Lying as it does in its own “rural idyll”, it is fitting that Compton Verney art gallery has opened its year with an exhibition examining the truths and myths behind those words.
Entitled Creating the Countryside: Thomas Gainsborough to Today it looks at how artists have depicted the country over the space of four centuries. Often throughout the exhibition older and newer works are placed together to throw in elements of realism to an attractive glossing over of the truth.
The exhibition begins by looking at the idea of the countryside as a place of escape, an idea that has obviously been around for a long time as seen in Claude Lorrain’s image of Youth Playing a Pipe in a Pastoral Landscape from 1645, showing the boy as peaceful animals graze and the scene looks lovely.
Nearby, there’s a Henshall and Company of Longport platter showing Compton Verney, a vision of an idealised landscape created by Capability Brown, showing two men in the foreground with their hunting dogs and pheasants, and the artificially-made lake.
John Constable’s Willy Lott’s House, 1816, shows a simple but attractive house next to water, with a comment that it transformed landscape painting. Next to it is a Paul Reas photo of Constable Country – people being moved into position to view the scene of one of his famous paintings, turning the rural idyll into a tourist business.
The next room features other country images not quite as they seem; Helen Allingham’s A Surrey Cottage 1880 is a watercolour of a delightful scene, but the cottage in question was under threat of destruction from the coming of the railways.
Grayson Perry’s 2006 ceramic Fantasy Village also looks at the reality behind the image – a village where single mothers were cast out, and where now there are ugly convenience shops and litter.
A room entitled Working the Land, focuses on other issues and there’s a big altar-like display of corn dollies made by Raymond Bush for harvest festival; the delicate and attractive work contrasts with the photograph by Andy Sewell from 2014 showing plastic carrier bags of food as a church centrepiece.
There are works by a number of artists including John Nash, George Stubbs, Harry Becker and Constable showing countryfolk at their honest toil, and then another photo by Paul Reas entitled Harvest of a Bygone Age, Home Farm Museum, Hampshire, showing people from 1993 watching a host of others in period costume gathering in hay; the performers have mostly paused to look at their audience, creating a strange multi-focused scene but again with the past and the countryside as tourism.
Sigrid Holmwood’s Museum Girl with Doll, painted with mushroom and other natural plant pigments, also shows a scene of acting from a country museum.
A section entitled The Dark Pastoral examines mysticism, turmoil and death. Hilary Jacks’s Turqoise Bag looms over it, a tree with a plastic bag caught in its branches, symbolising the impact on the environment of modern living. John Piper’s Derelict Cottage shows a former home, now lost, and covered in scribbled marks. Graham Sutherland’s Number Forty Nine, from 1924, also creates beauty in a detailed drawing of a thatched cottage which has lost most of its roof.
Anna Fox and Alison Goldfrapp in an untitled work create a sinister tone with a photograph of a woman’s legs laying on bluebells, red shoes on, raising ideas of a violent act having taken place.
Evelyn Mary Dunbar’s A 1944 Pastoral: Land Girls Pruning at East Malling is an oil painting of women at work in a bleak wood, reflecting the time, surrounded by images of cutting, with a saw, pliers and secateurs.
The Great Escape section looks at holidays, including Paul Hill’s photo Legs Over High Tor, Matlock, a girl’s legs hanging off the natural feature as cars go by on the road below, and a colourful Shell poster of Faringdon Folly, 1936,considered a worthy destination.
The village is looked at too, with a long work by Sir Stanley Spencer designed to hang in Cookham.
A 1971 photo by Homer Sykes of the Burry Man, a depiction of a strange village tradition, plus the Allendale folk walking with burning barrels on their heads shows the stranger side of village life.
It’s a well put together exhibition, not being fooled by the chocolate box image of the countryside and showing that mythologizing and sentimentalising it is not just a recent thing.
The Burry Man by Homer Sykes, 1971, courtesy of the Hyman Collection