One of the final exercises in this unit is to photograph a journey that we regularly make. My journey, which I make a little less frequently than I should do, is our regular walk around the block with the dogs. The area to the northwest of Farnham might be considered an idyllic English landscape, in fact the rolling farmland is more reminiscent of Wiltshire than the Surrey and Hampshire borders. However, it is also home to one of the largest displays of large electricity pylons in the area; they march across the farmland dwarfing the isolated houses and patches of woodland that have survived between the pastures and arable farmland.
As discussed previously (here and here) the British countryside is a manufactured landscape, cleared for farming, forestry and other industrial or agricultural purposes; however, we appear to measure the beauty of a view on a common sliding scale depending on whether the manipulation of the landscape meets the accepted criteria of a rural idyll, the aesthetics of a traditional pastoral scene or whether it has been blighted by acts of industrialisation.
I have lived with these pylons for many years. one towers over the lane in front of our house, varyingly hissing in foggy weather, providing a safe haven for roosting birds or casting its shadow over the grazing cattle in the field opposite. An industrial monument out of context in the lush pasture of a farmer’s field, subverting the pastoral scene.
Admittedly they are comparatively new features in our landscape, the first pylon in Britain was constructed only eighty-eight years ago (i) and although they were once viewed as a statement of modernity and despite it being nearly impossible to imagine life before the days when electricity was delivered to our door we continue to see them as an alien feature, a blot on the landscape.
We differentiate between the unacceptable steelwork of the pylons and the corrugated steel of a dilapidated farm building; both are industrial constructions and comparatively modern inventions but the barn fits into our perception of what should be here whilst the pylon does not. It spoils the view and devalues nearby property, the rich urban-centric buyer is seeking a panorama from their living room that meets their expectation of rural life, the national grid needs to find a more acceptable route to their rural retreat.
Colin Shaw has photographed the quarries of the Peak District arguing that they are “normally thought to despoil the landscape” (2) but to understand the countryside we need to see both beyond the false perception of the rural idyll and understand the commercial and economic functions of the land. Shaw’s series Quarried (2) brings the scars of industrialisation to the art gallery, treating the quarries, cement and lime works as subjects worthy of his art.
Our perception of the picturesque landscape has been handed down from the Georgian landscape painters to modern and contemporary landscape photographers with little or no change to what is acceptable to include or essential to exclude. We illogically accept an agrarian landscape as natural despite it being cultivated or populated with animals that have been bred solely for the purpose of producing food because it fits within an accepted template of the countryside as a rural idyll.
This series evidences our historical exploitation of the landscape, cleared fields, coppiced woodland, houses built for farmers and a now lost rural workforce, fences and hedgerow trees planted to manage domesticated animals or to shelter our homes; the accepted features that form part of our national identity; an English rural scene. The pylons are merely a later addition to the scene, part of the infrastructure that supports us as much as, or probably more so than the fields planted with rape or ploughed ready for cereals and the pasture where a handful of beef cattle still graze.
Notes on Text
(i) Outside Edinburgh (1)
(1) National Grid Timeline (accessed at National Grid 75 5.12.16) – http://www.nationalgrid75.com/timeline
(2) Shaw, Colin (2016) Quarried (accessed at the photographer’s website 5.12.16) – https://www.colinshaw.co.uk/projects/quarried/artists-statement/