Luke Turner delves into British Art – Ancient Landscapes, the Salisbury Museum exhibition bringing together 250 years of artistic responses to the British landscape.
The landscape around Salisbury is some of the most resonant in England, not despite the heavy interference of humans over the past few thousand years, but because of it. It’s not far from the hill fort, cathedral ruins and town of Old Sarum, Stonehenge, Avebury and other sites of an area of England that was the Blackpool beach of the ancients. I wrote this in a garden surrounded by fields fussed over by tractors, drivers navigating by iPads. Three hares loped past along the lane before stiffening, eyes bulbous at the sight of me, and pelting off along a double hedgerow and ditch that marked the deer park of the old Clarendon Palace. Its remains, a brush of grey flint, could be seen up on the chalk ridge next to a managed woodland where a path divides the deep gloom of a conifer plantation from the blue glow of a carpet of bluebells from which beeches soar. A yellowhammer perched on an overhead wire, it’s plumage matching the oilseed rape in the field below, but the bars on its wings also a modern camouflage against the twists of the cable.
Yet from this valley the car park of Salisbury Lidl is only a 10 minute drive away through fields that with every run of the plough must surrender fragments of pots and tools, homes and bones. At night under the full moon they glow an unearthly pallor. This sense of a place where the coexistence of flora, fauna and humanity has gone beyond farming industry to reflect our metaphysical yearning is evident throughout British Art – Ancient Landscapes, currently taking place in the Salisbury Museum. As much as anything else this is a gathering of visionaries, of artists who understood that those women and men who constructed the ancient structures of prehistory were riding the same impulse and energy that led them to sculpt, paint, or create music.
It opens up a complex and satisfying dialogue between the landscape, the lost civilisations who responded to it with their ritual structures and the artists who then captured both in their work. Just as the main museum next door has broken pipes and pots a-plenty, British Art: Ancient Landscapes begins with the familiar Georgiana and Victorian landscape artists. William Blake’s Milton – A Poem In Two Books, of a rider emerging from underneath a trilithon (two pillars and a cap stone, such as at Stonehenge) under a starry sky opens, while William Andrew Nesfield and William Overend Geller used their depictions of standing stones to anchor the landscape in fantastical and romantic evocations of the sublime or classical. JMW Turner and John Constable used Stonehenge as a gateway into the transformative potential of light and weather, a fitting tribute to the unknown hands that built it whose connection to the natural world was no doubt so far outside our realm of understanding. They also act as the conduit into the modern age, the most resonant part of this exhibition. Eric Ravillious’ Wilmington Giant might be just another painting of the chalk carving, but standing in front of those watercolour hatches it’s the barbed wire fences that slowly shift into focus, one in the foreground and as second in a square around the hillside carving itself. Painted in 1939 and with the wire echoing the trenches of the first world war, it becomes an ominous foreshadowing.
If standing stones are essentially abstract objects, appearing in a landscape with no rhyme or reason, then they were fertile subject matter for the post war years. Barbara Hepworth’s Two Figures (Menhirs) from 1964 smooth the raggedness of quarried stone to become almost sensual and, divorced of familiarity, universal, reflecting cultures beyond these shores . The textures on the stones capture in Gertrude Hermes 1959 linocut might be circuit diagrams, a reflection of the once-innovative industrial techniques that made the quarrying, transportation, and erection of these monuments possible.
Yet it’s all too easy to see these structures – and these images of them – as relics alone, part of our ancient past there to be put on a postcard or a tea towel by English Heritage. That they’re very much alive to so many is evident in the psychedelic close to the exhibition, where Hawkwind join posters for the the Glastonbury Free Festival and photographs of hippies and travellers celebrating the solstice, watched over by grim-faced cops. It’d perhaps have been nice to see some Julian Cope here, but that’s a small gripe.
For me though the most intriguing works are two pieces by Derek Jarman, perhaps the most under-regarded landscape artist of the late 20th century. Around Prospect Cottage, down on the shingle of Dungeness, he created a garden that was itself a work of art, a sculpture of jetsam and plant life struggling for survival against the inhospitable salty sea air. His prose too is rich in its engagement with the natural world, whether that might be a storm raging in across his wooden home and the nearby nuclear power station, or in his lucid descriptions of cruising in the maze of bushes and trees on Hampstead Heath. Even the journals he created as creative maps towards each film project were themselves intimate dioramas, collages of photographs, sketches, diagrams.
In A Journey To Avebury, the 1971 short film shot on Super 8 being screened here, the Wiltshire landscape glows luminous through a yellow filter, the summer heat emanating from the grainy footage that seems to have blurred the hints of the modern (kids sitting on a wall, a broken gate, a round bale of straw) with the undulations of the landscape and the stones themselves. Everything is monumental, yet ordinary; ancient, yet modern, all pulsing in the grainy movement of the film, matching the geiger counter rattle unease of the soundtrack by Coil, themselves sonic cartographers of what the writer David Keenan brilliantly termed “England’s hidden reverse”. In the adjacent room is a later painting, Avebury Series IV from 1973. On a light khaki background vertical and horizontal lines mark out an irregular grid on which sit fragments of stone, actually photographs of marble cut to shape and fixed to the canvas. For all superficial austerity Jarman’s painting captures just as much energy as the film he made to arrive at it.
The next morning I listened to Coil while looking out of the window at hedges and trees of jade and pea and racing green as the hares tumbled and a buzzard wheeled and the flint sat in the fields waiting to be turned. I felt almost a little high. They, like Derek Jarman, like Ravillious and William Blake, like those ancient men and women who hewed and carried and heaved the stones, they understood that this country is ancient and artifice, sex and endless blood, a place of moonlight and magic, and dreams and rain.
Thanks to Malcolm Anderson for the use of Savages Cottage, a place of respite & motivation
British Art: Ancient Landscapes is showing at The Salisbury Museum until 3 September.