26 January 2008

On dead guidebooks and scarcely visible ridges in English grass

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‘Television producers sometimes speak of the ‘golden hour’ – that time in the late afternoon, when the sinking sun casts even routine landscapes into brilliant relief. But the early twentieth century photographers who interest Hauser had a different interest in such tricks of the light…’

About Kitty Hauser’s book Shadow Sites: Photography, Archaeology & the British Landscape 1927-1955, Oxford University Press, £65. This is the ‘pre-print version of a review published in the journal Twentieth Century British History.

For Twentieth Century British History ‘Advance Access’ version click here»

Kitty Hauser is among those for whom the existence of English neo-romanticism was first formally announced in the late nineteen eighties. It was a retrospective category, brought into view by David A. Mellor’s exhibition ‘A Paradise Lost,’ at London’s Barbican Gallery in 1987.

Of course, the story of the neo-romantic landscape didn’t begin there, but the exhibition pulled together a number of ideas and images that had fallen into disregard since their moment in the forties and fifties: paintings by John Piper and Eric Ravilious, pre-war motoring advertisements, the films of Powell and Pressburger, photographs by Edwin Smith, reprinted engravings by Blake and his followers Samuel Palmer and Edward Calvert, and topographical books of the interwar variety, many of which were then losing their tenancy on the shelves of second hand book shops and being loaded into cardboard boxes labelled ‘junk’.

For some critics, especially those for whom neo-romanticism had been decisively trumped by the rise of international abstraction in the fifties, the show was a chaotic heaping-up of second-rate and rightly spurned materials. Others welcomed it as an evocative reminder that the novelist John Wyndham’s triffids might have something in common with, say, Reynolds Stone’s engravings of ivy crawling over the walls of an old rectory in Dorset, or H.J. Massingham’s doomladen celebrations of the southern English chalk downs.

For a few neo-romantic artists, the revaluation has since continued, financially if not always along the critical lines suggested by Malcolm Andrew’s study, The Spirit of Place (1988). However, the sense of a wider movement seems to have gone quiet recently. It is always possible that Tracey Emin, who is already drawing birds and flowers, will one day be recognised as a late neo-romantic. In the meantime, however, the movement’s representative gallery is less the Barbican or Tate, than the low-cost emporium of Abbott & Holder near the British Museum, or the Fry Gallery in Saffron Walden, where Bawden, Ravilious, Rowntree and Rothenstein remain the dominant attraction, celebrated for their local Essex connections.

In Shadow Sites, Kitty Hauser sets out to change all this. She brings a new and highly revealing eye to the neo-romantic landscape, treating it less as English pastoralism’s last stand than as the inheritor of a distinctive, and far from simply backward-looking, ‘archaeological imagination’ characteristic of early twentieth century England. The book has its abstract passages but it is not for merely academic reasons that Hauser finds herself ‘tracing the trace’ or interrogating theorists in order to establish ‘What kind of historiography might photography be said to embody?’

Television producers sometimes speak of the ‘golden hour’ – that time in the late afternoon, when the sinking sun casts even routine landscapes into brilliant relief. But the early twentieth century photographers who interest Hauser had a different interest in such tricks of the light. They favoured the sinking evening sun as a revealer of ‘shadow sites’: one that takes an apparently featureless field or stretch of chalk downland and, by bringing out the low ridges and scars, reveals it to be richly marked by history. For the devotees of this particular mode of revelation, such glimpses provide access not to a separated and self-contained past, but to one that is both incomplete and suggestively attached to the present world in which it is customarily overlooked. In the words of one of Hauser’s witnesses, it is ‘a past fragmented, tactile, mute, on whose excavated fragments a re-creating imagination must play’.

Hauser traces this ‘archaeological imagination’ back to an intriguing range of sources. Citing the new methodologies of Victorian archaeology and geology, she also elaborates on the ‘clue’ or ‘trace’ of history with reference to Conan Doyle’s detective fiction and the anthropologist’s enquiry into the ways of the ‘primitive hunter-gatherer’. Like the geographer David Matless and others before her, she scrutinises mid-century guidebooks, quoting and reproducing images in which the English landscape is thrown into relief not just by the sinking sun, but by acute anxieties about the encroachments of modernity: roads, state reform, urban development, industry, mass leisure. In many of these texts, the valued trace of history seems frail, enduring only in the gloomy realisation that it might at any moment be finally banished from the world.

For Hauser, neo-Romantic artists such as John Piper inherited a way of ‘seeing the landscape archaeologically’ that finds early expression in the Sussex of Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. Her main focus, however, falls on O.S. Crawford, who was Archaeology Officer with the Ordnance Survey. Using finances provided by the marmalade heir Alexander Keiller, Crawford founded the popular, photographically illustrated journal Archaeology in 1927. This influential publication achieved a far wider distribution than the professional journals that had occupied the field before them. Ranging over legendary as well as more conventionally historical materials, its articles considered the survival of folk traditions and drew on anthropological as well as ancient cultures to illuminated their findings. Popular in orientation, the journal promoted a kind of historical detective work that people could apply to their own landscape and gardens.

Archaeology was of particular interest to John Piper, Paul Nash, John Craxton and other neo-romantic artists. It ‘blurred’ the boundaries between art and archaeology and treated prehistory as a locally scattered jigsaw puzzle, thereby inspiring the writer Geoffrey Grigson in his reverence for the ‘redemptive fragment’.

For some of his more despairing readers the past was no doubt frankly superior to the present, but Crawford was himself not merely archaic in his ‘redemptive antiquarianism’. He applied his ‘archaeological’ methods to modern life, photographing graffiti and advertisements, and documenting the everyday life of what he would call ‘Bloody Old Britain’.

A former member of the Royal Flying Corps, he was also a pioneer of aerial archaeology, finding new use for a photographic technique that had been developed for reconnaissance purposes during the First World War. Aerial archaeology approached the landscape as a witness that might be coaxed into disclosing evidence of everything that had ever happened to it. It’s findings, however, were not just romantic. “Woodhenge” was first detected by these means in 1925. Having enlisted the help of the RAF in his searches, Crawford also found the site outside London that Stukeley in the 1770s had (wrongly) claimed as one of Caesar’s camps, and which was now shown to be threatened by ‘the rising tide of villadom’.

Aerial photography was shaped by a Modernist imagination. Dynamic, abstract, and defamiliarising, it could also counter the ‘grim narrative of irreversible obliteration’ by insisting on the ‘ineradicable remains of the distant past’ – as if the ribbon development was the transient and temporary thing, and the advancing junk landscape that John Betjeman and others at the Architectural Review would deride as ‘subtopia’ was the thing that would fail to last…

The Second World War saw this ‘archaeological imagination’ pulled in new directions. The artists despatched around the country for the Pilgrim Trust’s ‘Recording Britain’ scheme produced images of buildings and landscapes judged threatened by the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, and the threat was not necessarily provided by Hitler or the new war effort. Yet, as Hauser indicates, pre-war anxieties about the ‘tide of modernization’ threatening the British landscape were ‘largely eclipsed’ as propaganda demanded a new ‘catalogue of hallowed sites and social practices marked by time’. Places were rehallowed with lines from the great national poets, as in Humphrey Jennings’s film ‘Words for Battle’. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger began making ‘A Canterbury Tale’ in 1943, not long after Canterbury had been bombed. Their film reaffirms the links between history and place, while also, as Hauser argues in a captivating digression, offering its own variation on the story of Hollywood’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939).

Among the institutions that carried the ‘archaeological imagination’ into the nineteen fifties, was the National Buildings Record, founded in 1940, a year of grievous destruction and loss. The desire to record historical buildings was soon enough accompanied by an interest in the imaginative potentiality of ‘Damaged Britain’. Destroyed churches would be preserved as war memorials, but bomb-sites became places of discovery too – like one near London’s Cannon Street Station, where a Mithraic temple was discovered in 1954. By that time W. G. Hoskins, pioneer of ‘history on the ground’, was ready to take on the cause with his influential The Making of the English Landscape, first published in 1955, and written in the conviction, presumably shared by the author of this original and highly suggestive study, that ‘the English landscape itself, to those who know how to read it aright, is the richest historical record we possess’.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, January 26th, 2008 at 1:14 pm and is filed under Articles General, Englishness and British national identity, Heritage & History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.