Paul Nash, The Rye Marshes (1932) as a Shell Poster
Source: Wikimedia Commons
A pretty miserable rainy day so we went this afternoon down to the London Museum and on our way popped into the Whitechapel Gallery to have a look at 'East Coast: Damn Braces: Bless Relaxes'. This is a small assemblage of artworks relating to landscape and the politics of place on the East Coast of England, ranging from the watercolours and sketches of the Norwich School to the activities of artists associated with the Humberside College of Art in Hull during the 1990s. I was pleased but a bit surprised to see Paul Nash's The Rye Marshes, until I reflected that Rye is at the point where the South Coast starts to bend into the East Coast (and the painting itself is normally in Hull, at the Ferens Art Gallery). I was reminded a bit of Patrick Keiller's recent exhibition at Tate Britain: works have been selected not for their own sake but to illustrate or hint at historical and contemporary questions of land use and ownership. A small pencil drawing by Cotman, for example, has been chosen because it shows Kett's Castle (Robert Kett led a rebellion against enclosure in 1549 and was captured, held in the Tower and then hanged from the walls of Norwich Castle). Cotman also painted a view of Mousehold Heath, in which a small area of the common land can be seen enclosed and ploughed up.
The pleasure in curating an exhibition like this must come in making links across time and different media (as I often try to do here). So, opposite the Cotman are two paintings by Peter De Wint showing the Lincolnshire Wolds at the time of the early nineteenth century enclosures. Printed next to them on the wall is a poem by that great champion of the commons, John Clare, praising De Wint for his unassuming subject matter: 'No rocks, nor mountains, as the rich sublime, / Hath made thee famous; but the sunny truth / Of Nature, that doth mark thee for all time, / Found on our level pastures: spots, forsooth, /Where common skill sees nothing deemed divine.' In a case in front of the De Wints is the notebook of another poet, Alfred Tennyson, opened to the lines of 'In Memoriam' in which he writes of finding 'no place that does not breathe / Some gracious memory of my friend ... No gray old grange, or lonely fold, / Or low morass and whispering reed, / Or simple stile from mead to mead, / Or sheepwalk up the windy wold.' The landscape here again is Lincolnshire, where Tennyson grew up and later spent time with Arthur Hallam, and where, in 1833, he received the letter telling him that his friend had died suddenly of a stroke at the age of 22.