16 July – 5 September
Unkempt is an exhibition recognising the advent of a changing aesthetic in landscape – one that is by its nature wild, messy and more empathetic to the environment. On view in the Long Gallery at Messums Wiltshire this July, Unkempt showcases established and emerging artists whose work invites questions on how aesthetics can preconfigure our opinion about the environment and help us to discover a different way of finding beauty in our landscape.
A growing awareness about the importance of biodiversity has led to a more nuanced understanding of what the landscape is for and what it means for us. As part of this the very look of our countryside is being questioned as government policy, conservation projects and new thinking heralds a change in our national understanding of the rural idyll.
The popular idea of the English countryside has its origins in a Georgian desire for neatness perhaps inspired by the pastoral scenes rendered by Claude Lorrain and Nicholas Poussin whilst at the same time a series of enclosure acts were bringing common land into a new means of increased farming productivity. These still remain signposts of natural harmony, though perhaps now viewed as more composed or constructed than natural, but nonetheless strong aesthetic signifiers.
Unkempt explores the place of art within this conversation.
Richard Hoare’s paintings of rewilded land at the Knepp Estate in Sussex show this ideal transformed. The land is no longer managed to produce food for human consumption but instead increase biodiversity. Patchwork fields are replaced with scrubland and thorny woodland, pig-rootled mud and flooded meadows with marshy grasses. By conceding control of the landscape a wilder nature has taken hold. There was opposition to how this new landscape looked as it moved further from a pastoral ideal. Hoare depicts it in verdant glory.
Wilder spaces found within nature include the tangle and chaos of plant life. Tyga Helme and Antony Williams look down into brambles and hedgerows and the detritus of a forest floor, capturing its intertwined beauty. Kurt Jackson closes in on thorny gorse and bracken straddling the coastline of West Cornwall. A thicket of thorns rising in front of a yellow horizon in a work by Gary Colclough is rendered with luminous precision and framed by a triangular support of wood and canvas. It is a quietly apocalyptic take on questions of our relationship with ecology.
Nature returns to urban environments as well. The changing landscapes of Ashington in Northumberland are the subject of Narbi Price’s paintings, where former collieries and old slag heaps are now parks, and young woodland covers the scars of an industrial landscape. Yan Wang Preston documented urban reforestation in new Chinese cities where alongside saplings, thousands of mature trees have been transplanted into cities for ‘ready-made forests.’
The forests depicted in the paintings of Daphne Todd and Tim Craven portray a sense of a different time scale. This is old, creaking woodland with dense thickets and ancient trees. And a forest canopy by Rebecca Partridge – its ancient trees captured within a frame of time, as she records the shifts in light 3 times over 12 hours. Romanticism threads through these works in different forms, continuing with Hannah Brown’s explorations of the psychology of English landscape. Two works show a field next to a Tesco on the outskirts of Crediton in Devon just before it was built on, adding pathos to the quiet grandeur of overlooked and uncultivated land.
This exhibition both recognises a changing perception of beauty within depictions of landscape across media and also invites us to consider wilder, unkempt spaces as worthy of artistic representation.
Hannah Brown’s practice centres on the psychology of English landscape. She explores the status of landscape painting, the use and value of bucolic imagery and how we interact with the natural environment and bring it into the domestic sphere. Now based in London Brown grew up in Devon, the setting for the three paintings included here.
‘My view is filtered through the depictions of past radicals and pioneers: Constable’s energetic clouds, Turner’s hazy light, Holman Hunt’s sheep grazing on a cliff, the detailed etchings of Samuel Palmer. It is a slippery subject to work with, considered by some exhausted: finding new territory is a challenge. Working within and against the omnipresent legacy of the English tradition I search for quiet, potentially unsettling places with a peculiar type of beauty’
The site for The field next to Tesco that is soon to be built on series is an area on the outskirts of Crediton, a market town in mid Devon. Hannah painted it in its last moments before building started for a larger premise for an agricultural supply store and parking. The views are now either gone or inaccessible.
Across Gary Colclough’s artistic work, the architecture of seeing takes on a texture where multiple temporalities coalesce. The pictorial space is thus ‘shaped’ as both intimate ruin and subjectivized monument. If land is considered a forensic ground, Colclough draws out coded figures that disturb the boundaries between nature, culture and society. His view upon terrain renders landscape(s)-in-action – as matter that matters. Unlike the all-pervading machismo of the 18th century landscape painter, this artist privileges a choreography of fragments: the below-surface detail, a georgic imaginary, material symmetry, and those quiet yet apocalyptic scenes that expose humanity’s complex relations to ecology.
Working at the crossings of drawing and sculpture, Colclough creates support systems for his pencil drawings that often mirror viewing apparatus from the Victorian era – such as the Claude Glass, the photographic tripod, the heliograph and stereoscope. In staging inversed and doubled views, the ocular field is set into a diagrammatic relation of machinic and organic elements. His immersive compositions draw together aspects of geometry with detailed patterning echoing from the natural world.
Excerpt from essay Scaled Territories by Natasha Ginwala
Tim Craven is an artist, writer and curator. In his artistic practice Craven explores relationship between painting and photography, capturing English romantic subjects in a meticulous, photorealist style. In 2013 Craven founded The Aborealists, a collective of artists united by a shared subject of trees, and has since exhibited widely nationally and internationally. One such project was at Lady Park Wood, an ancient, semi-natural wood on the slopes and cliffs of the Wye Gorge on the borders of England and Wales. Uniquely, the wood, which has been left to grow naturally for up to 150 years, has been studied in detail since 1944 and the fortunes of hundreds of individual trees have been tracked for three-quarters of a century.
‘The untidy areas are the exciting bits,’ says Tyga Helme who lives on the Wiltshire Downs where she seeks out the uncultivated corners of fields or patches of woodland floor to paint. ‘Things really do spring up in one day and everything constantly shifts around,’ she says. ‘Grasses and brambles make way for animals; a shoot is there one day and gone the next because an animal has eaten it. A mushroom suddenly appears from nowhere. Everything is in a relationship with everything else.’
Trained at Edinburgh College of Art and The Royal Drawing School in London, where she won the Machin Foundation Prize, Tyga uses nature as a metaphor for feelings of being overwhelmed. She couples minute observation of the teeming forest floor – where the emerald green of a bramble leaf sits in stark juxtaposition to an array of cold blue silver leaves – with the flux and movement of unceasing growth.
‘I like to feel totally lost, not to know where the drawing will go or where the edges will be. This often pulls me into looking down onto ground or up into the sky. Without the horizon to hold onto I feel you can swim freely around in the space and the surface with every leaf or flash of sky being of equal importance. I would love the work to bring people with me in stoping and looking, in seeing more’.
This year Richard Hoare travelled to the Knepp Estate in West Sussex to paint the rewilded landscape of the pioneering conservation project, first in the last days of winter and again in the full glory of Spring.
Twenty years ago the writer Isabella Tree and her husband, conservationist Charlie Burrell, were forced to accept that intensive farming on the heavy clay of their land at Knepp was economically unsustainable and they made a spectacular leap of faith: to step back and let nature take over. In the years since the landscape has transformed and the 3,500 acre project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife numbers and diversity. The project has become a leading light for nature conservation in the UK, demonstrating how a hands-off, ‘process-led’ approach can restore land and wildlife in a dramatically short space of time.
‘There is a harmony between Knepp and the path I am on’ Richard says. ‘I’m open to painting resting on its own rules and that is what is happening at Knepp with its wilding projects.
It has led me back to a state of wildness and energy. It has a liberating spark, the song of Nature.’
A dedicated environmentalist and true polymath, Jackson’s holistic approach to his subject seamlessly blends art and politics providing a springboard to create a hugely varied body of work unconstrained by format or scale.
Jackson’s visceral plein air painting converges with a more botanical approach, perhaps stemming from his study of Zoology at Oxford University. Paintings included here depict scrubland around Jackson’s home in West Cornwall, where he has lived with his wife Caroline in 1984.
‘Gorse or furze or even fuzzy bush as its known locally was an important resource as the main domestic fuel and a fodder crop for livestock in this area. Apart from being a beautiful splash of colour in the Spring it is also a vital habitat for numerous species of wildlife. I have been motivated by this plant to paint, draw and sculpt numerous pieces in response’
In concurrent practices as an artist, writer and curator Rebecca Partridge has explored romanticism and the sublime in contemporary landscape. Partridge has been exhibiting internationally since graduating from Royal Academy Schools in 2007, and has curated exhibitions across Europe. Her work can be found in a number of public collections including the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, in Connecticut, U.S.A.
Patridge was making abstract paintings before she turned to landscape and has kept similar concerns of light, colour and sensation. Though she often paints from memory, the works here – a canopy of trees pictured three times over 12 hours – are the result of acute observation. As with many of her landscapes the space is anonymous and un-locatable but instantly familiar. The timescales in her series vary, from returning to the same place every three years to the one day recorded here. Documenting the shifts in light over 12 hours, the triptych is in itself a record of time.
In the photographic project Forest, the British-Chinese artist Yan Wang Preston spent eight years (2010-2017) investigating the politics of recreating forests and the ‘natural’ environment in new Chinese cities. In Chongqing, China’s largest metropolis with thirty-million people, a policy of having a ‘Forest City’ is implemented. While saplings are a common choice, hundreds and thousands of mature trees are also purchased and transplanted into the city to make ‘readymade’ forests. Often the trees become trophies, decorations and a commodity to raise property prices with.
Yan Wang Preston started this project in Chongqing, by following the developments of the transplanted old trees, the concrete city and its people for eight years, documenting the changes, dramas and lives in the city. She then extended the project to Haidong, capturing the bizarre and wildly-coloured ecology-recovery landscapes. On the way, a series of stories are collected and narrated, that raise questions about the complexity of urban reforestation and nature re-construction in the contemporary era.
Forest won the First Prize, Syngenta Photography Award in 2017 and has been published as a monograph by Hatje Cantz in 2018.
Narbi Price began painting Ashington in 2015, exploring the changing landscapes on the former collieries and industrial sites. The series developed from his phd research into the Ashington Painters (also known as The Pitmen Painters) and began with many hours spent walking in the footsteps of the artists, following their routes home and to work. He painted sites rich with histories of Ashington’s industrial past, often hidden behind redevelopment, modernisation and a changing political landscape. Many sites have been rewilded, the scars in the landscape hidden through nature. Where thirty years ago was Europe’s largest slag heap is now a swan-filled lake and new woodland. The lines of trees are still too straight, the curves in the path too perfect, but slowly the edges are softening.
I think I am a landscape painter by default. In my main practice I’m interested in history more than anything else and history tends to happen in landscapes. I’m interested in how we understand and how we appreciate a certain location when armed with knowledge of its history and how that changes our understanding of it.
Tuesday Riddell’s work takes us down to the forest floor and a glorious insight into the world that captures her imagination, that ethereal nocturne where all cycles of life and death carry on with rarely a watchful eye. However, it is her craftsmanship, that under admired phrase of accolade, which provides us with a second and lasting pleasure. There is a richness to her work: the depth of the black sharpens the contrast and the glow of the gold leaf and makes each piece look like a polished gemstone. Working with japanning, an endangered form of lacquer work originating from the 17th century, Tuesday found a new visual language a centuries old practice , breathing new life into an almost lost craft.
Tuesday Riddell graduated with a BA (Hons) in Fine Art Painting from City & Guilds of London Art School. Following that she undertook her Painter-Stainers Decorative Surface Fellowship at City & Guilds – the only Fellowship in the UK that provides specialist training in the craft of decorative surface techniques to ensure that endangered skills are kept alive and vibrant in contemporary practice, focusing on historic techniques such as gilding, japanning, chinoiserie and marbling. Riddell was then granted a one-year honorary membership to The Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers to conclude her fellowship.
Although Daphne Todd is best known for her portraits, having become the first woman President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, her work also covers a wide range of genres, including landscapes inspired by the Kent and Sussex borders where she lives.
Fine and deliberate, her brush glides deftly across the fine birch panels on which she customarily paints, but the beautiful control of the surface often belies other tensions in the work.
Todd has stretched her talents still further by participating in The Big Painting Challenge. Hosted by Una Stubbs and Richard Bacon, BBC1’s six-part programme followed ten amateur artists to see which one might become Britain’s next emerging painter. Todd joined Lachlan Goudie to critique the artists as they tested their talents in a variety of media, tackling every type of figurative art – including landscape, still life, portraiture and life drawing.
Through her teaching at Heatherley’s Art School and her Presidency of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, Daphne Todd has been an important force in promoting representational art in Britain.
Antony Williams paints with egg tempera, a slow and exacting medium and perhaps one well suited to the prolonged and intense observation that characterises his work. The medium lends itself to conveying the small-scale intensity in two paintings of the detritus of fallen leaves, twigs, branches and chestnut shells littering the forest floor at Chobham Common.
They are made luminous and incandescent through his use of minute brush strokes, a semi-pointillist technique, that dance together on the canvas creating an unparalleled depth of colour. As with his portraits and landscapes, you are intensely aware of the surface detail. The art critic Martin Gayford describes seeing ‘more insistently perhaps than one does in life, the little marks of wear and tear, the furrows and wrinkles’.
‘Edwards’ work explores the complex relationship between humans, nature and their environment. This connecting of humanity and nature through the use of allegory and exploring themes from ancient myths and particularly Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Edwards’ transmutations transcend the physical material and are consumed with loss and sublimation, where the physical body becomes a vessel to carry metaphor and meaning’
Calvin Winner, Head of Collections and Curator at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
One of the few sculptors who casts his own work, Laurence Edwards is fascinated by human anatomy and the metamorphosis of form and matter that governs the lost-wax process. The driving force behind his work is bronze, an alloy that physically and metaphorically illustrates entropy, the natural tendency of any system in time to tend towards disorder and chaos. His sculptures express the raw liquid power of bronze, its versatility, mass and evolution, and the variety of process marks he retains tell the story of how and why each work came to be.
John Davies’ haunting, figurative sculptures touch on memory, time and the fragility of the human body. Born in 1946 and having exhibited all over the world since his first major exhibition at The Whitechapel Gallery in 1972, he is one of the leading British sculptors of his generation.
Davies’ interest in the human condition is what set him apart from many of his contemporaries at the start of his career. Of these early figures, often cast from life and clothed, Davies has said, ‘I wanted to make a figure, not like a piece of sculpture, more like a person…. I wanted my sculpture to be more like life in the street’.
His recent works are modelled in clay, before being cast in polychrome polyester and fibreglass, or bronze. They are arranged in carefully choreographed groups or relationships – animals and inanimate objects such as houses also appear in works whose thematic concerns are always with human experience.
Unkempt follows the Active Environmentalism Talks Programme which started at the beginning of this year.
Active Environmentalism is a phrase that might be best described as emancipating our thinking through understanding to help with our own individual proactive decisions.
Our own decisions and reasonings are personal but by being informed there is no doubt we are in a better position to make the right choices of our own accord. Active Environmentalism is about the private decision and not the placard debate.
From better understanding nature at the sea bed and upwards, to rationalising how a price can be put on the environment, to radical thinking at the intersection of science and necessity which may question our belief in anything that has gone before.
Underpinning this is an appreciation and respect for nature to which most artists will readily align and the prospect of innovation running like creativity itself at the vanguard of our thoughts.
Recorded Wednesday 27 January 2021 as part of our Active Environmentalism series of talks and exhibitions.
Online conversation with writer and conservationist Isabella Tree speaking with the travel writer and novelist Philip Marsden about her pioneering rewilding project in West Sussex.
Recorded Wednesday 20 January 2021 as part of our Active Environmentalism series of talks and exhibitions.
Ben Goldsmith, who owns a 300-acre farm, near Bruton in Somerset, plans to transform it into a wild habitat within the next four years.
Recorded on Wednesday 17 February 2021
In England 69% of our landscape is farmed, under the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, farmers will be paid for work that enhances the environment, such as tree or hedge planting, river management to mitigate flooding, or creating or restoring habitats for wildlife.
duration: 35:19 minutes
Recorded Wednesday 3 February 2021 as part of our Active Environmentalism series of talks and exhibitions.
Fine Art photographer Hugo Rittson Thomas joined us for an online talk with ecologist and botanist Professor Sir Ghillean Prance.