Wetland Landscapes in English Art

There is a widespread assumption that landscape preferences are unchanging so we preserve the landscapes that we love for our grandchildren. Of course, it is not true. The attraction of mountains was not widely felt prior to the eighteenth century, at least not to British travellers. What about wetlands? Having lived in the Somerset Levels in the 1960s I am personally very well aware how even in the last fifty years they have moved from a largely negative perception to their current tourist potential, underlined by the outrage over their flooding two winters ago. The wetlands of England, however, date mainly from 1870 in their perceptual history.

This date can be adduced from studying art and literature, but art can be quantitatively measured when in an ongoing annual exhibition, such as that of the Royal Academy. In the decades of the 1860s and 1870s artists moved from picturesque scenes painted in the summer (most typically a wooded valley with rocky stream and a peasant in a red coat crossing a bridge) to autumn and winter scenes depicting hard rural work and ‘dignity of labour’. They found these scenes in the moorlands, the marshes, the upland fells and the lowland fens. The photography of P.H. Emerson in the Broads, or the paintings of E.M. Wimperis in the marshlands can stand for many, but perhaps the best known is February Fill Dyke by B. W. Leader (http://www.bmagic.org.uk/objects/1914P308). Dartmoor was ‘discovered’ by artists such as Wm. and F.J. Widgery and other wetlands have their own local artistic herald.

The type of sunlit carefree country life best exemplified by Constable is not suitable when the farm labourer has become a hero, following the French lead from the Forest of Barbizon. Much English heroism was directed to the fisherman, but the upland wetlands such as Exmoor (Lorna Doone, 1869) or the low lying wetland country (Hereward the Wake, 1866) came firmly into the canon of ‘attractive landscape’ for the aesthete, and indeed the reader of novels. How quickly that new taste percolates through society is another interesting question, but we can lay a study of an area’s perceptual history alongside its geological history, ecological history, and archaeological history.

By Peter Howard, Visiting Professor of Cultural Landscape, Bournemouth University