When I first read Nikolaus Pevsner’s The Englishness of English Art I was really interested in his notion that Englishness could be defined as a set of characteristics, strongly related to climate, that affected the way the nation expressed itself in its art – as seen through the eyes of an incomer, a German.
An interesting radio documentary, recently broadcast on Radio 4 in the context of Britain’s recent ‘Brexit’ vote, revisits the Englishness seen through Pevsner’s eyes as an outsider, focusing on his work of the 1940s, when ideas of Britishness and Englishness faced another major crisis – war.
Pevsner, the programme explains, took a series of field trips around the highways and byways of England, perambulating around towns and villages in order to produce a pocket guide to the nation’s architecture and places in a style that could be carried around by schoolboys in their anoraks as a way of teaching them how to look and see. The programme points out that although Pevsner had very clear ideas of what was right and wrong, he considered it important to write about everywhere, however ordinary it may have seemed.
The programme features some insightful cameos, from Jonathan Meades to geographer David Matless and, at a time when questions of a common or shared national identity seem further away than ever, it evokes some interesting debates. Listen online at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07h2v3y.
I also used the Easter holidays as an opportunity to visit the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, Essex, along with the nearby village of Great Bardfield, in the north of the county. The Fry houses works by the group of artists associated with Great Bardfield from the 1930s until the 1960s, including Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Kenneth Rowntree, John Aldridge, Sheila Robinson, Michael Rothenstein, George Chapman and Walter Hoyle, with the artists famously passing on not just techniques to each other but decorating their homes and furniture. Saffron Walden is fairly close to Cambridge, where Pictures for Schools founder Nan Youngman lived and socialised and many of the Great Bardfield artists, along with others from across the wider area of East Anglia, were involved with and sold work through Pictures for Schools. The museum was smaller-scale than I expected, but I spotted several of the artworks which were sold at Pictures for Schools, including Sheila Robinson’s print ‘Knife Grinder’, a vivid and personable portrait of a now exotic profession, and the softer ‘Trent Bridge’, which shows her own children sitting on a bridge. One work, a busy cockerel by Michael Rothenstein, was produced for schools in collaboration with the London County Council and another of his works was sold through the School Prints. There were a lot of works depicting the local area in colourful detail, from market squares to country paths, churches and the artists’ homes – although the large, fuzzy shapes of Michael Rothenstein’s more abstract prints were among my favourites – alongside material relating to the artists’ sociable village life in Great Bardfield and the open houses that were held in the artists’ homes and studios.
As well as artworks, there were commercial products, from printed fabrics to book covers and illustrations for books such as the Shell Guides to Britain as well as the quaint Life in an English Village, which depicts places still familiar today such as local shops and the schoolroom. There were also designs for murals in public places such as ships and the Festival of Britain, along with Bawden’s humorous, cartoonish advertisements for companies such as Twinings tea and Fortnum and Mason. Among my favourites were pieces of pottery designed by Bawden and Ravilious and produced by Wedgwood, and pottery produced for P&O liners. I particularly loved a series of plates, bowls, etc themed around the garden and depicting leisurely uses of the garden in light lines and a hazy yellow palette, from weeding and picking produce to lazing under a tree, along with a set using a collection of garden implements to decorative effect.
Although I associate the eastern side of the country, and Essex in particular, with a flat landscape, the countryside around Saffron Walden was surprisingly hilly, with lots of windy country lanes. It felt unlike anywhere else I had visited in England, a small and unrepresentative pocket living up to the olde-worlde image so many people associate with England. Saffron Walden, like many of the villages around it, comprised narrow, slightly tilting, streets of old buildings, painted in pastel colours, many of them adorned with swirling patterned paint and tiles, interspersed with thatched cottages, with the centre dominated by a large church. Directly behind the museum was a large formal park with a walled garden, rose garden, ornamental hedges and greenhouses, one of several well-maintained green spaces, with others including a very large village green. Today, the narrow streets of Saffron Walden are congested with traffic, and the town centre is full of gastropubs, craft shops and clothes boutiques.
It must have been an adventure for Edward Bawden and co, when they moved into their homes without electricity in the 1930s, although they maintained one foot in London, catching the daily bus to London to teach at various art schools. For me, it felt cut off, islanded in the middle of fields. It was all very pleasant, but as a city dweller it all felt too enclosed, too pretty and picturesque, too quiet and idyllic. It felt like looking in from the outside, where one would always remain in relation to that kind of place, the type of place one goes to forget about the real world, and I found myself yearning for the life and variety of the city. Yet, conversely, maybe that is why the work of these artists and the moment in mid-twentieth century life and culture associated with them is still so appealing and in many ways still and timeless. These paintings and prints represent places and buildings that have been there for centuries, and will continue to be there long after we are gone, as life changes to a greater or lesser extent around them.
I also enjoyed this Radio 3 programme about Bawden and Ravilious’ friendship, presented by Alexandra Harris, which was on a couple of months ago.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the types of artworks shown in Pictures for Schools, many of which are paintings depicting national landscapes and past-times, wondering whether they represent a certain version of Englishness (and Britishness/Welshness in the case of Pictures for Welsh Schools) and what sort of version of national life the artists involved sought to portray to schoolchildren. I’m also curious to map how they fit into a changing tradition of English art.
For some inspiration, I’ve been reading the Englishness of English Art, written in 1955 and based on a series of Reith Lectures of the same name broadcast on the BBC, in which Nikolaus Pevsner, a German emigre, sets out to define whether there is ‘geography of art’, a ‘cultural geography of nations’. He sets out by defining a geography of art as being ‘what all the works of art and architecture have in common, at whatever time they may have been made’, explaining that another way of seeing this is ‘national character as it expresses itself in art’. He makes some interesting points about certain national characteristics he has identified as an outsider, a newcomer to the country, which arise from factors such as the English landscape and climate, before describing their effect on the country’s art.
It’s no surprise that temperance, reasonableness, moderation, conservatism and illogicality are among these essential English qualities identified by Pevsner (for Pevsner, climate is fundamental to character and the qualities of temperance and moderation arise from the English landscape and climate). These qualities, he observes, manifest themselves in practicality, self-discipline and, in art, disembodiment. These qualities have both good and bad implications where art is concerned. England has produced no outstanding genuises in the mould of Michelangelo, Titian, Rembrandt, Durer or Grunewald, argues Pevsner, and England is a country of amateur painters, ‘from maiden aunts to Prime Ministers’, because it is characterised by the amateur rather than the specialist, because its painters lack the ‘violent compulsion towards singleminded self-expression to which a lifetime must be devoted’, and because tolerance and fair play win out over fanaticism and intensity. Although Pevsner appreciates the ‘specifically English’, ‘romantic topography’ of Christopher Wood, John Piper and Eric Ravilious, he does not see them as great artists of the twentieth-century, with English painting reflecting rather than leading Continental developments in art (Pevsner thought that even the Festival of Britain of 1951 lagged twenty years behind a similar exhibition in Germany).
England’s tendency towards moderation also counts agains it; it does not tend to overthrow traditions wholesale, as in other countries. When revolutions take place, they are unbloody, notes Pevsner, and the outer appearance of things stays the same even as everything changes. Similarly, some of England’s political characteristics, such as rule by committee and unquestioning faith in the majority vote, are detrimental when applied to art-making, leading to timidity and inertia. Furthermore, reminds Pevsner, committees can not be relied upon to make good aesthetic judgements (an interesting point to bear in mind in relation both to the Arts Council, which was set up after the Second World War and run by committee, and Pictures for Schools, where artworks were selected by committees of artists).
Pevsner links the English characteristic of conservatism to certain aspects of England’s culture which remain grounded in past tradition, from the Judge’s wig to the Cinque Ports, but also paints a picture of England as an old-fashioned country full of outdated modes of living:
“One cannot be proud of all of them – not of obsolete railway stations with unspeakably shabby and dreary waiting rooms, nor of antediluvian dust carts scattering more garbage than they collect, nor of museums in provincial towns – to return to art – where stuffed birds live side by side with paintings of some value and the snuff-box of some citizen of the town.”
In art, this conservatism implies a lack of will to believe in the new, a trust in the tried-out, distrust of experiment for experiment’s sake, faith in continuity and a dislike of breaks.
However, what English artists do excel in, suggests Pevsner, is understatement, as seen in water-colours and miniatures, things on a small scale. He identifies that most of the great British work throughout history is either portrait or landscape, with the artist taking the role of an observer. Painters such as Constable tended to focus on atmospheric qualities such as the dew and breeze. In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century the sporting picture was a speciality. Other distinctly English styles are the open-air portrait and the Picturesque, arising from the English passion for landscape gardens and gardening. Rather than imaginative, the art of the English is informative, narrative, repetitive and incorporeal.
For Pevsner, one of the difficulties of trying to identify a national character in art is that some countries are more likely to seek expression in certain fields than others, and that even where countries do express themselves through art, it cannot express everything about a country. Generally speaking, Pevsner does not see the British as a great artistic nation, however, due in part to an anti-aesthetic streak, which distinguishes between the utilitarian and the ornamental, useful art and useless art; he says that England is stronger at practical activities such as building then in sculpture and painting.
Another difficulty is that, at some times, this national character is stronger than at others, as there is also always, coexisting, a ‘spirit of an age’, which can either reinforce or work against national character. Part of the reason why Britain is not a leader in twentieth century art, argues Pevsner, is because of its dislike of violence and belief in evolution. The spirit of the age, and by extension its art, is violent, confrontational and fragmentary in form, qualities which are in direct opposition to those associated with Englishness.
To bring this back to Pictures for Schools, while some artists did respond to topical events, reflecting the physical and social changes that were going on in the post-war landscape – in 1954, for example, Fred Uhlman submitted ‘Coronation March’, one of several works inspired by the Coronation, and in 1950 John Berger offered a painting of ‘South Bank Concert Hall in Construction’ – a glance at any of the Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues shows that many of the artworks depict subject matter of a fairly traditional, conventional, timeless nature which represented Britain at home and at work, at play and at leisure. Artworks dealt with both the manmade and the natural and represented both the urban and the rural aspects of British life. Although some artworks were abstract and in later years a couple of op art pictures were included in the exhibitions, many of the pictures stayed closer to the styles and subject matters you might expect to see in an amateur art exhibition or local painting show, rather than representing the cutting edge of materials and forms, perhaps because these subjects were easy to understand and appreciate and more radically modern art would have been considered too challenging for children. Popular subjects at Pictures for Schools exhibitions included animals and images of children, still lives, landscapes, cottages and country houses, beach scenes, gardens and forests, the high street and individual shops such as the butchers, cultural references and customs such as dancing around the May pole, pigeon houses and fish and chips, games such as football, cricket and hockey. Also common was imagery relating to industries and occupations such as hay making, hop picking, crab boiling potting, net mending, canal barges, railway men, ironworks, gasworks, steelworks, quarrying, mining and smoking chimneys, not to mention the austere mill scenes and northern cityscapes of LS Lowry. One artist went as far as to take this inoffensive, easy-on-the-eye version of everyday Britain to its natural conclusion, offering up a painting of that most utilitarian and easy-to-overlook bits of design, a pedestrian crossing, while Mary Hoad considered it appropriate to depict ‘A Filling Station in Hertford’.
I happened across this interesting Radio 4 programme yesterday about England’s attachment to our countryside as “a guiding idea and inspiration”. The programme talks about how England’s natural landscape provided an “idea of England to be fought for” during the world wars, and explores the tensions created between preserving the English landscape and needing to expand and provide land for new homes and industries as the twentieth century progressed, taking in inter-war ribbon development, the rise of owner-occupation, prefab construction after the Second World War, New Towns on greenfield sites, satellite towns, affordable housing, the profession of planning, the rise of the car, etc. .
The programme uses interviews and archive clips, from John Betjeman on ‘Metroland’ and a clip from radio producer Olive Shapley’s 1930s Manchester slum conditions documentary the Classic Soil, to Winston Churchill on the delights of indoor bathrooms.
Find the programme on iPlayer here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01j2bzr/Archive_on_4_Houses_v_Fields/
I found the programme’s discussion of an idealised version of a ‘deep’ or ‘lost’ England interesting in relation to my reading about modernity – as other writers have observed, modernity in Britain can be seen as clinging onto tradition and preservation, refusing to completely break with the past in its vision of the future (see Conekin, Mort and Waters 1999, Matless 2001). It is also going to be interesting to see what kind of visions of Britain were presented to children in the artworks included in Pictures for Schools, particularly in the paintings, many of which take the English landscape as their inspiration.