Soft Estate: an inaccessible wilderness, mundane and sublime

Soft Estate: an inaccessible wilderness, mundane and sublime

Edward Chell, Eclipse, Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus Repens)

Edward Chell, Eclipse, Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus Repens)

I’ve been to see the current exhibition at Liverpool’s Bluecoat Arts Centre.  Called Soft Estate, the title derives from a term used by the Highways Agency to describe the natural habitats that have evolved along the edges of motorways and trunk roads and which offer a refuge for wildlife and a modern form of wilderness in the midst of intense urbanisation and agro-chemical farming. The exhibition displays work by artists fascinated by the ‘edgelands’ – those familiar yet ignored spaces that are neither city nor countryside. Their works, like a walk through the edgelands, juxtapose beauty and pollution, wilderness and human despoliation.

The main focus of the exhibition is on the work of artist and academic Edward Chell who investigates contemporary motorway landscapes – quintessential examples of the edgelands, lovingly described in the book by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness (in a related event on 6 February the two poets will be discussing the book and reading their work).

Edward Chell, M2, Medway services eastbound, 2008

Edward Chell, M2, Medway services eastbound, 2008

In the first room are recent examples of Edward Chell’s recent work that take the form of large, almost ghostly paintings in cream and grey.  They look like that because Chell has incorporated into their making road dust.  They have titles like Motorway Intersection, 2010 and Motorway Island, M62, J3, 2013 – because they are the places explored by Chell (with official permission and wearing a fluorescent jacket) before being portrayed in these large works that depict flourishing grasses and wildflowers with the hard surfaces of the motorway visible beyond. They have been described as combining ‘bleak nostalgia and dirty romanticism’.

Chell has spoken of motorway verges as ‘strangely forbidden zones, Ballardian spaces’:

You’re not allowed to stop there – if you do you’ll be picked up by the police within ten minutes! These are amazing landscapes – full of wildflowers – just really beautiful. Motorways are extremely hard and loud and dangerous, and yet, running alongside them we have these pesticide – free strips which offer us one of the few ‘wilderness’ places in England. There’s something like forty thousand hectares of this land – it’s been described as Britain’s largest unofficial nature reserve.

In an essay entitled The Garden of England, Chell explained how he came to be inspired to explore motorway verges:

I regularly drive from London to Canterbury and back and have done so for the last twelve years. This journey to my workplace in Canterbury takes me down the A2/M2, driving through the middle of what King Henry VIII described as ‘The Garden of England’. My experience of gardens is as quite places of stillness and reflection. The motorway greenery by contrast fizzes rapidly past the windscreen of the car, punctuated by familiar landmarks, signs and intersections. Other people leave and join in ordered succession while the familiar places just pass by, rapidly recede then dissolve in the rear view mirror.

One day, while waiting in a traffic jam I suddenly became aware of how still and vibrant the wildflower ‘meadow’ of the verge actually was. The banks were a varied and lush carpet of greens, broken intermittently by small shrubs, swaying flower heads and the clicks and buzzing of insects. These motorway embankments, which are seemingly part of the despoliation of the landscape, in fact act as biological corridors for some endangered wildflowers and valuable zones free of chemical pest control. This encounter triggered a realization of how these green spaces could act as a primer for minimally painted landscapes which speak of the disjunction between the man made and the natural environment.

These paintings allow us to glimpse a place rich and alive with wildlife, evoked by Chell as one of restful stillness. he makes us aware just how separated and isolated we are from these wild landscapes that we hurtle past in our vehicles. ‘There is a dystopic separation from the land immediately around us’, Chell has remarked, while in Edgelands Farley and Symmons-Roberts speak of Chell being drawn to ‘its inaccessible wilderness, mundane and sublime in its infinity’, a wilderness ‘as difficult to reach as sea cliffs’.

Edward Chell, Eclipse

Edward Chell, Eclipse

In another room I find Eclipse, a series of 60 silhouette paintings of plants and weeds that inhabit the roadside verges, painted on shellac in a way that brings to mind 18th century silhouette portraits of loved ones carried in lockets.

Edward Chell Eclipse 1

Edward Chell Eclipse 2

Here are plants with wonderfully evocative names: from Angelica, Bindweed and Buddleia  via Dandelion, Fat Hen and Freverfew, to Tansy and Teasel, Wood Anenome and Wood Groundsel, to Yellow Rocket.

Edward Chell Eclipse 3

Edward Chell Eclipse 4

Edward Chell Eclipse 5

One commentator has contrasted the way in which Chell’s work recalls the rational, scientific impulse to record and classify the natural world according to Linnaean rules with the ‘fragile, fugitive, ever-shifting ecosystems on which our existence depends’; or as Chell puts it:

For me these present a fascinating paradox – the motorway network presents a nightmarish vision of the asphalting of our green and pleasant land, but the roadside habitats also amount to an unofficial national nature reserve.

George Shaw. The Gamble

George Shaw, The Gamble, 2012

I’ve written here several times of my admiration for the work of George Shaw, familiar with his paintings – executed in Humbrol model paint – that speak  expressively of the landscapes through which we hurry each day, their elements so familiar that they become almost invisible to us.  The Bluecoat exhibition doesn’t have any of those,  displaying instead a selection of lithographs that have the same subject – the ragged edges of the Tile Hill Estate in Coventry where Shaw grew up and which he explored in childhood expeditions. These are neglected no-place locations.  There’s a shed, abandoned amidst saplings that have grown up around it (The Birthday); the blank entrance to a pedestrian underpass (suggestively entitled The Gamble); and a lonely track through trees on the edge of the estate (The Other Side).

George Shaw. The Birthday

George Shaw, The Birthday

George Shaw - The Other Side

George Shaw, The Other Side

The black and white prints emphasise the contrast between areas of light and deep shadow which lend the works a sinister and ominous ambience. The uncanny atmosphere is heightened by the fact that all of Shaw’s scenes are devoid of human presence. This gives them a feeling that something is about to happen, or perhaps has just taken place.

Day Bowman, Weymouth Portland series

Day Bowman, Weymouth/Portland series, displayed during the b-side Festival,  Portland

Nothing else in the exhibition approaches the insight or achievement of these two artists.  Day Bowman’s work explores the landscapes of Weymouth and Portland that are, like the motorway verges in Edward Chell’s paintings,  passed through and ignored. These are landscapes that can be found on the edges of any city, seen in fleeting glimpses from a car or train window or a departing ferry where quay, wharfs and rusting hulks loom large.  During the Olympic Games, as part of the 2012 b-side Festival in Portland, Bowman’s work appeared on advertising  hoardings placed on the approach  to Weymouth Station.

Laura Oldfield Ford M6 Junction 9

Laura Oldfield Ford, M6 Junction 9, Bescot6, 2011

Laura Oldfield Ford’s drawings on watercolour paper, made in pencil and chalk with acrylic ink additions, represent, in her own words, an ‘investigation into the marginal, a process of burrowing under the heritage version of England to uncover the repressed psyche of a land’.  The works on show here depict the urban wasteland beneath and around the M6 as it has sliced its way through Walsall in the Midlands.  Her work is displayed near to photographs by John Darwell, going under the series title of An Alloted Space, that depict scenes on urban allotments.  I could see nothing special or significant about these at all.

Hind Land

Tim Bowd and Nick Rochowski, Hind Land

All this time I had been exploring the ground floor areas of the exhibition, with the monotonous roar of the motorway ever-present.  Ascending the stars to the first floor it became apparent that what I had been hearing was the sondtrack to a projection and sound installation by Tim Bowd and Nick Rochowski called Hind Land, the result of the two photographers surveying the pedestrian walkways beneath London’s Orbital M25 motorway.  Locating points at which you can pass underneath the motorway on foot, they became fascinated by the voids left by the motorway as it carves through the landscape. The motorway, they say, ‘divides the countryside in two, leaving a visible and audible rip in the environment above the ground, and a no-man’s land beneath’.

No Way Out

Jan Williamson and Chris Teasdale (The Caravan Gallery), No Way Out, Thurrock, 2011

At the top of the stairs was a photographic print by Jan Williamson and Chris Teasdale called No Way Out, Thurrock which I found an amusing commentary on consumerism (as George Monbiot wryly comments in the Guardian this morning, ‘Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores’).

Williamson and Teasdale are an artist partnership ‘interested in recording the reality and surreality of everyday life’.  They specialise in photographic essays which explore sense of place from a psychogeographic perspective and exhibit in their a mobile Caravan Gallery, as well as in galleries, empty shops and temporary spaces. Their Pride of Place Project aims to create thought-provoking exhibitions in collaboration with local communities.  Much of 2013 was devoted to Merseyside, with an exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool.

Edward Chell Creeping Buttercup

Edward Chell, Creeping Buttercup

The final display of this exhibition once again showcases work by Edward Chell: a series of screenprints of wasteland plants that have been painted in oil and ‘micro-particulate matter’ or, as we might say, roadside dust.

Edward Chell Songbird

Edward Chell, Songbird, 2011

Finally there was Chell’s Songbird, looking like a motorway sign with words from a poem, ‘This Time of Night’, by Liverpool poet Andrew Taylor in white sans serif lettering on a blue background.

In an essay in the exhibition catalogue, Richard Mabey writes of how ‘nature’s irrepressible inventiveness – those wild, stretching limbs – invades the tidy plans of the architects’:

The un-treed stretches of motorway verges, apart from occasional scrub clearance and mowing for safety purposes, are pretty much allowed to develop as they will, and have turned into a great estate of feral grassland. A botanical survey of the M1 verges in 1970, ten years after it opened, found 185 species of plant had arrived of their own accord. In the following year, a colony of native columbines was destroyed during work on the extension of the M1 in Nottingham shire. Luckily the county naturalists’ trust had the foresight to collect seeds before the bulldozers arrived, and, with some poetic justice, got permission to grow them on in the grounds of a motorway maintenance depot. Later in the year the mature plants were transplanted to the motorway verges as close to the original site as possible. They are still there.

Mabey gives examples of the varied organisms whose habitats the motorways invaded but which have now become ‘part of the foreground of the motorway landscape’ – huge drifts of cowslips on the M4, Michaelmas daisies and golden rod, red kites, buzzards, rooks:

But it is a plant that provides a perfect parable of the motorways’ wild landscapes. it knits the traveller’s need for colour and structure at speed, and the opportunism of nature when faced with new, anthropocentric habitats. In the mid 1980s, colonies of a scarce coastal plant, Danish scurvy grass, began to appear along the edges of motorways and major roads, especially in the prophetically named ‘central reservations’. It’s a modest member of the cabbage family, but in late March these roadside colonies become so dense in places that they resemble a layer of deep and persistent frost. … Today there is scarcely a large road without it.

The only inland region it has failed to colonise is Ireland, despite the species being native to Irish shores. What is different about Irish roads is that no salt is added to the winter grit. There are many reasons for the plant’s spread throughout the UK road system – the turbulent slipstream of traffic whirling the seeds along; the similarity between its native strandline habitat and the stone edges of the road. But there is little doubt that the major factor is the saltiness of the modern road – that shoreline tang sprayed from gritting lorries on icy evenings even in the landlocked heart of Britain. Seen close to, Danish scurvy grass is an undistinguished plant. Streamed by at speed, it is a ribbon of dazzling white at the motorway’s grey edge, a traveller’s joy. I call it wayfrost.

Bluecoat preview of Soft Estate

See also

Nocturne: prettiness in a face-off with edgelands grit

Nocturne: prettiness in a face-off with edgelands grit

Atkinson Grimshaw, Tree Shadows in the Park Wall, Roundhay, Leeds, 1872

Atkinson Grimshaw, Tree Shadows in the Park Wall, Roundhay, Leeds, 1872

One final report from Leeds Art Gallery.  After the Nicholsons in Art and Life and Stanley Spencer on the stairs we had a look at a small display entitled Nocturne. Built around three of four Atkinson Grimshaws from their permanent collection, the curators have added a handful of paintings that illuminate the way in which artists have been drawn to the crepuscular, or as their guide puts it:

We have traditionally feared the night and wanted to lighten the darkness, but for artists it has also been a zone of uncertainty to capture in painted form.

In the room that houses the display, the ‘moonlights’ painted by Leeds artist Atkinson Grimshaw face on the opposite wall two large paintings by the Turner-prize nominee George Shaw: prettiness and delicacy in a stand-off with edgelands grittiness. Two quite different artists, each of them masters of their chosen technique, whose works are atmospheric, evocative and haunting.

Atkinson Grimshaw, Nightfall Down the Thames

Atkinson Grimshaw, Nightfall Down the Thames, 1880

John Atkinson Grimshaw was born in Leeds and, in 1861 at the age of 24, and opposed by his parents, he abandoned his job as a clerk for the Great Northern Railway to pursue a career in art. Gradually, Grimshaw developed his own highly distinctive style and subject matter. He became a consummate painter of twilight, night time and autumnal scenes.

Atkinson Grimshaw, Snow and Mist

Atkinson Grimshaw, Snow and Mist (Caprice in Yellow Minor), 1893

A couple of years ago we saw an excellent retrospective of Grimshaw’s work in Harrogate.  One of the most strking works there was Snow and Mist: Caprice in Yellow Minor and I was pleased to encounter it again here. It was painted sometime in the last year of Grimshaw’s life. Both the technique and the title reflect the impact that Whistler had made on the artist.  In her memoir, Grimshaw’s daughter Elaine described how just before he became fatally ill with cancer, her father had continued to experiment with light and colour:

Only the winter before, he had experimented with snow pictures; a farmer trailing homewards across his snowy acres: one could feel the cold, the loneliness with his cattle safe and warm in their byres.  We must not trample and mar the crystalline beauty of the snowy paths near the house.  He even studied the texture of salt, as we piled it higher in   the salt-cellars.  Then he turned back to his moonlit wet lanes and streets, painting, painting, painting, all day, pictures to sell now and after he was gone.

George Shaw, The End of Time, 2008-9

George Shaw, The End of Time, 2008-9

Both of the George Shaw paintings depict something that is not there.  The End of Time and The Next Big Thing depict sites where pubs once stood on the Coventry estate where Shaw grew up.  Both are, like the subjects of Grimshaw’s paintings, observed at dusk, when the light has almost gone.

In The End of Time, Shaw has painted the site of the Woodsman, the local pub on the estate. Years earlier, when when it was known as The New Star, his mother worked there and his father had the odd drink there. Shaw himself recalls it as being post-war British modern — ‘which is a longer way of saying it was shite’.  He doesn’t know why it was renamed Woodsman but suspects it was a marketing gamble. However it soon caught fire and was later demolished.

Oh so I drank one
or was it four
and when I fell on the floor..
…I drank more
stop me, stop me
stop me if you think that you’ve
heard this one before
nothing’s changed
I still love you
I still love you
but only slightly
less than I used to

— ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’, The Smiths

Sean O’Hagan writing in 2011 in the Guardian, spoke of ‘the dark undertone of Shaw’s work – time, transience, the inevitability of death’ and noted that his work

Places him very much in a English realist tradition, though one defined more by certain matter-of-fact writers – Larkin, the Orwell of Coming Up for Air and The Road to Wigan Pier – and certain essentially English popular songwriters: vintage Ray Davies, early Paul Weller, Morrissey at his most Mancunian. “I’m a child of the classic pop song and classic sitcom,” he says, chuckling. “I explore within a painterly tradition what usually gets explored though TV drama or music. I’ve thought about this a lot and, like most things in Britain, it’s to do with class. It’s like when I went down to London as a teenager to visit the National Gallery or the Tate: as much as I loved a lot of the work, I never felt it reflected anything of my life back to me. But, when I went into Woolworths and listened to the latest single by the Jam or the Specials, I heard my life reflected back loud and clear, and with all its tensions and uncertainties. There was always this opposition being put up: art was not about my life, whereas pop culture was. And, I didn’t like that opposition, still don’t, even though in a way I still work out of it.

George Shaw, The Next Big Thing, 2010

The Next Big Thing is a view of the place where The Hawthorne Tree used to be, the pub which George says he knew ‘too well’. It was in the Hawthorne that George and his father had a drink shortly before his father died. The irony is in the title – as if Shaw, contemplating what might replace the Hawthorne Tree, has decided that the next big thing will be more of the same old crap; that whatever replace the demolished pub will, in the fullness of time, become a ruin itself.

Memory becomes as unreliable as forgetting. Reality lacks the poetry of melting into air. The familiar falls beyond use and lies in the way. I carry within myself an older man. His illness slows me, his dried mouth robs me of speech, his amnesia forces me to live in the today. But after all this I still cannot come to terms with the simple fact that life slips away and time is called everywhere everyday. What some may call a subject or an idea or an answer to the question what is your work about? is only an act of holding on.
– George Shaw

See also

The Edgelands: a zone of wild, mysterious beauty

The Edgelands: a zone of wild, mysterious beauty

Laura Gale, Underneath the M5

Laura Gale, Underneath the M5

You come across all kinds of stuff in the edgelands – mouldering leftovers from past endeavours as well as shiny, new hopes.  The book by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, is like that, too – a bit of a jumble, but plenty that’s interesting and unexpected.

The book takes the form of around thirty short essays, each one sketching an aspect of the edgelands, from  Paths and Dens to Ruins and Woodlands, by way of Canals and Landfill. Organising their narrative this way, Farley and Roberts steer clear of the common form of landscape writing as an expedition or journey, though the accounts here are clearly based on many walks through edgeland territory, as well as childhood familiarity with the terrain. Instead they have presented us with a sort of gazetteer of generic types: paths, dens, landfill, ponds, sewerage, wire, bridges, ruins and woodlands – assorted topics, just like the motley objects that tend to accumulate in the tracts of ignored land that form the edgelands.

What, exactly, are these edgelands?  Robert Macfarlane provided one of the best descriptions, albeit in a review of the book that was not especially sympathetic:

The edgelands are the debatable space where city and countryside fray into one another. They comprise jittery, jumbled, broken ground: brownfield sites and utilities infrastructure, crackling substations and pallet depots, transit hubs and sewage farms, scrub forests and sluggish canals, allotments and retail parks, slackened regulatory frameworks and guerilla ecologies.

For the two poet-authors – both ‘edgelands comprehensive schoolchildren in the 1970s’ – the edgelands comprise a ‘zone of inattention’ in which all manner of interest and beauty thrive. They marvel at this ‘richly mysterious region in our midst’ and celebrate it as a ‘place of possibility, mystery, beauty’.  It’s a wilderness, yet so close to our urban centres and so familiar it is never seen, yet we see it all the time. Passed through, negotiated, unnamed, ignored, the edgelands have become the great wild places on our doorsteps, places so difficult to acknowledge they barely exist.

‘Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully-managed wilderness areas and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism’, say Farley and Roberts, ‘there are still places where an overlooked England truly exists; places where the city’s dirty secrets are laid bare and successive human utilities scar the earth or stand cheek by jowl with one another; complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard’.

The authors describe this as a book about ‘the blank spaces on the A-Z, the hinterlands of Britain that are not urban and not yet country’, the skuzzy, overlooked fringe of UK towns where homes end and motorways, business parks and Little Chefs reside. Sewage farms, disused mines, overgrown allotments and bridges daubed with florid graffiti are all grist to their mill. They once told an interviewer how the idea for the book came about:

It all began in the bar of a Premier Inn, somewhere on the edge of the Midlands. We had this idea to celebrate the vigour and diversity of these oh-so-familiar places, neither city nor country, wild or not wild, but the unnamed, ignored places which have a strange beauty all of their own. Research trips were planned to exotic locations – Swindon, Wolverhampton, Gateshead – staying in edgelands hotels, walking edgelands roads and talking to edgelands people.

The book – which I recall the pair reading extracts from a year ago on Radio 4’s Book of the Week – is a pleasure to read, with some essays, as you might expect from a couple of poets, bordering on the lyrical (though, sadly, although poems by others are quoted, Farley and Roberts offer none  of their own).  Some essays are more successful than others. There’s a feeling of the book running out of steam towards the end with accounts of retail parks, motels and golf ranges, weather stations and piers that seem less authentically edgeland. Canals, meanwhile, an edgeland essential if ever there was one, get a few short and somewhat limp pages.

Paul Farley spent his pre-school years just around the corner from where we have lived for thirty years:

The first house my parents lived in after I was born was on Ullet Road, near the Park. I have only the faintest memories of that house, and I’m not sure any of these are very reliable. My mum used to take me in my pram to the Palm House, and I really want to be able to recall this, but the story has taken on the shape of a memory. Then we moved round and lived just off Wavertree Road, in houses that backed onto the railway at Edge Hill. This area I do remember. It was overrun with mice. They ate my mum’s wedding cake! It must have been quite minty, but kids don’t really notice peeling wallpaper or mould. The trains shook past at night, and I loved it. All those streets were flattened and redeveloped years ago.

Then, towards the end of his primary school years, the family moved out to the edgelands of Netherley, one of those council estates built out in the fields on the edge of Liverpool in the 1960s.  This is how he described it in an article for Granta in 2008:

We all climbed into the back of this furniture van with our stuff, and were deposited a few miles away in a half-built place surrounded by fields and trees. Insects. Birds. I remember even the light seemed different. Everywhere smelt of newness: fresh-cut timber, putty, paint. But then over the coming months and years, the older city we’d moved from sort of grew and loomed in my imagination. I started to miss it, and as soon as I was old enough I’d jump on buses to revisit it. Similar kinds of things must have happened to kids all over the country, because most big English cities had housing clearance programmes like Liverpool’s.

Michael Symmons Roberts had a similar experience in Manchester, and the two writers begin Edgelands with this explanation of how the unique landscape of the urban fringe burrowed itself deep into their souls:

For a long while – an entire childhood, in fact – we wondered where the countryside actually was, or even if it really existed. Growing up on the edge of two cities – Liverpool and Manchester – in the early Seventies, it was easy enough to walk for a short while and soon find yourself lost in back lanes or waste ground; to follow the wooded perimeters of a golf course; an old path leading through scratchy shrubland, or the course of a drainage ditch. It was easy enough to find yourself on the edges of arable land; to follow the track bed of a dismantled railway or descend into an abandoned quarry. But none of this ever really felt like the countryside.

Anyone who has spent a childhood mooching around the fringes of four English towns and cities, where urban and rural negotiate and renegotiate their borders, might have come up with the word ‘edgelands’. If you know those places where overspill housing estates break into scrubland; wasteland. If you know this underdeveloped, unwatched territory, you know that they have ‘edge’. We might have come up with it ourselves, but geographer Marion Shoard got there first. Her writing on England’s edgelands; her call to arms, for poets and novelists to celebrate them and above all her naming of this ground, was the starting point for our study of these areas.

It was a landscape that entered my soul, too, growing up in a now-prosperous former coal-mining village in Cheshire. Poynton had been the centre of a small but thriving coal-mining industry from the 18th century until the mid 1930s.  As a kid in the 1950s I roamed freely through a classic edgelands landscape where farmers’ fields and woodland shaded imperceptibly into the ghostly industrial remains of mine-working machinery, railway tracks and slag heaps.

A favourite childhood haunt was ‘the Jigger’, a level path that was the remains of a railway spur that linked the collieries in Higher Poynton and Middlewood to the main line at Poynton station; straight and narrow and overgrown in places, it pushed past fields and through woodland.  The tracks were gone, but the path was littered with industrial remains: crumbling and overgrown brick buildings and shards of rusting metal machinery. For a child, it was an edgelands heaven.

‘Dens’ is one of the most evocatively successful essays in the book, also imbued with childhood memories. It opens with this vivid account of two makeshift dens:

Inside a large ditch overhung with whitethorn that marks the border between a few acres of unkempt meadow and the perimeter of a private golf course, a tepee-like vertical frame has been attempted using pliant elder branches, which in turn have been cross-woven then packed with grasses to disguise its presence; the floor inside has been carpeted with an offcut of ratty Axminster and the rubberised foot mats from an abandoned car; a red plastic milk crate, partially melted in one corner from the heat of a fire, serves as both chair and table, where a boy is studying a punished copy of Mayfair, pulled from a hedge full of empty vodka bottles in a lay-by.

A sheet of tarpaulin, stolen from a nearby lorry yard, has been used to insulate the inside of another hollow bramble hedge near a main road; the entry point is a crawlspace a few feet lower, hidden on the leeward side, and only the slimmest child can enter, beavers like, into its hidden space; a hole has been left in the crown of the construction to act as a chimney for the small fires that will kipper the clothes and hair of its occupants with woodsmoke; a few broken-down Golden Wonder cardboard boxes make a comfortable if slightly damp and spongy floor, where a boy has stripped down the spring-piston mechanism of a .22 air pistol.


The den: home of childhood memories

It was Marion Shoard who first coined the term edgelands to describe a terrain of ‘rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland’. This was in an essay ‘Edgelands‘ published in Remaking the Landscape in 2002:

Britain’s towns and cities do not usually sit cheek by jowl with its countryside, as we often casually assume. Between urban and rural stands a kind of landscape quite different from either. Often vast in area, though hardly noticed, it is characterised by rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland. All these heterogeneous elements are arranged in an unruly and often apparently chaotic fashion against a background of unkempt wasteland frequently swathed in riotous growths of colourful plants, both native and exotic. This peculiar landscape is only the latest version of an interfacial rim that has always separated settlements from the countryside to a greater or lesser extent. In our own age, however,this zone has expanded vastly in area, complexity and singularity. Huge numbers of people now spend much of their time living, working or moving within or through it. Yet for most of us, most of the time, this mysterious no man’s land passes unnoticed: in our imaginations, as opposed to our actual lives, it barely exists.

In this YouTube video, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts take a tour of Birmingham’s edgelands:

As you might expect from a couple of poets, there are countless references to poets and other artists, photographers and writers who have been inspired by these areas (actually, there are over 75 such references; I didn’t count them, but someone whose review I came across had done).  This is one of the joys of the book, as the remainder of this post will reveal: I encountered artists both familiar and previously unknown to me: here you will find cited names like Keith Arnatt, George Shaw, Michael Landy, Richard Billingham, William Eggleston, John Davies, Philip Larkin and many, many more.

George Shaw: The Time Machine, 2010

George Shaw: The Time Machine, 2010

I was already familiar with George Shaw’s wonderful paintings of nondescript landscapes of our inner cities and edgelands: scenes of typical urban desolation on Tile Hill housing estate in Coventry, where he grew up.  As Farley and Roberts observe, ‘this is the absolutely overlooked ordinary’.  His paintings speak  expressively of the landscapes through which we hurry each day, their elements so familiar that they become almost invisible.

David Rayson, The Shortcut

The Fire, 1999

David Rayson, The Fire, 1999

Another painter mentioned by Farley and Roberts was new to me; David Rayson is another Midlander for whom the edgelands are important.  He has made his reputation with meticulous, deadpan drawings and paintings of urban and suburban scenes, attempting to make sense of his immediate surroundings. ‘I want my work to tell stories, stories which take place all the time and everywhere’, he says; ‘I feel it is the familiar and the everyday that reveal our complex and private relationship with the world around us.’

Like his contemporary George Shaw, Rayson makes precise, almost photorealist images of suburban landscapes based on recollections of childhood and adolescence. Rayson draws and paints images of suburban Wolverhampton where he grew up and continues to live.

David Rayson, From Ash Park to Wednesfield, 2003

David Rayson, From Ash Park to Wednesfield, 2003

Farley and Roberts refer to one set of paintings by Rayson in particular: the series From Ash Park to Wednesfield, in which Rayson leads us along a canal path, past dens and places where he grew up:

There are no people about, just their traces in the old leaden water, the missing railing, the litter, all linked by the implacable path. It follows the backs of houses and passes under a busier road … a forgotten route, bypassed by the world as it speeds up.

Modern Painters – David Rayson from Tamara Pictures on Vimeo.

One important aspect of edgelands territory identified by Farley and Roberts is its mutability. They write that the edgelands feel anything but timeless:

Revisit an edgelands site you haven’t seen for six months, and likely as not there will be a Victorian factory knocked down, a business park newly built, a section of waste ground cleared and landscaped, a pre-war warehouse abandoned and open to the elements.  Such are the constantly shifting sands of edgelands…

There is a poem, ‘Scrap Metal’ in Michael Symmons Roberts’ collection Soft Keys (1993) that hints at some of this:

The whinings of light planes
half wake me.  In my sleep-half
the sky fills with so many
that their wings clack together
like beaks, bringing them down
in the field behind the house.

The rooks in the end trees
racket amongst themselves.
The house shifts on its rust
mattress of scrap metal.
The soil beneath is gorged
with bolts, chains and spokes.

I tear off finger-long strips
of the blue and gold patterned
wallpaper by the bed.  Underneath,
the old paint feels cold.
I decide to paint my room
completely orange – windows too.

The hill in the rooks’ field
is a long barrow for motor-bikes.
Sometimes in the night,
I hear one spark up
like a distant throat,
then settle again.

But, cheek-by-jowl with carefully-managed landscaping is a rough and ready wildness, a sense of entropy and decay, and slip-sliding disorder:

Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully-managed wilderness areas and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism, there are still places where an overlooked England truly exists; places where the city’s dirty secrets are laid bare and successive human utilities scar the earth or stand cheek by jowl with one another; complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard.

One such place visited by Farley and Roberts is Bidston Moss on the Wirral, ‘one of the most worked-over, altered, landscaped areas of landscape in the country’ in their words. Lying just inland of the Mersey near the northernmost tip of the peninsula, it’s a ‘blank zone’ criss-crossed by railway lines, Mersey Tunnel approach roads and the M53 motorway – and a network of paths.

We entered … by means of a tiny one at the back of the B&Q car park, leading through a gate in the dull, metal-spiked railings into a dark waste ground beneath the flyovers, greeted by undergrowth festooned with a spectacular array of moulded plastics: it seemed as if every colour and variety of polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and polyvinyl has landed up here, snarled in the low scrubland and grasses, thrown from the roads overhead or blown from the loading bays to the rear of the superstores. It’s a huge litter trap, an open space surrounded by people passing through very quickly, an unacknowledged or quickly disregarded blindspot. Looking closer, you can see how trefoils and bindweeds have begun to grow back over some of the takeaway cartons and soft-drinks bottles.

In the 1930s the area became a landfill and tipping site for domestic and industrial waste. The mound that built up over the decades became visible from miles away across the water in Liverpool, a hundred-foot-high landmark of rubbish. And then, in the desperate 1980s, a new kind of salvager appeared. Tip scavengers – or ‘totters’ – began to work the site, sifting through the wreckage looking for anything of value: copper, lead, anything of value.

This was Merseyside’s economic nadir, and people were desperate. They were an image from antiquity, or the developing world, the grimy faced rag-picker and bone-collector. There is a photograph of a totter, taken by Peter Marlowe in April 1985.  Marlowe’s tip scavenger is cowled and furtive, a character from the Middle Ages; Brueghel meets Magnum Photo Agency.

Peter Marlowe, Totter, Bidston Moss, 1985

Peter Marlowe, Totter, Bidston Moss, 1985

What it has created is a very twenty-first century melange of low scrubby woods, footpaths and cycle paths, graffitoed bridges and finger posts, pylons and road pillars. Even here, where recent planning has proscribed pathways for all kinds of public use, desire paths are already worn into the earth, cutting off corners, creating short cuts, circuits within circuits. The unplannable edgelands, reasserting themselves.

In the chapter on Gardens, the authors elaborate their thoughts on landscaping – and note that railway embankments largely escape opportunities for orderly landscaping:

From a train entering a city, the rows of domestic back gardens abutting the railway have a familiar kludge of fencing, corrugated iron, doors and particleboard that marks the boundary between one kind of space and another. Escapees are common, seeds finding their way into a new corridor of opportunity, and blown along the tracks by the timetabled movement of trains. The verges easily slip into the category of edgelands. […] The result: a space that nobody takes much responsibility for. And so brambles and bindweed form a kind of slow-motion surf, rolling down the banks into the cutting. In winter, the snarled detritus of the decades is clearly visible, lost footballs and unspooled video- cassette tape, tin cans and plastics of every description, tangled and suspended. Maybe a glacier is a better way of thinking about railway embankments. The litter from both back gardens and train windows is caught like till in the ice, inching slowly towards earth with the general tumble of each season’s growth.

The references to  Ward, Rayner and Marlowe occur in the chapter on Paths, which begins with Farley and Roberts making this observation about ‘desire paths’, a feature of the urban landscape which I particularly enjoy encountering:

Planners love telling us which way to walk. Our built environment – especially our mercantile spaces, shopping centres and the like – is carefully constructed to control footflow and footfall. But we do like to collectively, unconsciously defy them. This is why we see desire paths in our landscape. Desire paths are lines of footfall worn into the ground, tracks of use. They are frowned upon in our national parkland, where they are seen as scars and deviations. PLEASE KEEP TO THE FOOTPATH. You often see desire paths in public gardens and greened city spaces, taking paved paths ‘off road’ into new trajectories, along roadsides and riverbanks. Our edgelands are full of them.

The post-war overspill developments seen on the edges of many of our cities were planned right down to every concrete walkway, subway and pathway. But their green squares and verges were soon criss-crossed with desire paths: a record of collective short-cuttings. In the winter, they turned to sludgy scars that spattered trousers and skirts and clung to shoes, and during hot summers they turned dusty and parched. Once established, they fell into constant use, footpaths which have never entered the literature. These footpaths of least resistance offer their own subtle resistance to the dead hand of the planner. They lead across borders, into open fields and woodland, along drainage brooks, away from the backs of the houses. On a housing estate, a path leading through a hole in a fence is still freighted with possibility. Each one offers promise and danger, whether what lies ahead is known or unknown. Each one has a flavour and mood (or several moods) all of its own. Desire paths are interesting because of the way they come into being: a ‘bottom up’ system against the ‘top down’ methodology of the planner, and proof of human unpredictability. Nobody decides to make a desire path. There is no ribbon-cutting. These are the kinds of paths that begin over time, imperceptibly, gathering definition as people slowly recognise and legitimise the footfall of their peers.

In the essay on ‘Landfill’ the authors observe that ‘rubbish is part of the texture of edgelands’ (reminding me of a line from Leonard Cohen: ‘I’m stubborn as those garbage bags, that time will not decay’). Rubbish, Farley and Roberts write, may be encountered here, often in surreal juxtaposition:

A fly-tipped sofa in a corner of a turnip field; an electric cooker rusting under a bridge arch; a mattress anywhere open to the elements. We see things on their journey through from one category to another, often losing their identities in the process, as in Sean O’Brien’s poem ‘After Lafourge’:

                 – ambitious settees in black frogskin
And minibars missing their castors, the catalogues
Turning to mush, the unnameable objects
That used to be something with knobs on,
And now they live here, by the siding, the fishhouse,
The building whose function is no longer known.

Eileen Inlanding, Edgelands sofa

Eileen Inlanding, Edgelands Sofa

Keith Arnatt, Boiler fuel

Keith Arnatt, Boiler Fuel

On the subject of decomposing rubbish, Farley and Roberts quote a poem by Jean Sprackland, one of a sequence inspired by the East Lancs Road (which, before the M62, was the main route into Liverpool from Manchester; I remember many traverses of the road as a hitch-hiking student in the sixties). Specifically the poems were Sprackland’s response to the detritus thrown or dropped from cars or ‘washed up on the shores of the central reservation’:

The rag-and-bone man would give away a balloon
 in exchange for a broken saucepan
 or a coat riddled by moths.
 My mum boiled the bones clean for soup first
 and kept the best rags for the floor.
 There’s no currency mean enough round here
 for trading in ring-pulls and plastic bottles,
 the loops that hold beer cans together,
 the polystyrene panels a fridge comes packed in.
 You can buy a roll of fifty black sacks for a pound.
 They hang flapping in trees and no one bothers to free them.

One road leads to another.  You know that convoluted bit of motorway where the M5 joins the M6? Have you ever wondered, the authors ask, what lies beneath? Most drivers, they write, are fixed only on the roadside landmarks – ‘the iconic Dunlop building, the muscular, futuristic shapes of the electricity subs station, the RAC Control Centre jutting out over the traffic like the prow of a flagship’.  But underneath this long, extended bridge, this complex of flyovers, is another world. This is the world of Tarkovsky’s dystopian film Stalker: dark, damp, intense and menacing.

Laura Gale, Underneath the M5

Laura Gale, Underneath the M5

A painter (not mentioned in the book) who has explored this territory is Shaun Morris. He has produced a series of nocturnes  framed by the motorway pillars and lit by unnatural light of the night-time motorway. They represent a response to the ‘necropolis of motorway pillars’ explored by Farley and Roberts.

Shaun Morris, Edgelands charcoal

Shaun Morris, ‘Edgelands’, charcoal (click to enlarge)

On his blog recently, Morris wrote about returning at night to a favourite location underneath the M5 between Oldbury and West Bromwich with photographer Laura Gale (one of her atmospheric images can be seen at the top of this post):

You enter a very intense, visually rich and murky world, that is at once quite frightening in it’s scale and darkness and with the noise of the traffic above, yet simultaneously beautiful and otherworldly. This otherworldly quality was further enhanced by the still water of the canal and the enormous, crystal clear reflections of the underbelly of the motorway. It looked like you were viewing a giant sunken ship in the water. It was quite deathly and unsettling.

Shaun Morris, Nocturne

Shaun Morris, Nocturne

In the chapter on ‘Wasteland’ I learnt that the buddleia, the archetypal marker of edgelands territory, gets its name from a 17th century botanist, Adam Buddle.  It was a plant then recently imported from Latin America; now it has colonised huge swathes of unchecked, uncultivated land around our towns and cities.  It’s a chapter that begins with buddleia, meanders via the photos of Don McCullin and Julian Trevelyan, the paintings of Michael Landy and edgelands honey, before arriving, inevitably, at TS Eliot: ‘poet of the city’ and representative of how, between the wars, ‘the idea of the wasteland seeped into British art like a brown fog’.

The authors note that Don McCullin, in photos made in the 1960s and 1970s, was “one of the greatest artists of our cities’ wastelands”.  They draw attention, particularly to an image taken in Liverpool 8 in 1961:

Two young boys, about ten years old, stand on a classic piece of wasteland, strewn with bricks, stones, abandoned cars and bits of industrial machinery.  A row of houses stands in the background, some smashed and empty, though one still has painted window frames and curtains.  One boy looks across at the camera, straight at us, but the other is coiled backwards like a longbow at full draw, blurred with speed.  He has a stone in his hand. This could be one of many traditional wasteland games: throwing stones at bottles, throwing stones at windows, throwing stones at passers-by.  But such is the strength of his backward arch that his stone will fly over the bottle, over the coal yard, out of the wasteland, out of Liverpool to drop in the icy shallows of the Irish Sea.

Julian Trevelyan, Rubbish May be Shot Here, 1937

Half a century earlier the painter and photographer Julian Trevelyan was working in Bolton for the Mass Observation project founded by Tom Harrisson and Humphrey Jennings:

He photographed a world of chimneys and rubbish heaps and rubble-strewn earth, of allotments and fences, the industrial dereliction where the people of Bolton existed, isolated figures moving through a desolate landscape or rummaging on tips. But his most striking work was made using collage. Using magazine cuttings, newsprint and paper, he recycled pieces of the ephemeral world to create images of the same dumps and pylon fields, standing pools and factories with their smoking chimneys. Trevelyan’s wastelands are dynamic places, alive as a result of their indeterminacy; their fragments appear caught in a kind of unresolved tension. They suggest to us a new way of looking at an ignored landscape, neither grimy documentary realistic nor entirely whimsical and surreal, but occupying a border territory in between.

Bolton mills, 1937, Julian Trevelyan

Julian Trevelyan, Bolton Mills, 1937

The artist Michael Landy (he’s the guy who famously destroyed all his possessions in Break Down, leaving himself with only the clothes he stood in) was drawn to wasteland, too.  He turned his attention to weeds, the common but overlooked denizens of the edgelands that he preferred to call ‘street flowers’, producing a series of etchings under the title Nourishment.  Here were the flowers that flourish on waste ground and in the cracks in the pavement: groundsel, herb robert, toadflax and creeping buttercup. Like Richard Mabey, he celebrated their names, neglected histories, medicinal qualities and the meanings that people used to attach to them: Canadian Fleabane hitched a boat-ride across the Atlantic to colonise these shores; Oxford Ragwort jumped the wall of the city’s Botanical Gardens to run wild, and hybridised with the native species.

Creeping Buttercup

Michael Landy, Creeping Buttercup, 2002

In ‘Ruins’, the authors meditate on how deeply the ruins of Britain’s industrial past have entered the collective consciousness: a favourite location for TV crime dramas and photo shoots:

Pieces of broken glass click underfoot. Every few paces, the floor becomes spongy with pads of mosses, until eventually you’re standing on a hard and level surface. The air smells cold and musty, uncirculated, tinged with motor oil, mildew, brick dust, black unguents. Somewhere high above there’s the ghost applause of a pigeon, before – a hundred yards or so in front of you – you hear the harsh metallic rattle of big shutters being rolled open. The screech of a car means you can feel the size of the echoing emptiness you’re standing in; the engine draws near, nearer. Even though you’re wearing a blindfold, you know this place. You’ve been inside here before many times.

Tim Edensor 1

Tim Edensor, Industrial Ruins

Farley and Roberts cite the work of geographer Tim Edensor, a connoisseur of industrial ruins (British Industrial Ruins is one of two websites he has dedicated to the subject).  Edensor says:

Most studies of ruins have concentrated on the noble piles of classical antiquity […]. Yet the 20th century has produced more ruins than ever before, whether through warfare or as a remorseless, short term-oriented capitalism turns solid things and places into air, rendering the contents and activities housed within industrial buildings instantaneously obsolete. In Britain, at the end of the 1970’s and through the eighties, the government of Margaret Thatcher allowed ‘market forces’ full reign, promoting an orgy of real estate speculation which produced a reconstructed industrial landscape. But not everywhere was able to capitalise on this economic reconstruction and in many areas, as old industries died, the buildings that housed them lay dormant and empty. This process persists and the material legacy of the industrial revolution, in the form of ruins, can still be found in most British cities.

Tim Edensor 2

Tim Edensor, British Industrial Ruins

Somewhere in the book the authors, appropriately, quote Phillip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’:

But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure.

Something of that poem’s sensibility permeates ‘In Praise of Flaking Walls’ in Michael Symmons Roberts new collection Drysalter:
To be alive is to throw shadows.
No mere ghost could obstruct the light
like we do. This much we know:
that to be made incarnate
is to be as solid as this limewashed wall,
t0 come from rumour, hope, to weight.
We  know  that  sheets  of stucco  crumble
under frost and sun, that every flaw
is nailed by lichen, that all
this is provisional. We know more:
that such beautiful distress – a stone
wall turned to mud and straw –
will be mirrored in our own,
that mountains will give way to snow,
that light will look through us again.

You come across all kinds of stuff in the edgelands – which is perhaps why this book by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts ultimately feels a bit like a bag of odds and ends picked up along a path across the terrain. Some of the pieces collected here are brilliant, and taken as a whole I rate this as one of the most stimulating and evocative books that I’ve read recently.  I think Geoff Dyer puts it fairly at the close of his FT review:

Inevitably, some components of the edgelands prove more creatively productive than others. Overall, though, the book can be fairly represented by any particular part of it. The effect is cumulative only in the sense that the pieces mount up. It’s not just that there is no sense of a developing argument; there is an absolute lack – and I mention this as a shortcoming precisely because I am the kind of reader for whom this is not a priority – of any kind of narrative drive. Two-thirds of the way through, it becomes evident that Edgelands is never going to be more than the sum of its parts – but the parts are often terrific.

See also

Paul Farley: Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second

George Shaw: a sense of our time, acute and troubled

George Shaw

Back in February my attention was drawn by a Guardian feature on the paintings made by George Shaw of the Tile Hill  neighbourhood in Coventry where he grew up.  Below is a repost of my response to these paintings – to mark the occasion of the Turner Prize not being awarded to Shaw, sadly in my view.

As Adrian Searle notes in The Guardian today, George Shaw’s paintings of the dilapidated, nondescript landscapes of our inner cities and edgelands demonstrate a ‘sense of our time [that] is … acute and troubled’.  In October, I encountered one of Shaw’s paintings, The End of Time, in an exhibition at the Turnpike Gallery in Leigh.

On the Channel 4 News website, Culture Editor Matthew Cain writes:

George Shaw was born in Coventry in 1966. He studied at Sheffield before later doing an MA at the Royal College of Art in London. He now lives and works in Ilfracombe, North Devon. … Shaw is a painter whose subject matter is the council estate in Coventry where he grew up – and often the mundane everyday objects within it. He paints exclusively in the Humbrol enamel paint used by young model-makers, which again gives his work a unique, instantly recognisable quality.

This unconventional choice could be understood on many levels; it gives the work a child-like, humble quality while on the other hand could be read as a defiant rejection of the history of art and, in particular, oil painting.  There is also a haunting quality to the work and much of it suggests a passage of time and even hints at the inevitability of death. Shaw told me while looking around the show that he identifies with writers more than artists, which makes a lot of sense; for me, his paintings constitute fragments or even pages in a personal and very moving memoir.

According to the judges, Shaw’s work lies at the very edge of tradition. This is because he gives the traditional form of painting his own unique twist; he works exclusively in Humbrol enamel paint, the kind of paint used by children on Airfix model planes.  As one critic said: “The Humbrol sheen lifts the paintings out of the realm of the purely representational, the ultra-realist, and takes it somewhere else, somewhere both old-fashioned and timeless, conservative yet contemporary.”

George Shaw: Ash Wednesday

In March, Michael Glover wrote this appreciation of Shaw’s Tile Hill paintings, then being exhibited at the Baltic, Gateshead:

For almost two decades, George Shaw has been painting, doggedly and systematically, the unprepossessing, post-war housing estate in Coventry where he grew up. The means he uses – Humbrol household paints – are as modest in their workadayness and as limited in their tonal range as the subject matter itself. It is as if Shaw has positively wanted to strait-jacket himself in this way.

Almost everything that we see in these paintings is face-on and centred within the picture frame, as if shamelessly gawping back at us: groups of garages; the end wall of a house; the local bus stop or the cop shop. He often favours nooks and crannies, odd twists in a road, locked doors and gates. Everything is past its best. The very idea of these places having had a best in the first place is almost laughable. There is a curious absence of humanity. Occasionally, the lights will be on in an upstairs room, but that is as much of a human presence as these paintings ever register. The light is often uniformly dull and subdued, almost sourly so, edging off to evening. There is frequent evidence of the aftermath of rain – the wet sheen on flag stones, making them look uneven, drab, a clichéd reminder of a culture blighted by chill and damp.

Dead End shows us a view of a garages, with a pitted approach road. The garages face a wall. There is no way out. As usual, nothing is happening. The very bleakness of the scene gives it a mild air of menace, as if it has been singled out for attention because it looks so troublingly unremarkable. Locked gates, boarded-up windows, graffitied walls feel like sad calls for attention. It could be a crime scene. In general, the subject matter seems to be talking itself down. The mood is anti-heroic, bleak, Larkinesque. By contrast, the titles talk up the paintings, as if giving them a gravitas they have no right to possess. An entire sequence takes Christ’s Passion as its collective title – a nod in the direction of Shaw’s sometime Catholicism. It is as if he is recording a time between times, not only when nothing actually happens, but when nothing deserves to happen. Occasionally, symbolism is brought into play, a touch heavy-handedly. A painting entitled Ash Wednesday shows us a distant church behind a stout fence, bathed in a dying orange light. This is almost a poem written by the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, about the slow, melancholy withering away of organised religion. And, come to think of it, quite a lot of these paintings – and especially the ones that capture the moods of snatches of woodlands and park – seem positively pre-Raphaelite in their fastidious attention to flowers and leaves.

And yet, for all their unremarkableness, these paintings are utterly remarkable. They seem to have captured, quite uncannily, the quidditas of the humdrum, and to be raising it up in front of our eyes as if inviting us to look behind and beyond what we see. They are not so much their banal subject matter as the products of a painter who is haunted by that subject matter. They are not so much the depiction of a circumscribed world as a view of England, dying into itself, unloved, unregarded.

There’s an extensive gallery of George Shaw paintings here.

The Guardian has a video of George Shaw’s exhibition at the Baltic earlier this year here.

Here’s my own post written at the time:

George Shaw: Nothing happens anywhere

George Shaw: The Time Machine, 2010

These look interesting: paintings by George Shaw (featured in a Guardian gallery here) of  scenes of typical urban desolation on Tile Hill housing estate in Coventry, where he grew up.  I think they speak  expressively of the landscapes through which we hurry each day, their elements so familiar that they become almost invisible to us.  Look at the metal fencing in the painting above – it’s of a type seen everywhere, like the squat brick block it protects.  Look at the way the brickwork at the corner of the fenced area has collapsed, how the sycamore saplings are thrusting through the bars, and the scrubby, worn grass and sinking flags of the path in the foreground.  It’s all around us, a nothingness that’s everywhere.

Writing about Shaw’s paintings in The Observer, Sean O’Hagan recalled the poem by Philip Larkin, in which memories of his own childhood in Coventry are triggered by his northbound train unexpectedly halting there.  ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere’, concludes Larkin. It’s that sense of nothingness that is captured in Shaw’s work.

George Shaw: Landscape with Dog Shit Bin, 2010

As Sean O’Hagan writes, ‘Shaw… records the mundane, the quotidian and the overlooked. In doing so, he somehow renders the everyday mysterious’.  In ‘Landscape with Dog Shit Bin’ (above) we see this clearly, the lingering signs of municipal projects, abandoned or forgotten.  Was this a car park? What happens here now?  Amid the natural browns and greens and the grey of the tarmac, there’s the bright, red flag of the dog shit bin.

Sean O’Hagan again:

Here is a drab lane of graffitied garages ending in an ominous-looking wood. Here is a redbrick wall rising up flat and imposing before a row of council houses. Here is a single tall tree standing solitary amid an expanse of scrubby parkland. All are alive with possibility, aglow with resonance and suggestion. These are paintings that prove Larkin’s point that “nothing, like something, happens anywhere”, while simultaneously suggesting that Tile Hill is one of those places where nothing happening is the norm.

George Shaw grew up on the Tile Hill estate in the early 1970s. The estate his family had moved to in 1968 was built after the war, as part of the nationwide programme to create modern housing for working class families. The estate is cut across by long paths and roads, and edged with woods, a remnant of what was once the Forest of Arden. Shaw has used this suburban environment as the inspiration to paint his highly detailed, photo-realistic works whose vividness derives from his use of Humbrol model paint (the kind used by generations of kids to coat Airfix model planes).  This gives the paintings a surface sheen:  ‘It’s that glow that you only see when you’re walking home from the pub alone,’  says Shaw.  ‘That solitary glow, the glow of a telly though a window or streetlights reflected on rain on the streets’.


George Shaw, The Back that Used to be the Front, 2008

He paints the back of the social club in Tile Hill with all the seriousness of Monet painting Rouen Cathedral.
– Gordon Burns

Looking at Shaw’s paintings reminded me of Thomas Jones’ painting – remarkable for 1782 – ‘A Wall in Naples’, about which the late Tom Lubbock commented:

A wall is nothing to look at.  As far as a representational picture can be, this is a picture of nothing. As such, it also faces an important fact – the fact that we spend quite a lot of time looking at not much. It’s a side of our visual lives that the art of painting generally overlooks. ‘A Wall in Naples’ is a tribute to all those non-focal moments, when our gaze does not settle on anything in particular. The glimpse of the world that this painting preserves is one of those occasions, when sight grasps nothing, when sight is simply stopped – comes up against a brick wall.

Thomas Jones, A Wall in Naples, 1782

Sean O’Hagan’s article not only introduced me to the work of George Shaw, but also that of photographer Jem Southam.  There is, writes Hagan, ‘a similar kind of almost eerie atmosphere about British photographer Jem Southam’s series, The Pond at Upton Pyne, which captures the ordinary beauty of a neglected village pond’.

Jem Southam, The Pond at Upton Pyne, January 1999

I Remember, I Remember
by Philip Larkin

Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and, watching men with number plates
Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
‘Why, Coventry!’ I exclaimed. “I was born here.’

I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been ‘mine’
So long, but found I wasn’t even clear
Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates
Were standing, had we annually departed

For all those family hols? . . . A whistle went:
Things moved. I sat back, staring at my boots.
‘Was that,’ my friend smiled, ‘where you “have your roots”?’
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort, just where I started:

By now I’ve got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn’t spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family

I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
‘Really myself’. I’ll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,

Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and ‘all became a burning mist’.
And, in those offices, my doggerel
Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read
By a distinguished cousin of the mayor,

Who didn’t call and tell my father There
Before us, had we the gift to see ahead –
‘You look as though you wished the place in Hell,’
My friend said, ‘judging from your face.’ ‘Oh well,
I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,’ I said.

‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’

Also raised in Coventry (though not Tile Hill, as far as I’m aware) were Jerry Dammers and Terry Hall of The Specials.  Their song, ‘Ghost Town’, about the decline of the town during the recession of the early 1980s,  spent three weeks at number one in 1981 at the same time as the riots in Toxteth and Brixton.  The lyrics seem germane once again:

This town, is coming like a ghost town
All the clubs have been closed down
This place, is coming like a ghost town
Bands won’t play no more
too much fighting on the dance floor

Do you remember the good old days
Before the ghost town?
We danced and sang,
And the music played inna de boomtown

This town, is coming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place, is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more
The people getting angry

The World We Live In

The Turnpike Gallery in Leigh is celebrating 40 years of contributing to local culture with an exhibition entitled The World We Live In. The gallery is situated in the Turnpike Centre on Civic Square, just off the main street.  The Centre, which also houses meeting rooms and the town’s library, was purpose built in 1971, just at the time when the area’s main sources of employment – coal-mining and the cotton mills – were beginning a rapid process of decline.

There is certainly something to celebrate here – especially in a week when Brent council closed half its public libraries, part of the wider destruction of public services that is the price being paid for bailing out unscrupulous and incompetent banks.  The Turnpike is exactly the sort of public asset at risk in these desperate days.  So it was good to discover that it was bustling with life –  a party of school children with worksheets were noisily engaged in recording their responses to the exhibits, and a steady stream of adults strolled in to view the exhibition (some, perhaps, after changing their library books downstairs).

The exhibition focusses mainly on contemporary art, a mix of local, regional, national and international art work, some of it quite challenging.  It consists of 26 works selected by the Turnpike Gallery from the Arts Council Collection to celebrate the history of the gallery and reflect something of the place in which it is situated.

Some of the artists in this show are represented in the gallery’s small print collection, including Victor Pasmore, William Scott and Tom Phillips.  Several of the artists have previously exhibited at the Turnpike over the last 40 years, including L.S. Lowry, David Hepher, Frank Auerbach and Rachel Whiteread.

Carel Weight: The World We Live In, 1973

The title of the exhibition is taken from the painting by Carel Weight, one of David Hockney’s tutors at the Royal College of Art in the early 1960s.  It’s a painting that speaks of the loneliness and isolation that can be a part of urban life.  Speaking of his painting in 1991, Weight said, ‘It’s just two people. They may have been in love with each other, I don’t know. But they’ve been very close but it’s all come to nothing. They’re just two solitary figures. That’s very much my theme. It’s similar to my diploma picture in the Royal Academy, The Silence [shown below, but not in the exhibition]. I think love and all that sort of thing is rather superficial. You can love people, but it doesn’t bring you any closer to them’.

Carel Weight: The Silence, 1965

The curators of this show have brought together works that, in very different ways, tell us something about living in an urban post-industrial environment, particularly in the north-west of England in a town like Leigh.  There are works which have local references (such as Ian Walker’s Little Chef, Astley) and those which in some way depict the industrial landscape and heritage (such as William Scott’s Slagheap Landscape).  More generally, there are those artists who reflect upon the built environment of towns and cities (David Hepher, George Shaw).  Others focus on the banal or overlooked elements of the everyday (such as Richard Wentworth or Rachel Whiteread).

Ian Walker: Little Chef, Astley, East Lancs Road, Nr. Manchester, 1984

Little Chef restaurants, with their distinctive red and white signage, appeared along the roadsides of Britain in the 1980s. Walker began photographing them in 1982 and saw the restaurants as one aspect of the increasing Americanisation of British culture. He commented, ‘When I first started photographing them, they seemed to be merely a Disney-ish pop-culture phenomenon. Now I have come to see them more and more as representative of a society where the car-owning, meat-eating family unit is the norm and deviation is frowned upon. So I hope these pictures are both funny and significant at the same time’.

William Scott was largely known as a still life painter but began to develop a looser, more abstract style in the early 1950s. The drab colours of Slagheap Landscape evoke a landscape scarred by the spoils of the mining industry.   The loose, painterly brushstrokes create a sense of the painting being somewhere between a figurative representation and an abstraction.

William Scott: Slagheap Landscape 1952

David Hepher’s paintings examine the urban and suburban, seeking to reveal how buildings change according to how they are lived in. Always working from life in his South London neighbourhood, Hepher began painting suburban house fronts in 1969 before moving on to the architecture of council estates. The exhibition caption notes that Hepher once said, ‘I would like to think that the pictures could make people look differently at the flats around them, to see beauty in objects that they normally dismiss as ugly’.  Yes, I thought, as I looked at his painting, but I bet you’d think differently if you lived there.

David Hepher: Arrangement in Turquoise and Cream, 1981 (Arts Council Collection)

George Shaw, who is shortlisted for the Turner Prize 2011, grew up in Tulse Hill, a council estate in Coventry.  His paintings are inspired by memories of that place and depict empty playing fields, bus stops, lock-up garages and run down housing estates. He paints using Humbrol enamel paints, usually associated with boyhood Airfix kits, which give his works a glossy, impermeable finish.

I wrote about George Shaw earlier this year, and it was the knowledge that a painting of his was on display here that brought me to the Turnpike. The painting is The End of Time, which shows the site where a local pub, The Woodsman, stood before it burnt down. Years earlier, when it was called The New Star, his mother worked there and his father had the odd drink there. Shaw recalls it as being post-war British modern — ‘which is a longer way of saying it was shite’.  He doesn’t know why it was renamed The Woodsman, but suspects it was a marketing gamble. Shaw remembers it not so much as a place where he drank, but as a place he passed by every time he went to visit his mother. The title of the work is inspired by a line in the Eliot’s The Wasteland – ‘HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME’ – and it is part of a sequence of works that explore the passing of time.

I like George Shaw’s pictures and I hope he wins the Turner Prize.  These are truly images of the world we live in.

George Shaw: The End of Time, 2008 (Arts Council Collection)

A photo of a plastic cup skewered on a fence spike might not strike many punters as constituting ‘art’. But Richard Wentworth wants to fundamentally change the way we think about art, sculpture and photography.  Avoiding anything monumental, he finds his motifs in the everyday world instead. His photographs record little actions of human intrusion in the natural environment that he has noticed.  So when Wentworth sees somebody has stuck a polystyrene cup on top of the spike of a metal street fence, what is significant is the evidence of the deed.  It’s the significance of the unintentional: where others may have simply seen a polystyrene cup on a fence – or not noticed anything at all – Wentworth records the minutiae of some passer-by’s inconsequential act.

Richard Wentworth: London, 1999. Making do and getting by

The Rachel Whiteread work that features in this exhibition is also the kind of thing that annoys some people.  It comprises six resin casts of the spaces beneath domestic chairs. Each cast is a different shade – indigo, slate, tea, lime, antique gold and rose – and they look a bit like a row of fruit gums.  The casts are individual, reflecting the different designs of the chairs that she selected. Presented in a straight line, each cast makes present an absent space for one person.

Rachel Whiteread: Untitled (6 Spaces), 1994

Euston Steps – Study is one of several paintings made by Frank Auerbach in the train stations, building sites and streets around his studio in London’s Camden Town. This is one of a series of paintings depicting the steps at Euston Station. While the word ‘study’ suggests that this is a preliminary experiment for a larger or more polished work, in fact this is a finished painting. The expressionist, thick impasto brushwork and the palette of browns, greens and oranges are typical of Auerbach’s painting of this period.

Frank Auerbach: Euston Steps - Study, 1981

Chris Killip started out as a commercial photographer, but in 1970 gave up working in advertising to concentrate on the photography he really wanted to make.  In 1977 he helped found the Side Gallery in Newcastle and was the director for 18 months.  Rocker and Rosie Going Home is part of a body of work produced in the North East which focusses on those living on the margins of society – the unemployed, the homeless, the dispossessed.  Rocker and Rosie Going Home was taken at a sea-coal gatherers’ camp at Lynemouth, Northumberland, where Killip lived and photographed regularly in 1982-4. The sea-coal was part of the waste jettisoned by a National Coal Board pit and washed ashore. Killip exhibited 70 ‘Seacoaler’ photographs at the Side Gallery in the early months of 1984, when Britain’s most testing struggle of loyalties since the General Strike of 1926 had just begun. The Miners’ Strike of March 1984 to March 1985 divided families, communities and the nation at large.

Chris Killip: Rocker and Rosie Going Home, 1984

LS Lowry is pretty much the local lad here: he lived and worked just down the road in Manchester and Salford all his life.  He worked as rent collector, a job led to him walking all over the city. He saw children playing in the streets, people returning from work, going off to work, gossip on the front steps, incidents, market places and Whit-processions. ‘I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it’, he said. ‘I tried to paint it all the time. I tried to paint the industrial scene as best I could. It wasn’t easy. Well, a camera could have done the scene straight off’.

LS Lowry: The Park, 1946 (Arts Council Collection)

The Park features the stylised ‘matchstick’ figures which he was so well known for, and is painted in his familiar palette of ivory black, vermilion, Prussian blue, yellow ochre and flake white.  Lowry said that his land and townscapes were composites – ‘made up, part real and part imaginary … bits and pieces of my home locality. I don’t even know I’m putting them in.  They just crop up on their own, like things do in a dream’.

Michael Landy: Scrapheap Services (detail) 1995

Two pieces by Michael Landy face each other across the gallery.  They are angry works. The intricate drawing (above) relates to his installation, We Leave The Scum With No Place To Hide (below), which draws attention to the impact on people’s lives of making workers redundant in order to cut costs and improve efficiency. Landy has said of the piece, ‘Most of my works come out of anger.  That’s difficult for me to formulate visually, and in trying to visualise it I came up with Scrapheap Services.  It’s principally about people being discarded and the loss of human potential’.  Scrapheap Services featured thousands of small figures made by Landy from litter he collected every day as he walked from his home to his studio.  In the installation the figures were destroyed by passing them through a shredder with rotating teeth.  The words ‘We Leave The Scum With No Place To Hide’ can be found in the drawing Scrapheap Services.

Michael Landy: We Leave The Scum With No Place To Hide

Leaving this stimulating exhibition, I noticed, above the door to the toilets, this quotation from Pablo Picasso: ‘Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life’.  That could well stand as the mission statement for the Turnpike Gallery as it forges ahead for what will, I hope, be another 40 years.

As I noted earlier, the exhibition at the Turnpike comprises works chosen from the Arts Council Collection, the contents of which can be viewed online.  This is one of at least three websites that I know of  that allow anyone to view works of art in public collections.  The Google Art Project is the result of Google collaborating with some of the world’s most acclaimed art galleries (MoMa in New York, the National Gallery and Tate Britain in London, the Uffizi in Florence and the Hermitage in St Petersburg to give just a few examples) to enable people to view more than a thousand artworks online.  You can’t view all the works in a particular gallery, but where Google Art Project wins hands down is in the astonishing resolution at which the works have been captured, and the application of Google Street View technology, so that you can literally walk through galleries and turn and look at paintings.

But to my mind the most welcome project is the BBC’s Your Paintings which aims to show the entire UK national collection of oil paintings, the stories behind the paintings, and where to see them for real. It will be made up of paintings from thousands of museums (including those held in store), as well as paintings held by other public institutions (such as NHS Health Trusts) but not necessarily on public view.  It’s an excellent concept that’s still under development.