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?