This weekend the country celebrates the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Thinking of the events of 1939-45, the Folly Flâneuse was reminded of a wartime project to document the changing rural and urban face of Britain. At a time when the future seemed uncertain, ‘Recording Britain’ commissioned artists to portray the country as it then was, creating a visual history for future generations.
The ‘Scheme for Recording the Changing Face of Britain’ was initiated by Sir Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery, soon after the outbreak of the Second World War. Financial support from the Pilgrim Trust enabled him to recruit artists for the project, which soon became known by the snappier title of ‘Recording Britain’*. Although the threat of destruction, or devastation, as a result of war was one of the stimuli to collect images of a life that might be lost, Clark and his Committee were also responding to an age of rapid change, when industrial and residential development was encroaching on the countryside. There was also a philanthropic aspect, as artists were seen to be struggling to make a living in wartime.
Many artists were commissioned, and the list includes some who went on to become very well-known, John Piper perhaps foremost, but there are others who are barely known today. The scenes they were asked to portray included castles and canals, townscapes and topiary, inns and industry, and all aspects of the British landscape in the early 1940s. In a move to boost patriotism and morale during the war, selections from the collection were exhibited at the National Gallery, London, and the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts organised provincial tours in conjunction with local arts groups.
Of the 1549 topographical works that were collected, a number of follies and landscape ornaments were included, and three are featured here: Freston Tower in Suffolk, the Pagoda at Alton Towers in Staffordshire, and the Dashwood Mausoleum in Buckinghamshire.
Freston Tower, overlooking the River Orwell in Suffolk, was the chosen subject of Russell Reeve (1895-1970), an artist who painted many Suffolk scenes. The tower had been standing since the 1570s, making it one of the oldest follies in Britain. Such tall coastal structures were seen as vulnerable, both as hinderances to British aircraft in a time of war, and as prominent objects to guide the enemy. Happily, the tower survives today and is a Landmark Trust property, available for lofty holiday lets.
A decade before she would publish Follies and Grottoes in 1953, Barbara Jones (1912-1978) chose to paint a view of the pagoda at Alton Towers in Staffordshire, one of many works she contributed to the scheme. Jones preferred the pagoda at Alton Towers, built in the early 1830s, to the more famous example at Kew, which she thought ‘a little pedestrian’. At Alton Towers, she later wrote, the ‘pagoda supports its winged roofs and bells on open lattice work of the most airy elegance’. Her ‘vivid’ watercolour of the pagoda was admired by the Yorkshire Post’s art critic when it went on display in Menston Methodist School, Yorkshire, in April 1945. Country houses and their parks were a focus for the project as there was a fear, ultimately justified, that many would be abandoned after the war, or become institutions. Alton Towers was not typical, as it had passed out of the family’s hands in the 1920s, and was operated as a pleasure ground by a local consortium. It was however requisitioned during the war, and returned in poor condition in 1951. A gradual restoration and development from that date eventually culminated in the hugely successful Alton Towers theme park.
The prominent mausoleum and eye-catcher on the West Wycombe estate in Buckinghamshire, was built in the 1760s for the Dashwood family. It was sketched for the project by Elliot Seabrooke (1886-1950), and remains today a striking feature of the landscape.
The Pilgrim Trust gave the collection to the V&A Museum, London, a partner since the early days of the project. The fabulous collection can be explored on their website https://collections.vam.ac.uk/search/?listing_type=&offset=0&limit=15&narrow=&extrasearch=&q=recording+britain&commit=Search&quality=0&objectnamesearch=&placesearch=&after=&before=&namesearch=&materialsearch=&mnsearch=&locationsearch=
And there is an excellent book about the scheme, Recording Britain, edited by Gill Saunders https://www.vam.ac.uk/shop/recording-britain-110127.html
*actually a misnomer as Northern Ireland was not represented. Scotland was excluded and had its own ‘Recording Scotland’ project. Wales was represented by only a few works, and within England there was a distinct southern bias with Northumberland and Durham excluded entirely and only 3 works featuring Cumberland.