It was a nice coincidence that the Recording Britain exhibition was at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery (on tour from the Victoria and Albert Museum) when I visited the town on 26 April for the Spirit of Kinder event. The 1932 Kinder trespass occurred a few years before the Recording Britain project started, but I felt they were connected, for the Kinder trespassers were campaigning for our freedom to roam on open country, and Recording Britain helped to ensure that these grand places were protected.
Recording Britain was initiated by Kenneth Clark at the start of the second world war, when more than 90 artists were commissioned to depict our nation’s prime features. These included fine tracts of landscape, towns and villages where buildings were about to be pulled down, parish churches and country houses and their parks.
Most of the paintings are in watercolour, which Clark was keen to preserve as an artform, though Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash, as war artists, used other media. The aim was to boost the national morale at time of war, and to highlight those places which were threatened from development and industrialisation. It is an invaluable and beautiful record.
Some artists focused on their home patch. Charles Knight (1901-90) from Ditchling in East Sussex chose to document the South Downs. He recorded the 25-mile-long road between Milton Street and Edburton, running below the escarpment. His work was used to defend the area from developers in 1940 and again when a bypass was planned in 1954.
Kenneth Rowntree (1915-1997) on the other hand travelled from his home in Essex to his native Yorkshire, Wales and Derbyshire. At Ashopton, Derbyshire, he made an urgent record before the valley was flooded by the Ladybower Reservoir.
The exhibition is accompanied by a 1940s film from the Pathé Archive, made by the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (now the Campaign to Protect Rural England), which recognises the threats to the countryside and advocates the creation of national parks, a decade before they became a reality.
In stark contrast, there are some works by the Guyanese-born Ingrid Pollard (1953-). Her Pastoral interlude 1987 consists of photographs and words, signifying isolation and exclusion.
It’s as if the black experience is only lived within an urban environment. I thought I liked the Lake District; where I wandered lonely as a black face in a sea of white. A visit to the countryside is always accompanied by a feeling of unease; dread … feeling I don’t belong. Walks through leafy glades with a baseball bat by my side …
It made me realise the value of the Campaign for National Parks’ Mosaic project, which has for the past 15 years been working with a range of communities to encourage and enable people from diverse backgrounds to enjoy and appreciate national parks. It has been hugely successful, and as a result there are many more people who now visit the countryside without unease, dread, or fear of not belonging.
Recording Britain is on until 2 November 2014. Entry is free. I recommend a visit.