In the late 18th century British painters began to turn their attention away from the classic and romantic cities of The Grand Tour (i) to breath new life into English landscape painting which, until this time, had been a lowly, but distinctly British, genre. (1) The birth of the Georgian landscape in art as typified by Turner, Constable and Gainsborough had far reaching effects, stimulating a domestic tourist industry as people travelled to the countryside to find picturesque views and establishing a romantic, pictorial representation of rural England that would become closely associated with our national identity. (ii)
Three-quarters of Britain is farmed so the Georgian painters not only romanticised the countryside in general but established a tradition of pastoral imagery that has been proliferated by both painting and photography ever since; an imagery that Jesse Alexander describes as a “performance of the countryside, a generally idealised representation of uncomplicated rural life” (3). The myth of the British countryside is of a sparsely populated rural idyll where people, divorced from the economic and social challenges of the cities, pursue a simpler and, by inference, easier life.
(A more extensive discussion of the creation and perpetuation of the myth of the countryside idyll can be found here)
Introduction to the Series
My second assignment featured a father and son operating two West Country farms; on its completion I was left with a strong sense that the project was unresolved and pursued within my comfort zone. To work with the same subject for assignment 5 demanded a fresh approach, clearer intent and a more sophisticated outcome.
Researching practitioners who had focussed on farming highlighted the challenge of addressing this subject without resorting to the pictorial cliché of depicting a tough job in beautiful surroundings, a common critique of James Ravilious (here) or Denis Thorpe (here) despite both being serious documentarists of rural life. John Darwell (here) was able to avoid such a trap by focusing on the emotional and physical impact of the foot and mouth disaster whilst Colin Shaw (here) focussed attention on farm workers by generally excluding contextual background that might have softened the representation of their working environment. The common ground between Darwell and Shaw was their exploration, not of farming per se, but of the human condition within a framework of farming, the despair of foot and mouth or the harsh working conditions of harvesting winter crops by hand.
This thought became the broad theme of the Crackmoor Farm series and as over ten months, like Mark Neville in his Fancy Pictures series (here), I slowly became less of an outsider. The narratives that interested me were universal rather than specific to farming; the relationship between the father and his young son who at only twenty-one had been given the responsibility of his own farm to manage who struggles to find time for his hobbies; the daughter conflicted by a desire to remain at the heart of a tight-knit family unit in a rural community and the demanding job she loves eighty miles away in Surrey; the mother intent on pursing her career outside of farming but who, like most farmer’s wives, is the glue that holds the family together, facilitating the remorseless, dawn to dusk, seven day a week grind of managing two dairy herds.
I wanted to challenge the myth of the rural idyll without resorting to the muck and physicality that had been a strong feature of the earlier assignment and to this end I took inspiration from Scott Mcfarland (here) and Gregory Crewdson (here) who bring a physiological or atmospheric edge and narrative ambiguity to their work through staging, lighting and post production manipulation; the isolation of farming seemed better described by the herdsman in an cold industrial space than the farmer in a sunlit field.
Recognising that my comfort zone is straight documentary I challenged myself to question the veracity of this genre; in this I was again influenced by McFarland and to a lesser extent by Anna Fox to create my own realities by the introduction of infeasible lighting, composite printing and directed staging. By mixing these directed or manipulated images with straight photographs I am asking myself perhaps more than asking the viewer which is the true representation of my subject.
Notes on Text
(i) Between c.1550 and 1850 affluent Britons travelled a well trodden path through the great sites of Europe on what became known as The Grand Tour. According to Adam Matthew, who has established a significant digital resource on the subject, the Grand Tour was “a phenomenon which shaped the creative and intellectual sensibilities of some of the eighteenth century’s greatest artists, writers and thinkers” (2) Amongst these travellers were J.M.W. Turner and other artists who, inspired by the light and landscapes of the romantic cities of the tour went on to create a new era in British romantic landscape.
(ii) In his interesting paper on Englishness and the Countryside Julian Michi (5) argues that “The countryside is a central feature in national symbolism and rural images often serve as signs of the Nation”, a point that I have previously discussed here but further to that he points out that imagery of the home counties is not only used to represent national identity to residents of the South of England. “The symbolic imposition of one part of England as a symbol of English rural life and so of English identity is made that much more powerful as it tends to cover all of Britain, beyond just England” (5: p.4)
(3) Alexander, J.A.P (2015) Perspectives on Place: Theory ad Practice in Landcape Photography. London: Bloomsbury.
(1) 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
(2) Layton-Jones, Katy (2009) The Grand Tour (accessed at Reviews in history 16.11.16) – http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/839
(5) Mischi, Julian (2009) Englishness and the Countryside: How British Rural Studies Address the Issue of National Identity (accessed at Dijon Cedex 16.11.16) – https://www2.dijon.inra.fr/cesaer/fichiers/pagesperso/mischi/EnglishnessMischi.pdf