Renewal and Decline: English Art and the Countryside
I grew up in a fairly large village in Somerset called Street. It would have been a small village with a population of only a few hundred people had not a Quaker family called the Clarks chosen it as the site for a shoe business, which grew so large that it now single-handedly sustains a population of several thousand. Close to where I used to live, the Brew river runs across what many at first sight would consider a typical English landscape: cows grazing in rolling green fields that are lined by elm trees and thick, overgrown, bustling hedges; field after field of reclaimed land separated by shallow trenches of stagnant green water known as 'renes'. The fields' sole function is to provide pasturage for the cows in the summer and arable farmland in the spring. In the distance, rising out of an expansive flat landscape, is Glastonbury Tor, an icon that conjures up images of King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea.
Decades ago, before Street became as populous and commercially-minded as it is now, children would skinny-dip and swim in the Brew during the warmer months. You would have to be mad to swim there today, because the river is polluted by various unknown sewage and industrial waste outlets that pump directly into it. At one spot in the river, an artificial weir was built to redirect its flow slightly, so that the water now cascades over a waterfall around five or six metres high. The appalling effects of the pollution can be clearly seen at the bottom of this weir, where huge mounds of thick foam collect around the edges, occasionally becoming so big that they break off and float away downriver. Such environmental degradation is typical of the English landscape today.
Many view Somerset, like Norfolk or Yorkshire, as one of the last bastions of traditional English heritage and values. The appearance of these counties' respective landscapes undoubtedly contributes to this image. However, the idea of the typically English landscape has been subjected to immense alterations since environmental change was first seriously discussed, in the nineteenth century. This awareness of pollution developed in response to the transformation of the countryside during the industrial revolution. It is too simple to say that the new factories and the industrial cities with their huge populations produced a general sense of loss. If industrialisation was universally seen as such an evil force, then how could we explain the love that is still reserved for steam trains and railways? In general, however, industrialisation as a force and movement is associated in England with a threat to traditional ways of life, because of its transformative power over the spaces of English identity.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a popular example of this. In the novels, industrialisation is portrayed as a destructive force. Sauron's agenda is to concentrate all power in Middle Earth through rapid industrial progress; his stronghold of Mordor can even be called a huge factory. Against this backdrop of rampant and heartless industrialisation, the Fellowship of the Ring attempt to destroy Sauron and his armies. It is significant that the hobbits Frodo and Samwise leave the Shire, their idyllic homeland, to protect it from obliteration. Once the ring of power has been destroyed, they return to find that Sauron's forces have nevertheless succeeded in reaching the Shire, and have ruined it forever. Tolkien was certainly concerned with how traditional cultural spaces were being changed and destroyed by modernisation. The allegorical qualities of the trilogy, which are perhaps tied to the rise of Nazi Germany, were certainly related to this.
The industrial revolution was contemporaneous with the emergence of modern medicine and massive imperial expansion, which also changed the size, distribution and density of England's population. It is telling that the English landscape became such an important part of national identity during this time. Stephen Daniels argues that poets and painters are able to give form to national identity by describing and depicting the landscape of particular nations. The fact that English artists during the earlier part of the industrial revolution deemed the rural countryside and the country estate so much more important than the new industrial landscape implies that they considered England's 'green and pleasant land' to be the true location of Englishness. Amongst the many threats to the English identity was the British Empire, which, with its new and unclassifiable territories, suggested entirely new areas and appearances of the national landscape. In reaction to this, nostalgia for the English countryside and for 'little England' became common amongst those who had emigrated. This is well illustrated by the painter Richard Redgrave's The Emigrants' Last Sight of Home, in which a family of emigrants take their last look at their English home. This is depicted as a green rural landscape, in spite of the fact that the majority of emigrants were not from the countryside but from the cities.
One of the earliest artistic movements in England to romanticise and idealise the landscape was the Picturesque, itself a result of the conceptual construct 'landscape.' The word 'landscape' arrived in England from Holland, where landschap referred to reclaimed land (literally 'made land'), and was increasingly used by the late seventeenth century Dutch to describe the paintings depicting such scenes. In the England the term 'landscape' was first applied to English paintings that resembled Dutch landschaps, but its use widened over time to include both the land depicted and the paintings of it. This duality, of the scenes portrayed in paintings and the actual landscapes that inspired them, was also a central feature of the accompanying movements in architecture and landscape gardening. Paintings of the countryside, with ruined old buildings and the like, became so popular in eighteenth-century England that a demand arose for landscapes which resembled them. This is where the rich tradition of English landscape gardening, and the loose architectural style category also known as the Picturesque, began.
It is clear that the countryside began to be idealised during this first period of rapid industrialisation in England. The arts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reflect this: the pace of change was a spur to the Arts and Crafts movement (the designer William Morris was particularly affected by the degree to which his London home had changed during his lifetime), and it was a strong influence on Constable, the Pre-Raphaelites, and William Turner. Of all these artists, Constable is probably the best-known. He is almost solely responsible for creating an image of the English landscape that is still respected and revered to this day. Go to any number of charity or antiques shops around the country, and you can find reproductions of his Suffolk landscapes. They are as iconic in England as Monet's Waterlilies are in France. The area in which Constable painted his scenes is now often referred to as 'Constable Country,' and the village in which he lived for part of his life has recently announced plans to set up a Constable museum. It is campaigning to have many of his major paintings returned for the museum, claiming that Constable's works belong in the area because they are part of its cultural heritage. What is interesting about this particular case is that the organisation responsible is also part of a campaign to preserve and recreate 'Constable Country,' so that it resembles the paintings as much as possible. It seems that the painted and the painter rely on each other for their significance, or rather that the symbol and the symbolised are mutually dependent.
Scholars of landscape have recently pointed out that the contrast between 'foreground' and 'background' is crucial to understanding the role that landscape plays in cultures. The foreground symbolises the concrete depiction of place, focusing on details and the actual appearance of things. It tends to be specific and definite. The background, however, denotes the far-off and obscure features of place, abstractions often represented by the horizon. The background can thus express hope for the future or dismay at a retreating day, whereas the foreground is limited to factual representation. Australian historians illustrate this duality well, arguing that in the personal journals of early European colonists, the landscape is usually described in terms of future potential. The colonists often refer to it as empty, all but ignoring the presence of hundreds of thousands of Aborigines; thus in this instance, the background has obliterated the foreground. I would argue that in England, as in Australia, the foreground has also been considered unimportant in comparison with the idealised background. The background, however, does not represent the future potential of an 'empty' land, but nostalgia for an idealised past.
In England, the relationship between foreground and background can often become distorted. The activities of the Countryside Alliance, which seeks to preserve the countryside because of its importance as the seat of English heritage, are evidence of this. The role of the landed aristocracy has changed dramatically in modern England, since money problems have forced many to sell up their estates or convert them into living museums. Some people feel that this change has been to the nation's detriment, and so the Alliance seeks to preserve the way things used to be as much as possible. For instance, in their campaigns to keep foxhunting legal, they used the argument that the activity is an important part of England's cultural rural heritage, ignoring the fact that the English public generally consider animal rights to be more important than heritage. Theirs is a skewed perception of the English landscape, pitting nostalgia for England's past against England's present.
I will finish by returning to the polluted river that runs through my home town. As we have seen, the foreground of this particular English landscape is very different to its idyllic, tranquil background. Nevertheless, in spite of such cases, the heritage industry has grown in England over the past century so that there are now thousands of official National Heritage sites, ranging from fourteenth-century castles to railway bridges and Roman roads. It is obvious that the landscape will continue to colour national identity in England, and that depictions of it will continue to evoke nostalgia for a pre-industrial past.--Alexander Flux