Simon Roberts's Merrie Albion: Landscape Studies of a Small Island (Review and Interview)
Dewi Lewis, 2018
If the title of this beautiful book initially summons up Ian Carmichael spluttering in outrage as the inebriated working-class academic Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim (“Merrie England? Lutes and flutes and chase-me-round the maypole?!…It was murder!”), its content is considerably more rueful and nuanced. So much so that, when I first opened the book and started leafing through it, I felt as if I had been given the psychological antidote to the last (approximately) ten years of turmoil. Here Roberts —whose pictures create an eye-of-God illusion in which the photographer sees all yet appears to remain invisible— has captured the upheavals and compensations of English and British life since the economic crisis began in 2008, in exquisitely detached, painterly studies that have a hypnotic and therapeutic effect on nerves rubbed raw by alarming headlines.
Roberts became well-known some years ago for his studies of the relationship of people to place in vast photographic works, notably the projects We English and Motherland (on Russia). This new book begins with a brilliant essay by David Chandler that situates the work in its wider context, following German and American models in addition to the homegrown studies upon which it draws. These include the Country Life Picture Books of Britain in Colour as well as the John Hinde Studio. Chandler observes that the figures in these earlier pictures, the “contingent human element,” often add a peculiar undertow to the scenes depicted, lending “unforeseen psychological atmospheres to these ostensibly model British scenes, giving them distinctly surreal and even discordant qualities.” The fantasy sold by Hinde’s pictures, Chandler notes, is the idea of being in a landscape rather than the landscape’s picturesqueness itself, as well as “the promise of reverie” as “a form of freedom from the constraints and compromises of working lives.” Other influences cited by Chandler include American nineteenth-century topographical photography as well as later domestic exponents such as Tony Ray-Jones, Martin Parr and Anna Fox. However, Chandler notes that Roberts ploughs his own distinctive furrow, rejecting the anthropological gaze that Ray-Jones turned on his subjects and substituting respectful involvement and empathy, while his work, unlike that of Parr and Fox, is not primarily concerned with critiquing the social and moral degradations of the Thatcher era and its aftermath. To misquote Tennyson, Roberts is a part of what he sees, and becomes a tangible presence in his own studies. As Chandler notes, the aim was primarily to investigate “quizzically his personal connections and sense of belonging to the culture and the national narrative that these activities seemed to embody.” It’s a sensibility more typical of the mid-twentieth century than today in its fundamentally serious humanism, and in some ways Roberts’ work reminds me of Bill Brandt, though with added warmth.
I asked Roberts whether he had set out consciously to achieve the merging of the English landscape tradition with social documentary photography, which, Chandler concludes, encapsulates his achievement.
“T. S. Eliot wrote that the point of any journey is to find out where you came from. The urge to document one’s homeland and enquire into our collective identity is a powerful one which has occupied the efforts of writers and artists for centuries, from J. M. W. Turner’s extended summer trips around England, on which he’d visit his patrons and undertake new commissions, to the literary island tours of H. V. Morton, J. B. Priestley and Daniel Defoe and more recent journeys. I was aware of these studies as well as of the long and rich history of documentary surveys by British photographers, which have sought to capture the social, political, and cultural landscapes of England and Britain, and many of which were brought together in the 2007 Tate Britain exhibition How We Are: Photographing Britain. This exhibition was one of the main inspirations for starting my extended photographic survey of my homeland.”
After Chandler’s contextualising essay, Roberts opens the book with that quote from A Tale of Two Cities (“it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”) and it is telling and disturbing that it should suddenly feel apposite to contemporary England. The dramatic contrast is evident in the pictures, which do indeed cover a wide range from the quirky and comforting to the disturbing. One of the most delightful in the first category is the study of bathers in striped Victorian beachwear at the Broadstairs Dickens Festival, a choice of subject so charmingly left-field that I asked how it came about. Roberts explains that it was a legacy of We English.
“I wanted to get an English audience to talk about what England means to them, but also to invite me to come and photograph an event or leisure pursuit. I set up a website where people could post their ideas, and I received a few hundred suggestions from the general public (they are available to read on the website, www.we-english.co.uk). It struck me as a suitably democratic way of working, positioning me as it did alongside my fellow countrymen — a citizen, not just an onlooker — and attempting to involve people, to a certain degree, in their own representation. The Broadstairs Dickens Festival was one of the ideas suggested by a member of the public.”
As with the other pictures, there are accompanying factual notes by Roberts, which drolly point out that apart from this beach picnic, visitors can also enjoy the questionable-sounding “Mayhem on the prom.” Similarly, in his note on the picture of the Cotswold Olympics, founded in the early 1600s, we learn of increasing nihilism and violence: the earlier events such as wrestling and sledgehammer throwing have been replaced by piano smashing and shin kicking. The photograph itself is a particularly beautiful, bucolic study, immediately reminiscent of David Inshaw’s cricket paintings with its sporting theme, lush green hillside, and sense of transitoriness. Similar jewel-like precision and colour can be seen in the eerily perfect Equestrian Jumping Individual, Greenwich Park, London, in which the angle is so wide that the whole setup looks not only extremely sedate but also toylike. Given Roberts’ consistent capturing of the ineffable in his pictures, I asked how many shots he needs on average in order to get the ‘right’ one, and was surprised by the answer: “Actually very few. I tend to edit before photographing, which stems from my use of a 4 x 5 inch Victoria-style field camera that I have mostly worked with over the past decade. To buy, process and scan the film is quite expensive so I tend to be frugal in my photographing.”
In the more disturbing category, apart from the political scenes (on which more later), a general obsession with a rather sterile type of nostalgia is much in evidence in many of the pictures, even in some of the studies of communal events. In Willy Lott’s House at Flatford, East Bergholt, the carefully manicured scenic backdrop produces an arresting and disorienting sense of unreality. A tour guide is holding up a copy of Constable’s painting in front of it, but one would be forgiven for asking which is now the signifier —the painting, or the heritage site? I asked Roberts why he seeks out these sorts of subjects.
“I am interested in portraying how landscape, particularly the countryside, has a powerful hold on our imagination and the quaint heritage associated with landscape imagery (think of the branding of ‘Constable Country’ or retracing Gilpin’s journey up the Wye Valley). I’m also looking at the dialogue between the image that we hold of a place compared to the reality of our experience of the landscape: the former is often a nostalgic view which doesn’t mirror an actual experience.”
Does he think that nostalgia has become an even more powerful factor in the representation of the English landscape in the last ten years?
“I’d not really photographed the landscape prior to 2007 so I can’t comment on longer-term changes. However, it is increasingly noticeable how representations of the British landscape more generally are becoming sanitised, with glossy picture books and television programmes presenting the landscape as wallpaper-scenes— idealised, romanticised and ‘safe’ versions of Britain. National identity has also become a more central debate. Witness the boom in enquiries about identity, from Jeremy Paxman’s book The English to Martin Parr’s recent group exhibition ‘Strange and Familiar’ at the Barbican Art Gallery, which considers how international photographers from the 1930s onwards have captured Britain.”
On a more positive note, Roberts comments on the re-emergence of a dynamic localism, which he believes may be starting to take the place of “a more national nostalgia. However, I still find it fascinating to look at a British passport full of generic landscape scenes of reed-beds, coasts, mountains and village greens which appear to illustrate the mythic qualities of a rural landscape, possibly reflecting a popular national view.”
Along with this focus on nostalgia, and possibly connected with it, the presence of military themes in Roberts’ pictures is striking, from an Army recruitment stall to an extraordinary image of a silent crowd of mourners at Royal Wootton Bassett. As David Matless notes in his final essay which examines this aspect of Roberts’ work, “At Ease,” Roberts’s photos specifically show an England (as opposed to the Celtic fringe) in deep trouble from 2007-2017. The title of Matless’s essay is ambiguous, referencing both the general leisure focus of Roberts’s studies and the military subjects which somehow infiltrate them, leading him to ask, “Is this England on manoeuvres?” I put Matless’ question to Roberts.
“It’s interesting, looking back over the last decade, to see how military conflict has formed a backdrop to much of our politics and newspaper coverage, particularly the British involvement in both Afghanistan and Iraq. This could be seen across the landscape from Army manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain, via protests held in cities across the country against military intervention, to the streets of Wootton Basset where the Royal British Legion and others stood on the streets to honour the war dead from Afghanistan as corteges passed on their way from RAF Lyneham to Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital. Then there are the plethora of air displays in the annual British social calendar (air displays are the second most popular outdoor event after football), where the military always have a major presence in the form of recruitment stalls. I felt it was important to represent these manifestations in my photographic studies, alongside other themes such as immigration, energy security, the class divide, austerity and religion.”
The political turmoil of the last ten years is also captured by a sizeable number of photographs in the volume. A harrowing montage of trader portraits from 2007-2011 captures various negative emotions: shock, loss, horror, and regret. Roberts was engaged as the official 2010 General Election Artist, photographing polling booths, campaigners, and meetings with the public, in pictures that capture a preternatural sense of expectation and are accompanied by an exquisite and wry retrospective essay by Tristram Hunt. If Roberts’ political studies have an unconscious theme, it is the revolt of an overlooked provincial England against an overbearing metropolitan elite. There is something uncanny about his ability to be in the right place at the right time, whether focussing down on Gordon Brown in the last moments before Duffy-gate, or taking pictures near Sunderland on the evening before everything changed. I asked him about the history of the General Election Artist position.
“Elections and electioneering in the past have frequently provided artists with lively, colourful subjects. For instance, the Parliamentary Art Collection has a set of William Hogarth’s celebrated ‘Election Series,’ lambasting the notorious Oxfordshire contest in the 1754 General Election, whilst the Westminster Election of 1808 is recorded in great detail by George Scharf. In 1991 the Works of Art Committee in Parliament commissioned Johnny Yeo as the election artist for that year’s General Election. The tradition of recording each British election in an artwork for the Collection has continued ever since— the most recent artist was Cornelia Parker in 2017.”
How did Roberts go about getting these remarkable fly-on-the-wall perspectives on political events?
“When I was commissioned in 2010 I wanted to challenge the orchestrated media events so favoured by mainstream political parties. Traversing the length and breadth of the country during the official twenty-four days of electioneering, I took photographs encompassing entire scenes peopled by politicians and their campaign teams. My elevated position (the photographs were often taken from the roof of my motorhome) affords a view that is unfamiliar to the person on the ground, and contrasts with the eye-level, close-up view of the press photographer and television camera in the media scrum. What might normally appear to be banal vistas, peopled by weary campaign-trailers, are transformed into elaborate theatres, the landscapes providing the sets for the detail of the many nuanced interactions and expressions being played out in them. I felt in a very privileged position to be able to witness our electoral process in action during a time when trust between politicians and the public was at a particular low point, the election coming as it did just after the expenses scandal.” Roberts's images of electioneering are counterpointed by many pictures of demonstrations and what he terms “the new culture of protest” that also emerged in the period.
As a corrective to all the political scenes, there is a major focus on community, togetherness and enjoyment in this collection: The World Party and Croydon Mela, Lloyd Park, Surrey; Watching the Royal Wedding, Hyde Park, London; and Annual Eton College Procession of Boats, River Thames, Windsor are just some examples. The most striking of these is the assemblage of young Kiss fans at the Download Festival in Donington Park, staring at the photographer with a mixture of attitude and vulnerability. It is accompanied by a moving and sensitive essay on belonging, “Of Other Spaces,” by Nigerian-English author Irenosen Okojie.
Indeed, one particularly noteworthy aspect of this collection is the high-quality, wide-ranging essays that Roberts has assembled from various well-known writers to accompany these pictures. A contribution by Frank Cottrell-Boyce focuses on the I-SPY children’s books (which allot points according to the rareness of the object, creature or person sighted) and is both charming and hilarious: “I still have the feeling that the birds of Britain are existentially arranged in a kind of pyramid, whose peak is kissing heaven.” Cottrell-Boyce, of course, famously scripted the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, and focusses in this essay on a breathtaking scene from the Industrial Revolution sequence (inspired by the Humphrey Jennings book about industrialisation, Pandaemonium) which is the subject of a Roberts picture in this collection. Cottrell-Boyce ties the image to his childhood realisation that the new council estate to which he had been moved from Liverpool, surrounded by chemical factories and slag heaps and haunted by house martins, was also somewhere, and beautiful in its own right, though none of it would have earned him many I-SPY points: a deeply serious point, in turns out, is being made by this playful essay.
Merrie Albion’s epic scope, judicious distance on political upheaval and warm engagement with communal outings and festivities make it an indispensable balm for the troubled English heart. Placidity, and on occasion joy, as in the Edenic Ashley Vale Allotment, Bristol, provide a broad undercurrent to the spikiness of the official world. This volume suggests that, in spite of the distortion of the past by some contemporary forms of nostalgia and the manifold political uncertainties of the present, many old patterns of life will continue to survive.--Isabel Taylor