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British Art and the Environment

Changes, Challenges, and Responses since the Industrial Revolution


Edited by Charlotte Gould and Sophie Mesplède


London: Routledge, 2021

Hardcover. xiv + 243 pages. 20 colour & 37 B/W illustrations. ISBN 978-0367566487


Reviewed by Isabelle Gapp

University of Toronto




In November 2021, delegates for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) gathered in Glasgow, Scotland. Among the conference’s primary goals was reaching a unilateral, global agreement to secure net zero emissions by 2030 and to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius. Phasing out coal and investing heavily in renewable energy were among the pivotal topics under consideration. As Glasgow became the epicentre of global climate change conversations, it brought into focus Britain’s own climate failures and responsibilities. Industrialisation is seen as the catalyst for the consequences we are now trying to mitigate. Charlotte Gould and Sophie Mesplède’s timely edited collection, British Art and the Environment, traces an anthropocentric and “Anglocenic time frame” through British art history from the Industrial Revolution to the present day [4]. Gould and Mesplède’s collection, which includes a comprehensive introduction and thirteen chapters that are materially, geographically, and temporally diverse, offers readers a newfound, ecologically conscious understanding of Britain’s industrialisation. From nineteenth-century industrial developments to twenty-first-century renewable energy to the urban cityscape and the rural landscape, across visual materials and artistic traditions, this volume introduces us to alternate and vital ways of visualising and contextualising British art in our global environment.

Gould and Mesplède begin with the marginality and lithic makeup of Britain’s coastline in order to probe the question: is there such a thing as British art? Modes of categorisation such as “national, insular, and imperial” are offered as mediating levels between the local and global [5]. The rise of typologies such as “Euroscene,” “Technoscene,” and “Angloscene” endeavour to pinpoint the origins of anthropogenic climate change within Europe, Britain, and America and identify them as agents and projects of world domination. Moving across geographical and national boundaries, Gould and Mesplède structure the history of British landscape painting and photography, land art, eco-art, and environmental visual culture over two centuries of industrialisation, colonisation, and commodification. They note how the “start of the Industrial Revolution was also the moment Nature began being determined historically” [19]. The authors also recognise the role of the British art critic John Ruskin, who with “interests ranging from botany, animal life and beauty, pollution, geology, meteorology, lakes, harbours and reservoirs, the individual, and living in the community” casts the “longest shadow” over this book [3]. In the conclusion to the introduction, Gould and Mesplède toy with rhetoric, still used today, to narrate British nationalism: “one in which dominion over the land has become entangled with the emancipation of new voices, and in which ruling the waves – or any other natural forces – is but a long lost dream” [21].

The first section of the book indicates a shift from looking at, framing, and mapping the environment from the exterior to “the body in its environment, not detached from it” [6]. Vision and visuality are central to the ensuing four chapters. The use of the Claude glass to distort and frame a vision of the landscape from behind was decried by Ruskin, who advocated for unmediated and close encounters with nature. Amy C. Wallace draws attention to the little-known portable artist studios of Philip Gilbert Hamerton and Hubert von Herkomer. Writing on natural optics and the transformation of the portable studio into an optical instrument, Wallace grapples with Ruskin’s exhortations on a “truth to nature” [29]. Created in-part to protect against inclement weather, the framing of the landscape through the rigid permanency of the temporary fixture of the studio only restricts and determines the view that can be pictorialised. Visual hinderances also find their way into Laura Vallette’s visually captivating analysis of James McNeill Whistler’s foggy nocturnes of London’s river and cityscapes. Unlike the studio window’s restrictive framing, Vallette explores the psychological implications of fog, offering a ‘window’ onto the individuals’ interiority. The ability of fog to “disturb vision” [46] by blurring, diffusing, and transcending London’s “urban and liquid landscapes” [53] alters our understanding and appreciation of the outside world, decries industrial pollution, and ponders the tonal effects of this low-lying vapour.

Meanwhile, atmosphere gains traction in Paul Cureton’s methodologically intriguing chapter, “Aerial Ontologies”. Cureton conceives of three aerial ontologies: “the aerial imaginary, aerial agencies, and aerial fidelity”, and explores the relationship between technology and place [59]. The examples Cureton employs and artists he draws attention to are not geographically confined to the British Isles, but rather adhere to the notion that, as Félix Guattari states, “the only true response to the ecological crisis is on a global scale” [71]. From the historic process of mapping an aerial topography from ground level to the mapping of the earth’s surface through drone photography, Cureton accounts for human influences on and artistic responses to our ever-changing atmosphere. Shifting geographical scales, an interview with Tim Martin, artist and curator of Hestercombe House and Art Gallery, draws attention to efforts made by the estate to “re-frame and re-imagine our [local and national] heritage” [79]. Pressing the connection between the long history of Hestercombe’s landscape gardens and contemporary artists responding to local and national environmental concerns, Martin introduces us to curatorial efforts responding to the environmental challenges of today.

In the second section, Gould and Mesplède shift focus to Britain’s industrial landscapes, specifically the role human activities have played in redefining and reshaping the topographical environment. In Aurore Caignet’s contribution, an atmospheric haziness reappears in the plumes of smoke emanating from the chimneys of northern England’s industrial landscapes. Caignet perceptively traces the rise and fall of industrialisation, and industrial architecture, in Manchester and West Yorkshire over the past two centuries. A chronological account which encompasses painting and photography looks to the heritage and history of Britain’s northern industrial landscape to recognise northern England’s “bygone past and […] uncertain future” [102]. Similarly, by centring the extraction and exploitation of Britain’s landscapes, Camille Manfredi looks at Scotland’s unreliable petrocultural environment. Manfredi draws our attention to visual and poetic responses to the oil and renewable energy industries off Scotland’s coastline. Engaging global energy issues in distinctly situational identities, Manfredi deciphers the “petroaesthetics and petropoetics” [112] that, in some cases, “turn destruction into creation, and ecocide into art” [111].

The process of deconstructing, re-envisaging, and re-generating landscapes through art and architecture re-emerges in Pat Naldi’s chapter on the urban regeneration of the King’s Cross Estate and the “extreme reshaping, contrived vistas, and man-made fabrication” [133] of the Bretton Estate in West Yorkshire. Naldi probes the conflation between urban and rural and private and public spaces. Drawing connections between north and south, the constructed and natural, and different temporal frameworks Naldi consolidates how art installations such as Of Soil and Water : King’s Cross Pond Club (2015-16) in the Kings Cross Estate indicate the “future possibilities of constructed ecologies within urban environments” [123]. Naldi’s analysis of the Bretton Estate (which now operates as the Yorkshire Sculpture Park), notably in its framing of the estate enacted by the country house window in turn shapes the domestic garden and views of the surrounding countryside, recalls Gould’s and Mesplède’s interview with Tim Martin. In a parallel interview which is also the concluding chapter of the second section, the curator and writer Adrian George brings into focus the contemporary Welsh art scene. George mirrors a statement by Gould and Mesplède at the outset, that, for him, “there is no such thing as Welsh art per se” [136]. Instead, we are introduced to and reminded of artists who live in, and have been inspired by, Welsh landscapes, communities, and culture. Articulating the complexities of a Welsh visual and national identity, George dismantles cultural and geographical borders that so often construct national image. The fluidity of the Welsh national and visual border reaches its apex in the Welsh Pavilion at the Venice Biennale where the artists and artworks were chosen to exemplify “Wales as a devolved, marginal, one could say postcolonial nation” [140].

The third section of the book signifies a “greening” of art history and accounts for non-human life, materials, and the colonisation of nature and nations. Recognising that animals and humans occupy the same realm of sentience, Mesplède’s chapter offers a shift from the human impact on the landscape, to a human-animal dichotomy that emerges in William Hogarth’s Portrait of the Mackinen Children (1747) and Thomas Gainsborough’s The Painter’s Children Chasing a Butterfly (c. 1756). Accounting for a “species-based hierarchy” [148] in compositional practices, Mesplède looks to British artistic practice and aesthetic theory that emerged during the eighteenth century which fostered an “artist-animal bond” [150]. The interlacing of scientific, aesthetic, and animal pursuits is insightfully pointed to in these two paintings of children chasing butterflies. Building upon notions of the Anthropocene, Frédéric Ogée turns to the term “the anthropos(c)enic,” as proposed by David Matless, to signify a back-and-forth between past and present environmental imaginaries to complicate how we contend with our future. By centring his discussion around three paintings by J.M.W Turner exhibited in 1818, Ogée describes them as “a set of declarative recordings of man’s footprint” conscious of the extent to which man’s “occupation, construction, and colonisation” has irrevocably impacted nature [177]. Aware of contemporary environmental changes, Turner and John Constable approach the landscape as “a terrain of experiments” [173] in an attempt to chronicle the “vanishing traces of the nation’s history” [176]. By reversing an art-science dichotomy, Ogée advocates for us to look at landscape art of the British Romantic period as “evidence” in an interdisciplinary discussion of the Anthropocene and environmental change [178]. This push towards a multi-disciplinary study of landscape painting and visual culture is increasingly evident in an ecocritical art history (for example, Coughlin and Gephart, 2020; Gómez and Blackmore, 2021; and Kusserow, 2021).  

From the experimental terrains of Turner’s British landscapes, Thomas Hughes looks to the role of nature in the processes of line, light, and colour as delineated in Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing (1857) and Modern Painters volumes 3 (1856) and 5 (1860). Analogies are found between line, tone, and colour and nature, love, and sexuality as Hughes deftly describes that “Ruskin was continually weaving an utter entanglement out of questions of human knowledge, vision, the body, its passions and sensations, and other-than-human life” [193]. As politics intertwine with aesthetics in Ruskin’s essays, Hughes further explores how the practice of drawing and art production facilitated the liberation of “the Victorian mind from the damaging effects of industrialisation” [182]. Navigating the complexities of contemporary industry, Kasiz Ozga’s chapter is captivating in its analysis of sculptural works by Marc Quinn, Zuzanna Janin, Anya Gallaccio, and Andy Goldsworthy. Temporality and timelessness, materiality and the immaterial are central to Ozga’s study. Ozga draws our attention to the role of time not only as subject matter and material form, but also the role of temporality in the viewing experience, how “in its evolution produces a dramatically different sensory experience” [205]. The disintegration of the material, whether it be blood, cotton candy, flowers, or snow signal the “inevitable disintegration and decay” of nature and the environment in the hands of industrial commodification [203]. There is no happy end to our aestheticised environmental reality, with “Phase-change-based sculptures deny[ing] the viewer a sense of fixity and closure” [210].

The thread of temporality weaves its way through to the concluding chapter by Edwin Coomasaru as well. Here, two exhibitions, Ursula Burke’s “A False Dawn” (2019-2020) and Candida Powell-Williams’ “Command Lines” (2019), are studied to delve into the emergence of feminist and postcolonial ecological imaginations in Northern Ireland in the context of ‘The Troubles’ and the Brexit referendum. “Each exhibition,” writes Coomasaru “[…] reveals the way in which time itself seems to warp and distort in the context of Brexit” [227]. Coomasaru notes how Ireland is perceived as portraying “a kind of uncontrollable and unstable [and feminine] landscape” at a time when patriarchal, masculine British nationalism was on the rise [214]. Like the interview with George, Coomasaru considers the imperial implications involved in Irish art production. Where Burke’s imagery captures the contradictions of Ireland’s supernatural history, Powell-Williams’ confronts the ways in which tarot and women have been “narrated in patriarchal narratives” [222]. The entanglements of past and present, of gender, the mystical, colonial, geopolitical, and ecological are reticent of the challenges Britain and the globe continue to face as our global environmental future evolves.

In Stephen Daniels’ epilogue, the integration of the environment into the humanities and the complicated processes such an approach holds in British art history is recognised as a commendable feat and one achieved by this volume. I would second this reflection. By acknowledging that the world is currently failing to meet its climate goals, COP26 set procedures in motion that will keep this possibility alive should countries later choose to enact extreme change. In other words, our environmental fate remains inextricably bound to human decisions and interventions. By offering ways to rethink past, present, and future British environments and visual responses to ecological change British Art and the Environment marks an important contribution to the field of ecocritical art history and the environmental humanities more broadly. It encourages new and promising perspectives on visual responses to our global landscape, of relevance to art historians whose interests extend across geographical boundaries and temporal frameworks.



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