This is the place

Lines of Defence by Bettina Furnée

When it comes to writing about landscape, or making art about it, there’s little escape from Ruskin’s notion of the ‘pathetic fallacy’, whereby mind and place are inevitably trapped in an inescapable web of feeling. Perhaps only artistic representation allows us to step back and more dispassionately interrogate what it is we feel about certain landscape conditions and why we do so. Susan Owens’ Spirit of Place: Artists, Writers & the British Landscape is an excellent history of landscape representation, whether imagined in prose, poetry or through the visual arts. Having finished and enjoyed it, I nevertheless went back to Patrick Keiller’s short book, The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, for a corrective. My only difficulty with Owen’s book for me is the underlay of chronological determinism, as century by century, decade by decade, one innovation leads to the next. In a section on the matter of grand landscape design, we encounter Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, then William Kent, then Humphrey Repton, in what is by now a too familiar exercise in baton-passing.

In contrast, Keiller juxtaposed William Dyce’s epochal painting Pegwell Bay – which is in both Owens’ and Keiller’s expositions and rightly so – with the redundant cement works at Shipton-on-Cherwell awaiting redevelopment. In the same spirit Keiller alternates photographs of Greenham Common with the neighbouring 18th century West Green House, once the headquarters of the Hellfire Club (Fay Ce Que Vouldras – Do As You Will) later the residence of Lord McAlpine, treasurer of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party. Without contraries there is no progression, as William Blake advised, while Hilary Mantel recently admitted in an interview to having no interest in time’s arrow only in circularity. Yet when Owens focuses, as she does, incisively, on Pegwell Bay, her reflections on Ruskin’s religious terror of the geologist’s hammer – which is what the painting alludes to as the gloomy cliffs give way to the fossil record – is revelatory. On this and almost every other page Owens has something acute to say, and always elegantly so, though she is more engaging on the exterior world of landscape than on the few occasions she withdraws into the great houses.

Owens also leaves too little room for more recent times, in a study dominated by the picturesque, the sublime, and what Raymond Williams once called ‘the enamelled world’ of received good taste and opinion. There is a sudden hurrying towards the end to modernist and post-industrial debates on contemporary aesthetics – extremely welcome but sadly too little too late. The chronological problem is compounded by the way tastes change in relation to different regional topographies and boundaries, as landscapes fall in or out of favour according to the spirit of the age. In the 18th century a reference to ‘the eastern counties’ refers principally to Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk as far as tourists of the picturesque are concerned. Suffolk and Essex are only enlisted into the eastern territories in the late 19th century (except for John Constable), while the right of Essex to belong to East Anglia remains contested. Yet these two latter counties have provided some of the most important territory for investigating landscape in modern times, whether in the work of Paul Nash, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Prunella Clough, Maggi Hambling, Benjamin Britten, Sylvia Townsend Warner, John Cowper Powys (notably in his overlooked East Anglian novel Rodmoor), W.G.Sebald, Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin, Jules Pretty, Sarah Perry, Melissa Harrison and many others.

In the work of such artists and writers, spirit of place is not inherent or essentialist, but disputed or contested territory, disrupted by war, flooding or migration, its mutable marshlands, fens, vast skies and winter seas more fitting to the mood of a world no longer grounded in national history or geographical and spiritual interiority. Here again it is Keiller who emphasises that when it comes to spirit of place, cycles of both dwelling and displacement are necessarily involved in a struggle that can never be finally resolved.

Owens comes up trumps at the end, however, concluding her study by extolling the virtues of a work by Dutch artist Bettina Furnée, Lines of Defence. This eloquent and emotional record of coastal erosion on the Suffolk coast at Bawdsey, filmed over a year using time-lapse photography, and employing a text by Simon Frazer, is an astonishing work, and I remember seeing the film at one of the now legendary ‘Place’ weekend cultural forums at Snape Maltings about ten years ago: it left the audience silent in admiration and melancholy awe. As concepts of place continue to gather political and critical attention, Owens’ study provides a worthy contribution to the discussion, and it would be good to see her writing more about 20th and 21st century writers and artists on the strength of this intellectual outing.