The New English Landscape

For more than a decade we – photographer Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole – have documented the changing landscape and coastline of Essex and East Anglia, particularly its estuaries, islands and urban edgelands. We continue to explore many aspects of contemporary landscape topography, architecture and aesthetics, and in 2013 published our second book, The New English Landscape (Field Station | London, 2013), the second edition of which was published in 2015 and is now out of print.

Month: November, 2014

D.W.Gillingham: Chronicler of the Roding Valley

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Just as J.A.Baker achieved posthumous fame for his exquisite writings about the natural landscape and avian life of the River Chelmer and the Blackwater Estuary – notably in The Peregrine – it is timely to remember another Essex naturalist and writer, D.W.Gillingham, rather less well known today but equally alert to the Essex landscape. Born in Walthamstow in 1906, after moving with his family to Canada in 1911, Gillingham returned to settle in Loughton in 1934, where he lived at 28 Roding Road until his death in 1965.

Throughout his Loughton years he kept a journal – eventually published in 1953 as Unto The Fields – a meticulous and exquisite record of the woodlands, streams and rivers of the Roding Valley, rich in bird-life, small mammals and wild flowers, even though the streets of London’s east end were less than ten miles away. From the hills of Loughton he claimed to be able to hear the roar of the London traffic, or from the height of Epping ridge see the smoke from steamers on the Thames at Galleons Reach. Others may want ‘scenery’, he wrote, ‘but the beauty of the English countryside is far less in its wide panoramas than in its intimate nooks and corners, in what lies so near at hand.’

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Illustration by Harry A. Pettit

Read Unto the Fields with the OS map close to hand and it is astonishing how much Gillingham observed and recorded in such a tiny area on between Epping Forest and the Roding Meadows. His early morning, late night and weekend walks never took him more than four miles from home, mostly between Chigwell Lane and Warren Hill, but in these ‘intimate nooks and corners’ he saw otters, deer, stoats, foxes, redshanks, snipe, lapwings, owls, herons, nightingales, dozens of different finches and song-birds, many becoming familiars, their habitat and routines ecstatically noted and loved. ‘Find me a fairer spot in Essex!’ he wrote of a walk close to Chigwell Lane, before going on to admit that there were as many other such places in the county as there were people to cherish them.

Gillingham’s life appears to have been one of extremes. After his parents emigrated to Vancouver he attended the University of British Columbia, subsequently travelling to the Arctic Circle with fur traders, while writing short stories, at least one of which was published in the prestigious literary journal, The Dial. At some point in his early life he trained as a pilot. By the 1930s, back in Loughton – like J.A.Baker – he worked in an office (‘uncongenial work’), escaping from the ‘arid plain of failure’ to cycle everywhere on his early morning or night-time forays into the nearby fields and forests. Even so, when war broke out he spent two years with a Night Fighter Squad, before being posted to the Middle East. After the war he became a familiar figure locally, his obituary in the local newspaper recording that, ‘His many friends will remember him best for his shapeless beret, stout walking shoes and amiable booming, cultured voice.’ In his last years Gillingham worked as a private gardener.

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Illustration by Harry A. Pettit

Unto the Fields is worth searching out, the early editions beautifully illustrated by Harry A.Pettit, a book illustrator whose work continues to be admired. In the published writings of both Gillingham and Baker, there is little mention of work, of domestic life or other interests – just an obsessive empathy with birds, and their migrations, nestings, feeding patterns and interaction with the rest of the natural world. From such patient observations, the modern reader is given access to a myriad of small worlds then to be found in suburban lanes and along the banks of the smallest Essex creeks and rivers. In Gillingham’s case, his notebooks recorded Loughton before the arrival of a wartime barrage balloon station and, subsequently, a new housing estate, close by. Gillingham’s description of his adopted territory, recalls those wonderful passages in the early novels of D.H.Lawrence when that writer rhapsodised about the walks he made from his terraced street of miners’ cottages in Eastwood to the nearby farms and woodlands.

This post is based on a talk to the Loughton Historical Society on 13 November 2014. Thanks are due to Jan Kinrade for additional biographical information about Gillingham.

KW

Can a colour save the planet? Michel Pastoureau’s new book, Green.

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Miniature of hunters dressed in green from illuminated manuscript of the Livre de la chasse, by Gaston Phoebus, c.1470, taken from Michel Pastoureau’s new book, Green, published by Princeton University Press.

Everyone has a favourite colour, as well as a particular bête-noire. The artist Edward Bawden, who along with Eric Ravilious adopted Essex and made an art out of its ramshackle farm outhouses, small-holdings, and bleak winter fields, once said that the approach of Spring filled him with horror, knowing that everything would turn green. Both he and Ravilious preferred the browns, russets, mauves, greens and muted colours of the furrowed fields, decoy ponds and fens of East Anglia in winter.

Yet today green is not only the colour of the age we live in, but its politics, economy and even its future. How so? In Michel Pastoureau’s fascinating new book, Green: the history of a colour, translated by Jody Gladding – the third in his series of monographs on colour – the French historian writes of a colour which has been ‘long unnoticed, disliked, or rejected, (and) now is entrusted with the impossible mission of saving the planet.’ Can a simple colour – not even one of the primary colours – really possess this power?

Well yes, and no, seems to be the answer. It helps if, like Pastoureau, you understand that colours do not embody essentialist qualities, unchanging over time and culture, but are social constructs, given meaning within the cultures in which they are used. So in different periods in European history green has been loved and feared, admired and detested. While it is the colour of Spring and renewed growth in the natural world, it is also the colour of putrefaction and even of the decaying corpse itself. When the Icelandic sailor and warrior Erik the Red landed on a large island in the North Atlantic, he found it so amenable that he called it Greenland. Furthermore, it has long been the sacred colour of Islam, with Pastoureau suggesting that it might have been adopted originally in opposition to the red and white of the Crusades.

The use of the colour by artists is equally mutable, and here too the conventions change over time. Until the late 19th century the sea was always painted green, since when it has usually been painted in varying shades of grey or blue. Pastoureau has a wonderful short chapter on what he terms Protestant ‘chromoclasm’ – in short, the cultural war on bright colours in both religious and artistic contexts. Portraits of great Protestant thinkers and martyrs showed them predominantly dressed in black; churches were rendered less ornate and colourful. Colour and morality appear intertwined in different periods. For more than a hundred years the green of the sports field has been echoed in the green baize of the card table and the billiard hall, a site of chance, fortune or danger, and painters have been adept in employing the colour in this subliminal way.

In recent times green has acquired new associations. In a rather denatured form it has become the colour of the world of medicine and public health (in French the colour is vert clinique): the green cross of the pharmacy, the green walls of the operating theatre (as well as, quite frequently, the public toilet). But, far more importantly, it has become the colour of environmentalism, often acting as a flag of convenience for any enterprise which wishes to ingratiate itself with the public in the name of a more caring, sharing future: greenwash. Today green is everywhere in politics, if not in the natural world – so much so that it threatens to lose much if not all of its symbolic power. Bawden was probably right to suspect a colour that came too readily freighted with a set of benign and comfortable associations, believing that human reality (as well as the artistic representation of landscape) comes not in bold colours, but in many shades and hues between.

KW