Seaside Surrealism

by thenewenglishlandscape

Studland Bay_001

Studland Bay, Isle of Purbeck (2011)

Towards the end of a cycling holiday in Dorset and Somerset some years ago, our small group spent the last night at Castle Corfe, arriving in heavy rain. The morning after was perfect sunshine and the castle itself appeared like something from a fairy tale. Further visual derangement was to come. Piling the bikes in the guard’s van of the early morning steam train to the nearby seaside resort of Swanage, we discovered the carriages teeming with vintage train enthusiasts celebrating a local railway anniversary, as well as crowds of Morris Men, many blacked-up and covered in ribbons and bells, attending an international folk dance festival. The whole morning was like an extended scene from a 1950s film by Powell & Pressburger.

At the time none of us appreciated that Swanage and the Purbeck peninsula was the home ground of English surrealism. This was largely as a result of the influential photographs and paintings of Paul Nash, whose disturbing landscapes and found images made a great impression when they first appeared, and remain much admired to this day. There had been an even earlier pioneer in the re-fabrication of the Swanage townscape in the form of a Victorian builder and developer, George Burt, who had imported and integrated into the town’s parks, streets and seafront parade, an eccentric range of London clock-towers, streetlights, and architectural follies. Landscape historian, David Lambert, once devoted a fascinating essay, ‘Durlston Park and House: the Public and Private Realms of George Burt, King of Swanage’, in the New Arcadian Journal, 45-46 (1998), sympathetic to Burt but less so to Nash, whom he found guilty of lèse-majesté.

Nash and Burt (as well as Lambert’s essay) feature prominently in James Wilkes’ engaging study, A Fractured Landscape of Modernity: Culture and Conflict in the Isle of Purbeck, which, despite its geographical particularity, has much of interest to say about 20th century English visual and topographical culture. The 21st century branding of this stretch of southern England as the ‘Jurassic Coast’, has now brought into play a complicated admixture of the geological, the industrial (for stone quarrying has been the major form of employment in these parts), the militaristic, and a New Romantic aesthetic, all of which Wilkes explores deftly.

The author opens with a stunning example of morphological resonance, setting a photograph of a bathing tent used by Virginia Woolf and Clive Bell on Studland Beach – in the shape of a cube surmounted by a pyramid – anticipating exactly the same form as the anti-tank blocks constructed in situ at the outbreak of the Second World War. (Imagine if you will, a tent designed for a medieval knight about to enter a jousting competition). Many other correspondences follow, folded within the envelope of ‘Seaside surrealism’, the title of an essay Nash wrote for the Architectural Review in 1936, around the same time John Piper published his influential essay, ‘Abstraction on the Beach’ – also in the Architectural Review.

Proper acknowledgement is made to Patrick Wright, who opened up this particular territory in his book, The Village That Died for England, especially in its military and bio-warfare encroachments on the landscape. Studland Bay remains a place of particular social conflict, rather less dangerous but still offensive to many, as a battleground for morality between nudists, holiday-makers, and sun-seekers keen on al fresco sex. So many contradictory impulses always seem to gather on the shoreline (or by the river). Published as an academic monograph, the price of which, alas, makes it really only available to library readers, Wilkes’ study is written with flair, and full of interesting ideas and cross-currents.