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Mention the phrase landscape art to anyone right now in Britain and they are bound to respond with the names of Turner or Constable, in that order. Yet there were other alternative and popular visual responses to the British landscape during the 18th and 19th centuries, on the part of artists, writers and that new creative practitioner (both amateur and professional), the British landscape garden designer.
Land was mapped or topographically recorded in relation to ownership and economic benefit, and to its re-design as an outward display of political and social status. The deceptively natural parkland-look, with its views and vistas (supplied by mature tree planting, village flattening or river re-directing, and the construction of temples, bridges and other follies), sweeping carriage ways and rivers, was a new form of landscape created in vast numbers by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and his follower, Humphry Repton.
A more adventurous landscape was also to be experienced beyond the enclosed boundaries of these country estates by those travellers (proto-tourists) pursuing a new visual aesthetic and psychological experience, the Picturesque. The Picturesque was a quintessentially British concept, espoused by art collectors, writers and amateur garden designers (amateur only in the sense that they did not need to work for a living) such as William Gilpin, Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price. Incidentally, Price detested Capability Brown’s creations and did much to attack and deride Brown’s work immediately following his death.
The Picturesque offered both thrills and pleasing soothing visions to the eye, as there were varying definitions of what it actually was. The search for the Picturesque required reading up beforehand, from a new type of publication, the guidebook, often with watercolour or mezzo-tint illustrations. Then one could brave the carriage rides along the new roadways of Britain, of variable length and quality, to what were thought of as the wild landscapes of Britain, such as Wales and the Lake District. Closer to home, the discovery of vagabonds’ caves and the ubiquitous ‘blasted oak’ (i.e damaged by lightening) could also be glimpsed from a safe distance.
Thus the observation of a landscape, while in motion, became intertwined with the visualization of Britain in art. It is to this historical legacy that the contemporary British multimedia artist, Edward Chell, responds. He couples this with more recent areas of study, namely ecology and psychogeography.
In Soft Estate Edward Chell investigates ‘motorway landscapes’ through sculpture objects, prints, paintings and film; the title ‘soft estate’ was apparently inspired by the Highways Agency of England’s description of natural habitats found adjacent to motorways and trunk roads – some 22,000 hectares of land! Chell is also interested in the writings of the environmentalist, Marion Shoard, and her concept of ‘edgelands’. The motorway slipways and verges, ‘island hyper-landscapes’ as Chell terms them, are explored in terms of contemporary ecology.
Chell writes that ‘through making these paintings I’ve become acutely aware of the visual and metaphorical richness of these fragile, yet self-sustaining and tough environments’. There is also an illuminating essay contributed by a leading and highly readable writer in this field, Richard Mabey. Chell’s own essay, itself entitled ‘Soft Estate’, also examines the very roads and their associated structures, bridges, which Chell argues offer analogous visions and experiences to those of the 18th- and 19th-century visits to country estates: namely socially controlled visual vistas, serpentine curves and a form of mathematically conceived repetitive movement progression leading to the experience of aesthetic transitions. The curators, Bryan Biggs and Sara-Jayne Parsons, provide further introductory and illuminating essays as to the contemporary and historical context in which Chell’s art functions.
The smartly-produced catalogue-book offers 100 colour illustrations, the majority of which feature Chell’s art. The creations of a contemporary herbarium – 60 panels of ‘found flora’ (what some would refer to as ‘weeds’) – shows Chell’s distinctive approach to contemporary printmaking (transfer and reflective vinyl on aluminium). In its use of the positive-negative image idea this consciously refers back to the beginnings of British photography (Fox Talbot ) and the recording of plants, as well as to actual motorway signage’s format and colour.
Sara-Jayne Parsons examination of Chell’s use of photography, both as an aide-memoir (recent research has now revealed that even the Pre-Raphaelite painters used this new tool) and as an aesthetic resource (like a sketchbook drawing), leads her to term Chell as a ‘proto-photographer’, when it comes to his studio paintings. Chell’s paintings certainly have a distinctive contemporary appearance, with shellac applied over oil on linen, thus creating a fragile, seemingly unstable ghost-like image of an environment under threat. This book offers the reader a fascinating encounter with an alternative view of contemporary British landscape art.
Soft Estate by Edward Chell is published by The Bluecoat, 2014.152pp., 100 colour illus, £16.00 (hbk). ISBN9780953899678