Book review: Recording Britain

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Recording Britain
Edited by Gill Saunders
(V&A Publishing, £30, *£25)

The work of official war artists during the First and Second World Wars is widely known. Paintings from these important government-funded schemes are regularly exhibited at the Impe-rial War Museum. Less familiar is a project called Recording Britain, which ran from 1939 to 1943. Initiated by Sir Kenneth Clark, the energetic director of the National Gallery, it was financed by the Pilgrim Trust, established by American billionaire Edward Harkness ‘to promote [Britain’s] future well-being’.

Whereas the war artists’ remit was to depict the impact of war, on civilians as well as the military, Recording Britain was about documenting the nation’s landscape and historic buildings, under threat from bombing raids and urban sprawl. It was also a propaganda exercise, intended to nurture national pride, as were wartime poster campaigns depicting idyllic rural scenes with the rousing caption ‘Your Britain fight for it now’. It was a vehicle for helping impoverished artists during the lean war years, too.

The 1,500 paintings commissioned for the project were sub-sequently donated to the V&A, which has now published a book about this intriguing initiative, edited by Gill Saunders, senior curator of prints. After the Second World War, many of the works were dispersed on long-term loans to institutions near the locations featured in the paintings. It was not until the 1980s that the collection was reunited at the V&A and its historical significance began to be reassessed.

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Recording Britain focused on watercolours, although a parallel project north of the border called Recording Scotland encompassed oil paintings and prints as well. Most of the paintings are essentially topographical, in the tradition of Turner, Cotman and Girtin, but more low-key. Apart from a handful of moderately big names, notably John Piper, Kenneth Rowntree, Enid Marx, Michael Rothenstein and John Farleigh, the majority of contributors are relatively obscure today. Some, such as Stanley Badmin, were highly esteemed members of Royal Watercolour Society. Others, such as Louisa Puller, were gifted amateurs.

The artistic quality of the works is, by the V&A’s own admission, somewhat patchy, although, in historical and geographical terms, the project is fascinating, and there are some real gems, such as Kenneth Rowntree’s The Livermore Tombs, Barnston, Essex, and Barbara Jones’s The Doric Arch, Euston Station. It all only really makes sense in terms of context, hence the book’s multi-directional approach. Two chapters explore historical precursors via topographical watercolours, architectural guides and travel writing (or ‘romantic psycho-geography’, in Stephen Calloway’s modish term).

Martin Barnes suggests precedents from the field of photography, and Charles Hind critiques the project from an architectural point of view, comparing it with the more systematic approach of the National Buildings Record. But, for me, the most pertinent sections of the book were the editor’s introduction and her illuminating chapter ‘From fairground to farm’, where she explains how the project came about and elucidates its strengths as a reflection of local concerns in a time of national calamity.

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