Challenging the notion of picturesque

An exhibition which challenges some traditional notions of landscape art will open here in Grasmere next week.

Unpicturesque at our Heaton Cooper Archive gallery features the work of seven eminent painters and photographers – Martin Greenland, Alan Stones, Rebecca Scott, Alan Thompson, Julian Cooper and John and Rosamund Macfarlane – who all live and work in Cumbria and the Lake District. It aims to extend and complement the inherited notion of the picturesque in both art and landscape.

Torver Quarry, Julian Cooper

The exhibition is being curated by Julian Cooper who is bringing artists together in a critical stand against the “picturesque” view of the Lakes, in the gallery founded by his artist-grandfather.

The term originated in Italy in the 16th century and referred to non-classical subjects in painting, with the French painter Claude Lorraine in particular embodying the picturesque ideal in landscape painting. The Lake District assumed its own identity as a distinct region after becoming a vehicle for ideas of the picturesque imported into English cultural debate by William Gilpin in the 18th century. For tourists the landscape was to be enjoyed as a series of leisurely ‘views’ from particular standpoints, preferably seen through a Claude glass.

“This way of viewing the Lake District survives largely intact through contemporary paintings, film, photographs, and publicity material promoting the tourist industry,” says Julian Cooper, the Cumbria Life visual artist of the year, whose father William Heaton Cooper, and grandfather Alfred Heaton Cooper, both painted more traditional scenes of the Lakes.

“How we see profoundly affects the way we think, and seeing this and other landscapes as beyond ‘scenery’ and more as a dynamic layering of natural and human systems, all connecting to each other, may help in adjusting our attitudes to the benefit of all who live and visit here, whether they be human or non-human.”

Julian Cooper’s two works on show will include his earlier paintings of abandoned slate quarries, a subject which was part of his exploration of mountains and rock-faces. They were a rich source of possibilities in both form and colour, as well as an exploration of the interaction of natural and man-made worlds. In Torver Quarry the wall of sun-dappled rock leads down to the dark entrance of a cave, with band of coloured iron oxide running across the bedding layer, suggesting fracture and instability. The painting Overhangs, Hodge Close Quarry tries to convey the subtle abstract conjunctions of form and colour of rough and smooth slate typical of old Lakeland quarry walls.

There are three paintings of Setmurthy Forest near Cockermouth by Martin Greenland which are all done from memory.

They show the feeling and experience of walking slowly and quietly along the edge of the forest in fading light at dusk. In Setmurthy Forest Memory – Deeper, More Silent, Very Late, the little path runs alongside the forest on the left, with open fields on the right, leading to the Elva Plain – the site of an ancient stone circle. Beyond the Trees depicts the shock of suddenly seeing a light through the trees and not understanding that its source is a half-hidden farmhouse beyond.

The work by Alan Stones is a fine charcoal drawing, Field, which conjures up a corner of an ordinary field with a row of ancient thorn trees and celebrates the modern type of barn that’s typical everywhere, including the Lakes, but which remains ‘unseen’ in comparison with its picturesque old stone-built equivalent.

Two paintings by Rebecca Scott have a conceptual boldness and painterliness that makes them both successful and disturbing. There’s a rhyming consistency between the shapes and patterns of both meat and the landscape from which it originates. Her paintings Crescent Moon and Red in Tooth and Claw were both referenced from picture-postcards and supermarket catalogues, adding another layer of irony by seeing both the meat and the landscape as consumable products.

Alan Thompson’s extraordinary painting Lakeland Gathering becomes more believable the further in one goes. On the far edge of the invented Lakeland landscape the clothed figures are witnessing a party gathering of some sort, but as one gets nearer the front, it becomes an artificial world of posed nudes arranged in a tight composition.

Nicky Below Great Gable convinces because one doesn’t really believe Nicky is lying on that rock ledge, bracing herself from falling downwards – however, the painting wants us to believe it, and we do. She is somehow held back by the looming bulk of Great Gable behind, which acts not so much as a background but as another character in the painting.

In Alan and Kathryn on a Rock two figures are engaging in a sort of static dance, held in place by the interaction of shapes between each other’s limbs and the shapes in the landscape, each affecting the other.

John Macfarlane’s recent photographs reveal a hidden world just beneath the surface of typical Lakeland becks and streams. Rock changes its nature when it continues downwards under the water – from pitted and gnarled in the air, it becomes smooth and sinuous underwater, worn down by and echoing the shapes of constant water currents. Light becomes magical as if seen through an extra lens, the under-surface of the water becomes a roof, creating a claustrophobic landscape in the most shallow of streams. These photographs take us both physically and imaginatively right into the landscape.

John Macfarlane in Black Moss Pot

Rosamund and John Macfarlane’s series of photographs taken in the air from a Gyrocopter give an exhilarating release from the ground and an overview of how the various different parts of this landscape fit together – both man-made and natural. They show parallel paths of road, river and wall running up Honister Pass, a quarry road snaking its way up even higher, the delicate edging of Holme Wood as it meets Loweswater, and a sweeping view from within the heart of the Lake District, looking outwards over West Cumbria and over the Solway Firth and on to Scotland.

Their son is Robert Macfarlane, the internationally bestselling, prize-winning author of Landmarks, The Lost Words and The Old Ways and whose latest work, Underland, has just been published.

The exhibition, which is free, will run from the 13th of May until 30th September.

Archive galleryArtCumbriaDrawingGreat gableHeaton cooperHonister passLake districtLandscapeLoweswaterPaintingPicturesqueSetmurthySolway firth