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: The New English Landscape by Jason Orton and Ken Worpole

Neither land nor sea

Benfleet, Essex, March 2013 by Jason Orton

First walk of the year this week, and perfect weather. Three of us ambled slowly from Benfleet-on-Sea to Leigh-on Sea, just five miles, but much to look at and enjoy. Bargain tickets on C2C trains, just £6 return to Leigh from London’s Fenchurch Street Station, with a Freedom Pass and a Senior Railcard. The train journey itself tells the story of London and its expansion to the east in accelerated time. Limehouse, West Ham, Barking, Upminster (all variations and attenuated extensions of the historical East End), until one reaches the marshlands and estuary shoreline of Rainham, the scrubland of Laindon with its motley scatterings of ponies and horses, before the train pulls directly alongside the Thames at Benfleet Creek. From then on it is open skies and vast expanses of bright water.

I’ve done this train journey on and off for nearly seventy years – since a steam train used to take my mother, brother and myself from Benfleet to Barking to visit relations in East Ham in the early 1950s. While the London end of the trip is now a place of constant change and upheaval, the approach to Benfleet Creek and the view across to Canvey Island and the North Kent coast has hardly altered. Even the railway station seems much the same. As the writer William Gibson once wrote, the future has arrived but has been unevenly distributed. The further you travel to the Essex coastal creeks and marshlands, the further you travel back in time. A lot of the broken carcasses of old houseboats, cutters and sailing barges beached on the mud at Benfleet date back to pre-war times, if not long before.

Benfleet is not only the start of the downland approaches to Leigh and Southend, but also provides a bridge to Canvey Island. From here on it is ‘neither land nor sea’. At high tide water flows in, around, behind, and sometimes all over the shoreline and its myriad tributaries and creeks. Islands, outcrops of saltmarsh, grazing land, all appear and disappear in the space of a couple of hours. Hence the swirling clouds of waders in the sky, as their feeding grounds disappear beneath the waves, and they are forced to move further inland. This particular walk was memorable for so many of these fast-drifting swarms of dunlin, curlew and Brent Geese, the former shoaling in the air, wave after wave. The mud shines iridescent before it succumbs to the incoming tide. There is a lot of bird piping, particularly from redshanks, oystercatchers and curlew.

Rather more eerily, looking out to the Thames beyond Canvey Island, backlit by the sun and therefore in hazy outline, a strange shape was seen moving slowly downriver, against the tide. It looked like the whole of Basildon or Thamesmead was being towed out to sea. In fact it was one of the vast container ships heading into the Channel from the container port, DP World: London Gateway, at Thurrock, now creating a monumental shadow theatre. Turning inland, in complete contrast, there are the dramatic ruins of the 13th century Hadleigh Castle, painted by Constable shortly after his wife died, a darkening psychological study in abandonment. On this walk however it was more a case of ‘the splendour falls on castle walls’, as a bright sun lit up the remaining and imposing corner tower.

We sat for a while overlooking the western tip of Two Tree Island where the salt-water lagoons have become a thriving breeding ground for avocets, though this year’s cohort have yet to arrive. Instead, large numbers of curlew were re-grouping there. Finally arriving at Leigh-on-Sea, on what had become a warm Spring half-term holiday, the fishing village was en fête: packed to the gills. All the pubs had spilled out onto the cobbled High Street, and the seafood stalls had long queues. It was difficult to remember that it was still February. It always surprises me how too few Londoners know of Leigh-on-Sea, given that it is a proper working fishing harbour, with a picturesque collection of pubs and cafes, less than an hour from London by train. On the journey back to Fenchurch Street I suddenly remembered that some years ago I wrote up this walk for the Royal Geographical Society’s project on ‘Discovering Britain’: one of a number of ‘modest’ walks they had commissioned, and it can still be found online here.

KW

Benfleet, Essex, March 2013 © Jason Orton

Books and talks
Although both editions of The New English Landscape are now out of print, there are still a few copies of 350 Miles: An Essex Journey available, though not for much longer. You can buy them here. Meanwhile the Radical Essex book is currently re-printing and the Essex Book Festival starts next week.

A book designer writes…

The grid, invisible in the book but revealed here, shows text in two columns and one, the placing of headings and page numbers as well as the positioning of all photographs.

The grid, invisible in the book but revealed here, shows text in two columns and one, the placing of headings and page numbers as well as the positioning of all photographs.

In response to our last post, What is seen and what is said, in which the relationship between writers and photographers was discussed, Peter Brawne, who designed The New English Landscape, describes how we all worked together, and in doing so raises some timely questions about the role of design, which we are very happy to publish here. His contribution comes just as the second edition of  The New English Landscape is published, the success of the first edition owing much to the strength of the design and the impact this had on booksellers, reviewers and readers alike.

Design as a verb, design as a noun

‘The photographs are not illustrative. They, and the text, are coequal, mutually independent, fully collaborative.’ — James Agee in the introduction to the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men which he and photographer Walker Evans worked on together

‘In a way the photographs come into being fully composed, whereas the text is provisional until solidified in print, and design adds a further element in the overall “balance of power”.’ — Ken Worpole

‘Photographs’, ‘text’ and ‘design’ are all (or become) things. These words are nouns and the coming together of Jason’s photographs and Ken’s text in the form of the book, The New English Landscape, makes of them real objects out in the world. But design is also, and more interestingly, a verb. It describes the iterative process, albeit invisible to the reader, of originating and developing an object, in this case a book. And Ken hints at this. For ‘the balance of power’ during the making of the book was as much a matter of negotiation between writer and photographer as it was one of a considerable amount of to’ing and fro’ing between Ken, Jason and myself, the designer of the book. This would happen at meetings here in Kentish Town when the three of us would get together and look at and discuss print-outs showing text in different fonts; layouts with pictures this, that or another size; and much poring over colour swatches to choose just the right shade of green for the cover and section divider pages. More frequently, I’d send emails highlighting specific things to look at within PDF attachments: third, fourth or fifth lot of text corrections; chapter heads in one weight or another; a different treatment for the Contents page; a new picture added to the overall sequence, and so on. And, though, as John Berger is quoted as saying ‘…photos are a reminder of everything which is beyond the power of words … and the words recall what can never be made visible in any photographs’, both remain abstract, theoretical, locked inside a computer until the practice and processes of design and printing make both tangible: books, nouns.

WaysOfSeeing

It’s interesting that Berger is highlighted. As has often been noted, his hugely popular book Ways of Seeing is actually credited as the work of a team: Sven Bloomberg, collage artist; Michael Dibb, BBC producer (the book started life as a TV series); Chris Fox, a ‘critical’ friend; Richard Hollis, graphic designer as well as the writer John Berger himself. All were given equal credit in the book (if not the cover) to the extent that for the first printing Berger insisted that royalties be split equally five ways. Not only this, but according to Hollis, their roles were vaguely enough defined for there to be room for each collaborator to move across, or stray away from their own disciplines (see: https://www.typotheque.com/articles/ways of seeing book review).

I felt similar things happened during the course of making The New English Landscape, and as such, it created a virtuous circle, a symbiosis of means and ends. This pattern of working is different to the much touted idea of the ‘designer as author’ (or even ‘designer as artist’) where, in so many cases, the designer colonises the work of others — writer, photographer, illustrator — using their output as base materials to do with what s/he wants. The usually insensitive results can be seen in the art, architecture, design or photography sections of any bookshop: garish soap powder boxes masquerading as books. Of course you cannot not design, but it doesn’t therefore follow that design should adopt an intrusive, shouty, look-at-me posture.

The books by Berger et al were also interesting to me from the point of view of designing The New English Landscape. They highlight the possibilities of giving equal weight to pictures and text — pictures not used to illustrate the words; words not used merely as explanatory captions to pictures. Ways of Seeing acts as an exemplar of one particular way of doing this. What it does so efficiently, is quietly but unmistakably articulate a polemic by means of very exact juxtapositions of words and pictures. This creates a ‘third effect’: the power of the message results from pictures and text (but it could just as easily be two or more other elements) put together in close proximity asking to be read and viewed in relationship to each other. Without one or the other of these elements, the ‘effect’ wouldn’t work. They need and mutually reinforce each other. Hollis has acknowledged that he was influenced here by Chris Marker’s book Commentaires. Marker was a film-maker and in that book there are numerous stills from his films set within the text. Hollis, in an interview with Christopher Wilson, writer and designer, says, ‘As you read you knew exactly what was being talked about. It was a substitute for description: instead of talking about something, you show the objective visual evidence. That’s how I wanted to do Ways of Seeing, rather than having images by the side or text followed by a page of images.’ (see: http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature/article/reputations-richard-hollis).

Relevant here too, at least from a design point of view, is Marshall McLuhan’s book from 1967, The Medium is the Massage. Though the message of the book is open to question (McLuhan is alternately revered and vilified) much of it is spookily prescient. But what intrigues in this context is the inseparable links between words and images within a mass circulation paperback. Though all in black and white, pages, or more accurately double page spreads, are treated almost as a succession of posters: huge bled-off type combines with a photo of small figures; text changes from small to large as you read down the page giving the impression of it coming out towards you; a massively enlarged photo of a fingertip supporting a microchip sits on a black background with smaller white type on two lines ranged right; a diagram on one page is followed by a cartoon ‘BANG!’ It has been called ‘the first book for the television age’ (see: http://www.printmag.com/imprint/quentin-fiores-medium-and-massage/) and as such, it’s odd that so few books have followed in its pioneering footsteps. This was largely the work of Quentin Fiore, the book’s designer. Indeed, though the book is credited to McLuhan it actually came about through the instigation of Fiore, and, like Ways of Seeing, credit is also given to it’s ‘producer’, Jerome Agel.

Though many of these strategies wouldn’t work for The New English Landscape and it doesn’t follow these models, this desire to give equal weight to pictures and text as well as some of Hollis’s other values — and those of similarly thoughtful designers — specifically a refusal to adhere to stylistic dogmatisms, still permeates the book. Serif or sans serif fonts? I presented both before we settled on just one font but in different weights, Quadraat, designed by Fred Smeijers; adherence to one weight and size of text, or many? I used what seemed right in each circumstance; rigorous or flexible grid? Text pages have a wider left hand margin than picture pages as these already have generous amounts of white space top and bottom. Where Ways of Seeing is didactic and pedagogic (I first saw it as the TV series while on an art foundation course), Ken and Jason’s book is discursive, ruminative, open, and though there is much that is specific and particular, allusive too. The text is presented straight and with accessibility in mind. I’ve made no attempt to ‘interpret’ or ‘reinterpret’ it. To begin with, there was an assumption that text would be set justified (an even margin left and right). I argued for it to be ranged left (an even margin left, a ragged one right) as this felt more in keeping with what the text actually says (and does: it’s essayistic), it makes it feel less doctrinaire and provides a useful contrast to the even margins created by the squared-up photographs. In the end we went with this and I hope the initial anxieties that this might give the book a frivolous appearance have disappeared.

The other critical and too often overlooked aspect of a book is its printing and production. All the work that has been put into it to date can, in these final stages, be so easily ruined or wonderfully enhanced by what follows. I had seen well-made books produced by the Belgian printer Cassochrome and we were fortunate in being able to work with them. Laurence Soens came and visited me with samples of paper, colour guides and previous examples of work they had produced. So when the time came to hand over final artwork the groundwork for a productive relationship had already been laid. Their help and advice on paper and card was invaluable and their attention to the details of colour matching the original colour photographs with process inks (cyan, yellow, magenta and black) was exemplary. They also arranged for the binding, a special process called Otabind, to be done by the firm Hexspoor in the Netherlands. This method ensures that when turning pages, a book lies open without the need for pinioning it down (see: https://hyphenpress.co.uk/journal/article/bookbinding_survey). A small detail perhaps, but an important one.

And now, as the first print run has sold out, the book has been reprinted as before but with a few plaudits selected for the back cover. It’s due to arrive any day now and I’m looking forward to seeing it once again.

Peter Brawne

What we know and what we see

Engraving from Hydrotophia or Urne-Buriall by Sir Thomas Browne (1658).

Engraving from Hydrotophia or Urne-Buriall by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

One writer whose work influences the way the modern world thinks about landscape and memory is Sir Thomas Browne, whose strange essay, Hydrotaphia or Urne-Buriall, published in 1658, based on the excavation of a group of  fifty Saxon funerary urns on the Norfolk coast, raised a host of intriguing questions about relics, ruins and remains, and their presentiments of the future.  ‘A large part of the earth is still in the Urne unto us,’ he wrote, suggesting how much of the past remains buried beneath our feet.

Browne’s rich, recursive prose, endlessly circling around matters of life, death and the ‘invisible flame’of human self-consciousness and belief, made a deep impression on W.G.Sebald, whose allusive writings in turn now influence many of those pondering such questions today.

Ken will be talking about Browne, and what lies beneath the surface of the East Anglian landscape, at the forthcoming Essex Book Festival on 8 March, along with James Canton, Jay Griffiths, Philip Terry, Marina Warner and others. The theme of a day of talks, readings, films and discussions at the University of Essex is ‘Bones’, exploring ideas concerning death, underworlds, place, memory and redemption. Given that an awareness of death has almost disappeared from urban daily life for a variety of reasons – spatial, demographic, the ubiquity of out-of-town cremation – the rural cemetery is once again an important memento mori.

Graveyard, Bradwell - on - Sea (2005)

Graveyard, Bradwell – on – Sea (2005)

The ritual of church-visiting, even for the non-religious, is still a focal point of country walks and outings. One reason for this is that the overgrown churchyard has been a trope of many poems, novels and paintings imbued with a Romantic sensibility for a long time now, and continues to play an important role in the symbolic landscape. This is one reason, but not the only one, why we included a photograph of the churchyard at Bradwell-on-Sea first published in 350 Miles, which exercised a singular poignancy.

The relationship between what we know and what we see applies particularly to the ways in which much of the history of the past is barely visible in the landscape, as Browne noted. Even so, there are always  trace remains – hedgerow patterns, tree and plant species, changes of level in the ground, place names, public memory, as well as material remains such as gravestones of course – which is why there is truth in the otherwise glib phrase that ‘geography is history’.

There continue to be enthusiastic reviews of The New English Landscape since our last post. In Creative Review a wide-ranging interview with Jason explores and discusses his photographic work, and includes some previously unpublished photographs. In our next post we will be updating and providing links to the other reviews we’ve had since publication.

The ‘Bones’ event is part of the Essex Book Festival and takes place on Saturday, 8 March 2014 at The Lakeside Theatre, University of Essex, between 10.30 and 5pm. Tickets £5/£4. For more information go to www.essexbookfestival.org.uk

Place and its meanings

LowRes_Towards_ReEnchantment

Three years after its original publication in 2010, which sold out almost immediately, it is good to see Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings back in print. Edited by Gareth Evans and Di Robson, this was an influential collection of contributions around issues of place by writers, poets and photographers across the UK, as well as being one of the catalysts for our project, The New English Landscape.

At the time few if any contributors engaged directly with that powerful Victorian notion that as a result of the rise of science and secularism, the world had become ‘disenchanted’. Rational, scientific explanations of how everything in the world came into being, moved and eventually disappeared, appeared to strip human experience of mystery and even poetry. What is interesting is how attachment to place, and to the natural world, came to be substituted for what were once considered religious experiences, variously described as spiritual, rhapsodic or epiphenomenal.  It is significant how many contemporary writers, not least Will Self, increasingly refer back to William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, as a text to be revisited for our times.

Pool Spar Markers, Thames River

We’ve been intrigued and flattered at what bloggers and reviewers have said so far about The New English Landscape, because most have alluded to or occupied this territory of the numinous and the utopian. Wallpaper magazine suggested that, ‘Jason Orton’s photographs provide an almost forensic insight  into a shifting landscape, while Ken Worpole’s texts take you into the strange histories of these emotionally remote places.’  Meanwhile Caught By The River referred approvingly to ‘a sense of everyday otherworldiness’ of the prose and the photography, while Josh Loeb wrote of the ‘wonderfully mesmeric quality’ of the photographs, and even went so far as to describe the project as ‘transcendental’.

Yet it could be argued that this current search for ‘enchantment’ in the natural world, or in the psycho-geography of urban space, is only a new version of the 18th century projection of human emotions on to an indifferent universe in its localised material presence in the form of landscape and place.  The ‘pathetic fallacy’ as it came to be called, whereby all kinds of emotions could be attributed to certain kinds of landscape – wild, unruly, placid, calm – is alive and well, but we hope we’ve avoided such forms of projection through establishing a tension between words and images, the exigencies of social history and visual richness, so that there is an interrogative presence at work in our response to landscape as well as an appreciative one.

Ken will be in discussion with Gareth Evans and Rachel Lichtenstein about The New English Landscape at the London Review Bookshop next Thursday, 28 November at 7pm – don’t forget to book a place.

On the road……

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Having spent the last few weeks delivering books we are now putting together a series of talks and events:

Shorelines: Literature Festival of the Sea 8-10 November, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex

Sunday, 10 November 12.35 – 1.05pm

Main Hall, Leigh Community Centre 71-73 Elm Road, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, SS9 1HT

Free Entry but booking is essential – Book Here

A Temporary Arrangement With The Sea

Ken will talk about the volatile relationship between the Essex peninsula and the sea – its history, ecology and dramatic landscape formation.

Thursday, 28 November 2013 – 7pm

London Review Bookshop, 14 Bury Place, London WC1A 2JL

Book online at www.lrbshop.co.uk or phone 020 7269 9030

The New English Landscape – Ken Worpole in conversation with Gareth Evans & Rachel Lichtenstein

Ken will argue for a more radical aesthetic when discussing what landscape means today to people’s sense of place and self – in this case focusing on the troubled territory of the Thames estuary and the estuaries and mudflats of East Anglia. He discusses these issues with poet and curator, Gareth Evans, and historian, Rachel Lichtenstein, who is also writing about the Thames. A series of photographs by Jason Orton will be projected during the evening.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013 – 7pm

Pages of Hackney Bookshop, 70 Lower Clapton Road, London E5 0RN

Tickets: £3 (includes free glass of wine)

Hackney launch of The New English Landscape. Ken will introduce and talk about the new book discussing the distinctive landscape of the River Lea, the Thames estuary and Essex marshlands.

Have a look at the previous post for ways to buy The New English Landscape.

Stop Press! Wallpaper* Magazine has just chosen The New English Landscape as one of its top ten books for the season. For more information click here

Stop Press Again! The New English Landscape can now be bought using PayPal.

Buy Now with Paypal

A rather large lorry…

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A rather large lorry arrived yesterday, full of boxes containing, we are pleased to say, copies of our new book The New English Landscape. The book has been printed in Belgium by Cassochrome, who specialise in the production of art and photographic books, so no expense has been spared. This is what it says on the back cover:

The New English Landscape critically examines the changing geography of landscape aesthetics since the Second World War, noting the shift away from the arcadian interior to the contested eastern shoreline.  It discusses how writers and artists gravitated towards East Anglia, and latterly towards Essex, regarding them as sites of significant topographical disruption, often as a result of military and industrial occupation, and the dramatic incursion of the sea.

These are landscapes of unique ecological and imaginative resonance, particularly following the Thames, and the islands and estuaries of its northerly coastal peninsula. The book assesses the past, present and future of this new territorial aesthetic, now subject to much debate in the contested  worlds of landscape design, topography and psycho-geography.

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The New English Landscape contains 22 colour photographs, an 18,000 word essay, extensive bibliography, maps, and is a medium-to-large format paperback.

ISBN 978-0-9926669-0-3

Publisher: Field Station|London

Price £15.00

Ways to buy The New English Landscape.

1. By cheque.

Send a cheque for £15.00 (postage-free) made payable to ‘Ken Worpole’ to 40 Clissold Court, Greenway Close, London N4 2EZ.  Don’t forget to include your address. We’ll send the book by return.

2. Using PayPal.

For sales in the UK only

Buy Now with Paypal

For International orders use the RIBA Bookshop link below:

RIBA Bookshop

3. You can also buy it in the following bookshops: