The exhibition will start by mining the connection to the land as seen through historical paintings and prints by Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable. Reflecting 18th and 19th-century perspectives, these works portray green spaces as places of timeless leisure, bucolic life and, concurrently, strenuous labour and rural identity. JMW Turner’s The Lake, Petworth, Sunset (c.1827-8) will be shown alongside Sunset at Herne Hill through the Smoke of London (1876) by John Ruskin, a great admirer of Turner’s ability to capture the natural world. In turn, Ruskin’s artistic and political views played an important role in William Morris’s own life and work. All three artists responded to the volatile and rapidly modernising times that they lived through, a period of environmental destruction comparable to the deterioration of the natural world today. Anthea Hamilton’s BritishGrasses Kimono (2015), which will be displayed nearby, similarly explores overlapping ideas of nature, beauty and culture in our society, further illustrating the parallels between past and present ways to approach the land.
A second section will delve into the act of trespass, themes of geographical identity and belonging, and the ways in which communal rights to the land have been encroached upon by the enclosure, privatisation and commodification of green spaces. With roots as far back as the 17th century, this process is the subject of Hurvin Anderson’s Double Grille(2008), a painting that foregrounds the physical as well as symbolic role of taking land within British imperialist expansionism. Five sculptures by Turner Prize winner Veronica Ryan reflect her interest in organic forms such as fruits, seeds and vegetables, and their potential for recording histories of migration, intergenerational exchange and embedded memories. Jo Spence and Claude Cahun’s photographs place the body within diverse landscapes, which will allow visitors to draw parallels between the socially encoded, gendered boundaries imposed on self-expression and identity, and the physical as well as psychological limits constructed around natural spaces.
Radical Landscapes will then explore the overlap between art and environmental protest with works including photographs by The Format Photographers Agency. This group of women, who sought to capture people and issues under-represented in mainstream media, chronicled the Greenham Common Women’s Peace camps, a series of protests and sit-ins staged between 1981 and 2000 that responded to the British government’s use of the RAF base for the storage of nuclear missiles. Shedding light on the subcultures and communities that protested the increasingly politicised and militarised treatment of land in the second half of the 20th century, the exhibition will draw parallels with more recent climate protests and political conflicts. Chris Killip’s photographs of Lynemouth’s Seacoal camp will highlight tensions between community, landscape and economic exploitation, while works by photographer Andrew Testa will document the 1996 Newbury bypass protests, highlighting the social turmoil and environmental cost of the felling of nearly 10,000 mature trees in Berkshire.
The final section of Radical Landscapes will draw directly from Morris’s utopian novel News from Nowhere and the collection of the William Morris Gallery to evidence the parallels between today’s environmental movements worldwide, and Morris’s own stance on sustainability and critique of industrial capitalism. Works such as his Lea fabric design, made as part of a series of textiles extolling the beauty of British rivers, will illustrate Morris’s commitment to the memory of the places of his childhood, such as the River Lea and Epping Forest, and his condemnation of progressive urbanisation he saw taking over them.
An expansive public programme, organised in collaboration with local artists, campaigners, foodbanks and allotments, will run alongside the exhibition, and expand beyond the Gallery’s walls into the wetlands, forests and green spaces of Waltham Forest. The programme will invite participants to reassess their relationship with local landscapes and respond to the climate crisis.
Radical Landscapes is organised in collaboration with Tate Liverpool where a first version of the exhibition was shown from 5 May to 4 September 2022.
The exhibition is curated by Darren Pih, Chief Curator and Artistic Director, Harewood House; Laura Bruni, Curator of Exhibitions, Henry Moore Foundation; Matthew Watts, Assistant Curator, Tate; Hadrian Garrard, Director, William Morris Gallery; and Rowan Bain, Principal Curator, William Morris Gallery.