The art historian and presenter of ‘Tate Britain’s Great British Walks’ discovers the landscapes that inspired some of the nation’s most famous paintings
Why is walking essential to you?
I’ve always walked from a young age. It came from not having a lot of money and walking rather than taking the bus. I grew up in London although I went to school in Dorset, and was a quiet, reflective child. So I would often walk into town and go to galleries by myself, or go walking with a little watercolour set. There’s something quite meditative about walking alone, but when you walk with someone else that can become reflection and occasionally confession. Anyone who walks will recognise that.
How does the art of Britain connect to its landscape?
All the works in ‘Tate Britain’s Great British Walks’ speak to the particularity of the time when the artist lived, but they also communicate something magical about our environment, our nation, which makes you want to engage with it more deeply than just looking at a beautiful landscape. These paintings make you want to step through the frames, get some mud on your shoes, smell the air – whether it be city, country or suburb. All the artists did more than just paint their environment: they enjoyed walking within it too.
Tell us more about how thinking like an artist enhances walking...
To walk in the footsteps of artists is a glorious thing, because you’re forced to look up and out. Our greatest artists had immense visual ambition, which does bring you up short and make you realise that so many people wander around with eyes glued to the pavement or, worse, the screens of their iPhones.
You met the DJ Danny Baker and explored the London streets that inspired William Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane...
Hogarth captures London in a period of huge change, as indeed it is now. London was and still is diversifying and becoming incredibly commercial, with all kinds of new people coming into the city every day, as businesses grow and collapse. Walking with Danny Baker was glorious: people love him, and he loves the city. We had a drink in a tiny alley off Fleet Street, and somebody knew Danny, as they go to see Millwall together. It was his territory. So in the way these streets are Hogarth’s streets, they are also Danny Baker’s. Both share this sense of being outsiders looking in, not part of the establishment, whilst at the same time being very successful.
Why did Turner keep returning to paint Norham Castle on the River Tweed over his lifetime?
Norham Castle represents a boundary between two nations that became one; England and Scotland. It is a monument to that unity, so it underlines Britishness, and the stresses and strains that are very much a part of that relationship: things that we cannot escape today, as Turner couldn’t escape in his time. So it looms, the castle through the mist at sunrise. Turner paints it as a kind of acid yellow, which to me is more about someone thinking about their mortality than they are embracing the possibilities of a new dawn. Cerys Matthews felt the scene was full of Celtic poetry and magic.
What do Alfred Wallis’ paintings tell us about the Cornish coast?
Alfred Wallis was in St Ives before Nicholson and Hepworth, the artists associated with the St Ives school. Wallis was a fragile, delicate painter who captured a world that was beautiful and exquisite, but which was dissolving around him. Seeing it through the eyes of actress Miriam Margolyes, who is so deeply sensitive and open, was an enormous privilege. Miriam and I walked up to St Nicholas Chapel, from where you see the whole of St Ives stretched out in front of you. St Ives has changed: with huge numbers of holiday homes it’s obviously not the quaint little fishing village Nicolson and Hepworth wandered into, but in terms of its setting and architecture, it is still exquisite.
How did you tempt A-lister Michael Sheen to take time out to visit the Upper Tawe Valley?
Michael Sheen is keen to shine a light on communities affected by the shrinking British coal and steel industries. Both have been hit hard, with nothing but call centres put in their place. Coming from Port Talbot, Michael is acutely aware of this. We walked from Ystradgynais to a disused colliery, and the stray boots, keys and letters we found were the archaeology of an industrial landscape. Ystradgynais’ geography has been transformed by the end of coal mining. One would imagine this would take thousands of years, but the removal of large slag heaps and greening of vast areas has happened in decades. It has become beautiful in a different way than it was when Josef Herman captured it. Herman was a German refugee who escaped Poland, who travelled first to Scotland, then to Wales. In Ystrandglynais he found a community that had many of the qualities of the Poland he left behind. Like Warsaw, it was built around industry, community and fraternity.
What does it mean to be in Constable Country?
Constable’s idyllic rural landscapes actually represent the changing face of industry. For example, Flatford Mill is a view of a river with locks, traversed by barges and canals taking grain from Suffolk to London. It is an industrial mill scene, but Constable’s focus is on a disappearing way of life. We can still walk in those landscapes today, but we have to do so much work to see that history again. The landscape around Flatford Mill on the River Stour has become a tourist attraction. But you can get away from people, and walk a little way from Flatford to find scenes that are still very Constable. I was there with actor Richard E Grant, who is of Swazi origin. His feeling of being somehow an outsider is something that I share myself. And ironically we discovered that Constable, who is today considered quintessentially British, also felt himself an outsider – he sold only a handful of paintings in his lifetime. These pictures that capture a vision of England are by an artist who felt like he had to defend something. And ‘us two African boys’, as Richard E Grant referred to us, were fellow outsiders.
How does William Frith Powell’s ‘Derby Day’ transport us to the mid Victorian Britain Dickens lived in?
Dickens expert Simon Callow and I went to Derby Day, and it’s barely changed from Dickens’ time. It’s still attended by wealthy oligarchs and aristocrats. But there are also the many thousands of ordinary people who dress up, have a flutter and get a little tiddly, fall over, have a wonderful time and come back year after year. There are also regulars like the Romany family who have always run the fair in the centre of the race track. That tradition is something that Frith Powell was keen we understood. We have this sense of Britain changing, but there are parts of it that remain so much the same. In his work you get a sense of Victorian Britain changing, catalysed by colonialism, by industrialisation, by new architecture and new ambition, but incorporating something fundamentally and unalterably British as well.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE
- COUNTRY WALK? A circular walk in Kent from Sevenoaks via Knole, with lunch at Igtham Mote.
- CITY WALK? Hampstead Heath, from Erno Goldfinger’s modernist house on Willow Road to Kenwood House.
- VIEW? Hambleton Hill, Dorset, when the Stour has burst its banks.
- KIT? A mini watercolour paint box and sketchpad.
- SNACK? Mixed nuts for sustained energy.
'Tate Britain’s Great British Walks’ screens on Sky Arts from 2 May 2017.