material by a fellow professor of Anglo-Saxon and Philology); Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, 1958, new edtn 1992 (I haven’t read this yet but would like to, since reading Antony Woodward’s description of it as making him think ‘about why certain spaces (seats, gates, paths) are so symbolically loaded.’)

See also: In the enchanted wood; March: hares

15 Comments leave one →
  1. June 13, 2010 9:41 pm

    A lovely post; I’ve been everywhere, clicking on links and love Melanie’s art over at Gauguin’s Loft.

    I bought a little wrought gate well over 20 years ago at a garage sale for $5, thinking I’d do something unique with it on our property but it still sits in the shed. One day it will get a new life!

    I don’t know, that gate of yours makes me want to go to it and look into the mist beyond!

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      June 13, 2010 10:08 pm

      Glad this has sent you exploring; that’s one of the things I enjoy about blogs myself. Melanie’s paintings have a wonderful sense of light, don’t they.

      Next time I photograph that view, I’ll have to make sure the gate is open!

  2. June 14, 2010 1:36 am

    Thank you for this post. I have returned to it a few times today.
    While not particularly fond of Nicholson’s paintings (sorry – I am drawn more to the literal and detailed) I thoroughly enjoyed reading her writings from the link you provided.

    And I am now enthralled with the idea of liminal – a word I was not familiar with until now.

    As for open or closed gates … maybe it is the city in me, but when out in the country, when I see a closed gate, I immediately think there is an animal (or few) on the other side!!

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      June 14, 2010 10:47 am

      You’re spot on for a city girl! 😉 First rule of the countryside: leave gates as you find them. There probably IS an animal behind a closed gate…

  3. June 16, 2010 10:46 pm

    A friend sent me a birthday card some years ago of that same painting and I love it too! I’ve always loved open gateways, or open doorways that provide a glimpse into another world. It opens up possibilities. I’ll bookmark the links to check them out later when I have a bit more time.

    • dancingbeastie permalink
      June 16, 2010 11:21 pm

      There you go. I can see another idea for a series coming on: glimpses through doorways and so on. Very tempting…

  4. June 19, 2010 4:49 pm

    I love this post! I came over from Cornflower’s Book Group blog. I will add your blog to my favorites!
    Finding out about Winifred Nicholson is so delightful! I am an artist too and feel I can learn much from her!

  5. June 25, 2017 5:13 am

    Such a rich and wonderful post. Friends have noted I take lots of photographs of liminal places. I am drawn to them as a moth to light. I did not know of Winifred Nicholson’s work and greatly enjoyed learning/seeing more of her. “The Blue Gate” is a new favorite and would be a perfect gate to Tir na n’Og. I equally enjoyed the sister artist, Melanie McDonald at Gauguin’s loft.


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