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