The New English Landscape

Worpole, K. & Orton, J. (2013) The New English Landscape Field Station, London ISNB 978 0 9926669 0 3

Prolific author (and one of the shrewdest and sharpest observers of the English social landscape) Ken Worpole, Emeritus Professor in the Cities Institute at London Metropolitan University, and landscape photographer Jason Orton have collaborated in The New English Landscape to explore what’s described in the blurb as: the changing geography of landscape aesthetics.

Now that frankly sounds a little obtuse and even rather dry, however a decade of walking the length and breadth of the Essex coastline, recording the changes and attempting to develop a fresh appreciation of landscape aesthetics conjured from topographical, architectural and historical elements has achieved a significant contribution to our understanding of the significance of landscape in all its forms and the impact of locality on all of us.

In an 18,000 word essay in four parts ‘Landscape as Heritage’; ‘Landschaft and Landskip’; ‘A temporary arrangement with the sea’ and ‘Modern nature: art, ecology, landscape’ Ken Worpole critically examines the shift away from what might be described as an ‘English arcadian’ or romantic view of the landscape to the more recent interest in the ill-defined, shape-shifting spaces of the edgelands and, in the case of this essay, he focuses on the ‘vague terrain’ of the Essex coastline.

Clifton Anderson Collection
A move from this…
Wells Fireworks Factory, Dartford, Kent
To this…

Worpole regards these seemingly austere landscapes, dotted with familiar relics of past human activity; the windswept estuaries; bleak and beautiful marshlands; industrial and military ruins, and overgrown, abandoned outhouses, as places of significant topographical disruption worthy of respectful, forensic examination.

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Thorney Bay Beach Camp, Canvey Island, Essex

He celebrates, through tangential storytelling, the shifting expanses of the Thames foreshore and the islands and estuaries of Essex’s north-eastern peninsula, seeing them as mesmeric landscapes of profound ecological and imaginative resonance that are as rich as, and demanding every bit as much attention as, the mountains and valleys of traditional landscape aesthetics.

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New English Landscape

In many of these depopulated and now wild landscapes, there is a sense of both desolation and wonder. As Worpole suggests, “at the tide’s ebb, there can be an overwhelming sense of emptiness in a world bereft meaning”, but also, “a sense of wonder at the edge of things is plainly evident in children when they first encounter the sea. There is no landscape in the world as magical – or whose spaces are so immeasurable – as a tidal beach.” Creative Review

[…] notions of what makes a beautiful landscape change over the generations. In mainland Britain the aftermath of the Second World War brought about a profound geographical shift in what had been regarded as the quintessential “English” landscape. Previously the West Country, along with the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales, provided the stock images of English life and culture. This was typified by small villages nestling within the folds of undulating uplands and gentle river valleys.

Since the war there has been a marked shift to the eastern region, particularly among artists and writers now attracted to the East Anglian coastline, Essex and the post-industrial Thames Estuary. This is a somewhat harsher territory, bleaker in its marshlands, estuaries and redundant docklands, but today regarded as somewhat heroic in its historic role as ‘the bulwark shore’ against invasion. Where artists go, journalists and commentators shortly follow. The mixture of the pastoral, industrial, maritime, pocketed with dereliction and redundant fortifications, now seems to possess previously unappreciated qualities. Words by Ken Warpole interviewed HERE

There’s an increasing interest in, and understanding of, these ambivalent, strange and unexpected, humdrum and workaday places. Ken Worpole’s essay and Jason Orton’s images make a thought-provoking addition to the literature of place and to the challenge of capturing a modern sensibility to articulate our liminal landscapes:

‘marked by the construction of reservoirs, water towers and pumping stations, telephone lines, electrification schemes requiring power lines and pylons, generating sub-stations and, latterly coal-fired, gas-fired and nuclear power stations. […] With the exception of a handful of modernist poets in the 1930s who proclaimed the beauty of the pylons and powers stations, these new architectural and engineering works have never been formally absorbed into the aesthetic representation of rural life and landscape, and such omissions have substantially contributed to the confusion we experience today. […] Capturing this palimpsest of past lives and changing landscapes is a key part of any new [landscape] aesthetic…’ p28.The New English Landscape

 

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