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: Raymond Williams

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.

KW

Down by the river


Set amongst the houseboat community on the Thames near Fulham, A.P.Herbert’s popular 1930 novel, The Water Gypsies, portrayed a collection of people at odds with society. The main characters still worked the river as bargees, having spent all their lives with their families on the water, but others had adopted life on water as an escape. Living on or close by rivers was long associated with poverty and bohemian marginality and this theme is taken up and demonstrated in Stefan Szczelkun’s delightful photographic pocket-book, Plotlands of Shepperton, just published.

Stefan grew up in Shepperton and in 1966 and studied architecture in Portsmouth. I suspect his interest in vernacular architecture over-rode a concern with standard architectural forms and theories. Given that he was also a musician who once toured with the wildly experimental Scratch Orchestra in the early 70s, it was not surprising to read that he describes the self-built riverside chalets as being ‘the architectural equivalent of improvised music.’ On that I’m not so sure. If the common factor was just improvisation then a comparison would be fair, but I think the improvisational skills used to build homes and create working settlements or communities, are different from the skills needed to go beyond high culture into the sphere of the artistic avant-garde.

On such matters I am always reminded of Raymond Williams’ distinction between customary and educated experience, and I think these are in play here. Nevertheless, there are genuine affinities. After all, one of the most erudite historians of vernacular architecture around the world, the late Paul Oliver, was also a notable advocate and chronicler of blues and gospel music. As to the Scratch Orchestra, I did hear erstwhile members of the orchestra play once in the early 1970s, accompanying a production of Bertolt Brecht’s rigidly doctrinaire play, The Measures Taken, at The Duke of Wellington pub on Balls Pond Road, with Cornelius Cardew noisily pummelling an electric keyboard for much of the time.

Plotlands of Shepperton adds a vivid and indispensable chapter to the history of housing in Britain, paying homage to people who exercised their right to live decently in the face of bureaucratic opposition. As Szczelkun explains, it became possible to acquire these riverside sites cheaply after the First World War for two reasons. Firstly, because many landed estates were broken up when their owners became unable to pay increased death duties and many of the male heirs to the estates had been killed in the trenches. Secondly, there was a glut of cheap farmland available during the recession during the inter-war depression. As a result, there was a small boom in self-building along the upper Thames, with chalets either constructed wholly on site, or bought as pre-fabricated flat packs delivered by barge from W.Gardam & Sons at Staines.

There was nothing standardised once the basic structure – consisting commonly of two adjacent rooms plus a verandah – was in place. Owners soon started adding decorative flourishes inside and out as an expression of their individuality. They also made a point of not only giving them poetic names – Idle Waters, Wild Thyme, The Haven – but invariably inscribed them on idiosyncratic name-boards. Thus folk art continued. This did not please the planners. Szczelkun cites a Planning Report of 1930 which contends that: ‘The bungalows, by the exercise of every possible eccentricity and mark of individuality, break up the line of the river. Each house has its gable, its weathervane, each plot its fence and railing, its flagstaff, its name-board and its crazy paving.’ In such decorative traditions the Shepperton plotlanders were adopting those of earlier barge and narrow-boat communities, famous for floral and picturesque motifs and fairground lettering. This was something A.P.Herbert picked up in his novel, noting that, ‘Not one inch of these Lilliputian homes was wasted for services, every inch was a decoration.’

Szczelkun has packed an awful lot into his small book, artfully designed as a continuous photographic panorama. Page follows page of colourful riverside dwellings, with fascinating footnotes running along the bottom. Here you can read of the history of the Shepperton plotlands enlivened with a dash of anarchist theory. It now sits on the bookshelf next to another delightful monograph, The Life and Times of the Houseboats of Leigh-on-Sea, written by Carol Edwards and published in 2009, a present from Rachel Lichtenstein. I can’t better the affecting words of Matthew Fuller printed on the back cover of Plotlands of Shepperton: ‘This is a subtly joyous and thoughtful appreciative book; in many ways a celebration of a thousand quiet victories.’ I completely agree.

KW

‘Plotlands of Shepperton’ is available £10 in the UK direct from Stefan Szczelkun:

https://stefan-szczelkun.blogspot.com/2020/10/new-book-plotlands-of-shepperton.html