10 real photographs from the Senior Service ‘Our Countryside’ series.
Under the ominous bowl of the sky a man was ploughing the sloping field immediately below the farm, where the flints shone bone-sharp and white in the growing light. The ice cascade of the wind leaped over him as he guided the plough over the flinty runnels. Now and again he called roughly to his team: ‘Upidee Travail! Ho, there, Arsenic! Jug-jug!”
Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm
By the 1920s most British people lived in cities and found some cause to complain about the horridness of their lives. The rich could retreat to the countryside, to a manor house in Sussex or a small castle in the Scottish highlands. The poor had to make do with cigarettes and the miniature photographs that came with each pack. Unwrapping that day’s supply of Senior Service, they might find a timeless scene from the ‘Our Countryside’ series that showed rural England as a world of quiet, dignified labour; a place far removed from the squalor of their actual lives. Some no doubt recalled that their parents had either abandoned or been driven off that same land and moved to the city because it offered more than the miserable drudgery their family had put up with for generations.
During the 1920s nostalgia for rural tradition was becoming a big business in Britain. The working classes who’d moved to the cities had more or less surrendered the countryside to the rich, who could now pick up a decaying mansion at a bargain price and get a charming little village thrown in for free. This was the age of the classic English murder mystery, when a detective, preferably amateur, arrived at a country manor, met a collection of eccentric and debauched suspects with hyphenated names, also some taciturn locals who knew more than they were letting on, and solved a bloodless killing using a logic that was seldom logical. More sophisticated writers like John Buchan regarded the British landscape as the backdrop to an elaborate conspiracy that threatened the very world it was set in. By 1932 Stella Gibbons had grown weary of all this melodramatic nonsense and published Cold Comfort Farm.
One way to show sympathy to the people so mercilessly patronized by her colleagues was to ramp up the attack and make it preposterous, so the Starkadders became a family of physically and emotionally crippled atavistics. They had their own language, which though incomprehensible sounded obscene nevertheless. The women dropped babies at a regular interval without being too sure who the father was or how they even got that way. As for the men, it was horrifying to think they had offspring at all. In the kind of novel Gibbons was mocking it was a duty for the leading character to bring some kind of civilizing influence to the country folk, so Flora Poste introduced birth control, sent one Starkadder off to Hollywood, possibly cured the matriarch of a long standing neurosis and even arranged for the most powerful symbol of the modern age, an aeroplane, to land at the farm. It was funny because it was true; not the part about rural folk being backward, the one about educated city folk regarding their country cousins as a different and vaguely terrifying species.
The 1920s saw another outbreak of that fear Britain suffered from periodically, namely that hallowed traditions were dying. Before long, people worried, there’d be no thatchers, coopers, shepherds or ploughmen left. This was nonsense. Ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution 150 years earlier, traditional occupations had been disappearing from the land faster than many animals and the only reason some still survived was that the workers could not afford the new technology. The choices facing the worriers were existential; embrace mass-production and make goods affordable to all or stick to tradition and keep the country backward and poor.
One way around that dilemma was to turn the camera on vanishing Britain. If the old ways were dying, somehow photographs might keep them alive. Senior Service marketed its collection of 48 ‘Our Countryside’ cigarette cards at a time when it was generally acknowledged that Britain had to modernize or die. It was the decade of the General Strike, when production lines were cutting the cost of cars, when America was forging ahead. As with all of its collections of real photograph cigarette cards, the company sought out professional studios like Valentine’s or Frith’s and didn’t credit the photographers. The point was not to think of these images as works of art or as a documentary but as artifacts from a dying world where photography was the fiction that sustained it.