De­con­struct­ing the coun­try­side

Laura Gas­coigne’s eyes are opened by an ex­hi­bi­tion that digs be­neath the sur­face of the ru­ral idyll

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

When Lancelot ‘Ca­pa­bil­ity’ Brown land­scaped the 120-acre park at Comp­ton Ver­ney in the 18th cen­tury, he in­cluded a pic­turesque ice house, but no her­mit’s folly. This spring, the Ge­or­gian man­sion in War­wick­shire has cor­rected that omis­sion by erect­ing a 21st-cen­tury equiv­a­lent: a geodesic dome pieced to­gether from re­cy­cled wood and metal that, for the rest of the year, will pro­vide ac­com­mo­da­tion for vol­un­teer her­mits who wish to ex­pe­ri­ence a sub­sis­tence life­style.

In­stead of look­ing back to an ide­alised past, The Clear­ing— a col­lab­o­ra­tive project by artists Alex hart­ley and Tom James— will be ‘giv­ing peo­ple an idea of how the fu­ture feels’ when the fos­sil fu­els have run out, the nu­clear power sta­tions have all gone phut and the global econ­omy has col­lapsed.

The Clear­ing co­in­cides with Comp­ton Ver­ney’s lat­est ex­hi­bi­tion, ‘Cre­at­ing the Coun­try­side’, which—in­spired by the house’s faux-nat­u­ral­is­tic set­ting—sets out to de­mol­ish our as­sump­tions about ‘nat­u­ral land­scape’ and ex­pose them as so­cio-po­lit­i­cal con­structs. Or, as John Bet­je­man ex­pressed it rather more po­et­i­cally, to­day, the very no­tion of the ‘coun­try­side’ is a ‘de­light­ful sub­ur­ban­ism’.

For those who farm it, how­ever, the coun­try­side has al­ways meant the land. It was Dutch artists who first ex­ported the idea of ‘land­skip’ to this coun­try, where it fused with the pas­toral vi­sion of Claude Lor­rain to give birth to english land­scape paint­ing—and gar­den­ing—in the 18th cen­tury. Thus we find the Ar­ca­dian set­ting of Claude’s Youth Play­ing a Pipe in a Pas­toral Land­scape (about 1645) per­fectly mir­rored in a view of Comp­ton Ver­ney’s man­made park re­pro­duced on a blue china plat­ter of about 1800.

What­ever the ex­hi­bi­tion’s sub­text, it’s a good ex­cuse for gath­er­ing to­gether some beau­ti­ful paint­ings. There’s a strik­ing early J. M. W. Turner of Cil­ger­ran Cas­tle, three land­scapes by John Con­sta­ble—in­clud­ing an im­promptu sketch, Spring: East Bergholt Com­mon, dashed off on a piece of wood whose grain fol­lows the fur­rows of the plough

along a strip of re­cently en­closed pas­ture—and a charm­ing por­trait by Thomas Gains­bor­ough of his daugh­ter wear­ing the dole­ful look of the artist’s child bul­lied into mod­el­ling, Mar­garet Gains­bor­ough Glean­ing (late 1750s). The bare­foot urchins hang­ing on the five-barred gate in Wil­liam Collins’s Rus­tic Ci­vil­ity (1833) also look sus­pi­ciously like fam­ily: the older boy awk­wardly tug­ging his fore­lock ob­vi­ously has no idea what the ges­ture means.

In the light of the cur­rent threat to the Union, it’s in­ter­est­ing to note some na­tional dif­fer­ences. Scot­tish artists are less re­spect­ful of so­cial hi­er­ar­chies. There’s a sharp edge of so­cial com­men­tary to John Robert­son Reid’s Toil and Pleasure (1879), in which a fam­ily picks turnips in a fore­ground field while leisured hunts­men scram­ble over a ditch be­hind. In A Hind’s

Daugh­ter (1883), Sir James Guthrie pays his hum­ble sub­ject the hon­our of a por­trait. There’s no awk­ward fore­lock-tug­ging

here—the girl may be stand­ing in a cab­bage patch, but she’s look­ing straight at us.

Per­haps more sur­pris­ingly, some gender dif­fer­ences are de­tectable, too. Women’s images of ru­ral labour seem more work­man­like. In her wood en­grav­ings for The Farmer’s Year: A Cal­en­dar of English Hus­bandry (1933), Clare Leighton de­lights in the ab­stract shapes of mod­ern farm ma­chin­ery and Eve­lyn Dun­bar paints an un­sen­ti­men­tal pic­ture of wartime agri­cul­ture in A 1944 Pas­toral: Land Girls Prun­ing at East Malling.

The neo-ro­man­tic John Piper, mean­while, is un­able to wean him­self off the pic­turesque in his moon­lit im­age Derelict Cot­tage,

Deane, Hamp­shire (1940). We have to wait un­til the 1970s and Ed­ward Burra for ru­ral disen­chant­ment to set in. In his iron­i­cally ti­tled English

Coun­try Scene (1970), a tail­back of lor­ries winds through rolling hills as far as the eye can see, to dis­ap­pear into a pol­luted dis­tance. Burra’s com­i­cally jaun­diced view is echoed in Grayson Perry’s Fan­tasy Vil­lage (2006), a glazed ce­ramic pot mix­ing olde-worlde ru­ral vi­gnettes with a photo-trans­fer of the A13 to Chelms­ford. The two artists share a sense of the ab­surd; they would have got on like a ginger­bread house on fire.

The gulf be­tween ru­ral tra­di­tion and mod­ern life is un­der­scored by the jux­ta­po­si­tion of a tra­di­tional dis­play of corn dol­lies, wo­ven by oc­to­ge­nar­ian Ray­mond Rush for a vil­lage church near Mac­cles­field, Cheshire, with a 2014 pho­to­graph by Andy Sewell of a con­tem­po­rary har­vest fes­ti­val of­fer­ing of su­per­mar­ket food.

Past and present come to­gether in Lucy Wright’s Con­ver­sa­tion

Hats (2013), made for a side of Mor­ris dancers in Lymm, Cheshire. Wright’s ex­u­ber­ant flo­ral de­signs hold out the hope that, with a bit of artis­tic in­ven­tion, the post-fos­sil-fuel fu­ture might still be rosy.

‘Cre­at­ing the Coun­try­side’ is at Comp­ton Ver­ney, War­wick­shire, un­til June 18 (01926 645500; www.comp­ton­ver­ney.org.uk). An ac­com­pa­ny­ing book, ‘Cre­at­ing the Coun­try­side: The Ru­ral Idyll Past and Present’, is edited by the ex­hi­bi­tion’s cu­ra­tors, Rosemary Shirley and Ver­ity El­son (£15)

Next week: ‘Cock­neys in Ar­ca­dia: C. R. Ash­bee in Chip­ping Cam­den’

‘For those who farm it, the coun­try­side has al­ways meant the land

A Farmer and his Prize Heifer, about 1844, shows 154 stone Maria, bred by Ralph Walker of Mid­dle­ton Grange, County Durham

Mar­garet Gains­bor­ough Glean­ing, late 1750s, is the sur­viv­ing half of a dou­ble por­trait of Gains­bor­ough’s two daugh­ters

Des­per­a­tion, de­cay and ruin: Gra­ham Suther­land’s haunt­ing etch­ing Num­ber Forty-nine (1924)

Con­ver­sa­tion Hats by Lucy Wright shows a side of Mor­ris dancers

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