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Surrey Hills Landscape Assessment

Magazine Article

Creative Teamwork. Including Artists in the team for The Surrey Hills Landscape Assessment.

Gillian Binks, Prospect.

This article is reproduced from Interpretation Journal, April 1999, by kind permission of the Association of Heritage Interpretation, email [email protected]

Click here to Link to AHI web Site

An account of the Artists' Perception Project - part of the Surrey Hills Landscape Assessment carried out for the Countryside Commission, Surrey County Council and Arts Council in 1996-7. Principal consultants for the study were Gillian Binks, John Dyke, Chris Burnett (as CEI in 1996, now the landscape planning consultancy, Prospect) and Vicky Berger of Art Project Management. The Artists were Pip Woolf, painter, Roger Polley and Simon Read, photographers, Tommy Wolseley and Ian Whittlesea, mixed media, Sandra Stevens, poet, and Stephen Plaice, poet and writer.

In May 1998 the Countryside Commission published the most recent of its AONB landscape assessments, for the Surrey Hills AONB*. Landscape assessment methodology has tended to be based on analysis by landscape type (geology, land use habitats etc). For this one however, our brief as the consultant team was to consider the character of the landscape, and specifically to explore the cultural associations and perceptions, both historic and contemporary, of the Surrey Hills, as the basis for devising landscape management policies.

The 'hills' of the North Downs and Wealden Greensands of Surrey, the first real countryside south of London, have been desirable places for grand country houses for centuries and for the more modest villas of commuters once the railway arrived, as well as huge numbers of day visitors. Many writers, poets and painters lived and worked here. Inspired by the vernacular architecture and the varied landscape of the area, the Arts and Crafts houses and gardens designed by Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Gekyll spread 'the Surrey Style' worldwide. These images, with those of Helen Allingham and E M Forster, often present a romantic view of the Surrey Hills which belies the poverty of its rural past, the continuing pressure for development and the often conflicting demands of recreation and conservation. Today's attractive landscape has a rich and varied character and the influence of geology and settlement history is particularly strong.

To help the CEI team of landscape architects, historical geographer and interpretive planner to tackle contemporary perceptions of the Surrey Hills landscape, we secured an Arts Council grant for 7 artists to join us for part of the study. Working with Vicki Berger of Art Project Management, we devised the brief and selected two photographers, Roger Polley and Simon Read, two writers and poets, Stephen Plaice and Sandra Stevens, two mixed media artists, lan Whittlesea and Tommy Wolseley, and painter Pip Woolf to work with us for a week. They were simply asked to take on board the aims of the 'perception' project and to respond to the landscape of the Surrey Hills in whatever way they felt, presenting this as a 'workbook' or record rather than as complete pieces of work.

The artists produced an impressive amount of work of significant value to the process. Their responses informed our analysis of landscape character and sharpened the sense of place. Their perceptions revealed new meanings, challenged accepted impressions and offered contemporary observations to contrast with traditional images of the area.

Some of the artists' work focused on an aesthetic response to the landscape, through a visual or written piece. This often brought to light intimate and complex details missed in the technical, broad-brush, landscape architect's approach. They celebrated features usually recognised as problems rather than assets - the colour, texture and patterns of eroded footpaths, the sculptural forms of the trappings of horsiculture, the visual and social interest of graffiti. They recorded the stimuli to be found in a walk through a countryside peppered with houses, gardens and manmade interventions which added variety and colour and contributed to the 'natural' mosaic created by vegetation and land use.

Some of their observations encouraged us to suggest reassessment of some countryside management policies and strengthened our recommendations on others. For example, accepting and continuing the practice of sympathetic 'gardening' and ornamentation in this 'wild', managed landscape; the importance of restoring and maintaining views framed by trees; the value of opening up hidden stretches of river banks.

Many of the artists' responses were based on an understanding of what they saw in the landscape not in visual or topographical terms but in socio-political, historic and economic terms. They were rather uncomfortable in the social landscape but found enough understanding of the issues and contradictions to give real substance to their commentaries. They highlighted the problem about what this landscape represents and means to the people who live there and who visit. They articulated strong images of wealthy residents with a semi-rural, quasi-suburban lifestyle requiring an idealised, tidy countryside to satisfy their need for the rural idyll. This is no-longer a traditional working countryside but landscape as backdrop - there is a lack of 'real' rural work in a 'real' landscape and little connection to the rural Surrey people who once worked the land and lived in the villages. In what is now predominantly a landscape of ornament and recreation, they saw the paradox of management of public access by information and control and the visitors' appreciation of and need for the freedom to roam. These images highlight widespread concerns for rural planners and the problems of defining/agreeing what our countryside is and is for.

Their insights expressed as poems, essays and in pithy visual images encapsulate the issues so effectively. Whilst not attempting to offer solutions, they make readily accessible the contradictions and the implications of the complex social, economic and political factors which impact on the AONB landscape. (In a much more effective way than a report would)

The published report contains only a few examples of the artists' work. The recently appointed AONB Officer for the Surrey Hills is currently putting together a touring exhibition of their work to raise awareness of the issues and interest in the aims of his project.

Including artists in our team was an experiment and we were cautious in predicting the outcome. Had we realised what an impressive amount of work they would produce and how much they would have to say that was of value to the process and to exploring the issues, we would have arranged a much bigger audience for their final presentation. Their contributions provide a very useful starting point for public discussion and participation. Had the budget been available, we could have used their work as the stimulus for a public perception exercise. The artists all said they enjoyed the project and valued the opportunity to be involved. Their input was a far cry from public art in the countryside but as an exercise in interpretation we all felt it informed the landscape assessment process and enriched it immensely.

For the most part interpreters should be in the business of collaborating with artists rather than simply commissioning them. Finding a common language and starting point is essential. We must avoid the assumption that 'artists' have the monopoly on insight and perception and thus give up too much responsibility ourselves, and we must make sure that their need for freedom of expression does not make them prima donnas in the process. We need to be confident of our brief and the desired outcome, to involve them in the development of the brief, but we must be prepared to be influenced and swayed by new perceptions as we steer an evolving project. We need to find artists who will co-operate in that process with out feeling that their art is being compromised. The experience described here suggests that there are artists who can and want to be good team players and that the process of working together brings many rewards.

* The Surrey Hills Landscape. CCP 530. Countryside Commission 1998

For more information contact Gillian Binks, at Prospect, 0161445 6452, e-mail [email protected]

Notes on the Artists' work for the project

Pip Woolf developed a mainly aesthetic response to the landscape rather than justifying what she was seeing in terms of socio-political, historical or economic terms. She presented a series of drawings, paper collages and paintings reflecting the dominance of the woodland which filtered and framed views and the pattern and colours of erosion.

Roger Polley used his unique photographic style to draw attention to the intimate qualities of the Rivers Mole and Wey. He particularly enjoyed the quiet reflections of the water, the swallow holes and the detail of the embankment. His photographs of exposed tree roots echo the studies of Gertrude Jekyll who worked in the area earlier this century.

Simon Read made shrewd visual observations of what he encountered on two long walks, first as "sculpture", but then in context. On his walks, he found himself drifting between perceptions. As he says, "it is quite hard work to stay in top gear so far as awareness of the environment is concerned; as a walk continues there's a tendency to skip from mood to mood". Clearly there are different perceptions between those who are concerned with the management of the countryside and those who spend their free time in it. Simon was sufficiently in top gear to offer a whole range of pertinent perceptions - horticulture as new sculptural form; the inside of pill boxes as frames for the "luminous greed" woodland.

Tommy Wolseley pursued the idea of the Surrey Hills' landscape as an idealised, safe countryside required by the surburban dwellers. He produced computer generated pictures juxtaposing images of comfort and 'wildness'(a luxury car seat in a woodland setting) and images of branding (a supermarket bar code) on a well known view, suggesting a pre-packaged countryside.

Sandra Stevens, responded to the pressing management issues affecting Surrey Hills. However, in her poems, she sought a freedom to enjoy and experience the countryside without controls.

Stephen Plaice questioned the truth of the accepted history of the people of Surrey and in his essay and poems used his personal knowledge of past village communities to inform his perception of the present. He also valued the traditional working landscape which had now disappeared in favour of a landscape of leisure and recreation, and of wealth earned elsewhere.

lan Whittlesea's work consisted of two elements: firstly, an annotated copy of A Year in Thoreau's Journal. 185 1, by Henry David Thoreau. Whilst reading the book lan attempted to keep part of his mind on the Surrey landscape. So relevant sections of text were noted and annotations recorded in his own words. "The book and notes are not intended to be read, rather they are a trace of an event." From this beginning lan went on to produce a set of 16 slides taken during a night-time walk across Frensham Common. In this he attempted to explore the relationship between light and the quality of vision, something Thoreau had 'done in Concord, Massachusetts. "By walking at night the world was once more primal and untouched"