And furthermore ...

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Tuesday, 13 July 2010

CULTIVATED PLEASURES


Three 19th century panoramic format photographs of the English Landscape.

“Living in England, provincial England, must be like being married to a stupid but exquisitely beautiful wife.”
Margaret Halsey; With Malice Towards Some.


 Marsh Bros, Thames Parade, Albumen print, C1880s



By the time American photographers had discovered the west, British photographers had been roaming their own countryside for some twenty years, It’s common when reading about the early photographers of the American west to encounter ‘mythic’ and ‘heroic’ in the descriptions; less so when reading about the British but the terms are just as pertinent, maybe more so since the mythic and the heroic were precisely what British photographers were looking for. The mythic was the literary world that stretched from Arthurian legends to the romantic poets, the heroic were the generations who had first tamed Britain’s wilderness then fashioned it into a form of Eden, misty valleys and desolate moors framed by hedgerows and stone walls. There were a few places on the continent, Tuscany or the Dordogne perhaps, where the British might concede the cultivated landscape came close to English finesse but the British countryside was a kind of evidence of national greatness. 


Marsh Bros, Mapledurham Weir, Albumen print, C1880s

These three small panoramas of the Thames were probably taken in the 1880s or 1890s. In the lower right of two photographs is a stamp identifying the studio as the Marsh Bros of Henley. We don’t know what the actual purpose of the photographs was, for exhibition, for sale in an album or a commission, but they are classic examples of British landscape photography. Firstly human intervention appears to have barely disrupted nature. What buildings there are lie in the distance and bleached out by the exposure. In the photograph of Mapledurham Weir, the single human figure is angling, a traditional British way to commune with nature. The figure in the centre foreground of the photograph of the regatta course is a ghostly blur. The path along the Thames Parade is deserted, not so much as a wheel rut scarring its surface.  In the British consciousness, humanity mustn’t injure nature but tend to it as a garden. This allows us to make certain interventions. We can clear the forest so long as we replace it with something aesthetically respectable; herds of grazing cattle or golden haystacks. In the Marsh Brothers’ depictions the Thames is a river of quietude, a place to drowse on the banks, watch the water drift past and listen to the splash of trout and the buzzing of mayflies. Who needed the wilderness when nature had been domesticated and taught to behave as it should? 


 Marsh Bros, Regatta Course, albumen print, C1880s

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