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Sunday, 12 January 2014

A BRIEF HISTORY OF BRITAIN

British history recorded in the ephemera of postcards, snapshots, cigarette cards and miniature views
“Poets make the best topographers.”
W.G. Hoskins



In the beginning it looked like this. Britain was born out of earthquakes, tsunamis and storms powerful enough to cleave mountains in two. Some of the events that shaped the British Isles happened overnight. Geologists think the creation of the English Channel was one such event. A massive storm tore through and shattered the Weald-Artois Anticline, a broad, natural bridge that joined Britain to the continent. The next day mammoths and giant elk looked out across a broad expanse of water, then they went back to grazing.
When this photograph was taken of the Devon coast near Clovelly, circa 1930, geologists had a different conception. Shaking off religious notions of everything happening in seven days, they preferred to believe in a process that could take hundreds of thousands of years of gentle erosion. Now we are coming back towards that old idea; that a powerful force could create the landscape overnight, only these days we know it wasn’t God but nature.  



Britain really begins with Stonehenge. We know next to nothing about the people who built it, except they were the first to alter the landscape in any meaningful way and they weren’t Celts and didn’t have druids. Even the name we used to give them, the Windmill Hill culture, is considered imprecise now. Were their ancestors the same people who dug pits to trap mammoths then fell in themselves, giving modern day palaeontologists a lifetime’s work? Or did they sail over from the continent later on little boats built from birch sticks and deer hide?
This postcard was published by the Office of Works, probably in the 1930s, but before 1941. Astonishingly, compared to what we know about Stonehenge now, in the 1930s our understanding of the structure had not progressed much since John Aubrey began investigating the ruins in the 1650s.  Archaeologists went to pains to insist there was no druidic connection although they couldn’t say with surety who did build it. Around the time this postcard came out however, Paul Nash was also taking photographs of Stonehenge. To him, the thick, angular forms were a perfect expression of modernism. Forget Paris; if you wanted to be part of the English avant-garde, Stonehenge was the place to start.



Thanks to the Welsh, the Cornish, the Irish and a handful of feisty Scots, Celtic is still a living language. It is the rootstock of British culture. If the Glastonbury hippy and the Birmingham skinhead could agree one point: without the Celts they would be nothing, or else French. As the survival of the language testifies, the Celts never went away, they became Romans, then Anglo-Saxons, Normans, took one side or the other in the War of the Roses and eventually some voted for the Tories in the last election, some didn’t.
This snapshot was taken under Saint Piran’s Cross in Cornwall, some time in the 1930s. Saint Piran is the patron saint of Cornwall and of tinsmiths. It is an early Celtic cross and before erosion set in it bore intricate carved designs. Fifty years before this photo was taken, Cornish was in danger of vanishing but in the 1890s Henry Jenner published the first modern dictionary and actively promoted the dying culture. By the time this was snapped the language had been revived and was out of danger. It comes from a family album from a holiday on the south coast including several scenes of Tintagel, reputed home of the reputed Arthur. Was the father rediscovering his Cornish heritage? Was he inculcating his daughters with the idea they were English, but Cornish first?



Let’s skip the Romans. They built roads and Hadrian’s Wall but north of that they had little impact. Besides, they wrote everything down so there is little mystery about them. The Anglo Saxons are more intriguing. It used to be believed that they invaded like a pack of soccer hooligans on to a pitch but all sorts of evidence; sites that prove they were buried alongside original inhabitants and indications that the language was willingly absorbed, suggest otherwise. They still look like long-haired smelly brutes from Germany. It is interesting how every BBC documentary about the Anglo-Saxons feels obliged to state from the beginning that the Angles and their enigmatic relatives the Jutes were magnificent artisans and wrote some beautiful poetry. Yes, but if you’ve ever sat in a room with a sculptor or a poet you’ll appreciate they can emit some pretty toxic fumes while blathering on about their place in history. Odour and creativity aren’t even relative.
This cigarette card shows the Weald in about 1920. Amazingly, it didn’t look so different circa 600 AD. But before then it was reckoned to be a dense forest. The Anglo Saxons are either credited or blamed for the clearances. The effect hasn’t been properly measured but there are indications that the flooding and the collapse of settlements around Romney Marsh in the Middle Ages may have had something to do with this early example of ecological overkill. What we got in return however was a part of England that seems, well, so English. Think of a thatched cottage, some black faced sheep and an old gaffer in a tweed coat muttering about the weather and you are probably thinking of the Weald. 


You don’t have to be English to know that in 1066 the Normans invaded. These descendants of Vikings apparently introduced some sophistication to the place – if you prefer ‘re-introduced’ that is fine. Anyway, they spoke French and Latin and knew that if you were going to roast a whole pig on the spit an apple in the mouth improved the flavour. We give them credit for a whole new concept of law, the development of literary culture from the guttural to the written word and the Bayeux Tapestry, which is in France. Wordsworth and other poets found something of the romantic English soul in the ruins of Tintern Abbey, which makes sense in an odd way if you bear in mind this monastery became a ruin after one of those periods that has really defined England for historians; the dissolution of the monasteries and the trashing of the Church’s power base.
This cigarette card is hand-painted, a detail that should not be overlooked. The hand colouring is a little untidy but you can see how the person behind it tried to create some sense of mystery of the place. The light falling on the walls for example suggests the sky was more likely to be an insipid blue than a moody grey.



Actual medieval England was a wonderful place; up to 50 public holidays a year and if you didn’t like your rental arrangement you could head off to the forest to live the life of an outlaw, poaching the local noble’s deer or wild boar when you were hungry and drinking gallons of mead every night. If you could play the lute there was a fair chance said noble’s daughter would call you to her window and suggest running off to France. Not to worry: she spoke the language; she even had a brother over there, who hated his father more than you did.
Leonard Wiseman Horner lived in Hastings and photographed around Sussex in the 1930s. If commercial photography ever had a romantic movement, he belonged to it. The intention wasn’t just to photograph medieval villages and buildings as any good documentary photographer would but to suggest that nothing had changed in 600 years. It was late Pictorialism for the masses and though it appeared to be presenting a response to history that the heritage councils advocated it was undermining it. This was history for people who thought Robin Hood and Errol Flynn were the same person.



There are a lot of myths attached to the Long Walk leading to Windsor Castle, one being that Henry VIII wandered pensively along it while waiting for news of Anne Boleyn’s execution: somewhat unlikely given it was laid out 150 years after her death. Charles II was behind the walk, and given he seems to have spent most of his time wenching in a state of intoxication, the idea of a long avenue for constitutional strolls is both sensible and an extravagance. The real purpose probably was to rival the architectural designs of Louis XIV of France. The two mile long avenue held the splendours of the castle in the traveller’s gaze and inspired the proper dignity.
In 1860 Roger Fenton took the most famous photograph of the Long Walk. He may have directly influenced others to take their photos from the same point of view but there are really few alternatives for the photographer who wants to show the length in all its glory. This miniature snapshot from an unidentified set of views comes from an album full of such photos. It wasn’t uncommon for people to collect wallets of miniature views and put them in albums. It didn't mean they had visited a place but they had visited an idea. In this case, the English landscape was sculptured by men and women of high aesthetics and ideas.



The British Empire was founded on rum, sodomy and the lash. Credit for establishing it belongs to the Tudors but it was the later Georgians who turned it into the buttress of empire.
At first glance this could be a scene many English people would have witnessed in the 18th and 19th centuries, a tall ship taking out the poor against their will out to the colonies but there is more than meets the eye. It is the Herzogin Cecilie, a German windjammer built in 1904. After World War I the ship was part of the reparations Germany paid to France, then it was sold to Finnish shipping magnate Gustaf Erikson. He used it to ship wheat from Australia to Europe because well into the 1930s sail was still cheaper than steam for long voyages. On April 25 1936 the ship struck rocks off the Devon coast and foundered. On January 18 the next year she finally sank. We can see the ship is listing in this snapshot. I think the person who took this photo was thinking of Captain Cook, William Bligh or south coast smugglers.

  

Before the 1830s the moors had been useful land for grazing, a bit too rugged for crops perhaps but no one ever set foot on them fearful they might get lost if they wandered off the path. Then a generation of writers emerged for whom the best time to visit the moors was in late autumn when the weather was foul and nature, cruel mistress that she was, could signify the torment of unrequited love with a stiff breeze.
Harrogate sits close to the most famous of literary moors, those in Yorkshire where Emily Bronte set Wuthering Heights. Thanks to Ms Bronte the Yorkshire moors cannot be depicted without dark clouds and the ruins of a stone cottage somewhere in the scene. This postcard gives a different impression. Scrubby and unfit for farming some parts might be, but they are not all desolate. And as this scene shows; wander off one path and another will soon appear.



Recall the first image of the sheer cliffs of the Devon coast as stark evidence of how Britain’s geography was born in violence. There is speculation that the same force that shattered the anticline and created the English Channel had the simultaneous effect of pushing parts of the coastline up, hence the cliffs of Dover. A little further around we are at Beachy Head in Eastbourne. The lighthouse was built during the last days of Victoria’s reign and is one of those triumphs of late 19th century engineering. Essentially, it was constructed from the cliffs using cable cars. Presumably the water around the spit of rock it was built on was too small and too rough for the builders to work on it.
Fred Judge pumped out thousands of postcards between the early 1900s and the Second World War. They are often dismissed for lacking originality or anything like an interesting take on their subject although they also attract collectors with a near fanatical passion for them. This is a typical Judge’s postcard and while there is nothing unique about the composition it has an undeniable atmosphere. Photographs don’t have to challenge us to work.  


A BRIEF HISTORY OF BRITAIN

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