Published  14/11/2023

Radical Landscapes

Radical Landscapes

A green and pleasant land or a place of aristocratic privilege for some and backbreaking labour and protest for others? An intriguing exhibition at William Morris’ Walthamstow residence explores how landscape art and radical politics have intersected

Jo Spence, Remodelling Photo History: Victimization, 1981-82, 62.5 x 78.5 cm. © The Estate of Jo Spence. Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery London, Rome.

William Morris Gallery, London
21 October 2023 – 18 February 2024


What could be a less radical subject for art than landscape? Tons of landscape paintings hang unloved in the quieter backrooms of encyclopaedic art museums. Even the acknowledged greats, the Claude Lorrains and the Constables, have become something of a punchline: mannered, conservative, even duplicitous in their transformations of the world into Arcadian fantasies and pastoral idylls. No matter that Constable painted a countryside shaped by human hands and machinery, cut up, enclosed and turned into an engine of capital, fed with low-value labour. Landscape art has become an easy target for those who would doubt the relevance of art history to contemporary concerns.

Radical Landscapes, which is distilled from a prior incarnation at Tate Liverpool last year, argues that an alternative story of British art and landscape can be told, one that explores social divisions and identity, and connects with environmental protest. In this, it also goes beyond landscapes – parts of land that can be witnessed in one view – and moves more broadly to explore Earth more generally. It finds a fitting place at the William Morris Gallery. Morris’s book News from Nowhere (1890) depicted an agrarian socialist utopia where everyone is in tune with nature. Working the land thus becomes pleasurable.

Veronica Ryan, Collective Moments X, 2022. Turmeric stained fabric and pins, 15.5 cm dia. Courtesy Alison Jacques, London. © Veronica Ryan. Photo: Michael Brzezinski.

The exhibition packs a lot into a concise set of spaces. Sometimes the net might be too wide. We see a 90s rave outside Morris’s Kelmscott Manor reclaimed as a connection with the landscape. There are beautifully fashioned fruit and seed sculptures by the Turner Prize-winner Veronica Ryan, which use vegetation to allude to migration and colonisation. Potent artworks, but ones that tell a story of objects plucked from their landscape and thrust around the world.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Lake, Petworth, Sunset; Sample Study, c1827-8. Oil on canvas, 66 x 142.2 cm. Tate Collection.

A more land-bound commentary on the way migration has shaped the British landscape comes with Jeremy Deller’s pastiche road sign, an object familiar. It reads “A303. Built by Immigrants”, a response to the news that part of the route had been built by people descended from Anatolian migrants. Also clear-sighted is Hurvin Anderson’s painting Double Grille (2008), in which a green landscape is glimpsed behind an abstract pattern that resembles a security fence, which neatly captures the way land access is often restricted by private ownership. Compare this to JMW Turner’s The Lake, Petworth, Sunset (c1827-28), which captures the sublime view from the Earl of Egremont’s Sussex estate from the privileged position of someone invited in by its aristocratic owner.

Thomas Gainsborough, The Bridge, c1786. Oil on canvas, 40 x 48.3 cm. Tate Collection.

Positioning some of the greats of landscape painting alongside contemporary work brings the former’s motivations into question. Thomas Gainsborough’s The Bridge (c1786) presents a dramatic, proto-Romantic landscape, but centres on a labourer trailing a pair of cows. The man leans forward as if exhausted. Is he a mere figure in the landscape, a decorative detail, or a representation of back-breaking rural labour. An excerpt from John Berger’s celebrated TV series Ways of Seeing (1972) shows the critic postulate Gainsborough’s earlier Mr and Mrs Andrews (1750) as a portrait of exclusionary land ownership.

We later see Peter Kennard’s photo-collage Haywain with Cruise Missiles (1980), in which nuclear weapons intrude on Constable’s famous scene, despoiling it. As well as a clear-sighted work of protest art, it is a striking illustration of the deceptive nature of the modern countryside, where the verdant hills can hide governmental, industrial and military infrastructure. More than a century earlier, John Ruskin’s watercolour Sunset at Herne Hill through the Smoke of London (1876) sees land and sky shrouded in purple patches as domestic and factory chimneys belch out smoke that occludes the green and pleasant land.

William Morris, News From Nowhere, 1893. Frontispiece by Charles March Gere. © William Morris Gallery.

Over the 20th century, environmentalism and anti-nuclear and right to roam campaigns have staked their claim to the sanctity of the countryside. One section of the show is devoted to three major protests, documented in photographs and other artefacts. This may seem an outlier to the exhibition’s broader themes, but they do connect to the concepts raised by particular artworks. The earliest is the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass of 1932, when hundreds of scouts and ramblers trespassed on private land across the Peak District. The action is alleged to have led to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949, which entrenched public right of way in designated areas. Today, the right to roam applies to just 8% of the English countryside; the Andrews family and their like still live behind gates.

Brenda Prince, RAF Greenham Common, 12 December 1982. © Brenda Prince, Format Photographers Archive.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, Jo Spence’s Remodelling Photo History (1981-82) works show the artist lying naked on or adjacent to private land, momentarily reclaiming it. We also see the Format Photographers agency’s depiction of the Women’s Peace Camp at RAF Greenham Common (1982), a military base in rural Berkshire where US nuclear weapons were stored, and the Newbury bypass protest of 1996, when activists fought, but failed, to stop the clearance of 360 acres of woodland. Andrew Testa’s photographs document this event with great drama. One shows a row of police against a stark sky, while a protester clings to a stripped tree in an attempt to prevent it being felled; another has a group of protesters arranged like figures in an Ilya Repin painting, defiant in their self-belief. They ultimately failed, but the publicity around their protest swayed public and political opinion against major road building in the region.

Andrew Testa, The eviction of The Chase camp at Newbury, 1996. © Andrew Testa.

The desire to project nature runs through many of the works on display, such as Anthea Hamilton’s British Grasses Kimono (2015), which aims to celebrate the humblest of plants. But there is also a sense of nature as a retreat. The artist and film-maker Derek Jarman moved to a cottage in Dungeness after being diagnosed as HIV positive, where he created artworks from found materials and his contemplative queer passion film The Garden (1990). A few years earlier, the photographer Chris Killip documented the transient seacoaler community in Lynemouth, Northumberland, who harvested lumps of coal from beaches, using horse and cart to remove their treasures.

Derek Jarman, still from The Garden, 1990. 35mm film. Courtesy and © Basilisk Communications.

Killip later recalled: The place confounded time; here the middle ages and the 20th century intertwined.” His 1983-84 photographs capture people reliant on the confluence of land and industry, shot with the theatricality of Ingmar Bergman. One could argue that Killip walks a similar line to the landscape artists of the 18th and 19th centuries between romanticism and realism. Artistic responses to landscape have changed drastically, but some things have remained the same.

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