Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Space in time

For the purposes of this discussion, space is defined geographically and culturally and is coupled to the idea of people having 'a sense of place'. The term sense of place means different things to different people. To some, it is a distinctive visual characteristic that some geographic spaces have and some do not, while to others it is an emotional feeling or perception held about a space by individuals and groups. Both uses involve adopting a set of characteristics that make a space special or unique and promote authentic human attachment and belonging.

Spaces said to have a strong "sense of place" have an outstanding identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors. But it is primarily a social phenomenon dependent on human engagement for its existence. Such a feeling may be derived from the natural environment, when the focus is on landscape, but is more often derived from a mix of natural and cultural features, and generally includes the people who occupy the space. In these connotations, strong pastoralist and anti urbanist philosophies have produced modes of codification aimed at protecting, preserving and enhancing spaces with an obvious sense of place. This is evident in spaces with anti-industrialist and anti modernist values, such as the British "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty" and the American "National Historic Landmark".

Two important visual concepts to communicate a sense of place are imaginary 'time in space' and imaginary 'space in time'. These two overlapping emotional perspectives became the driving force of 19th century British art. Imaginary 'time in space' is exemplified by the Pre-Raphaelites, who were particularly fascinated by medieval culture, believing it to possess a spiritual and creative integrity that had been lost in later eras (Fig 1). 'Space in time' was employed by the 19th century painter Walter Langley, and others like him, to dramatise fields and quays with peasants and fisherfolk so as to glorify the imagined joys and tragedies of simple village life (Fig 2). This was the period after 1880, when the rediscovery of national identity and native traditions prevailed throughout the western world. Pictures of space in time were painted for urbanites as nostalgic reassurances of the continuity of less comfortable traditional ways of living. For the most part this picture-making was an incessant production system where standards were consistently maintained year on year, but there were no high flyers. In all cases, a lexicon of historical continuities was amplified and the visual disjunctions were filled in with painterly imagination. The pictures also served to add additional character to out of the way spaces that were beginning to serve an embryo tourist industry.

Cultural features may create a sense of place in a space that has no outstanding visual quality. Then the feeling of attachment may be strongly enhanced by the space being written about by poets, novelists and historians, or portrayed in art or music. It may also be created by knowledge of the roots of one’s ancestry. Here it is the power of human imagination projected onto a space that makes it special. These notional values serve to add scenic power to even the most prosaic landscape elements that elsewhere would go unnoticed.

Such ordinary places make up the plateau landscape of glacial clays occupying most of the English county of Suffolk, which is devoted to mile after mile of featureless intensive cereal production. There is no landscape protection here! These remote unprotected uplands have never had a tradition of landscape painting. The dust cover introduction to Norman Scarfe's book 'The Suffolk Landscape' published as a contribution to W.G. Hoskins' series 'The Making of the English Landscape' in 1972, encapsulated the relative pictorial dullness of the county.

"Sandwiched between the emptier, more open Nofolk and the more metropolitan Essex, Suffolk is famous for its calm landscape of estuaries and gently undulating cornfields, its associations with Crabbe and Britten, Gainsborough and Constable'.

These famous 'calming features' projected nationally by local poets, musicians and painters are actually confined to its borders with Essex and the county’s coastal ports and heathlands. However, the next sentences reveal a basis for considering spaces in the rest of the county as having a special 'personality'.

'The ingredients of this landscape are plainly part of an ancient story of settlement. How and when it all came about is examined here and broadly established for the first time. The distinctive, rather hidden personality of these lands..... derives almost everything from its makers, the South folk or 'Suffolk', the English of southern East Anglia'.

The first East Anglians were not motivated by areas of outstanding natural beauty but by fertile spaces empty of people with natural resources for survival and raising families. Their distinctive settlement pattern on Suffolk’s northern border with Norfolk is responsible for the ‘hidden personality' of a small space consisting of nine closely knit communities. They have a sufficient sense of place today for local people to refer to them as 'The Saints'. The clues to discover why these villages form a distinctive cultural unit are a single man-made feature, unique in the whole of Britain, and a remarkable pattern of dividing up the land, which is now only evident in old maps. Beginning with these two obscure features it is possible to create a distinctive personality for The Saints, which is coupled with the beginnings of East Anglian Christianity. The Saints then becomes a schematic plan or mindmap embedding a sense of place, and picturing it adds important notional values to commonplace streams, ditches and hedgerows of a tiny part of the British Isles which, for a few centuries, played an important role in the making of Englishness. This idea is being taken further as a wiki.

This post is a development of

Fig 1 William Holman Hunt: 'A converted British family sheltering a Christian missionary from persecution by the Druids' (1950)

Fig 2 Walter Langley 'Never morning wore to evening, but some heart did break'

Fig 3 The southern thousand year old boundary of ‘The Saints’

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