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.

Tag: Focal Point Gallery

Expect a fight

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Rainham Marshes (2010)

When someone talks about the creation of a ‘new nature’ expect a fight. Yet it is happening all the time, since human activity has been re-shaping the natural world for millennia. Nevertheless, the pace of change has been accelerating, and for many observers now appears out of – if not beyond – control. Oliver Rackham wrote in his excellent ‘History of the Countryside’ that ‘Much of England in 1945 would have been instantly recognizable to Sir Thomas More, and some areas would have been recognized by Emperor Claudius.’ Coming closer to home he also noted that the pattern of development in south-east Essex today ‘has all been inserted into a grid laid out nearly two thousand years ago.’ When landscape architect Peter Beard marked out the footpath systems for the new RSPB site at Rainham Marshes, on the Thames, close to London, he told me he was following the lines of ancient brushwood tracks, traces of which date back to the Bronze Age.

The claim that we are in the process of creating a new nature is made by environmental historian, Paul Warde, in a collection of essays, Local Places, Global Processes, just published by Oxbow Books. Warde is one of a number of artists, academics and environmentalists gathered together for a series of workshops held at three large nature conservation projects in England, the papers, reports and findings of which are now in print. The projects evaluated were: Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, the Quantock Hills (England’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), and Kielder Water and Forest in Northumberland, an almost entirely twentieth-century man-made environment of reservoirs and commercial forestry.

This is probably a book for a specialist readership, particularly those involved in nature conservation and landscape character assessment (though there is by now a tourist industry audience keen to develop new niche markets in ‘green leisure’). Issues of what is beautiful, what is sustainable, what is authentic and what is truly ‘wild’ are repeatedly discussed, often in subtle and rewarding ways. T.C.Smout’s short essay, ‘Birds and Squirrels as History’, is especially enjoyable and original, in tracing the rise and fall of different avian species in relation to social and economic changes in the environment. Equally clear-eyed and to the point is Paul Warde’s chapter, ‘Names and Places’, alerting us to the impoverishment of environmental awareness resulting from the loss of attention to the proper names of things and their provenance – an issue on which Robert Macfarlane has been much exercised in recent times, and rightly so.

The contributors make up a broad church, working along a continuum of interest in landscape matters, ranging from the art-historical, the aesthetic, the conservationist, the managerial, to those working in landscape design, as well as people interested in deep ecology and re-wilding. This is welcome. Although I much enjoyed Richard Mabey’s recent dismantling of the reputation of Capability Brown in the New Statesman, echoing and developing Mabey’s long-standing scepticism about nature conservation in general, and landscape architecture in particular, there is also much to be admired in the work of those who are trying to bridge the gaps, and work across the borders.

Neither is it too late to change your mind. Marianna Dudley tells the story of how the ageing Wordsworth – of whom it is commonly believed that he became an irredeemable and intransigent Tory – was told that his dinner party host one evening was the man responsible for building a wall across a local footpath. On learning this the poet shouted, ‘I broke your wall down, Sir John, it was obstructing an ancient right of way, and I will do it again. I am a Tory, but scratch me on the back deep enough and you will find the Whig in me yet.’ That is fighting talk.

Ken Worpole

Rainham Marshes (2010) © Jason Orton

Radical Essex Architectural Weekend: The Modernist County

10-11 September 2016

Ken will be joining a panel at the Radical Essex weekend on Saturday 10 September at Silver End to discuss Landscape, Identity & The London Spill. Other speakers include Matthew Butcher, Tim Burrows, Gillian Darley, Charles Holland and Rachel Lichtenstein. For the full programme of the weekend’s talks and visits go to: www.fpg.org.uk

Under a leaden sky

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Bow Bridge by W. J. Steggles

Our last blog suggested people hurry to see the ‘Peculiar People’ exhibition at the Focal Point Gallery in Southend-on-Sea. Now there’s an extra reason for a trip to the seaside. Only three hundred yards from Focal Point, the Beecroft Art Gallery is hosting a rare exhibition devoted to the work of The East London Group, and the two exhibitions complement each other perfectly.

The East London Group was a body of amateur artists inspired and taught by the academically trained painter John Cooper at an evening class in Bethnal Green (and subsequently Bow) in the 1920s and 1930s. They were quick to make their mark not only on the local scene but soon achieved national and even international acclaim. Hence the title of the beautifully illustrated volume re-issued again this year to accompany the exhibition, David Buckman’s, From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group. Within a few years of picking up their paintbrushes, two of the group, Elwin Hawthorne and W.J.Steggles, were selected to exhibit their work at the 1936 Venice Biennale.

ELG Front Cover copy

Full disclosure: everything I know about the East London Group I owe to Buckman’s wonderful book, a labour of love and the result of decades of research. To my shame I did not know of the group’s existence until this exhibition. Like the miners of Ashington, whose painting class was established in the same period, and whose work most recently enjoyed a revival of interest as a result of Lee Hall’s play, The Pitmen Painters, staged at The National Theatre, the East London Group was likewise made up of enthusiastic auto-didacts. The founding students included a park-keeper, basket-maker, engine-driver, window-cleaner and several office workers, who not unsurprisingly concentrated on painting domestic scenes and street life direct from experience.

According to one critic, what members shared in common was ‘the pale, attenuated light of the London streets’, while another chose to cite the American philosopher Emerson on the English aesthetic of evoking depth and sincerity in this kind of urban scene by painting as if ‘under a leaden sky’. Though focusing on street scenes to begin with, over time members travelled further afield, into Essex and Suffolk and beyond, where they proved equally adept at recording the mood and tones of different suburban and rural landscapes.

Cooper’s evening class in Bow was just one element in a rich network of ‘second chance’ opportunities for education offered in east London during this period – one thinks also of Toynbee Hall, The People’s Palace, Kingsley Hall, the Whitechapel Gallery and the Whitechapel Library, along with a number of Jewish organisations, clubs and theatres. In this period political activism and pedagogy went hand in hand.


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Marian Square by Albert Turpin

The biography of Albert Turpin, a founder member of the group, is the stuff of legend. Born in 1900 in a tenement off Columbia Road, Bethnal Green, the son of a feather-sorter, Turpin left school at 14, became a boxing champion, fought in the First World War, and for the rest of his life earned his living as a window-cleaner. An active socialist he became Mayor of Bethnal Green, led the often brutal street-fighting resistance to Mosley’s Blackshirts in the 1930s, as well as producing some of the finest oil paintings of East London life of any member of the East London Group. Towards the end of his life Turpin became attracted to the conciliatory ethos of Moral Re-Armament, as did a number of trade unionists and Labour Party stalwarts after the Second World War.

Not only were East London Group members lucky to have had Cooper as their tutor and fellow artist, they were also able to take advantage of Cooper’s contacts in the commercial art world. From the outset their work was exhibited in a West End Gallery, and was bought by collectors. Why the East London Group became forgotten – compared with the Ashington Group, for example – is a mystery, but the Beecroft exhibition combined with the new edition of Buckman’s book, brings them back into the light again, deservedly so.

KW

Images of paintings published by kind permission of Francis Boutle Publishers

The East London Group – ‘Out of the City’ exhibition is on at The Beecroft Gallery, Southend on Sea, until 25 June 2016.

From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group, New Revised Edition, 2016, by David Buckman, is published by Francis Boutle Publishers.

‘We are not afraid of the future’ The Peculiar People: an exhibition at Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea, 19 April – 2 July 2016

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Masthead of The New Order anarchist newspaper produced at The Purleigh Colony in Essex, and reproduced from ‘Alternative Communities in Nineteenth Century England’ by Dennis Hardy

There was a packed opening night at this new exhibition at the Focal Point Gallery in Southend on 16 April, and a great party atmosphere too. After decades of embarrassed silence, a rich history of political and religious non-conformism and radicalism in Essex is now being properly acknowledged, in a county that has been the subject of much cynical misrepresentation, but which is here revealed as a key social laboratory for all kinds of experiments in living in the 20th century. The exhibition title takes its name from a Nonconformist sect unique to Essex, The Peculiar People, about which we blogged earlier this year, and the gallery itself has been handsomely re-housed within the state of the art new public library, The Forum.

The tutelary spirit of anarchist historian Colin Ward hovers over the exhibition, for it was Ward, latterly with Dennis Hardy, who initially chronicled the self-built plotland communities and rural communes to be found on the margins of Essex. Ward suggested that they arose there because of a relative proximity to London’s politically volatile East End, but also – following the agricultural depression of the 1870s – land was cheap. The ground plans of the Dunton colony near Laindon are on display, but also included is a rare opportunity to listen to a recording of Ward giving his 1985 lecture, Arcadia for All – A study of the Essex Plotlands.

Close to Dunton, in East Tilbury, the Czech shoe manufacturer Tomas Bata established his model industrial village in 1932, having been persuaded by a local clergyman to come to the aid of the many unemployed in the area. At its peak, Bataville employed over 4,000 workers, many of whom lived in houses supplied by Bata, and designed in a modernist style. Workers were encouraged to participate in company leisure-time activities – outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts, 350-seat cinema and technical college – and even took ski-ing holidays in Czechoslovakia at the company’s resorts there. No zero-hours contracts then. ‘We are not afraid of the future’ was Bata’s maxim, and a selection of plans and drawings of his model town are on display, supported by documentary footage from a film by Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope.

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Credit: Fraser Muggeridge Studio

Along with Bataville, Silver End Garden Village near Witham was another attempt to build an industrial settlement as a utopian community (even if ordained from above, as both manifestly were). Established in 1926 by Francis Crittall (1860 – 1935), a successful manufacturer of metal window frames, the housing was designed in a high modernist style by architect Thomas Tait. The village was almost entirely self-sufficient, and at the time regarded as one of the healthiest settlements in Britain, and is still much visited by architecture students.

The overlap between the socially minded and the religiously inspired was strong in the early 20th century, so it is not surprising that many of the religious settlements featured in the exhibition – Hadleigh Farm Colony, Osea Temperance Society, the Othona Community at Bradwell, among others – were centres for the rehabilitation of those whose lives had previously been blighted by poverty, ill-health, addiction, or as places of spiritual retreat. Wide-ranging as it is, the exhibition only scratches the surface of the dozens of self-sufficient or therapeutic communities established in Essex over the past hundred years, many of which remain unrecorded.

The principal gallery space also includes the work of artists and architects who took a fancy to the Essex scene, possibly because of its rough and ready unfashionability. A large vitrine displays a model by architect Cedric Price for an unrealised 1972 proposal to construct an inflatable roof to cover Southend High Street, along with a number of Price’s bold and expressive drawings. Other exhibits include watercolours, drawings or prints by Edward Bawden, Nigel Henderson, Eduardo Paolozzi, Milly Thompson, along with a generous display of work by poet and artist Henri Chopin.

The folk-modernist spirit of the old Southend Art College is captured in a display of books written and illustrated by Kurt Rowland, who taught at the college, and whose pioneering work in the field of design education became internationally renowned. Rowland may well have inspired the fanzines produced by the Southend Libertarian & Anarchist Broadsheet (SLAB) collective in the 1980s, a number of whom worked locally for HM Revenue & Customs, but, not unsurprisingly, contributed anonymously. Artist Christian Nyampeta completes the exhibition with his fashioning of Gallery 2 as a place for meeting, talking, reading and the exchange of views about the world, complete with striking murals, purpose-built furniture and book-shelves, all combining to create a small salon/library/retreat to which visitors can retire and reflect.

The exhibition is just one element in a longer project being carried out by Focal Point Gallery under the rubric, ‘Radical Essex’, and includes architectural study tours across the county, gallery talks, and related projects such as Matthew Butcher’s ‘Flood House’, the subject of our last posting. It’s a small step for Essex but a large step for mankind.

KW

Ken will be giving a talk at the Focal Point Gallery at 7pm on Thursday, 12 May, 2016, as part of the exhibition programme:

The New Life in Essex: nonconformist life and culture in the 20th century’

Admission is free, but booking essential at http://www.fpg.prg.uk

Before or after the Flood?

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Flood House, Thames Estuary. Drawing by Jason Coe

On Monday, 18 April, 2016, designer Matthew Butcher, will launch ‘Flood House’, an architectural prototype, at the Dauntless Boatyard in Benfleet, Essex, on the Thames Estuary. ‘Flood House’ is, in the words of Butcher, ‘a practical and poetic investigation into the living conditions of a seasonally flooded landscape.’

On first impression the proposed structure looks unwieldy, but for those aware of what often gets built on the fragile inter-tidal zone between land and sea – fishing sheds, pill-boxes, pontoons, houseboats – then the structure begins to make sense. It is also a gestural corrective to the old adage that architecture and water don’t mix.

Although Flood House will not be inhabited, it is nevertheless designed to test the conditions under which a floating habitat might work in the foreseeable future. This is with regard to ambient estuary conditions, whether in the form of changing weather conditions, tidal stresses, as well as air quality and changes in temperature and humidity inside the structure – all of which will be monitored. Flood House is made of ply and weatherboard and will float on three steel pontoons, all the elements of which will be assembled at the Benfleet boatyard, though much of it was pre-fabricated at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, where Butcher teaches.

‘Architecture is usually considered to be a stable, fixed entity where internal temperature and conditions of comfort are heavily controlled,’ Butcher wrote in his prospectus for the project. ‘Flood House seeks to challenge these notions, suggesting instead a nomadic architecture that forms a responsible relationship to its surrounding environmental conditions.’

When I recently met Butcher – along with project curator, Jes Fernie – I said I’d been following the architectural discussion in the UK over how the Dutch are now building on water. Butcher pointed out that admirable though the Dutch schemes are, they are mostly erecting conventional houses on floating foundations, which remain tethered to the shore. ‘Flood House’ is testing a prototype for a nomadic habitat, one that can be moved from one place to another, so in a way it is more boat than bungalow, more ship than shed. Following its launch on 18 April, the house will be towed from Benfleet to a boatyard in Wakering, then moored off Southend Pier, for public viewing.

‘Flood House’ is making more than just an environmental statement. Fernie, along with Focal Point Gallery, have also commissioned artist Ruth Ewan to work on the project. Under the rubric of ‘All Distinctions Levelled’, Ewan has designed a weathervane for the structure, inscribed with the palindrome ‘LEVEL’. ‘Level’ alludes to sea levels certainly, but also to levels of status and inequality, currently the subject of much political concern.

In the same way that the once abandoned canals of inner London have been given new life and public vitality in recent years by the proliferation of houseboat moorings, it would be inspiring to see more life in future around the coast and in the estuary as the result of a resurgence of foreshore or floating communities. Essex has a long tradition of houseboat communities – read Carol Edwards’ excellent little 2009 book, The Life and Times of the Houseboats of Leigh-on-Sea, for example – so one hopes that ‘Flood House’ represents an exciting new development in a continuing story of living off-grid, and on water.

‘Flood House’ is part of the larger ‘Radical Essex’ programme led by Focal Point Gallery in Southend, which will be the subject of our next posting.

For more details about ‘Flood House’ visit: http://flood.house

For more details about the ‘Radical Essex’ programme: http://www.focalpoint.org.uk

KW