A Green and Pleasant Land? Rural Life in Art

It’s impossible not to gaze at the farmhouse. The rural building appears unremarkable apart from that its exterior wall is painted in strikingly colourful stripes à la Daniel Buren. This unusual scene is from Abigail Townsend’s three channel video installation, ‘Ruskin’s View’ (2015), which investigates the contemporary landscape of Kirkby Lonsdale as painted by JMW Turner in 1816 and praised by Ruskin as “one of the loveliest views in England”. By layering contemporary perspectives of Turner’s landscape and audio interviews with Turner art historian, Ruskin expert and the farmer who owns the farmhouse, Townsend deftly explores how the impact of romanticisation works on everyday life; we learn the extravagant paint job is the farmer’s protest at being denied planning permission due to the historical significance of the landscape.

The work is included in A Green and Pleasant Land?, a survey of artistic responses to rural heritage. Encompassing topographical paintings of Preston to William Woodhouse’s realist depictions of livestock, it draws heavily on the Harris’s own collection, augmented by the welcome addition of several contemporary works. The exhibition is split into three thematic strands that address different elements of the rural. However, this didactic framework, arguably vital for such a complex subject, doesn’t complement the large amount of work on display. A smaller, more tightly edited exhibition would have been welcome. Despite this, the exhibition shines when it instigates new discourses between artworks.

Sir Hamo Thronycroft’s bronze figurative sculpture ‘The Mower’ (1881) strikes a dialogue with Rebecca Chesney’s museological installation ‘Death by Denim’ (2015). A radical sculpture in its day, ‘The Mower’ unglamorously depicted – arguably for the first time – a working class worker in his field clothes. Chesney presents ephemera from Scoglio and Son, a doomed Bolton company who developed a line of outdoor denim wear called Summat in the 1970s. An accompanying enlarged newspaper headline from 1973 dramatically informs us that the owner’s son died walking in poor weather: his inappropriate attire contributed to his tragic fate. Linked by fabric, both works challenge constructed notions of the rural idyll by exposing the realities of the capitalist landscape, whether as a place of toil or the rise of the leisure industry.

Georgina Barney’s vivacious pencil drawings of farm animals are juxtaposed with Woodhouse’s technically excellent works. The result is a playful exchange between two artists who explore the relationship between art making and farming, albeit in different eras and styles. Their shared artistic methodology suggests that art, in a time where the impact of the falling price of agricultural produce on the global market has driven many farmers out of business, can add value to the industry.

The temporal nature of architecture in the landscape is poetically addressed in the last gallery. Several large pencil drawings from Andy Goldsworthy’s ‘Sheepfolds’ (1996-2003) project, where Goldsworthy repaired or rebuilt circular stone structures used to house sheep across the UK, are included. Goldsworthy’s proposals are small but effective acts of rural regeneration; public art as a monument to agriculture. Andrew Cross’s haunting digital video ‘An English Field (Barn)’ (2007) is the most powerful work in the exhibition. Depicting the rickety vestiges of a barn, a structure his own father built in 1968, Cross managed to capture it shortly before it finally came down. It’s a representation of the landscape, but one drenched with personal resonance and ephemerality; surely not lost on those who grew up in rural settings and moved to the city. It’s not hard to see the barn’s ghostly shell as a metaphor for the increasing contemporary challenges to rural life.

Jack Welsh is a researcher, writer and artist based in Liverpool.

Image courtesy Harris Museum and Art Gallery.

A Green and Pleasant Land? Rural Life in Art, Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston.

25 July – 26 September 2015.

Published 15.09.2015 by James Schofield in Reviews

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