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Art, writing and the British landscape: 'Spirit of Place'

Posted on 05 Aug 2020

From the humblest forest paths to the most awe-inspiring vistas, the British landscape has both shaped and been shaped by its inhabitants and visitors for millennia. In this illuminating extract from ‘Spirit of Place’, author Susan Owens reflects on a landscape that is at once intimately familiar and infinitely mysterious.

One late December day in 1828, the young artist Samuel Palmer sat down in Lullingstone Park, Kent, in front of one of the largest, oldest oak trees he could find, and attempted to draw it. But, as he later admitted to a friend, the oak he chose did not begin to measure up to the image he had in his mind, which had been planted there by a single phrase of John Milton’s: ‘Pine and monumental oak’. There it grew to immense proportions; ‘the poet’s tree’, complained Palmer, ‘is huger than any in the park’. In a couple of words, it seemed, Milton had outstripped nature itself.

Samuel Palmer, Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park, Kent, 1828. Credit: The Morgan Library & Museum, New York (2006.53)  

What Palmer noticed that day affects many of us as we go about our daily lives. Artists and writers do not just describe our landscape; they make it, too. The pictures we see and the stories we read seep deeply into our minds, forever changing the way we perceive the world around us. Palmer himself has had a profound and lasting effect on flowering horse chestnuts for me – his watercolours, with their hyper-vivid colours, subtly exaggerate the trees’ joyful essence like clever caricatures. He has made them more real to me than they were before. In the same way, I am incapable of looking at the South Downs without thinking of William Nicholson’s oil paintings; and every time I drive down the A12 from my home in Suffolk to London, a sweeping view opens up of Dedham Vale and I am struck by the absurd degree to which it looks like a painting by Constable. I can’t help it. These are the filters through which the landscape appears to me – I am sure you have your own.

Men and women have experienced the landscape in different ways at different times. Great physical changes have of course been made to the land over the centuries, as methods of farming have developed, patterns of land ownership have altered the shapes and sizes of fields and urban sprawl has covered much of what was once countryside. But cultural shifts in the aesthetic appreciation of landscape have played at least as important a role. There have been times when the countryside has been a place to lift the heart, and others when it has been regarded as better suited for melancholy reflection; times when it could offer spiritual enlightenment and times when people shut the door against it with a shudder of relief. Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of changing perceptions is our attitude to mountains. Before the late eighteenth century, mountains were considered ugly and offensive. No one went near them if they could possibly avoid it – touring southern Scotland in the 1720s, Daniel Defoe was distressed by country of ‘the wildest and most hideous aspect’ surrounding Drumlanrig. Scant decades later, tourists and artists alike could hardly tear themselves away: ‘the Mountains are extatic [sic ], & ought to be visited in pilgrimage once a year’, enthused Thomas Gray in 1739, after his first sight of the Highlands.

Landscape is a vast subject, and I am fascinated by the way successive cultural, social and intellectual changes have shaped our attitudes to it over centuries. The scope of this book is intended to offer a view of the big picture as it unfolds. But just as interesting to me are the voices of individuals who experience the landscape: I wanted to know what a woman living at the time of Queen Anne saw as she rode through the Peak District; what an Elizabethan thought while gazing across a heath; how a tenth-century man felt about woodland. In this book I have set out to put these writers, artists and chroniclers centre stage; to notice the details they notice, and to write about why they frame this subject in the ways they do.

Illustration to ‘Pearl’ in Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, c. 1375-1424. Credit: British Library, London.

Spirit of Place probably first took root in my childhood, spent in rural Derbyshire at the tip of the Pennines’ toes. It has certainly grown from my work as a museum curator. Much of my research has taken place in collections of fine and decorative arts, particularly those of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Not only does the V&A house Britain’s national collection of watercolours, one of the greatest resources for landscape art, it also has a long history of collecting the curious and difficult things that do not easily fit into other museums. London’s National Gallery, for example, collects oil paintings but not works on paper. With equal fastidiousness, the British Museum collects works on paper but not oil paintings. The V&A has few such qualms. So when, in the past, half a painted room needed a home – or the wooden viewing-box that Gainsborough constructed to view his glass paintings by candlelight – or Philip de Loutherbourg’s paper models of Peak Cavern, designed for a long-forgotten play called The Wonders of Derbyshire – off to the V&A they went. My time as a curator of the oil paintings, watercolours, drawings and associated oddments in the V&A’s collections taught me that art history is messy and complicated, and all that awkward, delicate, difficult-to-store, three-dimensional stuff cannot be made to sit up straight and behave itself. In any case, working in a huge museum with such a large component of decorative arts is an education in itself: walking daily through the galleries on my way to my eyrie of an office, I could not help but think about the ways in which tapestries and embroideries, for instance, might relate to so-called fine art.

My years at the V&A were ones in which I thought a lot about landscape, and planned galleries and exhibitions on the subject. But sometimes it takes an unexpected spark to ignite an idea. It happened one September weekend; I was at a literary festival listening to a talk when I heard an old cliché: that British landscape painting was invented in the eighteenth century. ‘But it’s more complicated than that!’, I scrawled in my notebook. Most art historians, in fact, date its appearance to the seventeenth century, when landscape paintings – paintings, that is, in oil on canvas or panel – began to arrive in Britain from the Netherlands and Italy, where artists had specialized in the distinct genre of landscape since the early sixteenth century. Indeed, what is thought to be the earliest surviving response to imported paintings by a native artist is a small rocky landscape of the 1620s by the gentleman–artist Nathaniel Bacon, now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – sadly, it is no masterpiece. But that particular moment in which landscape began to be regarded as a fitting subject for oil paintings, important as it is, is only part of a larger story that encompasses decorative, applied and literary arts as well as fine art. An idea began to take shape in my mind. Of course people looked at the British landscape long before the seventeenth century. They drew it, pondered it and told tales about it, wove it into tapestries and lived with images of it on their walls. Could I tell a story about imaginative responses to our landscape that took both art and literature into account? Where would it begin?

Paul Nash, Landscape of the Megaliths, 1937. Credit: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York (RCA1948:6).

I knew that to make sense of it I had to take the long view, to explore the panorama of landscape as it has been represented in art and literature. When I began to search for early accounts by those who lived among Britain’s hills, woods and rivers, I soon found a story that can first be made out in what used to be called the Dark Ages – and that continues in an unbroken path (though one with many twists, turns and dramatic changes of scene) that leads right up to the present day. It became clear that men and women have written about the land, and drawn and painted it, for as long as they have had pen and paper (or parchment). For centuries artists and writers have climbed Britain’s mountains, boated down its rivers, studied its skies and got down on their hands and knees for a closer look. Others have preferred to retreat indoors and look inwards, letting memories of the outside world filter through their minds. Most have tried to express the emotions the landscape arouses as well as the facts of its appearance.

Landscape is at the heart of British culture. We have a history of inventing and reinventing the ways in which we look at and think about it that stretches back more than a thousand years. Today, with storms, floods and droughts dramatically reshaping our world, discussions of what we should do with the landscape, and do about it, become ever more urgent and conflicted. As contemporary novelists, poets, artists and nature writers find ways of reimagining it to fit these uncertain times, now is also the moment to look back and understand its long and extraordinary cultural history.

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Spirit of Place

Artists, Writers and the British Landscape Susan Owens
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Unquiet Landscape

Places and Ideas in 20th-Century British Painting Christopher Neve
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