‘There will be little point in saving England from the Nazis if we then deliver it to the jerry-builders and ‘development corporations’ Herbert Read.
Recording Britain was an art project which began in 1939. At a time of great change, when everything was under threat from both war and internal social changes, a group of artists were commissioned to paint “places and buildings of characteristic national interest”. 1500 watercolours were produced and the collection, now held by the V&A forms a highly selective and often quite romantic record of what the artists saw. There is something very moving about the way that it was the individual vision of a group of artists which was chosen as a means of documentation using the gentle and traditional medium of watercolour. It was both a small gesture of defiance and a message of hope for the future, a wistful celebration of what the country might be about to lose and a way of saying to the future this is who we were.
Sheffield’s Millennium gallery is currently hosting a touring exhibition from the V&A of some of the work which was produced. There is a lot of simple beauty to enjoy. A wonderful John Piper of a tithe barn at Great Coxwell in Berkshire bursts with drama and presence. Edward Walter’s pencil drawing of Fish Street in Shrewsbury has a magical sense of light and distance as the cathedral glows in sunlight behind the shadowed half timbered buildings. A watercolour of Stoke Bruerne in Northamptonshire by Stanley Bodmin shows the sweeping movement of the water as a narrow boat glides down the Grand Union Canal, the curve of a bridge echoing the current of the water. Sometimes the threat to this beauty is made explicit, as in a watercolour of the the potteries in Stoke on Trent by Alan Ian Ronald where the havoc being wreaked on this pastoral idyll is clearly visible, as smoking chimneys provide a vision of hell.
While I enjoyed the beauty of the early images, what really made this exhibition fascinating for me was the way that more recent work had been added alongside them. This moved the focus forward and allowed the exhibition to look beyond a freeze framed period in time and explore different ways of recording the zeitgeist of a country. Human feeling and human activity is at the forefront. Ingrid Pollard’s portrait of a black woman alone and isolated in hill country, a bizarre image by Tony Ray of a well to do couple having a fancy picnic in a field at Glyndebourne in 1947, surrounded by cows and sheep, and a very elegant work by Richard Long recording a six hour run from Dartmoor to Exmoor in 1957 as a simple, understated traced line from an ordnance survey map.
The most powerful of the modern images, for me, was Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane’s large imposing photograph, Protest House. It is a house with the whole of its frontage transformed into a shout of pain, a protest about a life which has gone very badly wrong. I spent a long time looking at it, there is a lot to digest. Words leap out at you, words like neglect, abuse, exclusion, apathy, humiliation, injustice,torment. The whole sad story has been laid bare in forensic detail over every available surface so that the world will finally be forced to listen to someone who feels that they have been “left to rot”. It is one of the most powerful pieces of outsider art that I have ever seen, a cry straight from the heart.
This is a very cleverly chosen and thought provoking selection of images and I enjoyed both the contrasts and the sheer beauty of the work on show very much.