Fences, Gates and Walls in Art and Storytelling

When I think of a gate, I think of a small ‘doorway’ in a fence.

The Country Child by Alison Uttley (1931) with illustrations by C F Tunicliffe, who did a lot of illustrations for the Ladybird franchise of children’s books.
A CHILD’S GARDEN OF VERSES Little Golden Book #289 Wilkin. A Katherine Mansfield story “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” also begins with a little girl at her white, suburban gate.

But a ‘gate’ can also refer to a much more foreboding structure. The illustration below is of the gate to a city, which looks more like a castle. These gates were, of course, built to look intimidating.

Anton Franciscus Pieck (1895-1987) 1949 illustration The Gate Of The City On A Winter Evening
Anton Franciscus Pieck (1895-1987) 1949 illustration: “The Gate Of The City On A Winter Evening”.

This sort of gate is also known as a ‘gatehouse’: a house standing by a gateway, especially on a country estate. But historically, a gatehouse referred to a room over a city or palace gate. This was often used as a prison.

Joseph Mallord William Turner: View of the Gatehouse at Rye House, Hertfordshire.
Joseph Mallord William Turner: View of the Gatehouse at Rye House, Hertfordshire.

A ‘gate’ can also be a hole in the side of a mountain.

Legh Mulhall Kilpin, “Gate of the Infinite”.

No surprise that Heaven is often thought to have a gate before you get to the good stuff.

Artemis Dreaming, Gate to Paradise ~ Wilhelm Bernatzik (1853-1906)

Then again, a gate doesn’t have to look like a fortress to be scary.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle, cover art by W. Teason

In this horror movie from 1989, a motorcycle gang kidnaps a young woman, Josie, from a diner. Then they kill her.

Many years later, the murdered young woman’s father finds a magic crystal that can bring the dead back to life. He uses this crystal to re-animate his daughter.

He lets her seduce any young men who visit the small town, which is called Hellgate. Then he kills them as a twisted sort of revenge.

That’s the backstory to the events in this film, in which four young students, two boys and two girls (the classic Scooby-Doo ensemble), holiday near this cursed town.

A well-deserved 3.6 on IMDb.

FENCES LEADING THE EYE IN COMPOSITION

Like clouds or roads trailing into the distance, there’s nothing like a fence to add depth to a composition.

‘Winter’ by Monica Poole (1921-2003), a highly accomplished wood engraver and illustrator.
September, Erik Werenskiold, 1883
September, Erik Werenskiold, 1883
Ink sketch by Duilio Cambellotti eagle fence
Ink sketch by Duilio Cambellotti eagle fence
John Sten (1879-1922) Autumn Landscape 1906
John Sten (1879-1922) Autumn Landscape 1906
Peder Mørk Mønsted fence
Peder Mørk Mønsted fence
Atkinson-Grimshaw-Moonlight-on-the-Lake-Roundhay-Park-Leeds
Atkinson-Grimshaw-Moonlight-on-the-Lake-Roundhay-Park-Leeds

He stood his hoe against the split-rail fence. He walked down the cornfield until he was out of sight of the cabin. He swung himself over the fence on his two hands. Old Julia the hound had followed his father in the wagon to Grahamsville, but Rip the bull-dog and Perk the new feice [a type of Irish dog] saw the form clear the fence and ran toward him. Rip barked deeply but the voice of the small mongrel was high and shrill. They wagged deprecatory short tails when they recognized him. He sent them back to the yard. They watched after him indifferently. They were a sorry pair, he thought, good for nothing but the chase, the catch and the kill. They had no interest in him except when he brought them their plates of table scraps night and morning. Old Julia was a gentle thing with humans, but her worn-toothed devotion was only for his father, Penny Baxter. Jody had tried to make up to Julia, but she would have none of him.

Third paragraph from The Yearling (1938)
Log of the Sun, A Chronicle of Nature’s Year, 1906, Walter King Stone; 1875-1949
Fritz von Uhde (German, 1848 - 1911) Winter landscape. Christmas Eve 1890
Fritz von Uhde (German, 1848 – 1911) Winter landscape. Christmas Eve 1890. Fences are especially useful in snowy landscapes, when other identifying features such as roads are covered in white.
In Berkshire Fields, 1920, Walter King Stone; 1875-1949
In Berkshire Fields, 1920, Walter King Stone; 1875-1949
Edward Hersey - The Snowy Farm
Edward Hersey – The Snowy Farm
Joseph Farquharson (1846 – 1935) Scottish oil on canvas
Woodcut illustration by J.J. Lankes for Robert Frost's New Hampshire
Woodcut illustration by J.J. Lankes for Robert Frost’s New Hampshire

Some artists seem to really enjoy making use of fences in composition. Arthur Getz is one of them.

Arthur Getz (1913-1996) 1967 for a New Yorker cover, beach
Arthur Getz (1913-1996) 1967 for a New Yorker cover
Arthur Getz (1913-1996) 1962 fence
Arthur Getz (1913-1996) 1962

Another is John Northcote Nash. Or perhaps it’s simply that if you enjoy painting slightly human-impacted landscapes, fences are going to be a feature.

c1955-65 The Breakwater John Nash
c1955-65 The Breakwater John Nash
1954 The Barn, Wormingford John Nash
1954 The Barn, Wormingford John Nash
c1945 Lane by a Wood John Nash red blue
c1945 Lane by a Wood John Nash
Nash, John Northcote; The Garden; Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection
John Nash, The Garden; Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection
n.d. The Farm oil on canvas 115.6 x 154.9 cm National Trust for Scotland, Brodie Castle, UK John Nash
The Farm oil on canvas 115.6 x 154.9 cm National Trust for Scotland, Brodie Castle, UK John Nash (not dated)
The Edge of the Wood by John Nash
1919-22 Behind the Inn oil on canvas 63.5 x 76.2 cm Tate, London, Paul Nash
1919-22 Behind the Inn oil on canvas 63.5 x 76.2 cm Tate, London, John Nash

Spencer Gore is a similar artist to John Nash.

Spencer Gore The Cinder Path 1912
The Cinder Path 1912 Spencer Gore (1878-1914)

THE FENCE DIVIDING LOVERS

The symbolism is clear: desired intimacy, but not yet.

Woman and Home Magazine 1930s cover art
Talbot Hughes - A Secret Assignation 1898
Talbot Hughes – A Secret Assignation 1898
Edmund Blair Leighton - Where There's a Will gate key
Edmund Blair Leighton – Where There’s a Will
Schnick schnack trifles for the little-ones by Oscar Pletsch 1867 over the fence
Schnick schnack trifles for the little-ones by Oscar Pletsch 1867. In children’s stories, a fence is frequently the boundary between nascent friendship.

A good example of a fence between two children becoming friends can be seen in the picture book Moving Molly by Shirley Hughes.

Helen Allingham - Over the Garden Wall
Helen Allingham – Over the Garden Wall
Gossip by John William Waterhouse
Gossip by John William Waterhouse
Six to Sixteen A Story for Girls by Ewing HC Illus. c1900
Six to Sixteen A Story for Girls by Ewing HC Illus. c1900

FENCE SYMBOLISM IN VICTORIAN STORIES

In the Victorian novel the space seems to be limited to the interior from which the main character is merely bound to watch the distant hills with the desire to wander anywhere they would like to. In Jane Eyre and partially also in Wuthering Heights the authors seem to have created a space structured by walls surrounding the garden and limiting the movement of characters, who feel both physically and mentally imprisoned inside the house. The imprisonment within the walls of both the houses and gardens is further compounded through the limitation of movement within the distance in the open space. The heroines observe the hilly horizons that seem too far away and long to explore the space beyond the hills, e.g. Jane Eyre or Catherine Linton. Their desire for the freedom of movement is associated with the spiritual need to break the Victorian convention, which the individuals consider limiting the course of their lives.

Concepts of Space in Victorian Novels by Alice Sukdolova

THE FENCE IN JAMES BOND MOVIES

Impregnable Fortress Impregnated: Indispensable scene in all James Bond movies and many other action pictures, especially war films. The IPI sequence begins early in the picture, with long shots of a faraway fortress and Wagnerian music on the sound track. Eventually the hero gains entry to the fortress, which is inevitably manned by technological clones in designer uniforms. Sequence ends with destruction of fortress, as clones futilely attempt to save their marvelous machines. (See “The Guns of Navarone,” etc.)

Ebert’s Guide to Practical Filmgoing: A Glossary of Terms for the Cinema of the ’80s

VIEW FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF A WIRE FENCE

The fourth wall is sometimes a fence.

from the film The Thing
from the film The Thing
from the film Tokyo Drifter
from the film Tokyo Drifter
from the picture book Pitschi (1948), one of the most terrifying scenes found in picture books in my opinion

THE FENCE BETWEEN HOME AND ADVENTURE

Frequently in children’s stories, an illustrator (or writer) depicts a character gazing from a window out at the wider world. The fence can serve an identical storytelling function. Like the glass of a window, the fence is a boundary between home and world, but children can easily find their way onto the other side of it.

Children in Bloom (Italian) Illustrator may be Rosella Banzi, c1955
Children in Bloom (Italian) Illustrator may be Rosella Banzi, c1955
Franz Josef Tripp, 1970
Jessie Willcox Smith (September 6, 1863 – May 3, 1935) The Garden Wall
Jessie Willcox Smith (September 6, 1863 – May 3, 1935) The Garden Wall
An Apple A Day Keeps The Doctor Away. Merrythought Tales, 1939. There’s an element of ‘forbidden adventure’ when there’s a wall involved.
James Clarke Hook - Going to Market
James Clarke Hook – Going to Market. Mythic adventures (between home and the wider world) involve many obstacles. (Maybe it’s just a fence.)
Fury Takes The Jump Little Golden Book
Too obviously to even mention, the fence functions as a hurdle, either symbolic or literal.
Riddles, Riddles from A to Z by Carl Memling illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (1962) A fence keeps the farm animals from their freedom, but also keeps them safe.
Riddles, Riddles from A to Z by Carl Memling illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (1962) A fence keeps the farm animals from their freedom, but also keeps them safe.

Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds features a vegetable garden in which vegetables come to life. A fence is part of the solution to the main character’s problem. In picture books, even into the present, boy characters more frequently solve a problem by getting out the construction tools than girls do. (Traditionally, girl characters solve problems by tidying up. I’m not kidding.)

THE IMPENETRABLE IRON GATE

Aunt Fanny knows when the world will end….

Aunt Fanny has always been somewhat peculiar. No one is surprised that while the Halloran clan gathers at the crumbling old mansion for a funeral she wanders off to the secret garden. But when she reports the vision she had there, the family is engulfed in fear, violence, and madness. For Aunt Fanny’s long-dead father has given her the precise date of the final cataclysm!

Uwe Hänstch created a big iron gate for an illustration in “The Snow Queen”.
Edna Eicke (American,1919-1979) - A Halloween-themed cover for the The New Yorker magazine, Saturday, October 27, 1945
Edna Eicke (American,1919-1979) – A Halloween-themed cover for the The New Yorker magazine, Saturday, October 27, 1945. Not the sort of gate you’d expect to find in the suburbs, except for that one scary neighbourhood house with the witch.
This Wind in the-Willows illustration by Inga Moore is another beautiful example of a big, iron gate preventing access to the aristocratic mansion. In this picture, Toad realises that, while dressed as a washer woman, it feels pretty shitty to be denied access to things.
William M. Timlin (1892 - 1943) 1923 Industry In Thunder City illustration for his own The Ship That Sailed To Mars fence
William M. Timlin (1892 – 1943) 1923 Industry In Thunder City illustration for his own “The Ship That Sailed To Mars” has a very scary fence, or maybe it’s the guys working on it making it scary.
A SPANIARD IN THE WORKS by John Lennon. This scary gate is keeping a dog from where they want to go, but the squiggly, loose line work removes the scariness.

FENCE AS MORAL DILEMMA

Terry on the Fence (1975) by Bernard Ashley, artist is Charles Keeping. A young boy finds himself growing more sympathetic and friendly with the local gang leader who had at first terrorized him into helping carry out some thefts. Terry on the Fence is a 1985 British drama film directed by Frank Godwin and starring Jack McNicholl, Neville Watson, Tracey Ann-Morris, and Susan Jameson.
Terry on the Fence (1975) by Bernard Ashley, artist is Charles Keeping

THE BARBED WIRE FENCE

The barbed wire fence is standard and iconic in my home country (New Zealand) but in other parts of the world is strongly associated with prison and concentration camps.

Screenshots from dystopian island setting Shutter Island
Screenshots from dystopian island setting Shutter Island
Autumn Harvest by Alvin Tresselt illustrated by Roger Duvoisin (1951)
Autumn Harvest by Alvin Tresselt illustrated by Roger Duvoisin (1951)

Jeanne Wakatsuki was seven years old in 1942 when her family was uprooted from their home and sent to live at Manzanar internment camp—with 10,000 other Japanese Americans. Along with searchlight towers and armed guards, Manzanar ludicrously featured cheerleaders, Boy Scouts, sock hops, baton twirling lessons and a dance band called the Jive Bombers who would play any popular song except the nation’s #1 hit: “Don’t Fence Me In.”

Farewell to Manzanar is the true story of one spirited Japanese-American family’s attempt to survive the indignities of forced detention—and of a native-born American child who discovered what it was like to grow up behind barbed wire in the United States.

Vienna. 1936. Three young friends spend a perfect day together, unaware that around them Europe is descending into a growing darkness and that events will soon mean that they are ripped apart from each other as their lives take very different directions…

With the rise of the Berlin Wall, twelve-year-old Gerta finds her family suddenly divided. She, her mother, and her brother Fritz live on the eastern side, controlled by the Soviets. Her father and middle brother, who had gone west in search of work, cannot return home. Gerta knows it is dangerous to watch the wall, to think forbidden thoughts of freedom, yet she can’t help herself. She sees the East German soldiers with their guns trained on their own citizens; she, her family, her neighbors and friends are prisoners in their own city.

But one day, while on her way to school, Gerta spots her father on a viewing platform on the western side, pantomiming a peculiar dance. Then, when she receives a mysterious drawing, Gerta puts two and two together and concludes that her father wants Gerta and Fritz to tunnel beneath the wall, out of East Berlin. However, if they are caught, the consequences will be deadly. No one can be trusted. Will Gerta and her family find their way to freedom?

 Frances Tipton Hunter (1896 – 1957, American artist) 'Liberty' cover, 1945 . This barbed wire subverts the usual symbolism.
Frances Tipton Hunter (1896 – 1957, American artist) ‘Liberty’ cover, 1945 . This barbed wire subverts the usual symbolism.

But a fence and gate doesn’t have to be made of barbed wire to feel dangerous.

1968 BEWARE OF THE DOG
1968 BEWARE OF THE DOG

THE (WHITE) PICKET FENCE OF SUBURBAN UTOPIA

Young love walking to school,1949, Norman Rockwell 1978
“Young love walking to school, 1949”, Norman Rockwell, painted in 1978
Our Street, an Australian children’s book
Ida Bohatta (1900 - 1992) Austria fence
Ida Bohatta (1900 – 1992) Austria fence
The Middle Moffat by Eleanor Estes. Cat on a fence watching a girl high above on a swing.
Hairy Maclary dogs prancing
from a Hairy Maclary picture book by New Zealand author illustrator, Lynley Dodd. New Zealand houses are heavily fenced, and whenever I see images of the American suburbs, I notice how seldom fences divide the yards.
Hairy Maclary cats night fence
As a result, the fences of Lynley Dodd’s picture books add to the distinctively New Zealand setting, but also, quite frequently, become part of the plot.
Briton Riviere - Aggravation
Briton Riviere – Aggravation. If Hairy Maclary were a horror.
Artur Ballester, 1920, illustration for Bestioles Amiques
Artur Ballester, 1920, illustration for Bestioles Amiques
The Witch of Hissing Hill by Mary Calhoun, illustrated by Janet McCaffery (1964) These cats on a fence are somewhat unappealing, but cats on fences are a visual symbol of suburbia.
Geoffrey Walter (G. W.) Goss (English, 1901-1985) “I wish you were down here.” 1935
John Philip Falter (1910-1982) for a Schlitz Beer advertisement 1951
That’s not to say that Americans never build fences between properties, right? This is an illustration by John Philip Falter (1910-1982) for a Schlitz Beer advertisement 1951. Neighbours are friends despite the tall fence between them (and I would argue, as a New Zealander, partly because of the tall fence between them).
The Ladybird Book Of Bedtime Stories Geoffrey Lapage, Illustrations George Brook (Wills & Hepworth Ltd., Loughborough UK, 9th edition 1950)  tomato
The Ladybird Book Of Bedtime Stories Geoffrey Lapage, Illustrations George Brook (Wills & Hepworth Ltd., Loughborough UK, 9th edition 1950) tomato
Rudolf Wacker (1893 - 1939)
Rudolf Wacker (1893 – 1939) depicts a rickety part of town, not the utopian suburbia of the white picket fences. Fences are like teeth: An indicator of economic prosperity, or not.

THE JAPANESE INVISIBLE FENCE: NURIKABE (PLASTER WALL)

FENCE AS LIMINAL SPACE

What’s a liminal space?

“Dead Lars” by Theodor Kittelsen. Do the birds symbolise a soul departing? If so, the fence here functions as a kind of veil — a border between life and death.