Spirit of Place

Artists, Writers and the British Landscape

Susan Owens


A lyrical, compelling account of the British landscape in writing and art from Beowulf to now

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When we look at the landscape, what do we see? Do we experience the view over a valley or dappled sunlight on a path in the same way as those who were there before us? We have altered the countryside in innumerable ways over the last thousand years, and never more so than in the last hundred. How are these changes reflected in – and affected by – art and literature?

British landscape painting is often said to be an invention of the eighteenth century. Yet when we look for representations of the country in British art and literature, we find a story that begins with Old English poetry and continues its winding path up to the present day. People have sat down to write about the land, and to draw and paint it, for as long as they have had materials to do so.

Spirit of Place offers a panoramic view of the British landscape as seen through the eyes of writers and artists from Bede and the Gawain-poet to Gainsborough, Austen, W. G. Sebald and Barbara Hepworth. Shaped by these distinctive voices and evocative imagery, this book describes how the British landscape has been framed, reimagined and reshaped by each generation. Each account or work of art, whether illuminated in a manuscript, jotted down in a journal or constructed from sticks and stones, holds up a mirror to its maker and their world.

Shortlisted for Book of the Year, Apollo Awards 2020


'A wonderfully deft and varied study, full of voices, noticings, and contrasting ways of looking. Owens has a gift for making the past feel so close that we might be riding over a hill with Gerald of Wales or John Leland … Drawing on her years as a curator, Owens brings a wealth of objects – painted hangings, murals, stage designs – to set alongside poems, paintings, maps and histories. Here is landscape as solace, nightmare, challenge, trap; landscape observed through centuries with worry and affection, distress and delight'
Alexandra Harris

'Engaging … much of the pleasure of this book – and it is immensely pleasurable – comes from the author’s own enjoyment and her sympathy with her subjects'
Jenny Uglow, Times Literary Supplement

'Wonderfully fluent and revealing … Owens adroitly mixes literature, art and culture to show how perceptions of the British countryside have changed over the centuries and how artists and writers have been at the vanguard of these shifts … Owens uses her impressively wide frame of reference effortlessly – and always revealingly – to zoom from panorama to close-up'
Literary Review

'If you think you know the British landscape, think again. And think with your eyes and imagination. Susan Owens steps neatly between artists and writers, seascapes and treescapes, viewed under mythological, Italian, industrial, and eventually ecological light. This informative, elegant book wears its learning lightly, moving sympathetically through space and centuries and inviting us to become mental travellers, coming with open minds and eyes to the wonders of the British landscape'
Fiona Stafford, author of The Long, Long Life of Trees and The Brief Life of Flowers

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Further Details


Format: Hardback

Size: 23.4 x 15.3 cm

Extent: 352 pp

Illustrations: 80

Publication date: 13 August 2020

ISBN: 9780500252307

Contents List

Introduction • 1. Mystery • 2. Reflection • 3. Discovery • 4. Imagination • 5. Sensation • 6. Vision • 7. Feeling • Presence

About the Author

Dr Susan Owens is an art historian and exhibition curator who has worked at the Royal Collection and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Her previous books include The Ghost: A Cultural History, described by the Guardian as ‘eloquent and lively’, and Who Shall Deliver Me? Christina Rossetti: Poetry in Art.