Spirit levels: ‘Unsettling Landscapes’, St Barbe Museum & Art Gallery, Lymington

How appropriate that on this occasion, during the walks between the car and St Barbe Museum & Art Gallery, the chill in the coastal air was icy enough to penetrate my fleece, and the wind strong enough to bend the bare branches of the trees further in, over our heads.

St Barbe has an admirable track record in exhibitions dealing with the natural world, but to my knowledge this was its first foray into the unnatural: an entire show focusing on the weird and eerie in landscape art. As such, the gallery has tapped into a rich seam, the show forming a perfect accompaniment to the current – and ongoing – high level of interest in all things ‘folk horror’.

I was wondering to myself why such a genre – which spreads its tendrils and tentacles across art, music, film, all areas of culture – should resonate so strongly now. Partly, I think it’s nostalgia, which (perhaps ironically) keeps evolving with the present. As I now look back on my formative years, the 80s passing into the 90s, I have a simplified set of memories: relative prosperity and an economic boom seemingly prompting the worship of euphoria – Britpop and Madchester reviving the upbeat sounds of the 60s, the art world going ‘pop’ all over again, films promoting the triumph of good over evil in the Boys’ Own fashion of the wholesome cliffhanger serial.

But now, we are in dark times. ‘Nostalgia’ literally means a ‘pain’ (as in longing, or ache) for the home or hearth: so while it has come to mean a yearning for the past, at its root, it’s as much about ‘homesickness’, or a pining to be where we belong. Appropriately for the folk horror milieu, it reflects displacement in space as well as time, and it is not necessarily a pleasant feeling.

Cinema poster for ‘The Wicker Man’. Something of a spoiler, I’ve always thought.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many of today’s artists and musicians are harking back to folk horror’s first bleak heyday? In the UK, at any rate, this is almost certainly the early-to-mid ‘Seventies’ (which actually start at the very end of the sixties). Film writer Adam Scovell identifies films such as ‘Witchfinder General’ and ‘The Wicker Man’ as laying to rest the ghosts, fiends and monsters of the Hammer era, in favour of a more pagan, occult-earth malevolence. In parallel, folk and folk-rock produced acts as varied as Mellow Candle, Strawbs, the Incredible String Band, Pentagle and the frankly terrifying Comus, that all brought something of the beyond into their music.

Many of today’s retro enthusiasms lock into this menace that somehow emanates from the land itself – whether through worship of it, following abuse of it… or simply by being somewhere one should not be. Film-makers such as Ben Wheatley, Ari Aster, or Robert Eggers have all waded into this territory; while the likes of Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffatt have resurrected the TV horror play/serial, most famously the latter-day ghost-story adaptations at Christmas. Possibly one of our greatest satirical creations, the Scarfolk website and book series, imagines a macabre, murderous town stuck in a 70s time-warp of public information posters and films: “For more information, please re-read”. And the number of musical acts – from individuals to bands to entire record labels – is becoming too numerous to keep track of, such are the boundless archives of original, spectral folk, library music, sound effects and soundtracks to lend atmosphere and influence. Personal favourites of mine would include the bands Trembling Bells, Espers, The Eighteenth Day of May (all themselves now spookily defunct, sadly, but with various members keeping the flame alive in their own work) … and especially the entire roster of independent label Ghost Box. More of them later.

Cover art for Espers’ self-titled debut album.

‘Unsettling Landscapes’ makes the persuasive case that this ‘hauntological’ eeriness has been an important, near-constant feature of modern British landscape art over the decades. The hang is skilfully conceived, loosely based around four themes rather than any kind of overall chronology or hierarchy. As such, some of the artists recur throughout more than one section of the exhibition, giving the impression that the eerie kept (or keeps) a grip on them, never quite leaving them alone.

War artists – both official (Eurich, P Nash, Piper, Sutherland) and otherwise (Burra, Minton) – feature prominently: a group of people who could surely be expected to suffer more than their fair share of haunting visions. The lingering sense of threat in their landscapes can suggest anything from the tragic absence of human life to the pervading sense that something unknowable lurks in the very fabric of the earth itself.

I was particularly struck by Eurich’s ‘Stormy Morning, Mid Wales’, which looks at first glance like a beautifully captured view of a handsome manor house. But on closer inspection, something isn’t quite right: those are indeed storm clouds intensifying overhead, but the house at the distant centre seems to glow in some way. It is too bright a presence for the weather conditions, making you wonder what type of other presence there might be in the house.

Richard Eurich, ‘Stormy Morning, Mid Wales’

The Burra paintings chosen share a sense of supernatural presence, with human emptiness. ‘Near Whitby, Yorkshire’ captures a moment of diffuse sunlight concealing the end of a road winding away into the distance, flanked by waymarkers that evoke headstones, and the reddish-brown of the terrain suggesting it ran with blood. While the other, ‘Blasted Oak’, switches the point of view to the side of the road, surrounded by jagged, imposing trees. A wheel and machinery part lay in the foreground, overwhelmed, consumed even, by the foliage.

This suggestion of the countryside (past, unknowable) actively reclaiming elements of the town (present, familiar) is writ large in the arresting work of contemporary artist George Shaw, for me an absolute star of this exhibition. Shaw’s approach is fully realist – at times they suggest a photographic accuracy until viewed close-up – and both his urban and rural images feature. However, Shaw is masterful at showing fractures in this reality.

For example, his painting ‘The Danger of Death’ shows an electricity substation that has taken on the same rusty hue as the woods surrounding it; centre-frame, it appears to be in retreat, its straight edges no match for the lush thickets homing in on it from either side. Elsewhere in Shaw’s forest (‘The Heart of the Wood’), a brick circle – again at the vertical centre – could have once been a fire, or a well, or simply evidence of some kind of ritual or game.

George Shaw, ‘The Heart of the Woods’

Meanwhile, a pile of earth dominates the foreground of a residential street scene (‘The Boys All Shout For Tomorrow’). With no sign of workmen or their equipment, this looks more like an invasion or eruption, the aftermath of an inexplicable event – soil declaring its authority over concrete.

Shaw’s symmetrical composition style also adds to the chills. We like things to have slight quirks or imperfections to give us something to focus on, and reassure us of their natural state: faces aren’t symmetrical, for example, nor most houses or buildings. But think of the way, for example, Stanley Kubrick frames so many of his shots – particularly in a film like ‘The Shining’ – with perfect symmetrical precision. It makes the films beautiful, yes, but also profoundly uncanny, making you shift your gaze warily about the screen. The precision in Shaw’s work had me doing exactly the same.

The exhibition does not restrict itself to painting – there are small representations of sculpture and film. Of the photography, the standout inclusion must surely be Jason Orton’s ‘Staddon Heights, Devon’. Staddon Heights is now a monument site for a disused military compound. The scrubland occupies the foreground, but a way off (again dead centre) is a lone wall, just enough mist in the air to lend the appearance of a soft-focus hallucination, the sharp edges and angles of the structure slightly faded and weakened (as again, the rural re-takes its territory), the vestiges of something alien and unwanted.

I was also pleased to see the exhibition acknowledge graphic design, a vital area to look at when folk horror crosses into so many disciplines. The display included recent illustrations by Francis Mosley for a Folio Society edition of M R James’s ghost stories. Stylised in shaded silhouettes, these are remarkable in their restraint: by capturing the moment before James’s vengeful wraiths appear, Mosley loads the location itself with menace and tension. (For example, ‘The Ash Tree’ itself spreads dark branches obscuring the moon, stretching out into a web-like canopy: everything about its appearance foreshadows the dreadful spider-creatures lurking within it, without showing the beasts themselves. Equally, the claustrophobic intensity of the tree branches against the bloody sky in the illustration for ‘The Tractate Middoth’ leaves the reader in no doubt that something is closing in on the doomed figure. Our imaginations can do the rest.)

Stanley Donwood, ‘Dark Hedges’

I was also overjoyed to see some work from Stanley Donwood, the artist and illustrator whose distinctive lines are widely familiar through his work with the band Radiohead (he has produced the visuals for all their album campaigns since ‘The Bends’) and his book covers for Robert MacFarlane (who co-curated this exhibition). Despite Radiohead’s own flirtations with folk horror (check out the videos for ‘There There’ and ‘Burn the Witch’), it was refreshing to see the fine-art side of Donwood here, in particular an immersive drawing called ‘Dark Hedges’. Fans of the band will be interested to see how this more realistic, stand-alone work still collides with its more stylised incarnation in Radiohead’s sleeves and posters.

And finally, pride of place goes to the record label Ghost Box, in the form of a dedicated display case and range of wall prints. Formed by record producer Jim Jupp and graphic designer Julian House, Ghost Box presents possibly the most lovingly and completely realised vision of a self-contained eerie cultural universe – primarily the fictional town of Belbury. The music on the label is overwhelmingly electronic, but with an accent on vintage synthesised sound, liberally influenced by arcane folk and library music. In other words, they evoke how the past imagined the future. Many of the acts on the label have the deliberately faceless names of societies or institutions: Jupp records as Belbury Poly, House as The Focus Group, and other artists include The Advisory Circle and Pye Corner Audio.

Belbury Poly, ‘Tangled Beams’
Pye Corner Audio, ‘The Black Mill Video Tape’

Their visual aesthetic, however, masterminded by House, makes Ghost Box releases truly desirable and collectable, reflecting – without ever simply copying – old paperback covers, Ordnance Survey maps, tourist and public information leaflets, instruction manuals. Already a huge fan, I was overjoyed to find the exhibition had tuned into their strange frequency.

Fittingly enough for the ‘what lies beneath’ subject matter, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the exhibition, which features many more artists to discover and sinister avenues to explore.

For all the folk horror connections, and the retro-appeal they bring, the overwhelming impact of this particular survey lies in the insistence that the land, the countryside, will re-assert itself. Perhaps the source of the nostalgic disquiet here is the knowledge that out there, in today’s real outdoors, the planet is at last turning on us for the havoc we have wrought on its surface. These frames surround depictions of the creeping dominance of the natural world, whether as dramatic, old-time weirdness or present-day, arch reportage. It’s difficult not to think of them equally as windows into our possible future.

AA

‘Unsettling Landscapes’ is on at St Barbe Museum & Art Gallery, Lymington until 4 January 2022.

If you cannot get to the exhibition in person, I recommend ordering the accompanying book, on sale directly from the gallery (phone 01590 676969).

The featured image for this post is ‘Croft Castle’ by Blaze Cyan, one of the works used for the exhibition poster. Other displayed works featured here are also reproduced on the gallery website or in WikiArt.

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