For Christmas I received a raft of photography books, one of which was called Countryside, published by the National Trust, and as you’d expect from such an organisation the book contains some idealised landscapes of England, Wales and Northern Ireland in which the hills roll, the pastures are green, the sky is blue and there are no Satanic mills to spoil the view. And yet, according to the United Nations, a staggering 89% of the United Kingdom (I realise this is not England) live in an urban area (and it’s been like that for over a century). Why, then, is it that when we think of English landscapes we think of this?
Summer evening above Swainby by Joe Cornish
Cornish, not to be confused with the comedian of the same name, commented about this picture “I remember thinking as I was making photographs this particular evening that William Blake’s immortal phrase from Jerusalem, ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ seemed perfect for this landscape. The success of the picture owes almost everything to the sky.”
The answer to the question stated above would take some kind of thesis, so I’ll skip to the proverbial meat and two veg, and say that it’s because our idea of landscape is not really concerned with geography, it is concerned with politics and culture. A simple example will suffice.
Privy Garden at Hampton Court Palace
This garden was originally constructed for William III and contained within the symmetrical layout was an impressive collection of plants from around the globe, as well as a series of statues depicting scenes from classical antiquity, most notably Hercules for whom the king had something of an obsession. The landscape suggested that William brought order to the nation, was internationally influential and a highly cultured individual.
Not surprisingly, such an approach to landscape spread through the aristocracy and landed gentry during the 18th century, many of whom would go on to create such beautiful spaces that it’s easy to forget the ulterior motives that inspired their creation. Naturally, after the invention of photography the medium became used by governments and organisations alike in order to construct and suggest readings of the landscape for numerous ends. This usually occurs at times of national crisis or uncertainty when England is presented as a nation possessing a profound continuity between past and present and of unsurpassed rural beauty, rather than urban decay, social unrest or political turmoil. This occurred in the late Victorian period as industrial development radically altered the nation, during World War 2, and in the early 1980s as the economy went through a period of substantial industrial decline and restructure.
One photographer who has challenged this view of rural, peaceful England is John Davies who has built up a substantial body of work in the last twenty five years that explores the fierce competition that has existed (and still exists today) for the use of the English landscape.
Agecroft Power Station, Salford, England, 1982. John Davies
Both Cornish and Davies create stunning images of the English landscape but with very different ends in mind. Cornish’s approach very much fits in with the idealised view of England that tourists like to see, yet Davies creates images that ask difficult questions about the power relationships that exist between the individual, the community and the landscape.
Next time I’ll pick up where I leave off here and start looking at some other photographers that are concerned with different aspects of the tourist gaze.