Michael Smith heads to Eastbourne’s Towner Art Gallery to suss out A Green and Pleasant Land – the exhibition centring on the artists who have shaped our understanding of the British landscape since the 1970s
Rickety, forlorn looking cottages glided by the train window, peppering the sunken marshland by the sea; out of the other window, looking inland, sheep grazed by ruined Norman castles on the green lowlands rolling all the way out to the South Downs on the horizon. When we hit the edges of town, this low country gave way to a vast 1930s council estate, a white pebble-dashed pastiche of those rural cottages sprawling dramatically across the vast, flat stretch between the marshland and the centre of Eastbourne.
I live in Hastings. People in Hastings don’t like Eastbourne. They imagine it as “God’s Waiting Room,” full of shuffling coffin-dodgers who sit at home with the heating up too high worrying about immigrants. People from Eastbourne fear to tread in Hastings, convinced it’s all boarded-up boozers and bagheads on crutches in Reebok Classics who’d steal your hub caps as soon as look at you. Neither cliché is correct, of course, both dissolve on contact with reality, and both towns have got a little bit of each in the other. Not being local enough to feel these small town rivalries in my bones, I’ve got a soft spot for Eastbourne, and enjoy getting lost round the wide, elegant avenues where everyone drives at a slow, muffled hiss, like the waves below the bandstand on the front.
I’d come to see the Towner Gallery’s A Green & Pleasant Land, a survey of English landscape photography since 1970 — an exhibition that feels timely, feels true, and feels like the same England I’d just taken my train journey through, rather than giving us the bullshit version of the English landscape, the Last Night of the Proms version, the nostalgic fantasies of the Daily Mail mentality summoning up some stirring patriotic idyll that never was…it manages to get to the far more interesting truth of the matter.
The first image I saw was the Caravan Gallery’s photo of a rotting, derelict art deco bingo hall on a bleak and unlovely stretch of South London sprawl, the boarded-up windows masked with autumnal photos of falling forest leaves in gorgeous ochres and russets. Its suggestion is that the rural idyll embedded deep in the English Psyche embodies the fantasies and yearnings of the world’s first modernised, urbanised culture, is a symptom of its dysfunction, its need to escape the mistake, to purge its original sin.
Ah! Liberty! by Ben Rivers, on the other hand, captures the actuality of a rural way of life that is a stark reality check to all that wishful thinking: a film about the grinding poverty of a family living off the land out beyond the pale in the deep Highlands of Scotland, a bleak, brutal place where thatch-headed folk drive rusty cars with no doors stripped right down to the chassis, and children with oily faces and filthy fingers play in the cobwebs and the muck. The liberty in title’s a ragged and tarnished one, and kept making me think of that Janis Joplin line, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” It all feels a far cry from the pints of real ale and the cricket on village greens that might come to mind when you hear the word “countryside.”
Much of the show explores a sense of unease rooted deep in the landscape, the feeling that at its heart there’s a wrongness to it all. Martin Parr’s Crimsworth Dean Chapel 1970 is a vision of rustic Britain closer to Royston Vasey’s local shop for local people than Constable’s Hay Wain.
This uncanniness is not just confined to the forlorn, faraway places, but also seeps into the landscapes closer to home, those edgeland overlaps of countryside and town that most of us are familiar with: in Robert Judge’s Football Pitch at Dawn, white goalposts glow against the darkness of night, with a troubled first light just breaking above the trees in the distance; it’s incredible he managed to pack so much mystery and foreboding into such a sparse, simple, everyday image.
Finding something similarly uncanny and menacing in the everyday is Andy Sewell’s image of a bonfire pile with a silhouette of Guy Fawkes sloping about on top of it. Since coming to live in Sussex, where Bonfire Night is a deep thread in the tribal DNA, and every autumn blacked-up mobs with flaming torches take over the streets en masse, I’ve glimpsed something very dark lurking behind the 5th of November. Guy Fawkes becomes the emblem of some nameless English fear just below the surface, the 17th century’s catholic terrorist to our muslim terrorist, the lurching, creeping silhouette of Middle England’s collective folk-fears that brings out something pretty scary in them too, something witch-burning, pitch-forky, Brexity. There’s something dark and fearful at the heart of the English psyche, and every 5th of November they set fire to an effigy of it on top of loads of wooden palates on a village green near you.
This fear and darkness has long been harnessed and exploited by the powers that be, and twisted to their own ends. In a picture of Eastbourne beach by Melanie Friend, a WW2 bomber flies over everyone’s bank holiday seaside fun, and a man in combat shorts by the paddling children gazes inscrutably towards it. Was he in Iraq? Is he proud of the plane or is it doing his head in? Past imperial glories exploited by the industrial military complex (heritage division) are imposed in an uncomfortable juxtaposition with that other icon of Englishness, the bank holiday on the beach. In Donovan Wylie’s South Armagh Golf series, lush green rolling hills of Northern Ireland are made sinister by the British Army’s military watchtowers, gun turrets on corrugated iron structures surrounded by barbed wire, alluding to the 500 year back-story of colonialism, oppression and blood. What these photos allude to, Paul Seawright’s photos slap you in the face with, shockingly: the restful image of the quiet shoreline of a lake, with the words, “Monday 30 December 1974; a 17 year old boy was duck shooting on the shores of Belfast Loch. Four men approached him demanding he hand his shotgun over. They then shot him in the head with the weapon.” I couldn’t get the thought of this out of my head for some time afterwards.
Green & Pleasant Land? Hardly. The title is of course ironic, contrary, a critique of the patriotic lie we have forced on us, and are unknowingly complicit in. The value of this exhibition is that it unnerves us, and occasionally shocks us out of this complacency, conjuring up the ugly spirit that haunts the place, and us.
A Green and Pleasant Land – British Landscape and the Imagination: 1970s to Now is open at the Towner Art Gallery until 21 January 2018. Admission is free.
Michael Smith is currently working on a film script for a folk-horror road movie. A recent short film he made about a terrifying night in Whitby can be seen on the BFIplayer here.