What is Landscape?

by Jean Floyd

The Seven Sisters, a series of seven chalk cliff peaks along the East Sussex coast in England. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

A packed audience was treated to another stimulating evening at Rye Museum on Thursday, October 10th when one of our favourite speakers returned, this time to present a fast-paced, multi-layered and abundantly illustrated response to the question What is Landscape? It was indeed Geographer Dr Geoffrey Mead,  of the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex – who is also a Rye Museum Trustee, and listeners  all went away with minds reeling with new information, insights — and appreciation of our local landscape heritage.

Certainly every listener will now realise the enormity of the question for there can be few words with as many definitions, meanings, interpretations and uses in so many different fields beyond the original Dutch landschap (referring to paintings of the countryside) .  Dr Mead brought an abundance of them to life in his story and visuals. 

Landscapes real and depicted in paintings, photos, maps, scientific reports, prose, poetry, even music, are today an intrinsic part of  lessons in geology, geography, local history, agriculture, flora and fauna , types of buildings,  types of human activity, town planning, all forms of art and design … . They can be used to praise the joys in nature and to raise awareness of blight. In particular we saw and heard about the many reasons natural landscapes change over time – as do the ways landscape is depicted.  There are paintings depicting  ‘nature’ devoid of humans: landforms, weather, light. Others use landscape as a background for portraits. Perhaps ‘landscape’ makes you think of the vista from a National Trust property such as Stowe where the landscape was ‘designed’ for maximum appreciation from the great house and on a perambulation around the property. A comment in  1831:  ‘Nature has done little or nothing; man a great deal, and time has improved his labours’.

As part of social and cultural history, ‘ landscapes’ often contrast ‘the old ways’ with the buildings and machines and workers of industry  and others move on to urban settings.   A painting of a Sussex  field of hay with bales came with the fact there was a time when a day trip from the Sussex coast might require eight changes of horses, all needing hay.  Then came the railways which did not require hay.. . . . 

We were treated to examples of treatments of landscape in the works of John Constable and J W Turner and in the work of  of  the ‘quintessential Romantic poet’ John Clare, son of a farm labourer, who came to be known for his celebratory representations of the English countryside and his lamentation of its disruption. Also among the quotes we saw and heard was one from Edward Thomas, victim of WWI, who blended the themes of war and the English countryside.

There were also examples of prose celebrations of landscape: Celia Fiennes who included Rye and  Winchelsea (1697) on  her Journeys through England on a SideSaddle,  William Cobbett’s Rural Rides (1821); the prolific H J Massingham (1888-1952), advocate of ruralism and agriculture;  P B  Mais with his post-war clarion call to the war-and-deprivation-weary to rediscover the beauties of the English countryside All cited here because they are worth looking up.  

Our Sussex area on the Channel coast has attracted particular attention.  British painter, designer, book illustrator and wood engraver  Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) is especially known for his water colours. He loved the Sussex Downs and tirelessly recorded the changing rural scene — everything from a chalk giant to cement works .

Half a century ago W G Hoskins’ book The Making of the English Landscape changed people’s views about landscape and history by creating awareness that they could find clues to history in what lay around the in gardens, fields, along the road and in cities: landscape as historical record, which must be studied multi-period.  His book covered the whole of England from 500 AD  to the 20th  century. (It is now recognized one must start as far back as 5000 BC.)

More recently the multi-prizewinning Robert Macfarlane (1976-2019 ) explored the role of ‘landscape’ within topography, ecology, the environment and neglected classics, his 2016 book Landmarks again exemplifing the interdisciplinary nature of ‘Landscape ‘ today.

The evening ended with a quick look at Leisure Landscapes from hunting on horseback to fields full of caravaners keen on country walks.   And today they can consult their folded paperback maps as they go!

The next talk will be Sissinghurst Castle Gardens, by Alexis Datta who was head gardener from 2005 until her retirement. The talk is on Thursday, November 14 at 7:30 – members and non-members alike are welcome!

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