Our perspective of the English countryside is as a rural idyll; a place of tended pastures, thriving crops, cottage-fringed village greens hosting fetes and flower shows whilst bearded men with pipes, and pints watch cricket from dark beamed pubs. A viewpoint that could be considered nostalgic if not for the lack of an historical reference point for this perfect rural scene (i). In truth we are more likely to find our rural idyll in gentrified Cotswold villages populated by urban weekenders, or what Joe Kennedy calls the “moneyed metropolitan elite” (7), than in any traditional working agricultural settlement or at any point in rural history.
Art has played an important role in creating and perpetuating the myth of the British countryside. Michael Prodger (3) describes what seems like a virtuous circle that started in the 18th century as wealthy tourists sought out the picturesque country views depicted by European inspired painters; a social trend that stimulated the British school of landscape painters including Gainsborough, Turner and Constable and the “birth of the Georgian landscape in art, literature and gardening” (3) which in turn encouraged rural tourism and created a mythologised perspective of the countryside as seen though urban eyes.
The history of British landscape painting is inextricably linked to wealth and class, the market for 19th century painters was the aristocratic landowners and their new money counterparts, families whose wealth was derived from the industrial revolution. The subject matter is often of park land or the landscape represented as parkland, agriculture and the working class appear as compositional motifs more often than as the subject, sheep and cattle mingle in unlikely herds, farm workers and their families look healthy and content. Not surprisingly the farm labourer riots of the 1830’s, caused by what Cobbett called “unsatisfied hunger” (5) occurred in a parallel reality to these paintings; not a subject to hang above the fireplace in one of the great stately homes.
Landscape photography followed in the painters’ footsteps. Liz Wells describes the “two key lines of inheritance” that were formed in the early decades of the genre; firstly straight photography with a topographical intent as exemplified by Francis Frith and Roger Fenton and secondly more poetic, allegorical and mythological work such as the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron and H.P.Robinson (7: p164). Despite having been one of the earliest war photographers Fenton’s archive of British landscapes that romantically record many of the great buildings of his time shows no hint of social criticism.
The pictorialist Henry Peach Robinson occasionally included working class people in his landscapes but, like the painters before him whose picturesque aesthetic he adopted, there is no apparrant documentary motive in what feel like tableaux vivants that continue to denote the rural idyll.
Francis Frith whose archive continues to fuel a significant contemporary business enterprise could have been the great documentarist of his time; after making his fortune in first cooperage, then groceries and finally printing he retired at the age of thirty four but soon becoming bored took up travel and photography. His archive has immense historical value, he photographed hundreds of British towns but managed to avoid telling us anything about their inhabitants; yes, we see glimpses of local industry, dress and social customs but most of his work established nothing more than the invention of a postcard aesthetic that continues to this day. In his own words he sought a “romantic and perfected past, rather than …. the bustling and immature present.” (8: p.9).
A small number of Victorian photographers such as John Thompson and Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (here) had begun to document the urban working classes and a number of Sutcliffe’s photographs of farms around Whitby add something to the historical record of Victorian farm practices; but, the first British photographer to build a truly informative record of the rural working class was Peter Henry Emerson. His archive is differentiated by the inclusion of people plying their trades, no small achievement given the technical limitations of late 19th century photography. Wells describes his work as “naturalistic photography” and highlights that “his concern with composition and differential focussing would have allowed him a place within more tradition; pictorialist circles.” (7: p.165) His work is lyrical, impressionistic and idealistic and it is unlikely that his intent had much in common with the documentarists of the 1930s but, although his focus was on aesthetics rather than creating a social critique he offers us a rare insight into the working practices, regional clothing and the people of East Anglia.
It is not just the Georgian painters or pre-WW II photographers who have created our national memory of a green and pleasant land. The notion of a British countryside is fundamental to our national sense of identity, or at least for the Anglo Saxon majority; in both the first and second World Wars images of the rural idyll were used as recruitment posters and reminders of “what we are fighting for”; inferring that it was not the industrial might of one of the World’s great economies or the largest empire ever seen, or the cities where most of the population lived that defined Britain as a nation; instead a shepherd and his flock walking across a stylised hill side in view of the English Channel was the essence of Britishness.
In the first half of the twentieth century British photography began to find a photojournalist and documentary perspective that differentiated it from the picturesque and pictorial representation of the country that had been such a feature of the previous century but photographers like Humphrey Spender focussed most of their attention on urban and industrial subjects such as his study of Bolton Worktown in 1937 with rare excursions into the countryside. The Daily Herald photographers including James Jarche, Edward Malindine, Reg Sayers, Harold Tomlin and George Woodbine whom Ian Jeffrey argues should be seen as a “national movement of some consequence during the 1930s” (9) documented the period between the wars as populist news photographers, capturing Britishness in a way that, much later, was to be accepted as an art form when pursued by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr. However, like Spender their stories were more often found in the towns and cities, which is a great shame as their infrequent forays into the countryside often reveal a perspective that adds to our understanding of social conditions in rural communities before the war.
Liz Wells mentions Bill Brandt as an example of a British photographer who approached the rural landscape and its inhabitants in a different way in the 1940s. He had already established his documentary reputation with photographs of the home front during the war, one contemporary reviewer complimented his ability to get ” straight to the core of the reality of the industrialised world, of life on the dole, in a series of magnificent documentaries” (10: p.175). Paul Delany points out that before 1940 Brandt had rarely taken pictures of landscapes but as discussed above the war changed the relationship between the British and the land; the countryside became a metaphor for national identity, the thing we were fighting for, and created what Delany calls a “primal emotion: to defend the land from being invaded and desecrated by Nazism” (10: p.197). Whilst as Wells argues that his Over the Sea to Skye series includes workers and thereby suggests an interest in the direct relationship between people and the land his landscapes are more reminiscent of the nineteenth century pictorialists with careful attention to composition, form and, notably, the weather. Delany describes how Brandt would wait for hours for landscapes to empty of people or for the right combination of sky and land to occur (10: p.198), he would often visit a location on several occasions before he found the right conditions.
Despite the influence of the pictorialists Brandt’s view of the British countryside is not pastoral and he stands separate from the painters and photographers who have mythologised our land as a serene rural idyll. His romantic compositions, often from low angles, describe the relationship between the surface of the land, what we might call the agricultural layer, and the rocks that lie beneath and the weather as represented by wind-blown hills and threatening skies. His work is romantic in the sense of being a representation of Bronte or Hardy country but it reports the hard reality of hill farms not the soft and nurtured landscapes of Fenton’s parklands.
Bill Brandt’s Top Withens neatly leads us to Fay Godwin and her photograph of the same place captured 32 years later.
Godwin’s approach to landscape is some way removed from Brandt’s, she shares his interest in wild places but her pictures reflect her deep concern and bond with those landscapes. Brandt’s obsession is with the aesthetics of the final image, Godwins’ is with the place.
Ian Jeffrey argues that Brandt would never included the faint trace of light in the centre of the distant structure (13: p.xxvi) but unfortunately does not expand upon his point; perhaps, in Brandt’s view, the window would spoil the large compositional black blocks he loved to incorporate in his photographs. Godwin was interested in boundaries, the marginal places, or what Jeffrey calls “preoccupations with the edge between the wild and the habitable” (13: p.xxvii), a preoccupation that was to become a major theme of contemporary practices although mostly focussed on the margins of cities as opposed to the outer reaches of habitable land.
Sometimes it takes an outsider to see a place clearly and Paul Strand’s 1954 study of the Hebridean islands is an interesting alternative but still romanticised view of Britain. As previously discussed in regard to his series on Luzzara (here) after exiling himself from an United States gripped by McCarthyism Strand was searching for what he saw as the perfect socialist society. By the time he reached the Hebrides he had already photographed rural life in France and Italy and according to Sean O’Hagen “He was drawn to the remote island community perhaps because it symbolised a simpler, more self sufficient life in contrast to the post-industrial thrust of the cities on the mainland.” (11: p.66) Strand saw the islander’s struggle to maintain their way of life as a metaphor for the wider struggle between socialism and capitalism and uses his formal straight pictures to emphasise the remote, windblown landscapes, solid vernacular architecture and ordinary people shaped by hard weather and hard work.
There are similarities between Brandt, Godwin and Strand’s work, from each we gain a sense of the wilder side of Britain, but whilst Brandt is interested in the land Strand is primarily interested in its people. He uses the landscape to describe a facet of the Hebridean character, he is neither beautifying the landscape nor exaggerating its harshness, he offers a matter-of-fact description of how man and their livestock find their place in this hard land.
It is not until the seventies and eighties that the British landscape starts to be more frequently represented as something other than a rural idyll. It is beyond the scope of this essay to trace that development and, in any case, the green and pleasant land is so embedded in our collective national psyche that the work of Simon Roberts, Chris Steele-Perkins, David Hurn or Don McCullin is unlikely to change that perception.
The Victorians and many of the photographers who followed them were involved in what Jesse Alexander calls “pastoral imagery” which he defines as a “performance of the countryside, a generally idealised representation of uncomplicated rural life.” (1: p.143) For the pictorialists their mission was to capture the British landscape as picturesque, they had no desire to find the realities of rural life that lay beneath the surface. For the photographers of the seventies and beyond the problem was how to represent that reality in what was often a beautiful landscape whilst knowing that the myth of the British countryside was so embedded in our national culture that it could easily subvert any social documentary intent.
Fay Godwin wrote:
“People are let out into the country … there are nice benches and lavatories, but they don’t really experience the country and they don’t experience the problems of the countryside”. (1: p.144)
Roberts highlights the eccentricities of the English in the landscape, McCullin finds the wild and dark side of the weather dominated land and explores his personal relationship with the Somerset moors, John Darwell juxtaposes the beauty of Cumbria and the disaster of the foot and mouth epidemic and Chris Steele Perkins investigates the relationship between man, animals and the landscape in the north of England. In these examples the photographers lift their work beyond the clichéd and simplistic view of the countryside and country life.
The more difficult work to interpret comes from practitioners such as James Ravilious who documents country life but in doing so often resorts to capturing exactly the type of pastoral scene that continues to promote the myth of a simple rural life. In many ways Ravilious’ work neatly encapsulates the challenge of understanding British landscape photography since 1970. Many of his wider landscapes appear as direct decedents of the nineteenth century painters that opened this discussion and it comes as no surprise that he originally trained as a fine artist. In this light we could accuse Ravilious of sustaining and promoting the rural idyll but Ravilious is no urban dwelling, camera-toting, tourist visiting the country to expand his portfolio. He is neither promoting nor suppressing a particular view of country life. By working in a single and contained area of North Devon he developed a deep understanding of the land and its inhabitants. Peter Hamilton argues that he had “a profound and humanistic complicity in the lives of those who passed in front of his camera” (12: p.11) and as a result his photographs “weave together artistic, social, economic and political concerns” (12: p.13).
I see in Ravilious’ work something that can also be found in David Hurn’s Land of my Fathers; concerned social documentary hiding behind formally composed and carefully executed photographs which, at a time when a significant amount of contemporary photography announces itself as “serious” by avoiding formality and aesthetic allure tempts the critic to discount Ravilious’ work as superficial and lacking in social criticism.
Colin Shaw, a photographer particularly interested in representing the countryside in realistic terms, offers a well balanced view of Ravilious.
“I have no problem with what he did and it certainly showed what living in the countryside was like. Maybe it is the way that the work has been interpreted in later years that is the problem. It seems to have slipped into some mythicised view of the rural where everything is perfect. Any hint of hardship is overshadowed by the pictorial and I am left with the feeling that living in beautiful surroundings somehow compensates for the daily grind of near subsistence farming.” (13)
The vast majority of the population lives in an urban environment (ii), so logically the majority of photographers and critics are city or town dwellers and we are all indoctrinated by a few hundred years of green and pleasant land propaganda that projects the countryside as a huge theme park for urban populations to visit. These factors combine to pervert our interpretation of rural photography and potentially lead to Ravilious’s work being misunderstood.
We can read Filling Sacks with Apples as an idyllic bucolic scene or understand the back breaking labour of fruit harvesting, the workday dictated by sunrise and sunset, the constant moving of ladders which are climbed and descended dozens of times in every hour, the chilling cold of autumn rain or the annoying sweatiness of being over dressed when the sun comes out, the heavy sacks that have to be manhandled to the tractor only to be unloaded again into the barn and at the press. (iii) The workers are rewarded with the minimum wage and the farmer might be lucky enough to make a small profit for a year’s work.
The best rural photography is produced by practitioners who live amongst their subject matter and whose understanding of rural life allows them to see the reality that lies beneath the surface; Colin Shaw and John Darwell both come to mind, but this may not always be enough to bridge the gap between the ignorance of an urban audience and the harsh realities of farming.
Jesse Alexander correctly argues that “we have lost consciousness of the artifice of pastoral representation, amounting to to a myth of a countryside idyll that overshadows the actual complexities of rural life” (1: p.143) but we should take care not to dismiss representations of rural life as superficial and meaningless without considering and understanding both the subject and the intent of the photographer. Otherwise we condemn ourselves to viewing photographs that avoid aesthetic allure to such a degree as to forget that the British countryside is a beautiful backdrop to one of our most important industries and to a wide range of social, economic and political issues. The challenge for the contemporary photographer is to reflect both sides of this coin.
Notes on Text
(i) George Sturt, writing at the turn of 20th century documents a rural population living from hand-to-mouth reliant on casual harvest work and a meagre income from gardening, odd jobs or taking in laundry for the middle classes who had begun to move from the towns to rural villages. Eighty years earlier William Cobbett’s Rural Rides (5) describes rural England in the early 19th century as a place of inequality, starvation and hopeless poverty where the average farm labourer’s wage of seven pence (3p) a day purchased less bread that the ration for convicted felons (6: p.226).
(ii) In 2014 83% of the population of England lived in urban environments and a further 9% lived in rural towns, just 4.5 million of us live in villages, hamlets or a “sparse setting”, a mere 8% of the population (2). The industrial revolution and the enclosure acts in the 18th and 19th century initiated a process of rural depopulation that, as rural industries decline and farming becomes more mechanised, continues to this day.
(iii) Having owned a 400 tree olive grove in Southern Italy since 2003 and having lived there full-time as an “olive farmer” for five years I sharply recall the aches, pains, cuts and bruises at the end of a long day harvesting. We would harvest several tonnes of olives every year and I once calculated that we lifted every single olive at least nine times between picking it from the tree and finally filling a bottle with olive oil. The Bertolli adverts mythologise Italian olive farming which is ironic as their oil is very unlikely to contain very many Italian olives … but that’s another story.
(1) Alexander, J.A.P (2015) Perspectives on Place: Theory ad Practice in Landcape Photography. London: Bloomsbury.
(4) Badmin, S.R. and Stapledon, George (1955) Farm Crops in Britain. London: Puffin Books
(5) Cobbett, William (1830) Rural Rides. London: Penguin Classics
(6) Ingrams, Richard (2005) The Life and Adventures of William Cobbett. London: Harper Perennial
(7) Wells, Liz (2011) Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity. London: I.B.Taurus
(8) Hudson, Roger (2001) Travels of a Victorian Photographer. London: The Folio Society.
(10) Delany, Paul (2004) Bill Brandt: A life. London: Jonathan Cape
(11) Pardo, Alona and Parr, Martin ( 2016) Strange and Familiar. London:Prestel
(12) Hamilton, Peter ( 2007) The Photographs of James Ravilious. Oxford: The Bardwell Press
(13) Jeffrey, Ian (1985) An essay included in Fay Godwin: Land. Boston & Totonto: Little, Brown and Company
(2) Rural Population and Migration (accessed at UK Government 6.10.16) – https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/554917/Rural_population_and_migration_2015.pdf
(3) Prodger, Michael (2012) Constable, Turner, Gainsborough and the making of Landscape (accessed at the Guardian 7.10.16) – https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/nov/23/constable-turner-gainsborough-making-landscape
(7) Kennedy, Joe (2013) Terror in the Terroir: Resisting the Rebranding of the Countryside (accessed at The Quietus 6.10.16) – http://thequietus.com/articles/14114-country-life-british-politics-uncanny-music-art
(9) Jeffrey, Ian (2014) British Photography: Some Pointers (accessed at Photoworks 6.9.16) – https://photoworks.org.uk/british-photography-pointers/
(13) Shaw, Colin (2016) What we cannot See (accessed at the photographer’s website 10.9.16) – https://www.colinshaw.co.uk/blog/