England on Fire
A visual journey through Albion’s psychic landscape
Stephen Ellcock & Mat Osman
Hb, 256pp, £25, ISBN 9781786784285
Better known as the lead singer of Suede, Mat Osman has collaborated with image curator Stephen Ellcock to put together this offbeat cornucopia of English art. It presents Englishness as something rebellious and magical, and even promises a coming regeneration after the nation’s present malaise: “a new land – an enchanted, enchanting, maddening, quickening, furious, funny and fabulous England”.
English art is an eccentric, lowchurch sort of business, be it leafy and rustic or urban and grimy. We don’t produce much in the way of Old Masters or neo-classical virtuosos, compared to the Continent; we tend more towards hedgerow visionaries and carefully crafted lunacy.
Ranging from fairies to riot photos, the book is organised into thematic sections – an appropriately non-metric dozen – including “Weeds & Wildness”, “Stones”, “The Way” (paths, tracks and mazes), “Arcadia” and more, each section having a short prose text by Osman. Along with the usual suspects – William Blake, the burnished rural visions of Samuel Palmer, the grandiose apocalyptic scenes of John “Mad” Martin and the insanely fine artistry of Richard Dadd, we find Cathy de Monchaux, Ken Kiff, Sutapa Biswas, Yinka Shonibare, Derek Jarman and over 120 others.
My only complaint is the number of images cut by the centrefold; this constitutes a serious offence in an art book. Other than that, though, this is a box of delights, chiefly due to Ellcock’s broad range of curation and the often haunting beauties he offers up. Discoveries for me included John Bingley Garland, a 19th-century collage artist, and George Shaw, who can paint woodland scenes with an old-school perfection but who is still working today and in the unexpected medium of Humbrol enamel – but every reader will have their own.