John Ruskin made the case for art as a language. Crafted visual images are more than frozen icons: they articulate an inner voice. Lines, space and perspective are its grammar, colour its syntax. From his perspective, it’s what you depict that counts: “It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness of either the painter or the writer is to be finally determined.”
But not everything is about ‘greatness’. While art may tell a story, Ruskin is telling his story about art, and as with any story, the narrative unfolds according to who gets to do the telling. England On Fire: A Visual Journey Through Albion’s Psychic Landscape tells a different tale, or rather the same one through different voices.
In this superb collection curated by Stephen Ellcock, visual art tells another story of what it means to be English. Mat Osman provides written commentary that unpacks the images’ latent meaning, providing a verbal correlate to their visual narrative. Like Ruskin, he too sees poetry in the visual, a “language that speaks to England’s subconscious and which we understand in some kind of deep, pre-verbal core”.
Osman asks us to consider the conventional English self-image: proper, well-managed, controlled, and rational. This is an image of imperial riches and hard-won technologies; it’s an image of refinement and self-regulation. But England On Fire is a visual journey through a suppressed history, from forest revelry to surreal enchantment to urban alterity. “Which Coventry Kahlo, which Plymouth Picasso should be hanging in the National Gallery?” Osman asks, following Thomas Gray’s silent rebellion centuries ago in a country churchyard.
Cast by Osman as a ‘visual Saturnalia’, England On Fire features lesser-known pieces from canonical figures, like Blake and Turner, but the heart of the book is in its multitude of works — some achieving their first reprint in this very edition — from neglected artists, some of them anonymous, ranging from the thirteenth century to the present moment (though most range from the late eighteenth century on). Here we see work by nameless monastics and immigrant artists: portraitists from London’s black gay underground, surrealists, pagans and, I dare say, more than a few madmen, all of them brilliant. Stag-horned beings, otherworldly solstice gatherings, stone-dotted landscapes, nature reclaiming human spaces, immigrant celebrations, homoerotic human-animal hybrids, evocations of folk magic dredged up from the raw earth; these images conjure England’s mythical past to remind us that the present too is a myth.
Each section offers an interpretation of England — its history, lore and identity — from a particular thematic perspective. Some of these thematics have clear parameters (images focusing on water, for instance) while others remain stubbornly (and fittingly, in the case of Chapter 3, titled “Rebellious Nature”) resistant to clear boundaries. Osman’s textual annotations are, by his admission, tangential, but then so too is this book. It’s a jaunt through the environs rather than a trek to the capital: a magnificent view of the castle from the pauper’s square, though one that transforms the castle’s image and meaning. Liberian-British artist Lina Iris Viktor, for instance, photographs herself against a gold acrylic backdrop to recreate the self-presentation of a medieval monarch. As Osman reminds us, “English words have fallen like rain across the globe and then washed the world’s riches back into England’s gutters”. It is fitting, then, that the gutter be made so glamorous.
England On Fire frequently counterpositions the old and the new, often juxtaposing pieces separated by a century or more on adjacent pages, linking them through theme, colour and subject position. Ellcock pairs Nicola Tyson’s Bird Call (2021) with William O’Keefe’s A Vision, Vide, the Monster of Slaughter, the Distress of Nations; Deluge of Blodd (1796). O’Keefe’s is a disturbing vision of war: a politician-as-monster floating above a literal sea of blood. Tyson’s is of a simple bird, and yet both share a disquieting set of similarities: the contrast of red and blue to differentiate flesh from sky, the sharp oral protrusion, and the sheer menace of the familiar. In a book that is all about change — about replacing linearity with aimless meandering — we get a subtle hint of where continuity may lie. A similar sense of terror embedded within the familiar — one of Ellcock’s favourite central tendencies — is in Sutapa Biswas’ Housewives with Steak-knives (1984–5), an awe-ful (or awe-inspiring?) rendering of the Hindu goddess Kali transplanted into a domestic immigrant setting. This incendiary, anti-colonial domestic avenger both haunts and inspires hope for change. Ellcock not only rereads the past, but foretells alternate futures.
Ultimately, the themes here allow us to do what these artists have done for themselves: define our own ways forward. The same essential elements — stones, pathways, water — that guide these artworks remind us that any pathway by definition leads us, that is, coerces us to follow the feet of those that have gone trudging before us. Indeed, there is no wrong way to read this book, only your way.
Osman suggests that England On Fire reflects not some wistful moment of rebellion, but rather “the nation’s true nature”, the “very English rebellion of the nameless many against the privileged few”. This book too is a sort of enchanted wonderland, not the sort one finds in some mythical grove pulled from the storybooks, but that found under our noses, in the alleys, along the backstreets, or in the long-forgotten archives. Ellcock and Osman bring these images into blazing life, not by glorifying them but by giving them the space and the dignity to speak for themselves.
Osman, in reference to his homeland, offers the affectionate demarcation “Albion unhinged”. You may agree or disagree, but one thing is certain: England On Fire will change the way you see England, not for showing anything new, but for showing you what has been there all along.
Featured image: Pinkie Maclure, Green Man Searches for Wilderness, 2020
10 May 2022