Recording Britain: Towner Eastbourne

For ten years I kept a visual sketch diary. It started as a one week college project with the humble aim of sharpening up my observational skills, but eventually it took on a strange life of its own. The simple sketches of myself and my world seemed to deepen and reveal new viewpoints as the accruing tides of time washed over me. On August Bank Holiday 2004 I sat down to draw Bognor Regis pier – which I described in the caption as ‘desolate and godforsaken.’ Seven years later, to the day, I returned to the exact same spot to gaze at the pier anew. My drawing, though decidedly not picturesque, was gentler, with pastel skies. ‘Either it’s less shit, or I’ve mellowed’ was my scribbled verdict on the pier. I still don’t know what the truth is. Maybe it had had a fresh lick of paint and a general spruce up – or maybe I just saw it differently. Maybe it was a sunnier day. Maybe I was a sunnier person.

‘Recording Britain’ a V&A touring show currently at Towner Eastbourne, grants us access to an ambitious wartime arts scheme which sought to document aspects of a nation that, many assumed, would soon be gone. These aren’t photographs and so, like my changeable Bognor impressions, they are a necessarily subjective record of Britain –  an almanac not merely of vernacular architecture but also prevailing styles in mark-making, and hierarchies of what was considered, at that moment in time, under threat or worthy of recording.

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The first couple of rooms in the show are filled with works on paper – mostly small scale works in pencil or watercolour which describe villagey, bucolic scenes from our green and pleasant land. Some lull us into a false sense of security, their watercolour sweetness seemingly timeless and immune to any shadow of oncoming progress. Take Kenneth Rowntree’s ‘Grainfoot Farm, Derwentdale’, a fresh, summery evocation of a place that’s probably been there in some shape or form since the Domesday book. Yet the picture records, in point of fact, the final days of Grainfoot farm – soon to be flooded for a new reservoir.

The ‘Recording Britain’ scheme was proposed in winter 1939 by Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery. Artists would receive short term maintenance grants to go out and record historic buildings and landscapes under threat. The ravages of wartime bombing and the possibility of invasion were clearly in Clark’s mind – but they were far from being the only influence on the scheme. In his proposal to the government, Clark writes of the concern he feels for the ‘terrible distress the war is causing among artists’. As much as anything, then, this was a philanthropic scheme to give gainful employment to artists at a time when they faced financial ruin.

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‘Recording Britain’ stands or falls by the merits of each individual artist. Barbara Jones, well represented in this show, has a particularly keen eye for idiosyncratic English subjects which avoid the frilly cliches of village life. She picks her subjects wisely. One painting records a hawthorn bush, lovingly pruned by its owner, across thirty years, into a horse shape. ‘Chances of survival, practically nil’, she writes. In ‘Savage’s Yard, Kings Lynn’, she paints the workshop of a maker of fairground goods, his traditionally carved objects soon to become an anachronism. Jones understands that, in order to construct a record of Britain, one must look at human society and endeavour – not just the pretty old buildings.

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Kenneth Rowntree takes up this theme in his painting of the ‘Livermore Gravestones’. This small, gentle picture shows the graves of four daughters of the Livermore family. Three died as teenagers and one lasted to the grand old age of 22- while both parents lived on. Rowntree has emphasised the writing on the stones, which might have been far less legible in a photographic record of the same scene. It speaks to us now, evoking empathy across generations and reminding us how lucky we are, safe in our world of antibiotics and sanitation. It’s beautiful, not morbid. The green colours sing out from the paper. Rowntree could have chosen to strike a more sombre, gothic mood, but he chooses not to go there. Life, in all it’s madness and beauty, carries on and so do we.

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Though many of the pictures in this show are very interesting as documents, only a handful, such as the Rowntree gravestones, excite as great examples of fine art in the realist tradition – particularly those bold enough to mark out their territory and go to the places photography couldn’t. John Piper’s muscular watercolour and gouache evocations of churches and stately homes strike an ominous mood of threat and portent – suggesting the dark clouds of oncoming war, or the threat of change and imminent destruction. His contributions work well because they hint at the emotions one might feel standing in these locations – the pull of history, the fragility of our endeavours – as opposed to a colder, more textbook focus on the objective recording of each brick and detail. Such atmospheric pieces cast a spotlight on the more tentative, fussy efforts of other artists here, though. Some of the pictures in this show tend more towards the politer, frillier end of the spectrum.

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Raymond Cowern’s  ‘Thatching at Cavendish’, one such picture, contains a telling detail – pencil crop lines inside the image. The telegraph pole to left of frame is an imposition on such a lovely rural scene, and he intends it to be removed. It’s not entirely dishonest (after all, he did originally paint the unwanted element) but it strikes just enough of a warning note to make us realize the lens through which so many of these images are seen – certain things fit this view of ‘traditional’ England, others don’t.

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It’s a relief, then, to move through the show and realize that the ‘Recording Britain’ display is augmented by a selection of modern artworks which create a dialogue with the original aims of this scheme. I’m surprised to find an etching by recent Turner Prize nominee George Shaw, depicting a suburban street corner on the Tile Hill estate in Coventry. It’s more evocative of my own personal version of England than any of the sweet scenes in the previous room. It reminds me of Logie Drive, the little grey street in central Scotland where I spent my early years. I went back there recently and felt a curious pang of loss at a past still within reach, yet gone forever. Shaw somehow encapsulates this feeling within his little print.

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Laura Oldfield Ford’s drawings of Stratford create a strong dialogue with the 1940s scheme. What does progress mean? Her pencil sketches of the Lower Lea Valley, site of the 2012 Olympics, record the last days of a scruffy area facing total redevelopment and reinvention. Would Sir Kenneth Clark have viewed these urban weeds and disused industrial units as terrain under threat, worth capturing for posterity? Highly doubtful. Yet for many people, myself included, such inner city wastelands are just as evocative of real British life as any country churchyard. Art exists to capture authentic experiences, however fleeting – and Ford’s sketches do this. They possess a jagged beauty, and turn our attention towards the inhabitants of the city, unseen in these drawings but about to be displaced again by expensive flats for Waitrose shoppers.

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Another unseen city dweller looms large in Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane’s wonderful 2001 photo of the notorious ‘Protest House’ in Cardiff, whose windows are festooned with strangely beautiful text, ranting about the owner’s disputes with the council – topped off by a little cameo appearance for Munch’s ‘The Scream’ in the upper storey. ‘How’s your conscience now, Cardiff council, after my 17 years of housing grants hell?,’ screams the protester.

I’m interested to note that, although the wall labels tell me many of the buildings in the original ‘Recording Britain’ display actually survived, the Cardiff protest house has already had its signs removed at the behest of the council. They were never meant to be permanent, of course, but therein lies the thrill – to know that something worthy of recording doesn’t have to exist behind a veil of history or in a picturesque surrounding. Something truly unique, eccentric, heartfelt and surreal could exist, even for a brief moment, on any suburban street.

‘Recording Britain’ is at Towner, Eastbourne until June 26th. Admission free.

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