In border country: haunts of ancient peace

In border country: haunts of ancient peace

A song of harmony and rhyme
In haunts of ancient peace.
– Van Morrison, ‘Haunts of Ancient Peace’

Last week we spent an all-too-short four nights based in the Black Mountains region at the eastern end of the Brecon Beacons. It’s an area that has inspired poets and painters, diarists and novelists: Bruce Chatwin called this area one of the emotional centres of his life.

For me, the trip had been partly impelled by reading Tom Bullough’s novel Addlands which is set in the Edw valley, north of Painscastle and Hay on Wye. But the literary and artistic connections in a landscape that still seems lost in time are numerous: Bruce Chatwin, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Francis Kilvert, Allen Ginsberg and Owen Sheers, David Jones and Eric Ravilious are among those who lived here, passed through and were inspired by this area. Continue reading “In border country: haunts of ancient peace”

Ravilious at Dulwich: dot and speck and dash and dab

Ravilious at Dulwich: dot and speck and dash and dab

One morning in 1934, Eric Ravilious set off with a sketch pad from his home in Brick House, Great Bardfield, Essex. He didn’t go far – just around the corner, in fact, to where a repair yard for steam engines was filled with derelict farm machinery and abandoned vehicles of all kinds. In one corner an old Talbot-Daracq motor car stood rusting, its engine and tyres cannibalised and the fine upholstery of the seats in stark contrast to the jumble of metal objects scattered around. Continue reading “Ravilious at Dulwich: dot and speck and dash and dab”

Robert Macfarlane: Old Ways and Wild Places

I love roads:
The goddesses that dwell
Far along invisible
Are my favourite gods.

Roads go on
While we forget, and are
Forgotten like a star
That shoots and is gone.

On this earth ’tis sure
We men have not made
Anything that doth fade
So soon, so long endure:

The hill road wet with rain
In the sun would not gleam
Like a winding stream
If we trod it not again.

– extract from ‘Roads’ by Edward Thomas

Recently I’ve been reading several books that share Edward Thomas’s love of paths and walking.  This is the second instalment of a two-part post.  The first part is here.  This post is concerned with two books by Robert Macfarlane – The Wild Places and The Old Ways.

I thought I had read The Wild Places some time ago, but when I pulled it down off the shelf recently to compare it with The Old Ways I realised that I hadn’t.  I’ll come clean – I’ve reached that time in life when I stir my tea and discovering two tea bags there, realise that I have added a second bag to the mug in which I had placed one already.

The Wild Places begins with Macfarlane climbing a tree near his home in a gale (there’ll be more of this sort of thing later) and is filled with an irresistable desire for wildness:

to reach somewhere remote, where the starlight fell clearly, where the windcould blow me from its thirty-six directions, and where the evidence of human presence was minimal or absent.  Far north or far west; for to my mind this was where wildness survived, if it survived anywhere at all.

Macfarlane resolves to map the remaining wild places of the British Isles, places that conformed most purely to his private vision of wildness. He begins by heading west, out along the Lleyn to Ynys Enlli ‘where the first glimmerings of a wild consciousness’ might be found on an island settled by monks and sought by pilgrims of the early years of Celtic Christianity.  The chapters of the book are arranged by topography – Island, Valley, Saltmarsh, Moor, Ridge, Holloway and Beechwood.

But more than simply mapping the route of his travels, The Wild Places maps a change of heart. To start with, Macfarlane is convinced that if he is to find any remaining wild places in these overcrowded islands – places where he can ‘step outside human history’ – he must hike across distant moors and mountains and islands.  And so he attempts a perilous climb out of a hidden valley in the Cuillins of Skye, tramps across Rannoch Moor through a night and two days, and on a winter’s night, battered by a snowstorm, sleeps out with no tent on the summit of Ben More, the last mountain peak before Greenland or Siberia.

The essence of his case is stated in this passage from the chapter where, in deepest winter, he climbs a ridge in Cumbria, walking at night by moonlight and starlight, attempting sleep in a blizzard of hail and snow, and at first light plunging naked into a mountain pool:

We are, as a species, finding it increasingly hard to imagine that we are part of something which is larger than our own capacity … On almost every front, we have begun a turning away from a felt relationship with the natural world.

The blinding of the stars is only one aspect of this retreat from the real. In so many ways, there has been a prising away of life from place, an abstraction of experience into different kinds of touchlessness. We experience, as no historical period has before, disembodiment and dematerialisation.  … We have in many ways forgotten what the world feels like. And so new maladies of the soul have emerged, unhappinesses which are complicated products of the distance we have set between ourselves and the world. We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world – its ices, textures, sounds, smells and habits – as well as by genetic traits we inherit and ideologies we absorb.

But the fascination of  The Wild Places is that Macfarlane reveals how his idea of wildness changes.  The turning point is a walk in the company of the naturalist Roger Deakin on the limestone clints and grikes of The Burren. Deakin points out that a little crack in the limestone contains a wilderness:

Near the centre of the pavement, we reached a large gryke running north to south. We lay belly-down on the limestone and peered over its edge. And found ourselves looking into a jungle. Tiny groves of ferns, mosses and flowers were there in the crevasse – hundreds of plants, just in the few yards we could see, thriving in the shelter of the gryke: cranesbills, plantains, avens, ferns, many more I could not identify, growing opportunistically on wind-blown soil. The plants thronged every available niche, embracing one another into indistinguishability. Even on this winter day, the sense of life was immense. What the gryke would look like in the blossom month of May, I could not imagine.

This, Roger suddenly said as we lay there looking down into it, is a wild place. It is as beautiful and complex, perhaps more so, than any glen or bay or peak. Miniature, yes, but fabulously wild.

Macfarlane’s concept of wildness has changed by the time we reach the halfway point of his book. In Strathnaver in the far northeast of Scotland he realises that his original vision had ‘started to crumble from contact with the ground itself’.   As he reflects on the depopulation of the strath during the Highland Clearances, begins to realise that ‘the human and the wild cannot be partitioned’. The wilderness that he sees now is the consequence of emigration, conscription and displacement as Strathnaver, like so many of the valleys of Scotland, was emptied of its people, its families, in the words of an observer at the time, ‘utterly rooted and burnt out’, parish after parish turned into a solitary wilderness.

In the later sections of the book, Macfarlane explores landscapes that are gentler and more hospitable, but still full of surprises. In the holloways of Dorset which he walks as a memorial to his close friend Roger Deakin, along the Norfolk and Suffolk coast, and on the saltmarshes of Essex, he discovers ‘a sense of wildness as process, something continually at work in the world, something tumultuous, green, joyous’.  The Essex chapter was subsequently expanded into a suberb Natural World documentary for the BBC in which he travelled the county’s strange and elemental landscapes of heavy industry, desolate beaches and wild woods, encountering peregrine falcons at Tilbury Power Station, water voles within sniffing distance of the municipal dump, deer rutting in earshot of the M25, barn owls, badgers and bluebells in Billericay as well as a large colony of common seals.

In the final chapter of this elegantly written book, Macfarlane returns to the wood near his home where the need to experience wildness betook him.  He realises that

the wild prefaced us, and it will outlive us. Human cultures will pass, given time, of which there is sufficiency. The ivy will snake and unrig our flats and terraces, as it scattered the Roman villas. The sand will drift into our business parks, as it drifted into the brochs of the iron age. Our roads will lapse into the land.

He concludes:

Then I looked back across the landscape before me: the roads, the railway, the incinerator tower and the woodlands.  The woods were spread out across the land and they were seething. Wildness was here, a short mile south of the town in which I lived.  It was set about by roads and buildings, much of it was menaced, and some of it was dying.  But at that moment the land seemed to ring with a wild light.

In The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane was partly spurred on his way by a realisation that for most of us the map of Britain with whiich we are most familiar is the road map. He set out to create an alternative map that would make the remaining wild places of the archipelago visible again.  In The Old Ways he explores Britain geologically, walking its paths mapping the relationship between surface rock, people and place.  The book’s chapters are organised around geological textures: Chalk, Silt, Peat, Gneiss, Granite and Flint.

Fundamentally, though, this is a book about walking – it could not have been written sitting still, insits Macfarlane -and about the ancient paths that criss-cross the landscape of these isles.  Above all, it is a book about people and place – about the subtle ways in which our thoughts, ideas and art are shaped by the landscapes in which we live and walk.

At the opening of The Old Ways Macfarlane observes that ‘Humans are animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk: signs of passage made in snow, sand, mud, grass, dew, earth or moss’. The landscape is

webbed with paths and footways – shadowing the modern-day road network, or meeting it at a slant or perpendicular. Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets – say the names of paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite – holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths.

He sets out to explore these old ways, and though the subtitle of the book is ‘A Journey on Foot’, two of the best sections are about retracing the old sea roads that linked the islands of the Outer Hebrides with Norway, Iceland and Orkney. We think of paths as existing only on land, he writes, but the sea has paths, too, and for thousands of years these roads across the ocean brought closer far-apart places.

It is easy to fall in alongside Macfarlane as he walks these trails (though I suspect I wouldn’t be able to keep pace with him). He writes beautifully, and communicates an easy-going erudition that embraces geology, history, literature, art and many aspects of the natural world.  In this book, more so than in The Wild Places, he also brings alive the characters he meets along the way: the landscapes he describes are filled not just with rock, animals and plants, but also sailors, botanists, poets, archaeologists and crofters.  There’s a sailor skilled enough to cross the Minch to the Shiant Islands; a sculptor and a Tibetologist; a friend who knows the danger and importance of walking in Ramallah ‘discovering stories other than those of murder and hostility’. They are all important figures in a book about the ways people come to know places and absorb them into their bloodstream, their consciousness.

The Palestinian friend is Raja Shehadeh, author of Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape which, shamefully, I still haven’t got around to reading.  The Palestinian adventure is an indication of the somewhat unstructured bagginess of the book  – with chapters describing walks abroad – through the limestone wadis of the Occupied Territories, following the pilgrimage route through Spain with a detour to a strange library, and walking with Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims in the Himalayas.  The Palestinian walk revealed Macfarlane uncharacteristically ill at ease as he and Raja walk a path through a valley  overlooked by Israeli settlements. But his acute observation and fine writing remain in place:

Back in Ramallah that night, I walked the streets, enjoying the cool air andthe feeling of enclosure that the city and the darkness brought, after the exposure of the day. On waste groundby the side of a busy four-lane road, I passed a skip whose contents had been set on fire, and out of which rose and shifted a column of black smoke. A single trainer hung over the outside of the skip, hitched by its laces to its unseen partner on the inside. I waited to cross the road, while the pedestrian crossing flashed its orders: WALK, DON’T WALK; WALK, DON’T WALK.

Then there are the chapters inspired by art and poetry.  In ‘Snow’ he walks – actually, he skis – across the South Downs along the Ridgeway after a winter snowfall, taking his bearings from the watercolourist Eric Ravilious, ‘a votary of whiteness and remoteness, and a visionary of the everyday’. The snow and the skis neatly link the Downs with the Arctic – the two landscapes that most inspired Ravilious. For most of his life the Downs satisfied his landscape needs, but as time wore on he began to dream of the Arctic, the midnight sun and icebergs.  At the outset of the Second World War, Ravilious was appointed an official war artist, and in May 1940 he got the news he had longed for: he would sail to Norway and across the Arctic circle. For three months he produced work that Macfarlane ranks as perhaps his finest.  Then, in late August, he flew with a search party that took off from Iceland to locate a missing plane. He and another four men were lost in a plane looking for a missing plane.

Eric Ravilious: Chalk Paths

But the real guiding spirit of The Old Ways is Edward Thomas, walker, nature-writer and poet, who left the ‘South Country’ he loved and followed the chalk across the channel to northern France, where he died on the first day of the Battle of Arras. Macfarlane was inspired by the words that  Thomas employed to portray the old ways: ‘A white snake on a green hillside’ was one of Thomas’s descriptions of a chalk path’s motion through the land. He also wrote that, ‘The earliest roads wandered like rivers through the land, having, like rivers, one necessity, to keep in motion’.  Macfarlane attempts to understand Thomas by inhabiting the places where he walked and following in his footsteps.  He writes that:

Thomas ghosted my journeys and urged me on.  I set out to walk my way back into intimacy with Thomas, using the paths as a route to his past, but ended up discovering much more about the liviong than the dead.

Somehow the passages on Ravilious and Thomas are the least satisfying here: I think Macfarlane is at his best – as a writer and a thinker – when he is walking, and one of the finest descriptions of a walk in this book is his account of walking ‘the deadliest path in Britain’, the Broomway, a footpath heads straight out from the Essex coastline into the North Sea across Maplin Sands until, after three miles, it turns back in the direction before finally making landfall.  Macfarlane’s writing here is as crystalline as the shimmering seascape that he traverses:

Half a mile offshore, walking on silver water, we crossed a path that extended gracefully and without apparent end to our north and south. It was a shallow tidal channel and the water it held caught and pooled the sun, such that its route existed principally as flux; a phenomenon of light and currents. Its bright line curved away from us: an ogee whose origin we could not explain and whose invitation to follow we could not disobey, so we walked it northwards, along that glowing track made neither of water nor of land, which led us further and still further out to sea.

Macfarlane ends by tracking 5000 year old fossil footprints on the sands at Formby Point, north of Liverpool. Or does he? This chapter seems to me to be a bit of a fiction – the footprints of neolithic people have been found on this shore, but they are temporary and quickly washed away.  He writes as if he is tracking the footprints across a mile or more of sand, placing his feet in the fossil prints.  I can understand the poetry here, but after chapters which have described real walks, it doesn’t ring true.

See also

The Idea of North

The Idea of North

Thule as Tile on the Carta Marina of 1539 by Olaus Magnus

In medieval times, geographers located ultima Thule as lying somewhere beyond the borders of the known world, as on the Carta Marina of 1539 (above), where it is shown (named ‘Tile’) located to the north west of the Orkney islands, with a ‘monster, seen in 1537’, a whale (‘balena’), and an orca nearby.

When I went north to Arran recently, I took with me Peter Davidson’s book, The Idea of North.  Davidson, Professor of English at the University of Aberdeen, begins with the object that lies before him on his desk and which inspired the book: a compass.  As with the compass needle, he suggests, so people have always been most powerfully attracted northwards.  In his introduction he repeats, like a mantra, the declaration that ‘everyone carries their own idea of north within them’. The Idea of North is a study, ranging widely in time and place, of some of the ways in which these ideas have found expression.

Arctic continent on the Gerardus Mercator map of 1595 (Wikipedia, click for detail)

Davidson’s book begins by facing up to a glaring inconsistency in the concept of ‘North’: unless you’re at the Pole, at every point in the hemisphere there is going to be somewhere more northerly that might fuel the imagination. That imagining has generated a kaleidoscopic variety of norths, ideas of place that are quite confusingly anomalous. The north is frighteningly bleak and a killer, but it is also a region of wonders, marvels, and wealth. Evil comes from the north, but it is also the golden land of the Hyperboreans.

In Greek mythology the Hyperboreans were a mythical people who lived far to the north of Thrace. The Greeks thought that Boreas, the North Wind, lived in Thrace, and that therefore Hyperborea (‘beyond the Boreas’) lay beyond the north wind. It was a perfect land,  where the sun shone twenty-four hours a day.  It was depicted on maps until well into the middle ages (above).

Never the Muse is absent
from their ways: lyres clash and flutes cry
and everywhere maiden choruses whirling.
Neither disease nor bitter old age is mixed
in their sacred blood; far from labor and battle they live.
– Pindar, Tenth Pythian Ode

Pindar also cautioned about the difficulties to be faced in seeking out the exotic north:

Neither by ship nor on foot would you find
the marvellous road to the assembly of the Hyperboreans.

Peter Davidson divides his book loosely into three sections: histories, imaginations, and topographies (it’s published as one in series entitled Topographics by Reaktion Books). The first section deals with various ideas of the north from antiquity to the 20th century, from the Hyperboreans to Caspar David Friedrich’s 1824 painting, Arctic Shipwreck, allegorically representing, Davidson suggests, the wreckage of hopes, the powerlessness of the human individual against absolute (and absolutist) forces.

Caspar David Friedrich, Arctic Shipwreck (1824)

Caspar David Friedrich, Arctic Shipwreck, 1824

An important part of the perception of the north, Davidson argues, was (and still remains) that it is a place of treasures and marvels – the prime reason for undertaking perilous voyages north.  I found his discussion of the trade in amber in this context particularly interesting.  He observes that Baltic amber beads were found in the pyramid of Tethys (3400-2400 BC) and that Schliemann found amber beads when excavating the site of Troy.  Amber was valued for its beauty and its rarity.  The ultimate example of the obsession with amber was the building of room panelled entirely in amber by the Prussian ruler Friedrich Wilhelm I in 1713.  He later gave the room panels to Tsar Peter the Great of Russia; they vanished in 1944 and have not reappeared.  In 2003, work on a reconstruction of the Amber Room by Russian craftsmen was completed, and the new room was dedicated by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The amber trade is just one example of the pursuit of valuable commodities in northern reaches which Davidson discusses: others are sea otter fur, beaver skins, and ivory from walrus and narwhals.

The reconstructed Amber Room

The ‘Imaginations’ section explores various speculations on north, ranging from the preoccupation of British writers such as WH Auden and George Orwell in the 1930s with the north as being symbolic of the crisis of capitalism with its decaying industries and poverty-stricken towns.  Davidson traces how the north became central to Auden’s work in this period – a blend of obsessions with the mining and geology of Cumberland and the northeast that he had known as an adolescent, with the sagas and landscapes of Iceland.

Eric Ravilious also had an idea of north that he carried with him all his adult life. It was fostered by books on the Arctic and the dramas of polar exploration. As a war artist, Ravilious sailed north in 1940 to the Arctic, and died in 1942 on an RAF air sea rescue flight from Iceland.  He left behind paintings that evoked what was, for him. the magical experience of sailing into the Arctic Circle and seeing the midnight sun.

Eric Ravilious, Midnight Sun, 1940

This extremely diverse section of the book also includes an extended analysis of the symbolic content and aesthetics of ice and glass, a discussion of the impact of  the northern summer on film makers such as Ingmar Bergman (in Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries) and artists such as the Norwegian Harald Sohlberg, and much else besides, including Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights and ghost stories from Scandinavia to Japan.

Harald Sohlberg , Summernight

The last section, ‘Topographies’,  touches on ideas of north in Scandinavia, Japan and China, Canada, and in northern England and Scotland. The discussion ranges from Scandinavian images of Greenland (for example, in Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow) to the films of Norwegian director Knut Erik Jensen and the paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi:

These paintings of dimmed interiors, with their ‘symphonic range of greys’ in which ‘even the furniture seems to have a soul of its own’ are precise realizations of an idea of north: twilit panelled rooms, rain light, a balance of serenity and melancholy.

Hammershoi, Interior with a Woman Sewing, 1901

In this last section of the book, Davidson traces a northward journey, describing northern rural England, industrial sites, and the  emptiness of the borders, Scotland and the Highlands. On the way his discourse takes in Mass Observation, the photography of Humphrey Spender and the paintings of William Coldstream, the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin and Simon Armitage, and Remains of Elmet, the collaboration between Ted Hughes and photographer Fay Godwin.

Remains of Elmet cover

If this seems a ragged journey, it is. Davidson pulls together so many differing concepts and examples that the reader is, at times left a little bewildered.  Though there is much that is fascinating, there are also longueurs (which will vary, perhaps, for each reader, depending on their individual interests).  The problem is that Davidson offers no overarching argument, but seems determined to include as many examples as he can muster of  ‘the idea of north’. But is there one unifying idea of north? Is there a specific relationship between people, culture and place that characterises all northern regions, whether in Europe, Canada or Japan?

Of course, Davidson’s selection is personal, but there will always be those who will criticise the omissions in a work like this.  For example, apart from a brief discussion of Mandelstam, I’m pretty sure there was little on Russia (it was difficult to check back because there is no index – a glaring omission in a book of this nature), and in any discussion of northern-ness in an English context, surely there should be reference to the British new wave films of the 1960s, and the novels from which they were adapted?  Music was a great absence, too: Scandinavians from Sibelius to jazz musicians such as Jan Garbarek and Terje Isungset with his ice music have produced their own deep responses to Nordic landscape and culture.

The ending of the book is magnificent. In a short epilogue entitled ‘Keeping the Twilight’ Davidson gives a beautiful description of the fading light in his study on a northern winter afternoon. He ends with two sentences that could be an abstract painting or expressionist photograph of somewhere northern:

A block of dusk above a block of moor. A smear of dark above a line of snow.

James Hamilton-Paterson drew a nice conclusion in his review for the London Review of Books:

In one sense Thule was never more than somebody else’s Timbuktu or even Atlantis: more a repository than a place on the map. Like any legendary place, it depended for survival on remaining undiscovered. As Seneca foresaw, when there was no part of the planet left unexplored, Thule would vanish. What Seneca did not foresee was global warming, which could put paid to the polar icecap within the next half-century, thus literally removing Thule’s last foundations.

See also

Edward Burra: The Unquiet Landscape

Near Whitby, Yorkshire 1972

I want to return to the subject of Edward Burra and his paintings.  A few days ago I wrote about the retrospective exhibition currently on show at the Djanogly Gallery in Nottingham.  After returning from the show, my attention was drawn to the chapter in Christopher Neve’s book, Unquiet Landscape: Places and Ideas in 20th Century English Painting, Faber 1990, in which Neve, in his limpid prose, seems to inhabit Burra’s consciousness, probing the psychological roots of Burra’s strange and sometimes disturbing late landscapes:

Burra paints the hill as a looming pneumatic slope.  Often it is things we dread that most attract us.

The big house and the sickly boy. It was a big house, with a large porch and dwarfing mantelpieces. It was threatened from the front by voluminous trees. For the past ninety years the drive had grown narrower and more tortuous as the trees grew larger. At the back there was a lawn and a terrace and a circular formal pond. All this was at Playden, in Sussex, on the last rise before Rye. The house, called Springfield, had belonged to Burra’s family since 1864. He had been sent away to prep school but, being constantly ill, had received the rest of his education at home. He was a sickly child who worked at watercolours in this bedroom. He lived at home and would continue to work in his bedroom, going up the enormous staircase to draw after breakfast each day until he was nearly fifty.

The trees that stood close to the windows were almost his first subject, especially a gigantic cedar, the level upon level of whose blue branches seemed to be hiding something. A Miss Bradley, in Rye, gave him drawing lessons. He was small and weak. It was his imagination that grew.

Jazz records, 78s in brown cardboard covers, had energy. He painted to jazz. The allegro negro cocktail shaker. Negroes seemed to have the vitality he could not have. Films and novels about low life in the Mediterranean gave him a taste for the louche world he had never seen, the blue curasao with which to subvert the straight-laced barrister’s household in Sussex.

Standing next to a small youth at the entrance scholarship examination at the Royal College of Art, in London, Eric Ravilious could not help noticing that he had made no attempt to draw the life model   on the unaccustomedly large page. Burra spent the day drawing just one eye, in the middle of the paper, in meticulous detail.

When   he   drew  landscapes they were imaginary settings for bizarre figures, the sailors and divorced contraltos of his imagination, in watercolours of which the characteristic colour was a glowing aubergine.

When he went to Marseilles, he was observed by Anthony Powell to keep always out of the sun, so that he had the complexion of a prisoner or an invalid, which he was. He spoke hardly at all, but always with withering aptness. What he liked to draw best were: waiters, seedy decor, nightclubs, cheap suits. He enjoyed the brash and racy. A lifelong exhaustion made him prey on other people’s fun, especially (what he really savoured) bad behaviour, unkind laughter, mendacity, waspishness, all-out malicious enjoyment and any kind of excess. Bad feeling motivated him. It gave his work the energy he did not have.

It was an obscure knack. Through the people he struck out in a leisurely way for the landscape as though in search of absent thoughts, absent causes. When he was younger (though he looked old) he would sit at a corner table, either in reality or in imagination, at some dive like Issy Ort’s and commit the bird-women and negroes to memory so that he could draw them afterwards, hearing the same side of a favourite 78 repeatedly, feeling its elation and vitality in the saxophone solo each time. As he got older he began to see through people. The carnival skeletons and waitresses danced off into the distance. That tinny noise of a Mediterranean festival band, conscripted from boys in the local town, faded. When the people had dragged their smiles away, he was left with the landscape, a big empty distant dreamlike landscape with electric air and the threat of thunder promising relief and a wash of rain.

For the last fifteen years of his life he concentrated chiefly on painting landscapes which are odder and more potent than anything else he did. He denied ever having loved anybody, and now the people were gone. Conrad Aiken, Paul Nash and Malcolm Lowry had added to his ideas as if to a postcard collection or a surreal montage. He had blocked his window with hardboard in order to avoid seeing the view across Rye.  A picturesque town of old rippling roofs and cobbled streets, a tea-shop place was the last thing he needed. While he was at the cinema matinee in his head, his idea was to avoid coming out, blinking, into the sunlight.

Never liking it, it was typical that he should live in Rye all his life. He preferred the gravel pits and sheds on the road to the harbour. He liked the high view down on to the recreation ground, the fisty trees, the debris generated by the   workshops and fishing boats on the winding estuary. He liked the way the slug of Stone Hill crept across the far side of the Marsh.

Under The Hill, 1964-5

In 1953 he left Springfield at last and moved into the disliked town, to a house built on the site of a Methodist chapel bombed during the war. From here, high up, he could look across the Marsh with its snaking river, razor~sharp dikes and flashes of lying water.

From The Ramparts, 1959-61

From side to side his eye shot, but mainly into the far distance unclouded by mist and atmosphere. Like a cockroach creeping up on an outsize ham, he had approached landscape via people. Now he began to paint an extraordinary sequence of panoramic views, quite bereft of figures, which seem as though the feverish child shut in his old bedroom at Springfield, tiring finally of waspishness and gossip, had put his eye down to the level of his eiderdown and looked along it.

A great deal of what he knew of painting figures he brought to landscape. Views that might normally have provided consolation seem in Burra to convey profound unease. Pictures which on the face of it suggest those cheerful expanses unrolling in posters before the Bank-holiday tandem cyclist or traveller by Greenline bus become suddenly distasteful. The metamorphoses which, in paintings of people, had turned a nose into a Venetian beak, now made the most inoffensive landscape feature dilate uncomfortably and strain at its constraining skin. All the senses, not just his visual sense, were heightened, taut.  As to an adolescent, or someone aping insanity for fun, the physical world seemed unnaturally bright, unnaturally actual.  The smallest event could become an intense and terrifying adventure. […]

The extreme oddness of these pictures is very difficult to come to terms with. When they confront you they are quite different from their effect in reproduction. For watercolours, they are abnormally large, very big indeed, often built up by joining several sheets together as the design, like the landscape, took on a life of its own and seemed to expand. They have a dreamlike clarity of surface because they were painted flat on a table with all contrasts of tone deliberately exaggerated and a very careful attention to edges, or rims, so that forms approach each other and stop short in a worrying way that is not at all the way of forms in the real world. This produces a look of glassy clarity and clean air which makes vision boundless as if to the magnetic mountain. […]

The working method which contributed to this strangeness was developed in his bedroom as a child and never varied. He could work anywhere, on rickety tabletops in hotels if necessary. He explained this as being the least taxing method possible, because he was almost permanently tired and would have worked lying down if that had been practical. Beginning on one page at the bottom right-hand corner, he progressed upwards and to the left in an arc, adding subsequent sheets when necessary until the drawn design was complete, and then  filling it in. The process of selection he used was mainly the effect of memory. He did not paint on the spot but sometimes used drawings made after seeing a view. Because the drawings were done after seeing the landscape, and the painting from them was often not begun until many months later when the scene had come to the boil in his mind, there were two clear intervals between seeing the subject and making the picture during which his imagination had the chance to act on it. There was yeast in his imagination, as there is in nightmares. The effect was often that two or more swollen or stretched views were combined while giving the impression that the picture was one landscape painted from direct observation.

Industrial Landscape, 1973

He would sit in a car, watching.  All over England, people park cars at strategic high points and sit looking at extensive views as though the act of looking is somehow self-justifying. The separateness of a view emphasizes your own impotence. There is little you can do with a view except to stare at it. Beginning in 1965, Burra was driven on regular car journeys around England by his sister Anne. It was she who chose where to stop. They went to empty places where he could see a long way, in East Anglia, on the Yorkshire moors and in the Welsh borders. He sat wherever she chose and watched impassively from lay-bys, just as he had watched human antics through the fumes of nightclubs, memorizing the faces of waiters so that a long time later he could make accurate and compelling pictures from what he had seen.

Landscape, Dartmoor

Was it disenchantment with people that led him repeatedly to paint these empty places, or a fascinated disenchantment with the places themselves?   He seemed to dread them.  They swell, stretch, curve, crease. Bruised clouds stack over them and break open. Floods and fields make their puddles of watercolour. Trees are abruptly lit up in negative as if by a nuclear blast. Rock outcrops are swollen with disease. Chasms dwarf. Bile-yellow and a punishing green can hardly contain themselves. […] Imagine a purple cabbage cut crisply through in section: the curving, vivid edges and faultless intricate divisions are the vegetable shapes in Burra’s landscapes, perfectly adapted to watercolour. But what gives the pictures their emotional potency is their raking depth to the horizon, their roller-coaster perspective.

In the Lake District, Number 2, 1973

I suppose it was always a long way down one of his bars, but by 1960 he could do almost anything with perspective.   Perspective became his longest suit. Romney Marsh may have given him the idea but he found countless ways of extending it. Railway tracks, motorways, dikes and lines of pylons cut directly up his designs from bottom to top. They sink into dead ground and reappear climbing distant slopes. They go over ridge after ridge and still the atmosphere is clear enough to see them plainly. Lines go up his pictures like thermometers rising. Roads bolt upwards to the horizon as though making for a very distant burrow.


The landscape is empty because the traffic never stops. The pitiless, remorseless, nose-to-tail traffic; the mobile junkyard of half-human lorries which, snorting their own fumes and grimacing with effort, breast the hills to transport graffiti across intersections and over viaducts until the world is deaf and dumb and all the countryside shaken to bits.

English Country Scene I, c.1970

These machines can turn on each other, earthmovers bite bits out of one another with metal jaws, dog eat dog, and only the half-crazed Bank-Holiday pillion-rider, hair flying, cutting through the traffic, can be seen to be almost entirely human. […]

Picking a Quarrel, 1968

No one would venture willingly off the road into the unholy places where he sometimes shows an isolated figure. A faceless figure, darkened by a trick of the light under leafless trees, is digging a grave or working an allotment.

I cannot see their faces. . .
the knobs of their ankles
catch the moonlight as they pass the stile
and cross the moor among skeletons of bog oak
following the track from the gallows back to the town
– Louis MacNeice.

The Allotments, 1962-3

The only traffic on a forlorn path through a graveyard of boulders (in Connemara) is a figure, the same figure like Death, hooded by an army blanket, repeated three times as though at different stages on its journey. None of the three will ever catch its other selves up, separated by the landscape and by time, its furthest self already distant, moving as surely towards the horizon as the reddleman on the heath. How effortlessly the landscape outlives the traveller! The heart has rotted out of the trees, out of the figures and out of the views themselves.

Connemara, 1962-3

Views across chalk Downs to factory chimneys in Sussex; the Weald seen from above, bulging like the bottom of a boy scout on a bicycle; the cloisonne pattern of Cornish fields broken off by the sea; Dartmoor ready to murder lost hikers; the Lake District with its knees up under the wet viridian blanket; an industrial town itching the lap of a valley; the scarred high places of Yorkshire and Northumberland; hills in Snowdonia like the stockinged heads of criminals; the Wye Valley in a vast gesture parodying Wordsworth and the Sublime. Everywhere there are the giant teeth of broken viaducts, dizzy quarries, white cauliflowers of smoke. Who will give you sixpence for a cup of tea, a cup of comfort, in such a landscape, where the insane traffic throws grit in the face of the receding hitch-hiker and all the meadow plants are poisonous?

Wye Valley

No one has made a more convincing case than Burra against finer feelings in landscape. Even the traffic must have seemed to him to have an energy which he lacked. He watched the countryside as though craving extremes, and painted it as though something terrible were about to happen. Depicting people or depicting landscape, he was a kind of voyeur. About mountains and valleys he made sharp, exaggerated comment. He put round malicious rumours about places so that we see them in a new way. But an imaginative truth always stands for a real truth, and if he played up the awesome, the flawed and threatening, we can see the accuracy of it sticking up through the pelt of fields and moors whenever we look.

Asked about the meaning of his landscape paintings, he gave a version of the reply which I suspect he often used. He simply said: ‘Call in a psychiatrist.’ With his air of subversion he made isolation a virtue. In some ways we are over-civilized. We are surrounded by, and constantly react to, art that insulates us against real feeling.  That includes an easy view of landscape. In its place, Burra shows us a distraught countryside, never limited by its usual benign appearance,  in the hope that we may be unsettled enough to have some feelings of our own.

When he was young he was sent by his mother to London to have his spleen attended to. Instead of going to the doctor he thought of a slightly different kind of operation – more spirited, less useful – and had himself tattooed. His attitude to landscape was very like that. He saw and painted the related but utterly unobvious; and only artists and children have the imagination and courage to do that.

Black Mountain 1968 (detail)

I also came across an article by Adrian Hamilton in The Independent which contained this observation on the late landscapes:

In later life, Burra turned more and more to landscapes. To some, these are the most beautiful – and most serene – works of his career as he turns away from man to nature. They are certainly majestic, done back in Burra’s Rye home after regular tours around the country, when he was driven by his sister. But they are also bleak in mood, as the vanishing point so beloved by the artist leads the eye through virtually treeless landscapes into infinity. Whenever man appears it is as a despoiler of the land, as in Picking a Quarrel of 1968, or as pale ghosts in Sugar Beet, East Anglia of 1973 or cowled black spirits in Black Mountain, from 1968. Burra has a particular hatred of Esso and Shell, whose emblems appear in his most aggressive works.

Billy Chappell recalled car trips with Burra and his sister Anne:

It fascinated me to watch Edward when the car halted by some especially splendid spread of hills, moorland, and deep valleys. He sat very still and his face appeared impassive. He might, I thought, have been staring at a blank wall, until I saw the intensity of his gaze.

Cornish Landscape With Figures and Tin Mine, 1975

One painting which was in the Chichester exhibition, but not included at Nottingham is Cornish Landscape With Figures and  Tin Mine.  This landscape is inspired by the ruined mine workings in Western Cornwall. The two tattooed figures were based on photographs in a French book called Les Tatouages du Milieu by Jacques Delarue and Robert Giraud. Burra himself had a tattoo done in 1928 of an oriental head with a knife through it. The man in a striped coat who appears twice was seen by Burra in a pub in Penzance, while the doleful figure eating a Cornish pasty with crippled hands is a self-portrait.

An English Country Scene II, 1970

Another painting not on show at Nottingham is this watercolour, based on the landscape near Buxton (it looks like it could be the Cat and Fiddle road between Macclesfield and Buxton).  Burra visited the area with his sister Anne in July 1969. He was unafraid of showing man’s impact on the natural landscape, and records the traffic-clogged roads snaking around the hills, giving the lorries and vehicles animalistic characteristics.

A View at Cornwall

See also

British Masters: In search of England

British Masters: In search of England

What a dispiriting programme this was, the second in the British Masters series presented by James Fox. It offered a survey of British art in the inter-war years, an interesting period in British art when artists were facing up to challenging  continental currents in artistic expression, and responding to the aftermath of the War, growing social distress and intensified class conflict.

But, as in last week’s episode, Fox dealt in elision and hyperbole, determined to shoehorn glimpses of artists and their work into his argument that British artists collectively came to define what it meant to be British – to such a degree, he implied, that they helped Britain win the Second World War:

It was their paintings together that gave us a vision of the England that we were fighting for. In an age of anxiety, artists helped Britain find itself again.  In their paintings they remembered a country to which we could escape; they invented a country that all of us could love. And in the shadow of a new war, they forged a country for which all of us could fight.

While it is true that an argument can be made that artists such as John Nash, Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravilious and others helped define an image of England in the public mind, this largely came about as a result of a phenomenon not mentioned by Fox – the outstanding and iconic images  produced for Shell and London Transport posters by these artists and others during the 1930s. Here is a selection:


Graham Sutherland

A Staurt-Hill

Paul Nash

Vanessa Bell

Edward McKnight Kauffer

Eric Ravilious produced a series of acclaimed woodcuts for London Transport, and although Train Landscape (above) was not used as a poster, it might have been.

The image chosen to open and close the episode – The Cornfield by John Nash (top) was painted as a response to war, though not, as Fox implied, the Second World War.  John Nash and his brother Paul had served at the Western Front in the Great War. On their return to England, they rented a studio in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, where John painted The Cornfield, a poignant contrast to the brothers’ paintings of devastation and death at the front they were working on as commissions at the same time.  John later said that they used to paint for their own pleasure only after six o’clock, when their work as war artists was over for the day. This explains the long shadows cast by the evening sun across the  golden field of corn that is the focus of the painting.   John Burnside’s wrote a beautiful meditation on The Cornfield for the Tate blog:

Nothing is as it was
in childhood, when we had to learn the names
of objects and colours,

and yet the eye can navigate a field,
loving the way a random stook of corn
is orphaned
– not by shadows; not by light –

but softly, like the tinder in a children’s
story-book, the stalled world raised to life
around a spark: that tenderness in presence,

pale as the flame a sniper waits to catch
across the yards of razor-wire and ditching;
thin as the light that falls from chapel doors,

so everything, it seems,
is resurrected;
not for a moment, not in the sway of the now,

but always,
as the evening we can see
is all the others, all of history:

the man climbing up from the tomb
in a mantle of sulphur,

the struck match whiting his hands
in a blister of light.

In the last four stanzas it’s as if Burnside has moved on to contemplate another painting discussed by Fox in the programme – Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection, Cookham (below).

After the usual tour of Cookham and the details of Resurrection, Fox quickly moved on to consider Spencer’s sex life, spending some time poring over Double Nude Portrait- The Artist with His Second Wife and what it tells us about his two marriages. Fascinating, perhaps, but more pertinent to Fox’s thesis about artists contributing to a sense of national unity during wartime would have been the eight panels he painted while working as a war artist at Lithgows Shipyard in Port Glasgow, on the Clyde in 1940.

These works seem much more relevant to the question of how British people saw themselves in relation to the war effort.  Spencer depicts an egalitarian working environment, one operating through co-operation and co-ordination. There are no foremen. It’s a vision of a new social order and a challenge to the existing order, and articulates a mood that emerged during the war and was expressed ultimately in the Labour landslide in the 1945 election.

Perhaps Spencer’s complicated sex life was the sort of thing that Fox was referring to in his blog on the BBC website when he wrote in advance of the series, ‘I promise you that there will be some jaw-dropping stories’.  Or perhaps it was the story of the obnoxious president  of the Royal Academy and painter of endless horse portraits, Sir Alfred Munnings, getting pissed before making a speech in the presence of Winston Churchill in which he savaged modernists. But Dr Fox loves Munnings – he, too, helped define true Englishness.

The final work that Fox considered was John Piper’s Interior, Coventry Cathedral (below), painted in the immediate aftermath of the German bombing raid on the city on 14 November 1940. For the 12 hours German bombers laid waste to the city below, destroying thousands of buildings and killing hundreds of civilians.  Early the following morning, Piper, an official war artist, painted the aftermath of the attack.

James Fox said of the painting:

It shows the city’s great medieval cathedral in ruins. The roof has collapsed, the windows are smashed, and the rubble is still smouldering.  It was a metaphor for the entire British nation as it teetered on the brink of annihilation. In the darkest hour of World War 2, the public actually saw it as an image of defiance. Because in the face of all that terrible destruction, those old English walls are standing firm. And if a building won’t give up, neither will the people.

The story is a good one, and the contextualisation was appropriate.  But surely, in a series about art, there should be more of a focus on the art itself?  What makes this a great piece of art – apart from the circumstances of its creation?  How does it relate to Piper’s other work and his artistic strategies?  This is not a new complaint about art documentaries on TV,  and the response is usually along the lines of: to attract and hold an audience it’s necessary to focus on drama and personalities, rather than abstractions. And there isn’t time to go into all the twists and turns of art movements.

But how long would it take to outline the role that artists like Paul Nash or John Piper played at this time in creating something new – a blend of abstraction and an older tradition of landscape painting to produce an approach that was distinctively British?  Surely that is an interesting story – not the fanciful idea that they helped win the Second World War?

It’s a story that Alexandra Harris tells in her prize-winning book Romantic Moderns. She writes that ‘Piper is so well-known today for his romantic vision of churches and country houses that it can be difficult to imagine him as a leader of the abstract movement’. In Breakwaters at Seaford (1937, below), jetties and waves are inked ‘with calligraphic sketchiness’ and paper is torn and ripped, leaving raw edges exposed, to evoke a sense of winter wind and waves.

A painting like this that is part-collage reveals the influence on Piper of the Cubist practice (Braque, for instance) of pasting pieces of paper, newsprint and so on into a painting.  This can be seen clearly in Beach with Starfish (below).
But, says Harris, ‘whereas Braque and Picasso made their collages indoors, arranging wallpapers and veneers with infinite deliberation to signify tables, bottles, and guitars, Piper sat outside with a board on his knees, opening his work to nature and to chance’.

Piper crystallised his ideas in an essay, ‘Abstraction on the Beach’, in which he argued that ‘abstraction is a luxury’ – and as old as the hills.  He wrote that,

The early Christian sculptors, wall-painters and glass-painters had a sensible attitude towards abstraction. However hard one tries … one cannot catch them out indulging in pure abstraction. Their abstraction, such as it is, is always subservient to an end – the Christian end, as it happened.  Abstraction is a luxury that has been left to the present day to exploit It is a luxury just as any single ideal is, and like a single ideal it should be approached all the time, but not pre-supposed all the time. To pre-suppose it always, if you are a painter is to paint the same picture always: or else to give up painting altogether because there is nothing left to paint….

Piper was determined to renew the connection between art and life, that would look for the sacred in ordinary, local things.On the beach, for example:

At the edge of the sea, sand. Then, unwashed by the waves at low tide, grey-blue shingle against the warm brown sand: an intense contradiction in colour, in the same tone, on the same plane. Fringing this, dark seaweed, an irregular litter of it, with a jagged edge towards the sea broken here and there by washed-up objects; boxes, tins, waterlogged sand shoes, banana skins, starfish, cuttlefish, dead seagulls, sides of boxes with THIS SIDE UP on them, fragments of sea-chewed linoleum with a washed-out pattern. This line of magnificent wreckage vanishes out of sight in the distance, but it is a continous line that girdles England, and can be seen reappearing on the skyline in the other direction along this flat beach. Behind this rich and constricting belt against the sand dunes there is drier sand, sparser shingle, unwashed even at high tides, with dirty banana skins now and sides of boxes with the THIS SIDE UP almost unreadable. That, in whatever direction you look, is a subject worthy of contemporary painting. Pure abstraction is undernourished. It should at least be allowed to feed bare on a beach with tins and broken bottles.

This tension between nationalism and internationalism, between abstraction and the English landscape tradition, in British art of the period makes for an interesting story, and challenging questions. Has British art been at its best when drawing on influences from abroad? Or when it draws strength from native customs and traditions?

Paul Nash was a pioneer of modernism in Britain, promoting the avant-garde European styles of abstraction and Surrealism in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1933 he co-founded the influential modern art movement Unit One with fellow artists Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth (no mention of them by Fox), and the critic Herbert Read. It was a short-lived but important move towards the revitalisation of English art in the inter-war period.  But then, in Axis, England’s most adventurous art magazine at the time, Paul Nash expressed his desire to be a modernist while still working in a native tradition:

Whether it is possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British’ is a question vexing quite a few people today […] The battle lines have been drawn up: internationalism versus an indigenous culture; renovation versus conservatism; the industrial versus the pastoral; the functional versus the futile.

He explained why he was ‘For, but Not With’ the abstract painters, able to appreciate abstraction, but ultimately more satisfied by nature: by stones and leaves, trees and waves.  Nash wanted to create a national identity for modern art, and began by exploring the coastline of Dorset, its cliffs studded with fossils, and the chalk downland marked by paths like mysterious engravings on the land.

Nash was a member of the English Surrealist movement, and his greatest paintings were symbolic representations of specific landscapes – the Dorset coast (above), the ancient stone circle at Avebury in Wiltshire, and of other ancient sites in England including Wittemham Clumps (below).  The Clumps – the two dome-shaped hills topped by a thick clump of trees – had been familiar to Nash since spending family holidays nearby from 1909. He painted the Clumps in a series of dream-like works, three of which present the vernal (or spring) equinox, with the sun and moon depicted simultaneously in the sky.

Like Piper, Nash wanted to reconcile modernity with Britishness. Having tried abstraction, he returned to painting of natural forms – stones, leaves and trees. Although he greatly admired (and in many cases rubbed shoulders with) Picasso, Max Ernst, Magritte and other modernists, he continued to find inspiration in nature and the British landscape. He saw himself in the tradition of English mystical painters such as William Blake and Samuel Palmer.

The 1935 painting Equivalents for the Megaliths (above) shows Nash working in both traditions – juxtaposing avant-garde with the mystical spirit of a place in the English landscape. Near the horizon a hill-fort or barrow is visible, while dominating the foreground are his equivalents for the megaliths, the Avebury standing stones.  Assembled in a cornfield are the powerful geometric forms of a gridded screen, standing and lying cylinders, and a steel-grey girder.  Alexandra Harris explains that equivalents was a word that Roger Fry ‘often used to explain the goal of non-representational art, arguing that instead of mimicking the world the picture must be allowed to make its own, equivalent, reality’.

Nash was not the only artist ‘worried that they might be heading for … abstract oblivion’. Another was Ivon Hitchens.  For Hitchens, the landscape was important as ‘a peg on which to hang a painting’. In other words,he wanted to paint something more than the landscape in front of him. After his house was bombed in 1940, Hitchens moved to a patch of woodland near Petworth in Sussex, living at first in a caravan. Here, using just patches of colour and brush strokes, he created landscapes (below) with a sense of movement, depth and space.

Eric Ravilious followed a similar path, working to create a traditional, non-chauvinistic sort of Englishness, and became one of the best-known artists of the 1930s.  Inspired by the landscape of the South Downs, his paintings featured, in his words, ‘lighthouses, rowing-boats, beds, beaches, greenhouses’.  Some dismissed Ravilious’s art as cosy or parochial, but he was a masterful watercolourist whose paintings are never merely pretty. They reveal the same complicated relationship with modernism as the work of Nash or Sutherland. ‘I like definite shapes’, he wrote, and his landscapes approach the abstract with their flat planes and hard lines and patterns.

A far less well-known painter in the inter-war years was David Bomberg.  He had studied at the Slade alongside Stanley Spencer and C.R.W. Nevinson and in his early work had been greatly influenced by cubism.  But in the post-war years his work, too, became increasingly dominated by landscapes drawn from nature that combined abstract, expressionist forms with naturalism.  During and shortly after the Second World War he spent time in Cornwall, where he painted Tregor and Tregoff (below).

In 1944 he painted Evening in the City of London, which, like Piper’s painting of the bombed-out Coventry Cathedral, seemed to express optimism through its strong blocks of warm colour. It has been described as the ‘most moving of all paintings of wartime Britain’.  Bomberg once said: ‘I want to translate the life of a great city … into art that shall not be photographic, but expressive’. Andrew Graham Dixon writes:

Like many another wartime Londoner, Bomberg was struck by the seemingly miraculous way in which Christopher Wren’s great cathedral of St Paul’s had survived the incessant bombing attacks of the Nazis. He took care to show the cathedral from a distance, framed by the desolation around it. According to the artist’s wife, Lilian Bomberg, “He got permission to climb to the top of a church, in Cheapside, I think, and painted St Paul’s from its east side.” The church in question was probably St Bride’s. Access to public buildings deemed to be prime targets for enemy attack was severely restricted.

The tension between realism and abstraction can also be seen in the work of Henry Moore. In his sculpture he had moved steadily from classicism to abstraction and his work became a target for the popular press.  When his abstract Mother and Child in stone was put on display in a front garden in Hampstead, the work proved controversial with local residents and the local press ran a campaign against the piece for two years.

Yet the Shelter Drawings, created by Moore after he was commissioned as an official war artist, transformed his reputation. Along with the coalmining drawings also produced during the war, they transformed miners and London’s working class sheltering in the Underground into heroic figures, stoic and quietly determined.

James Fox touched on the two traditions of painting and photography that mingled from the 1930s onwards. There was often collaboration between photographers and documentary film-makers – such as Humphrey Spender, Bill Brandt and John Grierson – and painters, including Stanley Spencer, and the example Fox chose, William Coldstream.

I didn’t find the Coldstream images especially interesting (Fox observed that his early work was ‘rather pedestrian’, but I love the photos that Spender took in 1937-38, when he went to Bolton on behalf of Mass Observation, the ‘fact-finding body’ set up by Humphrey Jennings and Tom Harrison to document the lives of ordinary British people. As Spender saw it, his role as photographer was to provide visual “information” to complement the written accounts.  This is his famous ‘Washing Line’ shot:

James Fox mentioned how Bill Brandt was photographing the Sitwells at Renishaw Hall at the same time as John Piper was painting the great house.  Brandt photographed people in all kinds of circumstances in the 1930s:

Finally, what about some art produced by people at the other end of the social scale to the likes of Piper, Spencer or Nash?  The Ashington group consisted of Northumberland miners who first came together in 1934 through the Workers Education Association to study ‘something different’ – art appreciation. In an effort to understand what it was all about, their tutor Robert Lyon encouraged them to learn by doing it themselves.

The images that the group produced were fascinating and  captured every aspect of life in and around their mining community – above and below ground, from scenes around the kitchen table and on their allotments, to the dangerous and dirty world of the coal face.  Was this the England for which James Fox was searching?

Leslie Brownrigg – The Miner, c.1935

Harry Wilson – Committee Meeting, c.1937

George Blessed – Whippets

Fred Laidler – Fish and Chips