The Yale Center for British Art holds the largest collection of British art outside the UK. An impressive collection it is too, largely bequeathed by Paul Mellon of the American banking dynasty. He holidayed in England as a child before the first world war and, having developed a taste for ‘dappled tan cows in soft green fields’, began acquiring British works on natural history as a young man.
In this book, Elisabeth R. Fairman, a curator of rare books at Yale, has gathered images, largely from the collection, of all that the British countryside has to offer, recorded by artists and naturalists from the 16th century to the present day.
The sheer beauty of some of the watercolours, prints and paper-cuts is astounding. They make me long to sit for days in the Yale library and leaf through the other pages. And the book is flawlessly produced, right down to the pocket at the back to tuck your own cuttings in, and ribbon markers in Farrow & Ball hues. But I struggled with its strange structural device: an imagined ‘Field Guide to the British Countryside’ introduced by four essays. ‘Field Guide’ is a misnomer. The idea that a rambler would lace up their boots, deposit a Kendal mint cake in one pocket and this £40 hardback tome in the other and set off in the drizzle to identify buttercups is absurd.
Arranging the images by type does allow Fairman to show the ‘aesthetic kinship’ between, for example, the blackberries in the extraordinary Helmingham Herbal and Bestiary (c. 1500) and Rosaleen Wain’s etching of the same (1996). The problem is that this often shows up the contemporary work in an unflattering light. Some of it isn’t really up to much. I can see why she would include Karen Bleitz’s ‘Dolly’ — a sheep cut like a string of paper dolls from the pages of a book about cloning — but I still wish that she hadn’t. There are exceptions of course. Two fantastic images of toads, one cut from paper and the other an engraving so close up that you’re staring him right in the eye, are both from this century.
The essays are a mixed bag. Fairman introduces, then Robert McCracken Peck lays out the naturalist scene in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which sounds like a riot. Once Linnaeus’s system of classification was adopted in 1753, interested amateurs could compare and swap specimens, and many ‘how-to’ manuals followed. Everyone was at it. There was even a popular Victorian magazine devoted solely to ferns. What a surprise to learn that John Stuart Mill was an avid botanist with a collection of 12,000 cuttings. Equally appealing is a Miss Rowe, champion collector of the Liverpool Naturalists’ Field Club, who painstakingly decorated the envelope of each specimen with a watercolour of its contents.
Molly Duggins writes so badly that reading her essay is a trial. ‘Such representational conventions (illustrations) elicited pleasure through decontextualisation, transforming the specimen into an object of desire, a singular jewel plucked from obscurity to dazzle on the page.’ Meaning, I suppose, that the illustrations were appreciated for their beauty. Or later: ‘Bridging the gap between object and self, the physical communion of touch embodied the Victorian viewer.’ Pass.
Much more interesting, if at a bit of a tangent, is David Burnett’s text about Sister Margaret Tournour, a nun and talented woodblock printer, who worked into her eighties, despite bad health that left her unable to make deep incisions in the wood. Burnett argues that she made a virtue of this. Her incisions create brooding, sensitive images that seem to pulse with respect for the natural world. She had no studio, used misshaped trial blocks and often engraved both sides of a block in the interests of economy. She is a worthy exception to my suggestion: which would be to lose some of the modern stuff, and give us more of the old.