Soft Estate

Wild daffodil Narcissus pseudonarcissus 2013. Acrylic on lacquer on gesso panel.

© Edward Chell

While more and more front gardens are paved over to accommodate the family car fleet – some suburban London streets now resemble parades of second-hand dealerships –  Britain’s motorway verges and hinterland grow increasingly variegated and wilder by the year. Artist Edward Chell’s exhibition of new work, Soft Estate (currently at the Bluecoat in Liverpool, before going on to Spacex in Exeter), celebrates as well as explicates the growing importance of roadside flora and fauna, in a series of paintings (some made with road dust), prints and objects (including etched car components).  It is both colourful and thought-provoking.

Like Patrick Keiller’s terrific 2012 Tate Britain exhibition, The Robinson Institute, the catalogue of which, The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, was an intellectual and political landmark in its own right, so Edward Chell’s catalogue-as-book, Soft Estate, contains three significant essays – by Sara-Jayne Parsons, Richard Mabey and Chell himself – which really take the argument forward about the residual influences of the Picturesque on current and future ecological systems.

Clearly the speed at which the modern traveller is propelled through the landscape differs from that of the occupants of a horse-drawn carriage. Yet, as Chell demonstrates, many of the tricks used by Humphrey Repton and his peers – the arched bridges, the judiciously placed reveals, the sudden vistas, the line of beauty – are today consciously echoed by the best of road engineers when designing anew. Soft Estate provides several artful juxtapositions of 18th and 21st century illustrations of roadways, almost identical in their palisaded curves and prospects.

Tree-planting and wildflower sowing on an industrial scale characterise the contemporary British road system today, principally with a view to softening the experience of fast, high density travel.  Most of us will only ever see these marginal gardens at speed and through glass – they are not immersive landscapes in any way. Of equal emotional significance are the roadside memorials or shrines now placed to commemorate accidents and fatalities.  Driving recently into Cambridge along a dual carriageway, the verges were way-marked by elaborate shrines at requent intervals – an erstwhile Appian Way of crosses and cairns.  Chell’s exhibition and book alerts us to these new forms of cultivated (and occasionally sacralised) landscapes which have emerged almost by default, but now form part of the new English countryside.



Soft Estate by Edward Chell is published by the Bluecoat, and is available from Cornerhouse