British Art: Ancient Landscapes
6 April – 3 September 2017
A major show in the vicinity of Stonehenge offers a vision of the Britain that reflects humanity's deep connection with the land.
If this show feels urgent, a few of the reasons why soon become clear. Spend time on your favourite social networks and it can feel like we are speeding towards Armageddon. But if you stroll around the earthworks of a neolithic fort instead, the comforts are many.
Forget our Brexit-tinged meltdown for a moment. Civilisation has always endured on this island of ours. Indeed, one of the seven wonders of the medieval world is just down the A360 from Salisbury Museum. Stonehenge is an enduring mystery of the type which has inspired British landscape artists from John Constable through to Derek Jarman.
So getting back to the land need not mean a return to raw nature. The energies which govern the location of stone circles are, we imagine, cosmological rather than environmental. The views which have inspired the mystic outlook of so many of our homespun painters, bear the signatures of our ancestors, although in the light of a migration crisis, one uses that expression advisedly.
But a love of one’s native soil need not inspire nationalism. For every conservative Constable, our canon features a radical like Turner. With modern romantics like Piper and Ravilious, both of whom feature in this show, there is an apolitical magic about their pastoral scenes; some new-age beliefs may surround the megaliths painted by Nash, but there is little of that in the modernist responses of Moore and Hepworth; and in the land art of Richard Long the natural world becomes as clinical as a white-walled gallery.
At the very least, the ancient landscapes of Britain provide a welcome distraction. At best, the art which they inspire provide a panacea for the issues we face at home.