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Spirit of Place

Artists, Writers and the British Landscape

Susan Owens


A lyrical, critically acclaimed 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?

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.


'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

'Original and wide-ranging'
Best Art Books of 2020, Sunday Times

'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'
Alexandra Harris, author of 'Weatherland' and 'Romantic Moderns'

'An evocative and crowded chronicle … a book of idylls and nightmares'

'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 … She 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 … 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'

'[A] lovely, lyrical study .... gorgeously illustrated and rich in voices … fascinating and personal'

'Enchanting … Owens has a poet’s skill for finding the right word or metaphor, lyrical yet spearingly precise'
World of Interiors

'Our understanding of the landscape has always been more imaginary than actual, and Susan Owens brilliantly tells how it has been shaped and re-shaped by way of poetry and novels...a richly embroidered tour of lakes and fenland, mountains and fields, full of insights and surprise'
Book of the Month, Hatchards

'Owens deftly charts the progression of the British landscape from background to centre stage ... this is a gorgeously illustrated scholarly tome that can be enjoyed and referred to again and again'

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Product Information

Book Details

Format: Paperback

Size: 19.8 x 12.9 cm

Extent: 352 pp

Publication date: 22 July 2021

ISBN: 9780500296356

Contents List

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

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.