Issue Number: 118
Two exhibitions celebrate the poetic power of landscape in the north of England, writes Ian Warrell.
John Atkinson Grimshaw, 'On the Tees, near Barnard Castle', c.1868. On show at the Bowes Museum. © Leeds Museums and Galleries/The Bridgeman Art Library. In Britain, our appreciation of the great landscapes of the North is often shaped by the words of poets, especially the Romantics of the early 19th century. An exhibition at the Bowes Museum explores the echoes caused by the publication of Walter Scott’s epic poem Rokeby, 200 years ago. It was an instant hit, selling 10,000 copies in only three months, and thereafter drawing countless tourists to the locations it describes in Teesdale, between Barnard Castle (home of the Bowes Museum) and Darlington.
Artists also began to include the banks of the Tees and the Greta on their northern itineraries. But when it came to creating an illustrated edition of the poem, Scott’s publisher inevitably sought the artist J.M.W. Turner, who had already painted stunning views of the area. Some of these works, along with atmospheric landscapes by Victorian artists such as Atkinson Grimshaw and Alfred William Hunt, have been brought together at the Bowes to explore the connections between landscape, poetry and painting.
Elsewhere in Yorkshire, at Harewood House, another exhibition takes its title from a poem by Sylvia Plath: Two Campers In Cloud Country (1960). Like many artists and poets over the past 200 years, Plath was seeking to experience nature at its most immense, and to discover herself anew in a setting that was indifferent to human preoccupations.
Gary Hume RA, 'Here’s Flowers, Untitled 3', 2006. Harewood House. Courtesy of Paragon Press. The revelation of this kind of engagement with the natural world lies at the heart of the Harewood exhibition. Its curators, Whitechapel Gallery Director Iwona Blazwick, and artist Diane Howse, Countess of Harewood, believe that by focusing on works on paper, often executed en plein air, it is possible to get closer to the sensation or moment of observation that sparks the creative act – what Blazwick terms ‘the “What if?” quality of drawing’.
A selection of around 80 works highlights the tendency towards abstraction in landscape art, embracing 19th-century artists such as Thomas Girtin and John Sell Cotman (who also worked at Rokeby), as well as more recent artists such as Bridget Riley, Rachel Whiteread, Julian Opie, Thomas Schütte and Gary Hume RA.
Blazwick says that visitors should expect to find surprising juxtapositions and a ‘breathtaking range of abstractions’ within thematic sections that reflect the experience of nature over the centuries, ranging from its pure forms, its atmospheric phenomena,
and its distillation as decoration, to the political implications
of living on the land.