Landscape art that restores the natural order
Richard Wilson – Landscape with Bathers, Cattle and Ruin, c.1770–5
The British landscape is in flux, physically and conceptually. Our agricultural land, national parks and even gardens are rightly coming under increasing environmental scrutiny. The collective effort by policy makers, campaigners and farmers aims to balance the need to provide food and deliver infrastructure projects with some hope of conserving and actively restoring the landscape.
This has transformed how we see the landscape: farmers who practice intensive agriculture are now seen by many as individuals who “take public money while raping the land.” This collides with a traditional, nostalgic love for the patchwork quilt of the English landscape, and all the mythologies of Blighty contained in farming and the communities that work the land.
The pastoral idyll of England and a placid, Romantic vision of the landscape where man lived in happy communion with a tamed – but still thriving – natural world has been on the way out for some time. It is still potent as part of our national identity, however, and surfaced around the Brexit vote with Nigel Farage’s projection of a populist, agrarian fantasy of Britain. Accompanying this historic conception was the idea that nature was tamed, and not something wild and separate from human influence.
Artistically, this ordered representation of landscape is evident everywhere in British art, starting with the first British landscape painter, Richard Wilson. Wilson’s Arcadian visions translated the work of Claude and other continental talents to home grown scenes, although his paintings are now known more for their representations of class relations. The works are all imbued with a placid social harmony. His landscapes are populated by content peasants whose labour wasn’t exploited and who had an abundance of leisure time. They bore no resemblance to the reality of rural Britain (image, left).
Wilson’s establishment of the landscape tradition in Britain, and the “natural” order he suggested by combining representations of privately-owned land with classical references, demonstrates how representations of landscapes became complicit in prevailing power structures. The subjugation of nature to land ownership and agriculture helped configure this.
With the environmental movement has come a different conception of landscape: nature is increasingly seen as “wild” and separate from humans. This is most clearly evinced by the massively popular Rewilding movement whose main proponents are figures such as the farmer Isabella Tree and the journalist George Monbiot. Rewilding is characterised by reintroducing lost species and a noninterventionist approach to farming and conservation, eventually aiming for prehuman levels of biodiversity.
Politicians have added to the momentum, with government advisors such as Dieter Helm driving for policy focusing on biodiversity and a recognition of the impact agriculture has on the landscape. Rewilding initiatives made their way into the important 2020 Agriculture Act, which followed Brexit.
The past year has had a curious effect on the separation of humans and nature. On the one hand, the coronavirus – supposedly emanating from bats – has shown us the devastating force of nature and the dangers of our estrangement and loss of control of it. On the other hand, we seem to be further away from it than ever, not even needing to physically engage with the land anymore. Just compare this pandemic with a historic one, such as the Black Death, where nearly everyone worked the land and an average farmhand reaped five bushels a day. Last summer much of the UK’s harvest was done by a single GPS-guided combine harvester, with a zero chance of infection and capacity of 30,000 bushels in a day. There’s nothing romantic about remote controlled, digitalised agricultural machinery
Samuel Palmer, The Harvest Moon: Drawing for ‘A Pastoral Scene’, c.1831–2
Returning to rewilding and a landscape in flux, artists have often dealt with these themes to great effect. As well as the pastoral tradition beginning with Richard Wilson outlined above, there is a fascinating art historical lineage of landscape art that explores the traumatic, occult, uncanny and mythical aspects of the rural. This tradition finds echoes in several centuries of British art, but is particularly prevalent in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Samuel Palmer and William Blake are two clear starting points, with Palmer’s mystic sense of place in his Shoreham works being of particular note (image, top).
In the twentieth century the “home counties” surrealism of Paul Nash who claimed in 1937 that the prehistoric stones and fallen oaks he often painted and photographed evoked “the mysticism of the living animate” carries on the “pastoral fear”. The work of the other Neo-Romantics John Piper and Graham Sutherland are also significant through their exploration of pagan sites. Stanley Spencer’s rural mysticism is also of importance owing to its conflation of Anglicanism and folklore.
What this art does so well is give agency to nature: the landscape isn’t an extension of the garden in these images, but something wild and often terrifying. It’s a place of spirits governed by rules not made by humans. In the context of rewilding and the environmental movement, the eerie tradition takes on a greater pertinence: it encourages respect for the land, a reengagement with nature and a focus on the sense of place. Rewilding campaigners want to reintroduce wolves in Britain, upsetting those who don’t want their national parks full of feral beasts. If rewilding aims to reanimate the landscape, the eerie tradition has been rewilding our minds for centuries.
Perhaps the most fascinating and widely enjoyed cultural production of “wyrd” art is folk-horror films, which have won a new audience in the last decade. The four films generally considered to define this sub-genre are: The Wicker Man (1973), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), Requiem for a Village (1976) and Witchfinder General (1968). Evidence of this resurgence was the Barbican’s Folk-horror festival in 2017, as well as recent cinematic homages such as Ben Wheatley’s Field in England (2013) and Paul Wright’s Arcadia (2017, below).
The central concern of these films is a sense of genii loci or “Spirit of Place”. They are preoccupied with remythologising our perception of the landscape as a place of enchantment. These kinds of cultural imaginings are hugely sympathetic to conservation movements. As such, they are deeply useful for rewilding, and to promote a new image of landscape, which is wholly necessary and long overdue.
Max Lunn is a journalist based in London