Michael Charlesworth's Landscape and Vision in Nineteenth-Century Britain and France
The aim of this stimulating and well-researched study of landscape representation is to focus the reader's attention upon the somewhat neglected concept of vision: in Michael Charlesworth's terms, "not just perception, but the various visions (interpretations and imaginations) stimulated by landscape." Whilst the landscape itself may be conceived as existing objectively, artistic vision is far more subjective, and Charlesworth furnishes the reader with a number of illustrative case-studies, examining such topics as high viewpoints, apparitions and hallucinations, and inward vision and imagination.
Although the word 'Britain' features in the title, the stress in the early chapters in practice falls upon interpretations of specifically English landscape features which, towards the end of the book, are contrasted with countervailing French responses to landscape. Thus in Chapter One Charlesworth discusses the development of the popular panorama entertainments which evolved out of military surveying and measurement, whilst, by contrast, his second chapter analyses more ghostly and spiritual depictions of landscape and place. In his third chapter the English seashore forms a symptomatic space, a setting where "religion and science created the classic Victorian dilemma by contesting with each other's authority." Later sections of the book shift the focus to England's 'other,' France, with considerations of the Rousseauistic cult of nature, mythicising responses to the island of Tahiti, and, finally, the art of Claude Monet.
There is much here for students of Englishness to ponder, not least in the opening account of Hoober Stand in West Yorkshire, a tower constructed in the 1740s for the contemplation of a vast area of the surrounding northern countryside. Charlesworth is very astute in teasing out the political significance of this building: the implied 'annexation' of nature by the Whig/Protestant hegemony and the concomitant expulsion and defeat of the Catholic interest. In recounting the career of a visitor to the tower, the painter and draughtsman Thomas Sandby who subsequently created Virginia Water, the author pertinently traces a construction of Englishness in landscape which had its origins in the military survey, and also considers the class implications of visits such as Sandby's: "The middle-class artists climb a building erected by a ruling-class landowner" in order "to be provided with the surrogate eye of the ruler." Charlesworth interestingly seeks to contest or problematise the conventional claim that the panorama as a public entertainment offered a straightforward representation of 'reality.' On the contrary, in offering the public a variety of landscapes, views or historical tableaux, the panoramas were marked by what he terms "transumption": they were, so to speak, inhabited by ideology. Moving on to a consideration of "ghosts and visions," Charlesworth seeks to identify the "pathologies of vision" at large in nineteenth-century England. The idea of the ghostly is to be originally located in the Gothic novel, a very English genre with its fear of the foreign. Later in the nineteenth century a similar sense of nationhood was problematically implicit in the debate surrounding Catholic emancipation, and of particular interest here is Charlesworth's suggestion that some of Turner's most idiomatic paintings are redolent with "spectral emanations" in which the painter reverses and undermines the certitudes of Lockean empirical philosophy.
The following chapter offers an informed analysis of William Dyce's well-known painting Pegwell Bay (1860), which reads the picture as an allegory of the contemporary conflict between science and religion. The painting represents the 'southern edge' of England, and, with its fossil-hunters and cliff strata, hints at the way contemporary geology was opening up "vast stretches of time" and a consequent crisis of faith, themes illustrated by both Tennyson's "In Memoriam" and Arnold's "Dover Beach." Vision as interpretation is also in evidence at another peculiarly 'English' site (with colonial overtones), James Bateman's garden at Biddulph Grange, created at mid-century in Staffordshire. In this characteristic Midlands setting Bateman would erect a 'Geological Gallery,' whilst in the cliff-top landscape garden of Durlston Park in Dorset, George Burt utilised the characteristic limestone conformation to create a castellated tower, complete with inscriptions informing the spectator of various geographical and temporal facts, but also quoting Virgil and alluding to a presiding deity. Charlesworth discerns a progression "away from scientific fact" and towards "the poetic element" which may be described as typically English, in contrast to the French aesthetic and literary movements examined by the remainder of the book.
Landscape and Vision is a most readable and insightful study, full of suggestions for further investigation into the significant area of landscape as a creator of 'Englishness.' Charlesworth's approach is fundamentally empirical, and this works well in uncovering a host of intriguing connections and links between the disparate topics under investigation. At the same time, there is a sense of strain in places where the author seems to need a more fully theorised approach: for example, the switch between the excellent historicised account of Hoober Stand and the ensuing analysis of ghostly and spiritual themes is awkward and less than convincing. In general, the author's literary commentary is a good deal less acute and telling than his historical analysis.
Landscape representation in art and literature acts as a carrier of cultural authority through the operation of a complex set of visual and verbal conventions, and the entire process of industrialisation worked to create a potent set of imaginary places to which humanity could 'return,' but only in a ghostly or archaic form. The concept of Englishness as it evolved in the nineteenth century was produced out of trauma to become a potent 'constellation' of values which the art, garden design, poetry and architecture of the period refract and crystallise, and not all of this complex process is registered in the current study. Nonetheless, in the richness of its detail and the pertinence of its historical analysis, Landscape and Vision contributes another chapter to our understanding of nature and humanity at this crisis point of national cultural development.--Roger Ebbatson
Professor Roger Ebbatson is a Research Fellow at the University of Worcester. His books include An Imaginary England and Heidegger's Bicycle.—Ed.
Angelia Poon's Enacting Englishness in the Victorian Period: Colonialism and the Politics of Performance
What can one say about the Victorian period? For one thing, it was an era full of imperialist dreams of a global British Empire, the nation with the big N. However, as more and more spaces were consumed by the imperial machinery and recycled into colonies, trading stations, ports, and so on, it became increasingly difficult to monitor and maintain control over the Empire's subject peoples. Threats of retaliation and uprising created imperial anxiety on the part of the ruling elite, who desperately sought ways to achieve cohesion throughout the Empire. The Empire thus came to be reflected in what we might call a 'paper empire' of inscriptions: dedications and written memorials on buildings and monuments in every new territory, collections of statistics and data, new laws and government reports, and re-drawn maps, now all neatly archived in the filing cabinet of history.
Empire thus began to leave a long paper trail as these acts of inscribing turned into the very process of colonisation itself, the means by which the imperial enterprise inscribed a Western sensibility onto the global space. Each inscription captured and testified to the ideal of the British Empire: that is, Englishness. This became a fantasmic solution to Imperial angst, a way of homogenising otherwise diverse ways of life into a singular image. Empire had a powerful means of hegemonic control in its publishing industry, which produced materials that called upon colonial peoples to collectively identify with imperial Englishness in the face of heterogeneous singularities and otherness. Stories, travel journals, and Romantic poetry were all vehicles for the ideology of Englishness. This was an ideology that positioned the subject into the social fabric of Empire, constituting the subject's essence and demanding that it perform its Englishness in relation to the dramas of everyday life.
This topic of performance brings us to Angelia Poon's study. What troubles Poon, it seems to me, is her recognition that the performance of imperial Englishness expressed only a fantasmic, imaginary sense of wholeness. Poon is quick to note that in addition to its rapid territorial growth, Empire had by this stage become so transnational and globalised that it could no longer be reduced to any fixed geographical space. Imperial Englishness required people who were not from England (Scotland, Ireland and Wales; Africa, India and Oceania) to de-territorialise their own ways of life in order to perform Englishness. One could no longer equate Englishness with being British.
From the start of the book, then, it is clear that in Poon's view Victorian-era Englishness is traumatised (like Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre). The written materials and eternal standing monuments that inscribed order and control brought onto Englishness its own impending pathology. These forms of inscription that attempted to ground the ideal of Englishness somehow failed to fully articulate it, and instead came to represent the problem of inscribing and grounding Englishness. Englishness became a body without a point of reference, provoking frantic and repetitive attempts to define it in a series of metaphoric inscriptions in the hope that such a collage would capture and express its true essence. However, there was always a lack, and every attempt to narrate Englishness became an encounter with this traumatic real, an alienating force within Englishness that constantly separated the subject from itself. Thus one could argue that Englishness as an identity was formed precisely from the very lack of identity, i.e. that Englishness was a body that recognised itself precisely at the very point of identifying its own inability to define itself. This seems related to Poon's own Marxian critique of the imperial constitution of the subject. The subject could be seen as political only insofar as it took no part in politics and self-governance; that is to say, the imaginary sense of imperial English wholeness depended on the subject's compliancy with Empire through surrendering its own political agency.
All of this seems merely a build-up to Poon's central argument: that the very role of trauma in performances of Englishness stands for that subversive element which ensures the political agency of the subject. Poon thus takes trauma's negative position and turns it into something positive and political. Rather than simply arguing that the pre-colonial way of life haunted Empire as a repressed hybrid spectre or that the very nature of hybridity is due to some failure in Empire to completely symbolise peoples, Poon concludes that hybridity in fact is the performance that displays the illogic within the logic of colonialism itself. Poon does not suggest that a subject is hybrid when it enacts Englishness while also experiencing nostalgic apparitions of a pre-imperial way of life; on the contrary, she places hybridity at the heart of Victorian Englishness itself. Englishness at this time did not compensate for a lack of identity, but was itself the lack. Poon is interested in examining the hidden points of rupture within Empire's fantasies, the absurdities that undermined the illusions of Englishness and thus the stresses within Englishness itself. She does this by exploring history in an entirely different way. Instead of merely looking at how Englishness presented itself in its publications (i.e. rather than examining the paper trail that helps us to reconstruct the doxa of Victorian existence), Poon also reveals a sort of double- or counter-history to the contemporary imperial narrative. She highlights the points in literature where the traumatic real ruptures through the text and expresses the hybridity of the English author.
Poon's short but dense guide to such subversive thinking in the Victorian period is not a book that seeks to destroy illusions, crush ideologies, deconstruct authors and reveal to them their own terrifying secrets, or even play the tired old game of post-colonial conspiracy theories. It is not interested in non-English writers' anti-imperialist perspectives. The book instead presents us with a series of chapters that examine the ways in which Victorian writers themselves used the imperial process of inscription to give a voice to aspects of imperial experience that would never be described in any official history. Poon focuses on the moments when these authors allowed their own repressed tendencies to burst through their narratives—tendencies that were not English, but part of Englishness' own historicity. Through the tactical interplay of narrative devices, English writers sought to exert power in invisible ways that avoided the policing of imperial censorship. Colonial spaces that Empire had converted to places of Englishness became scenes of ideological warfare in colonial peoples' bid for visibility. For example, the image of the noble cricket ground (which, for my generation, was the scene of the legendary victory by the West Indians that made them visible on the sporting stage) appears in almost every Victorian text, whether it is about the Indian Rebellion, 'noble savagery' in Kipling's Sub-Continental forests, the not-so-innocent countryside of the Bronte sisters, or Dickens' unfulfilled Englishmen. Though English writers were enlisted to support Empire's ideological programme, by this very process of writing they sought to undermine Empire, radically re-constructing its image. By articulating subjectivity and thereby making it visible, they ensured its emancipation. Thus one could say (slightly modifying Percy Byshe Shelley) that these writers were, in fact, the unacknowledged legislators of history. --Imran Javaid Butt
You might assume that this is yet another collection of tourist-aimed kitsch containing endless photographs of stately interiors and gentle green rolls and swells. If so, think again. This tonic from the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England is both a beautiful coffee-table book filled with unusual, atmospheric photographs, and a collection of sensitive and thought-provoking reflections on genius loci and the deep emotional bond that we all have with particular places. These gentle but passionately lyrical essays, most of them strikingly heartfelt, have a surprising number of new things to say about this very old country. Many of them celebrate obscure but beautiful corners of England, and they are informed by a refreshingly wide range of perspectives.
The essays are collected in vaguely thematic clusters: "A Sense of Place," "Built Environment," "The Living Landscape," and so on. Some are about one particular place. John Sergeant reminisces endearingly about his childhood in Great Tew ("I could not be as wild as I would have liked because my father was the vicar"), Sean O'Brien urges us all to visit Spurn Point in East Yorkshire before it disappears into the sea, and Michael Wood looks at the history of Athelney. Other essays tackle more general or philosophical themes. George Alagiah muses on the psychological significance of the English countryside, drawing on his childhood experience of moving from a largely rural, peasant society to a country where industrial revolution had made the countryside into an idea, "an escape and a refuge from the demands of urban living." Peter Marren's delightful essay on chalk down horses highlights the startling fact that the White Horse of Uffington could not have been seen by a human being when it was made three thousand years ago: it "was made for the celestial gaze of a sky god." Limestone is the topic of Sue Clifford's superb piece, while other writers examine moors, cider farms, estuaries, fossils, light and shade, clouds, postboxes. Many of the pieces make the reader look afresh at familiar landscapes through another's eyes. Benjamin Zephaniah's essay on the Malverns discusses how their association with his childhood family holidays, the annual escape from inner-city Birmingham, makes them in retrospect "my little piece of Jamaica," while Michael Palin looks at the Pennines from the perspective of a Sheffield lad, describing the rapid shift from urban to rural that it is still possible to experience in the North, "as abrupt and epic a transformation from city to country as you could imagine."
This is all to say nothing of the marvellous photographs. Some of England's finest nature photographers were enlisted for this book, including Derry Brabbs (the photographer for the eighties bestseller James Herriot's Yorkshire, he contributes an evocative essay on Hadrian's Wall to this volume, as well as some brilliant pictures). A two-page panorama of a bluebell wood, spokes of light radiating through the trees, seems to invite you to walk into it. A vaporous mist, about to be burnt off by the morning sun, rolls and nestles in Marshwood Vale. There is an incomparable picture of Firle Beacon, a patchwork of different shades of green, and a strikingly eerie study of Dunstanburgh castle, sea-smoothed rocks glistening on the beach in the foreground.
The title might be thought a little problematic. Icons are instantly recognisable to most people, but many of the landscape features so lovingly celebrated in this volume are genuinely obscure—the book seems to be asking us to accept the idea that an icon can be personal as well as popular. One obvious lacuna is the lack of urban places (apart from Daljit Nagra's essay on the corner shop and Maxwell Hutchinson's piece on London sewers). Though it would be unreasonable to expect anything else from a book produced by the CPRE, which is intent on protecting rural England, it would be wonderful to one day see a book that examines town as well as country spaces with this kind of poetry and affection.
Though the image of the English countryside has sometimes been invoked in a spirit of reactionary nostalgia, this volume triumphantly demonstrates that the rural idyll can accommodate us all. It also showcases the staggering richness of our countryside, with something interesting or surprising around almost every corner. This richness does not end there, as the more personal essays demonstrate: there is place, and then there are the individual meanings that we invest in it.
The best way to appreciate England's amazing natural diversity is to travel across it. This beautiful book, allowing us to dwell, in Alagiah's words, on "the infinite variety of this small island of ours," offers perhaps the next best thing. --Isabel Taylor