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.

Category: Visual Arts, Literature and Books, Galleries

An accidental beauty

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Mounds, Norfolk (2013)

Along with Grant Gee’s haunting new film, Innocence of Memories, based on Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 novel The Museum of Innocence, there is an exhibition displaying a small section of Pamuk’s legendary Istanbul museum currently on show at Somerset House in London; admission is free.

Pamuk remains pre-occupied with the power of objects to trigger associations, believing that ‘things’ in themselves possess qualities which allow us to remember, dream and even hope outside of the passage of time. In the vitrines exhibited here – in an appropriately gloomy basement – are primarily domestic objects: matchboxes, food packaging, photographs, patent medicine bottles, toys, cigarette butts and perfume bottles. These objects and icons, rescued from everyday life, evoke and represent the lives of the novel’s characters during the period in which The Museum of Innocence is set, though they are clearly dear to Pamuk and his memories of life in Istanbul during the same period.

A short text accompanies the display, in which the novelist (who had once studied to be a painter) proposed a link between the world of such domestic objects and the wider Turkish landscape. Pamuk writes that he came to this understanding,

‘…after many years of collecting objects, of visualizing and sketching cabinet layouts as if I were writing theatrical stage directions. Looking at the photographs we took during this process, I realized that I was doing what the Istanbul landscape painters I so admired did: looking for an accidental beauty in the convergence of trees, electrical cables and pylons, ships clouds, objects and people. The greatest happiness is when the eye discovers beauty where neither the mind conceived nor the hand intended any.’

There is a clear echo here of Rilke’s lines from the Ninth Duino Elegy:

‘Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit tree, window – at most: column, tower…’

In Britain the debate about modern landscape aesthetics rolls on with, most recently, garden writer Anna Pavord, describing in her new book, Landskipping, how she went out of her way to try to love the Norfolk coastal fens – and failed. For Pavord the wooded hills and valleys of Herefordshire, where she grew up, and of Dorset, where she has lived for more than 40 years, have set the standard for what one might value and cherish. She is not, however, a Romantic, coming from a farming background, and feeling more at home with the writings of William Cobbett – who always had an eye for the working countryside which produced so much of the necessities of life – than with the poets and tourists. One chapter details the changing demand in field crops – rape, flax, linseed – and very recently, to poppies, now apparently grown in the UK under stringent conditions for the pharmaceutical industry’s need to produce more morphine. Who knew?

Is it just a matter of personal taste, or familiarity, which decides that one person thinks the sunny uplands are the only place to be, whereas another person cleaves to the forests, or the fens? Pamuk’s delight in the accidental beauty of juxtaposition, between the rural and the industrial, or people and things, now seems more appropriate to the age in which we live. The arbitrary juxtapositions which provide Pamuk with his small epiphanies, are what in photographic terms Roland Barthes once described as ‘the trouvaille or lucky find’: a particular moment when incongruous objects and settings imaginatively cohere.

Too often now the generic term landscape is vague and unhelpful, producing confusion – and category errors – rather than clarity. There is the landscape once termed ‘natural’ (though very few places in the world have escaped the imprint of human activity), but mostly associated with agricultural work. There are the landscapes which are clearly man-made, and associated with the rise of industrialism, the urban world and great transport networks. But there are also the designed landscapes produced by garden designers and landscape architects, specifically to produce particular emotional effects, or to evoke historical antecedents. And there is also the landscape as a constructed ideal, most evident in the work of painters such as Claude. All have their different discourses and uses, but there are more questions than answers when discussion elides too easily between them.

And then of course there is nature writing – we could be here for days.

KW/Mounds, Norfolk (2013) © Jason Orton

William Morris in Walthamstow

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The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow has just won the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year Award, along with £100,000 prize money. Equally welcome is the news that the museum is to be the home-coming venue for Jeremy Deller’s exhibition, English Magic, at this year’s Venice Biennale. Both are fully deserved. The lottery-funded restoration of the house and the adjacent Lloyd Park has been a triumph, the beautifully conceived refurbishment of the former by Pringle Richards Sharratt Architects. No wonder the place is now so well-visited. Friendly staff too – what more could you want?

As many people know, it might not have happened this way. Some years ago local politicians decided to run-down the museum, which they claimed was no longer culturally relevant. But the tide turned. Having realised their short-sightedness, other colleagues did a political U-turn and eventually a successful lottery bid was put together. The rest is now history. There is a lot of new interest amongst younger artists in Morris, the Pre-Raphaelites and the wider arts and crafts movement, yet for some people Morris’s Walthamstow origins are a bit of an embarrassment. They prefer to see him as a dreamer of the upper Thames, a backwater landscape of water meadows and villages built of hand-dressed stone. Having been schooled at Marlborough, then a student at Oxford University, he set up house at Kelmscott Manor in the Cotswolds before finally moving to a terraced house on the Thames at Hammersmith, still safely upriver. News from Nowhere, his famous utopian fantasy, is a dream of some kind of return to medieval courtly life and social relations, set in this slightly ‘wind in the willows’ landscape.

Although physically and spiritually Morris lived in the upper reaches of the Thames, his political influence was carried firmly east.  His lectures on labour, arts and life, given in Hoxton, Hackney, and Victoria Park, were amongst his most important political speeches, lectures and essays. More significantly his influence encouraged architect W.R.Lethaby to establish London’s pioneering Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1896, which became a direct influence on the setting up of the Bauhaus School in Dessau in 1919, and hence to the rise of the modern movement. Surprisingly, the controversial French writer, Michel Houellebecq, in his most recent novel, The Map and the Territory, devotes substantial space to declaring Morris the towering intellectual figure of the 19th century.

The success of the Walthamstow restoration may mean that Morris’s formative years, growing up near Epping Forest and the River Lea, may help re-position his life and ideas. He played as a child in Epping Forest, and identified strongly with the Peasants’ Revolt and its leader John Ball, about whom he wrote one of his romances. ‘I come not from heaven’, Ball announces at one point in this short novel, ‘but from Essex’. The more Morris is painted as a Romantic who dwelt, as E.P.Thompson once wrote of Morris’s early poetic influences, ‘away from the main channels of life, and towards ever-more secluded creeks and backwaters’, the less we realise how important his political and cultural ideas were on the pioneers of twentieth-century town planning, on modern design and the possibility of a revolution in everyday life.