[This review originally appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]
Each of us has, for better or worse, his or her own secret picture of Britain — the dog-eared mental snapshot we pull out when far away and slightly homesick, or the accidental vision that flashes across our thoughts whenever by the word ‘Britain’ appears in print or conversation. In a sense it doesn’t really matter whether we’ve even visited these islands.
Growing up in America in the early 1970s, long before I’d ever set foot on British soil, my own mental image of Britain was as compelling, to me at least, as it was eccentric. It was an odd confection, cobbled together from old children’s books, pictures in our local art museum, the odd BBC costume drama and who knows what else. Particularly significant, though, were two books, one produced in the late 1930s and the other in the early 1950s. They were titled, respectively, Romantic Britain and Literary Britain. My ignorance of photography is such that only a few minutes ago, seeking accurate titles, did I discover that the latter of these was largely the work of Bill Brandt. But in any event, far too many were the scorching North Carolina summer afternoons that I preferred to spend inside, pouring over those fading black-and-white photos of holy wells, Saxon chancels and lichen-spotted dolmens of mysterious origin. In Britain, I learned, there was no old tree so ordinary as to lack some heart-stopping literary reference, no old bit of masonry so dreary as to have avoided the historically-important siege or Cromwellian slighting, no rolling tree-lined lane that would not culminate in a sublime pairing of parish church and manor-house if one cared to follow it long enough. And so that, strange to say, became my image of the country in which, a little later, I would make my home. Nor am I certain that all those subsequent decades of British reality have provided me with anything as weirdly persuasive, as intuitively functional, as that initial vision.
Doubtless there are also clear-eyed, unsentimental folk out there whose vision of Britain is made up of nondescript suburbs or council estates, out-of-town super-stores and the grim strips of highway that connect them, or perhaps simply the vista stretching all the way from couch past curtained windows out towards the television set as it blares out yet another low-quality US sitcom — who can say? In keeping with our present-day prejudice that the more unpleasant a thing is, the more true it is, they would doubtless congratulate themselves on the unsparing, illusionless qualities of their vision. Well, they may possibly be right.
Up from realism
Such people will, in any event, sneer mightily at A Picture of Britain — a Tate Britain exhibition linked with the six-part BBC television series narrated by David Dimbleby and the obligatory spin-off book. It isn’t so much that the Dimbleby-inflected vision of Britain seems far more similar to Literary Britain and its 1950s ilk than to the contemporary world inhabited by the people who stay in a lot, watching Big Brother, although there’s certainly an element of that. Rather, it’s the fact that A Picture of Britain blanks the Big Brother world entirely.
For although the pictures that make up A Picture of Britain span the eighteenth century to our own, the Britain depicted, even when it’s being depicted by Richard Billingham or Richard Long, is very much the land of Wordsworth and Rupert Brooke, Constable and the old Shell Guides, Turner’s skies and the coolly denatured forms of the St Ives School. Rural labour is assumed to be natural, organic and largely agreeable. Industrialisation, out of vogue at the moment, is nonetheless allowed to show its most handsome face, revealing itself in the celebratory canvases of Joseph Wright of Derby or in Lowry’s cheerfully demotic, nostalgic daubs, as well as in Edward Wadsworth’s Vorticist Black Country. Modernity, when it can no longer be ignored, surfaces in Charles Cundall’s cheerful crowd scene of Brighton day-trippers, or Paul Nash’s haunting Totes Meer where the mangled Luftwaffe aircraft glimmer in the moonlight like the bare bones of ancient yet dangerous monsters.
Admittedly, Britain is not always presented as uncomplicatedly beautiful. What one is not shown, however, is a single towerblock or call centre, or the sprawl of cheap identikit postwar housing lapping now over so much of what used to be the countryside, or those antiseptic successions of shops that could be anywhere or nowhere. This, clearly, is a Britain of blue water, not of Bluewater. Go ahead, then, sneer if you like.
Postcards from the past
All of which means that there are moments where this exhibition reads like a flashback to a different age. This is much an issue of aspiration as it is of achievement. For whatever else it may set out to do, A Picture of Britain does not attempt to expose, reveal, disillusion, disturb, deconstruct, demolish, shock, critique, interrogate or transgress — except, perhaps, in the sense that to avoid setting out to achieve any of these now-conventional ends may well strike contemporary audiences as a slightly risky proposition. Instead, the tone of the exhibition, where not gently didactic, is rarely less than celebratory. At its heart there is a calm assumption that Britain’s historic landscapes are still a source of interest, wonder and delight, both to the British people and to visitors from abroad. On the day I visited the exhibition, it was not only rather crowded but evidently very popular too, generating plenty of conversation and close looking. So perhaps that assumption wasn’t so very far off the mark?
And if it is possible to detect, here and there, a fairly broad hint of anxiety about the survival of these landscapes, it should be remembered that it is exactly in the throes of such anxieties — in the depiction of monastic ruins, in the context of enclosure or creeping urban sprawl, in the leaping shadows of the fires of the Industrial Revolution or of the Second World War — that the greatest British landscape art has been produced. And if Britain is always at her most beautiful in the moments just before she might be expected to vanish forever, it is no wonder that a gloss of Romanticism coats these pictures as thickly as restorers’ varnish. Hence, perhaps, its obsessions and its blind spots. Why dwell on the begrimed and depressing suburban railway platforms, the interchangeable English high streets, the sad stretches of motorway or the unloved and forgettable urban spaces, when they are hardly likely to disappear any time soon? And indeed, why not treat our working country churches, water-meadows, field verges, mossy weirs, seaside resorts and unselfconscious rural architecture as timeless and eternal, especially as their time may well all too soon be up?
Landscape into art
Sharp-witted readers may, by now, have realised how very much I liked this exhibition and how I warmed to what reads in places as a considered, toughly reactionary stance. All the same, more or less anyone ought to find something of value and interest here, if only because of the astonishing diversity of the exhibition’s contents.
Organised thematically, the various rooms are filled not only with obvious ‘masterpieces’ — Gainsborough, Constable, Turner — but also with plenty of deeply unfashionable or forgotten works, each selected to make a point about the ways in which their creators and collectors imagined Britain. For landscape, it transpires, always speaks about something beyond the literal facts of topography. Its learned vocabulary, inherited in large part from the seventeenth century Low Countries and France but also receiving periodic boosts from other schools and individuals — everyone from Titian and Rubens to Corot, Cezanne and Picasso — carried along with it a heavy freight of associations and inflections. So did its history — for landscape is by no means ‘natural’. The habit of seeing the vista before us as a coherent and significant whole, worthy of comment and record, was a learned one, in which Romanticism, the cult of the Picturesque, the Napoleonic Wars, tourism and the railways, among dozens of other factors, all played a part. A Picture of Britain plays out these various strands with elegance and subtlety. It’s a reminder, among other things, of the complicated role that landscape still plays in everything from advertising to daydreams.
And then, of course, there’s the whole issue of content. Envisioning the British landscape could be a way of talking about the most public and general of concerns. More or less chief amongst these public concerns was religion — not just the pantheistic understanding of ‘the sublime’, either, or its bastard offspring, as seen in William Hague’s inability to distinguish between walking in the hills and believing in the risen Christ — but Christianity itself, whether Anglican or otherwise. (Not that this is any surprise — Dutch landscapes were always about Protestantism and nationhood, too.) Samuel Palmer, whose tiny and gem-like works, luminous and visionary, are still less appreciated than they ought to be, painted reports back from the frontier separating heaven and earth, which is to say from his local parish church and the land around it. To study these little paintings is to watch England’s religion of the Word struggling to develop a visual equivalent to George Herbert, and only just failing. Yet religion also permeated even apparently straight-forward works. The most feverishly mimetic of Pre-Raphaelite canvases, such as William Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts, turns out to have been less a painting about ‘nature’ than a polemical essay on the dangers of heterodoxy and secularism.
Later, as the distinction between nation and confessional community continued to grow ever more self-conscious and less comfortable, the project of re-enchanting the environment with some sort of numinous quality, and not asking too many questions, became ever more urgent. Sometimes, as with Eric Ravillious’s Long Man of Wilmington, the line between public and private meaning disappears, so that the old chalk figure’s mythic and psychosexual significance becomes indistinguishable from the roles of genius loci, guardian of a besieged isle and psychopomp, capable of guiding modernity’s lost souls to some ultimate fastness, half-recollected yet urgently required. And it works, too. Anyone who’s caught an accidental glimpse of the Long Man from a train window as the railway sails past, down towards the South Coast, will realise how effectively the artist, whose father was a low-church lay-preacher, packed all of this into his vision, and how powerfully the resulting image — in the original watercolour, flanked with wartime barbed wire — now infuses its real-world referent.
Where has all the landscape gone?
By the same token, war turns out to have been another preoccupation of British landscape painting. The Napoleonic Wars forced a discontinuation of Grand Tours, encouraging the British aristocracy and their hangers-on to discover, inter alia, the Lake District, North Wales, the Highlands of Scotland and the romantic potential of Britain’s indigenous Gothic ruins. Soon a regular itinerary of picturesque and sketchable stops had been drawn up, complete with guide-books and on-site amenities. What began as an elite preoccupation soon permeated genteel society. As British landscape began to interest an increasingly broad swathe of the British people, its central images became familiar ones halfway around the world, too, so that knowledge of these, and enthusiasm for them, became yet another facet of British cultural identity. And so it was that daffodils, chaffinches, medlars, hedgehogs, willows, apples, loughs, burns, banks an’ braes became part of the inheritance of millions of children who might go on to live long lives without in fact seeing, hearing, tasting, climbing or otherwise interacting with any one of these things. The literary inheritance was followed up with the visual, aural and even sensory one. Britain had escaped its own geographical limits.
This was landscape in expansive mode. It prevailed for about a century after Waterloo. The 20th century, however, brought about a notable shift in inflection. The brilliant landscape art of the 1920s and 30s was both a response to Continental art movements, and an increasingly precarious appreciation of the beauties of islands under threat. The post-war period, however, saw pervasive high-cultural suspicion of romanticism, mysticism, sentimentality, figurative painting styles and anything that looked remotely like pre-war nationalism. And since landscape painting couldn’t, for perfectly good reasons, entirely extricate itself from any of these things — except perhaps in the abstractions of St Ives, where landscape was sublimated effectively if, it must be said, at the cost of quite a lot of intrinsic interest, or when caked in enough heavy irony — it fell out of fashion. So it’s to the credit of the curators of A Picture of Britain that they have managed to include in the exhibition enough striking, relatively recent offerings — works by Michael Andrews, Hamish Fulton, Richard Long and so forth — to invite informed speculation about landscape’s future within the visual arts. There’s at least the implication that landscape has an awful lot of life in it yet. The means of expression may change, and the preoccupations and elisions will inevitably shift with the passing of generations, but the urge to look around us and make something of what we see is probably an innate one. We haven’t seen the last of the land we inhabit, or its scope to stand in as metaphor for something else..
And so we move through the various thematically-organised rooms winding across Tate Britain’s low and windowless ground floor: the Romantic North, War and Peace, the Highlands and Glens, the Heart of England, the Flatlands and the Mystical West. The content shifts and swells and eddies, just as radically as does style or indeed basic painterly competence. Yet despite the rather uncharismatic setting, the hang has been carried out with a real feeling for atmosphere, humour and revelation. It may sound a stupid thing to say, but I do wish a version of this exhibition could be kept at Tate Britain permanently. As it will not, however, I shall just have to visit it as often as possible over the coming months.
A Picture of Britain is not, however, a perfect exhibition. It has three flaws, one of which matters much less than the others. The least important flaw involves the catalogue. As mentioned above, A Picture of Britain is a tripartite enterprise: Tate Britain exhibition, BBC television series, accompanying book. Unfortunately, it is not quite clear whether the book accompanies the exhibition or the television series. Since there is inevitably quite a lot of difference between the former and the latter, the confusion soon starts to tell.
As it happens, the television programme is a delightful business. In six episodes, it chronicles veteran broadcaster David Dimbleby’s barely sub-regal progress through a succession of beautiful and deeply emotive places, in which he is able to exude a mild beneficence undercut with the tiniest, if most necessary sliver of self-knowledge. In any event, the result is perfect. The production is flawless, the humour gentle, the coherence of the project absolute. If I say that during each of the episodes I have seen, I have, in fact, dozed off, it will sound like a criticism. But I don’t mean it that way! I mean it, rather, as an expression of trust, agreement and contentment — rather like motoring through the countryside in a well-conditioned Bentley driven by an old friend in whom one has the most complete confidence. Well, why not nod off occasionally?
The problem here, however, is that the exhibition and the television programme aren’t identical. How could they be? The images are different, the pace is different, some of the interpretation of specific works varies a bit — and the role of our genial host is rather greater onscreen than it is at Tate Britain, at any rate unless one visits in rather more exciting company than I did. The catalogue, however, attempts to span both. It does not entirely succeed. It isn’t that it is bad, exactly. It’s a handsomely-illustrated book featuring stimulating essays by Tate curators David Blayney Brown, Richard Humphreys and Christine Riding, as well as thoughtful and entirely enjoyable commentary from Mr Dimbleby himself. Although the book would make an excellent gift for aged relatives of nervous or liverish temper, it’s actually a far better piece of writing than this suggests. And in a sense, that’s the problem. Given the amount of unfamiliar, unfashionable or simply stunningly re-contextualised work on show in the exhibition itself, I do wholeheartedly lament the lack of a fully-illustrated, serious exhibition catalogue — complete with proper notes on each work — existing alongside this more popular, ‘accessible’ offering. The financial reasons why this didn’t happen are too obvious, and also too sad, to invite explanation. Still, it’s a pity. The result might have been a significant reference work that would give this important exhibition a half-life stretching on for decades. And if the organisers are serious about what really does look like a strong, positive message about landscape, the missed opportunity is a poignant one.
The British Problem
That, though, is simply a question of art and publishing, neither of which matters much. The second flaw is far more significant. It hinges on the whole concept of ‘Britain’. As those who are alert to issues of this sort may have noticed, in a few of the paragraphs above I was struggling slightly. When I wrote ‘Britain’, were there occasions when what I really meant was ‘England’ — or England with Wales and Scotland — or perhaps even a Britain that takes in Ireland too? Undoubtedly so. The exhibition organisers have chosen to call their creation A Picture of Britain. But it’s a picture with a very particular vantage-point. At the centre is England. Wales figures not much at all. And while Scotland looms large, and is the focus of much very interesting discussion — notably, the creation of the Highlands as a place as rich in myth as it is bare of much else — that’s about it. Insofar as Northern Ireland is concerned, it is at best treated as a sort of disreputable extension of the Scottish Highlands and at worst, as something so alien and discouraging as to merit averted eyes and richly meaningful silence.
So this is very clearly ‘Britain’ in the small, geographical sense, meaning the biggest of the British Isles. But if the Britain mentioned in the title means anything, it surely ought to mean ‘Britain’ in the big sense — the Britain that wins wars, built an empire and continues to disseminate its cultural and linguistic heritage across the face of much of this planet. It cannot, in any event, just mean England, which still gets the lion’s share of attention here. Obviously, the question of where England fits within an understanding of Britishness is a huge, serious, messy and contentious one. To do justice to its complexities would have required another whole exhibition — not an easy one to curate, either. But at the same time, there was no way of arranging the present exhibition without taking at the very least some sort of implicit stance about the place of England within Britain, and about the Britain projected out into the world.
So my complaint, in essence, is that the stance taken is the wrong one. If part of landscape painting is always about painting what ought to be — reforming the world to suit a particular vision — then A Picture of Britain should have squared up to the whole question of what its content says about its avowed subject-matter. Instead, those Scottish discussions notwithstanding, it implicitly underplays both the role of landscape art in creating national identities within the British Isles, and the role of landscape art in providing a shared identity that transcended local particularism just as it transcended topographical literalism. Both these strike me as important. Both are underplayed. Yet I am not sure the curators really fully made up their minds about these issues, since the inclusion of work by Sligo-born Jack Yeats (or ‘Jack Butler Yeats’, as it is strangely rendered in the exhibition catalogue) rather brings them to the fore again. And indeed, if you click ‘Belfast’ or ‘Londonderry’ on Tate Britain’s interactive map, you end up in ‘Highlands and Glens’. Enthusiast for the Union though I am, surely there are some basic geographical limits? Seriously, is that rather odd, or what?
It isn’t banned in galleries, you know
Let us move on rapidly. The third flaw is one that has become all too common these days — c.f. the forthcoming Stubbs exhibition at the National Gallery. Here, though, at A Picture of Britain, it is possibly even more upsetting. How can a show so blissfully free of political correctness in most aspects of its organisation have fallen so catastrophically at, as it were, the last fence?
For there are no hunting images in this exhibition. The longer one pauses to consider this omission, the more curious and regrettable it becomes. Hunting is, after all, one of the central ways in which individuals have, for centuries, experienced and understood the land around them — walls, coverts, hills, hedges, copses, brooks and banks. Its rhythms and rituals are almost impossible to disaggregate from certain areas of the British countryside. The hunting print was not only a mainstay of Britain’s imagined landscape, but also a visual form produced more effectively here than anywhere else. This is why from Paris and Amsterdam to Prague and St Petersburg and Kuala Lumpur, any English-themed space can easily broadcast its identity through the use of hunting imagery. Yet in A Picture of Britain, while farming, tourism, industry, recreation, worship and warfare all feature, the mounted hunt does not. So the silence of the hunting horn turns out to be the one of the few false notes sounded in this otherwise intelligent, delightful and inspiring exhibition.
Blue remembered hills
We all think we know what Britain looks like. Some, oceans away, will benefit from a vision unclouded by the annoying interventions of real life. Others, surrounded by the realities of Britain on a day-to-day basis, may find their vision cluttered with ill-considered light industrial premises, petrol-station forecourts on the journey in from suburbs now bled dry of even their faint Edwardian charms, or the unsubtle promptings of a thousand corporate logos shining out against a wet grey sky. Yet whether you are the sort of person who believes that art reveals hidden truths, or alternatively, the sort of person who believes that art exists to protect us from the truth, A Picture of Britain is an exhibition not to be missed.
Landscape painting’s relationship with realism has always been a sly and surreptitious one. Not least amongst the wonders of A Picture of Britain is John Crome’s Mousehold Heath (c. 1818-20). It shows that famous hill, bald and bare, upon which Kett’s rebels camped and campaigned for various rather inchoate demands before the full force of Tudor central government descended upon them. The handling is all Dutch — Ruysdael seems to hover over the landscape, waiting only to apply a flash of his signature gold before soaring away again — but the local appeal to a Norwich audience would always have been strong. The oddity, though — brought out well in the exhibition — is that by the late 18th century Mousehold Heath had been enclosed with fences and carved up with roads. It couldn’t have looked remotely like Crome’s version of it at the time he painted it. So what Crome painted was doubly a fiction. It’s a Netherlandish account of an East Anglian place that no longer existed other than in history and dreams. It’s a magical painting. Much of its magic resides in the pure fact of its freedom from real life. Crome was both recalling and creating a landscape. What he was not doing was recording topography. Topography, after all, changes as much as we all do, with results that invite regret as much as hope. Crome’s painting captures this well, giving his work the qualities both of an incantation and a lament. Landscape painting is, after all, at its best, generally both these things — acknowledging loss as much as dreaming fitfully of a happier, less precarious future. This is why we will always need it, all of us, whether we realise it or not.
Bunny Smedley was one of the founders of Electric Review. She lives in central London.