June 16, 2024

Landscapes by Women Artists – a rare chance to see our rapidly changing world from a purely female perspective

As art and cultural historian Simon Schama has explained, the term “landscape” originated from Dutch and German etymology – literally speaking of shaping the land as a cultural activity. It is gratifying to see this term being rehabilitated after decades of substitution for the term “environment”.

A notable example of this is the exhibition Another View: Landscapes by Women Artists at the Lady Lever Gallery in Liverpool. This offers a rare opportunity to see works by female artists taken from National Museums Liverpool’s archives that depict the landscape in a multitude of ways.

The first room, “from amateur to artist”, features the lady amateur perspective. These “leisure artists” were women from well-to-do backgrounds, often aristocratic, thereby having the means to engage with painting as a leisure activity. A much-loved medium here is watercolour, suitable for sketching excursions.

Some of these landscapes depict the pastoral quality of garden designer Capability Brown, who was responsible for a fashion of naturalness that set enduring standards for what would be considered “the English landscape”. This natural look of rolling pastures and clusters of mature trees departed radically from the symmetry and formality of traditional baroque garden design.

Instead of vistas and mazes, box-framed formal flowerbeds, trimmed hedges and conifers, the English landscape garden was carefully manipulated to look natural. At times, this naturalness came at the expense of the labouring peasants, who were “airbrushed” out of the vista so as not to spoil it.

Amelia Hannah Long (1772-1837) – alias Lady Farnborough – designed her gardens and subsequently made them the subject of her paintings, which are on show here. These works sit alongside images by other amateur painters, recording their experiences of foreign travel and adventure.

One notable landscape by Anne Holt is of a slave plantation – a curious watercolour entitled Negro [sic] Huts on Mr Middleton’s Plantation, Savannah, April 30 1851. We are informed that the Holt family’s wealth stemmed from slave plantations.

Anne Holt’s rendering of Mr Middleton’s plantation, depicting simple huts and “natives” leisurely going about their business, is naively idealised. But for all its technical and intellectual shortcomings, this painting is worth studying as a historical document that reveals how an upper-class lady made picturesque paintings of a hateful reality.

In the majority of 19th-century examples on show, one can easily make connections with the influential art critic and writer John Ruskin, whose volumes of Modern Painters would have been required reading for anyone with cultural aspirations at the time.

However, Ruskin’s fascination with William Turner’s Slave Ship does not appear to have made a mark here. He likened the painting to “the shadow of death” and proclaimed the ship as “guilty”, describing its “thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror”. Perhaps Ruskin’s beautiful prose was too subtle to be understood?

Indeed, for the majority of exhibits in Another View, the visitor misses the telling of other perspectives – the experiences of landscape through the eyes of its peasants and farmers, for example; the hidden labour of those who worked in the houses of the rich, or who were brought in with goods via West Cumbria’s ports such as Whitehaven and Maryport. Like Liverpool, historically these were important points of turnover for both sugar and slaves.

But the exhibition’s final section, “A New Path”, goes some way to exploring those missing narratives by including 20th-century and contemporary works with different perspectives. Here, one finds a more explicit critique of the conventions that inform the English landscape, making the title of the exhibition, Another View, fulfil its promise by moving beyond issues of gender.

Turner Prize-shortlisted Ingrid Pollard’s images evoke and simultaneously repel nostalgia for the green-and-pleasant land epitomised by the English Lake District. Unlike all the other images in this exhibition, here we have photographs made to resemble 19th-century darkroom practices in sepia, using hand tinting.

The photos capture Pollard’s uneasy relationship with the English landscape, portraying a conflicted sense of appreciation of the outdoors, a sense of not belonging. The artist demonstrates how exclusive our mainstream vision of the English landscape must be for ethnic minorities. As perceived “outsiders”, their history of origin and frequently forced engagement with this country remains untold.

Other exhibits offer a different point of view. Empathy with the poor is evident in Barbara Bodichon’s painting of Ireland in 1846 – during the terrible potato famine – which depicts in dark, sombre browns the plight of peasants there.

Prunella Clough’s magnificent painting in room one stands out among more traditional English depictions of landscape. This painting’s dark, somewhat industrial yet abstracted rendering shows the industrial side of the Lake District in its mining and steel works at Aspatria, Maryport and Whitehaven.

This is echoed in Sheila Fell’s working-class view of the western Lake District, Houses Near Number 5 Pit. This painting was shortlisted for the prestigious John Moores Painting Prize in 1957 – Fell was the only woman on the shortlist.

Another View joins a series of exhibitions around the globe trying to address the struggle for women to become professionally recognised, including Now You See Us: Women Artists in Britain 1520–1920 at London’s Tate Britain.

And within the last couple of years, we have seen similar attempts to redress art’s relationship with the landscape. Tate Liverpool’s ambitiously titled Radical Landscapes (2022) sought to redefine the parameters of landscape from the bottom up, showing artworks that address discontent with powers of belonging, access, and protest. And this year, Dulwich Art Gallery’s exhibition Soulscapes has tackled some of the gaps in terms of the non-western representation and formulation of landscape.

Ultimately, all these attempts to historically redraw the parameters of inclusion are doomed to failure, as we cannot reinvent a more inclusive culture of the past. At best, we can create spaces to reimagine the presence of these marginalised individuals now – and in this sense, Another View is a good try.

Another View: Landscapes by Women Artists is at the Lady Lever Gallery in Liverpool until August 18 2024

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Doris Rohr does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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