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: photography

Figures in a landscape?


From time to time academics debate the geographical area required to talk meaningfully about a distinctive landscape type: parish, county, region? All seem to make sense at some time or another as a catch-all envelope for topographical distinctiveness.  Sometimes, though, a landscape can be as commanding as a mere twenty yards of pavement adjacent to a bricked up flank wall, as it is in Colin O’Brien’s evocative collection of photographs of Travellers’ Children in London Fields just published.

O’Brien took these black and white photographs in 1987, after coming across a temporary travellers’ encampment close to the railway arches next to London Fields in Hackney.  Most importantly, he took them after asking permission from the parents and children, and these vibrant portraits are now published for the first time in one collection. It was noteworthy that some of those portrayed so many years ago came to the book launch, a celebratory affair which took place less than 100 yards from where the photographs were originally taken.

Some will argue that this is ‘street photography’, a genre that has very little to do with landscape. Can we be so sure?  A lot of street photography historically has been voyeuristic (taken surreptitiously too), using a grim urban background to add depth to what is essentially an anthropological gaze.  There are exceptions, for example in the work of documentary photographers like Helen Levitt in New York and Roger Mayne in Notting Hill, whose respect and admiration for the children they photographed shone through.  Respect and affection for his subjects shine through O’Brien’s photographs.

There is every reason to regard these portraits as ‘figures in a landscape’. The run-down setting of Hackney’s former industrial backstreets – halfway to ruin at the time the photographs were taken – represents the marginal places where travellers arrive, stay for a while and subsequently move, or are moved on.  Significantly the book’s title Travellers’ Children in London Fields evokes the pastoral landscapes that once existed here, residual elements of which exist in the shape of the popular park which now takes that name. As such, the few yards of Martello Street which provide the backdrop to these portraits are imbued with genuine topographical elements – not stage scenery.

This elegant book is the first publication from the admirable Spitalfields Life blog, already gaining an enviable reputation for heroic endeavours in the field of local history, and well in the forefront of the ‘history from below’ movement in its 21st century digital manifestation and reach.


After the Games


The Lower Lea Valley experienced rapid change in preparation for the 2012 London Olympics.  Once a centre of manufacturing, most of the industry has now gone. What remains are a series of transitory landscapes which are neither industrial nor natural, and of course within the wider landscape there is the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Searching for historical and cultural traces within the Olympic Park seems a futile exercise, as most have been erased. The odd tree and bridge are all that remains.  The River Lea provides some sort of orientation, but over time, it had become increasingly difficult to make the connection between what was there before and what is there now. Since the July 2012 games the Olympic Park is once again in a state of flux, as it is being prepared for a partial re-opening in July 2013.

This photograph is part of commission for the Telegraph Magazine that documents the process of change within the Olympic Park since late 2012. The photograph will then become part of a larger project on the changing landscapes of east London.

London: The Soul of the Streets

This should be an interesting evening, involving three very different approaches to urban form. Austrian media artist Hubert Blanz is exhibiting work which takes a highly compositional approach to the signs and symbols of the city sometimes as circuitry, sometimes wholly computer-generated, and sometimes as traditional photo-montage. His particular interest in the London housing form, the subject of the Homeseekers project, continues the central European fascination with British terraced housing, most famously described in one of the greatest architectural studies of all time: The English House by Herman Muthesius, first published in 1905.

Iain Sinclair is as much concerned with the psychological resonances of built form and topography as much as its constructional, visual history.  He is well known as a walker and a chronicler of the myriad associations of past and present, fear and loathing, utopianism and catastrophe, in the life of the city.

Andrea Zimmerman is an artist and housing activist in Hackney, whose film, Estate: a reverie, is a beautiful and moving record of how a run-down public housing tenement estate was transformed, through collaborative projects signalling the dignity and diversity of experience and personal history of many of the people condemned to live there.

Where we live, how we live, and how the shape and feel of London exerts so much influence on the street life and culture of the city is bound to raise some very interesting questions. Ken will be chairing this event.


London: The Soul of the Streets

May 23 2013  7.00 pm Austrian Cultural Forum London

28 Rutland Gate, London SW7 1PQ

Admission free, but booking is advised

Horsey Island, Essex

Jason and I have been doing a lot of walking this winter along the Essex coast – and even spending time on some of the smaller islands – while thinking hard about how to join Martin Amis’s ‘war against the cliché’ when it comes to writing about and photographing these tidal fringes.  We spent several nights on Horsey Island in Hamford Water in late February, before the wildfowl breeding season, and got up in the dark for early morning forays along the seawalls, peering into the gloom to try to distinguish sky, sea and mud from each other, with little success. It is all very fluid and mysterious out there.

Crossing the causeway to Horsey Island is an hallucinatory experience. Unusually, the causeway is below the level of the adjacent river-bed, so we were driving almost at eye level with the mudflats and flowing watercourses on either side, where the waders seem almost unperturbed, making it possible to pass within six feet of a curlew or cluster of elegantly-crested lapwings. The crossing is a white-knuckle ride from side to side and up and down through the pot-holes and small residual sea-water ponds left by the tide.

The islands of Essex are too little known.  Apart from their wildlife conservation qualities, they have also served in the moral rehabilitation of people, whether at Osea Island near Maldon, where conscience-stricken brewer, Frederick Charrington founded  a Temperance Hotel – later being adapted as sanctuary for those with addiction problems – or on Canvey Island where ‘The Girls’ Bungalow’, otherwise known as the Social Institute, was established by Miss Clara James in 1909 (who later founded the Labour Party on the island) as a holiday home for working girls from East London. Canvey, where for a time I lived as a child,  was also the setting for Hotel Ozonia, a temperance and fresh-air settlement, which in 1938 advertised over 60 rooms available for healthy recuperation.

Less benignly, Bramble Island, also located like Horsey Island in Hamford Water, has been used for developing, testing and storing explosives, and is still very much out of bounds. Foulness Island, further south on the northern edge of the Thames Estuary,  has for more than a hundred years been sequestered for weapons development and testing by the military. The indigenous community on Foulness was once so isolated from the wider world that the women of Foulness wore Dutch costume as normal attire until the First World War. Even I can remember carnival time on Canvey when we all had to dress up as little Dutch girls and boys.