Posted by: robbedlyric | May 3, 2012

Wordsworth Trust Exhibition: Pen, Paint and Pixels. Touring the English Lakes across 250 years. (4th May 2012 – 6th Jan 2013)

This exhibition is being overseen by John Murray and is based around his book ‘A Tour of the English Lakes with: Thomas Gray & Joseph Farington RA.’

Thomas Gray, wielder of the titular pen, toured the Lake District in 1769 the journal of which was published publishing house of John Murray, the exhibition curator’s ancestor. Due to the family link Mr. Murray inherited the original 6 notebooks Grey had used on his tours of the country in 1993. The fifth notebook contained the notes for ‘Cumberland, Westmoreland, Lancashire and Yorkshire’. Gray’s tour of the Lakes was extensive, beginning on the 30th September 1769 however the journal notes begin at Keswick on the 6th October 1769. Murray has used several of Gray’s letters to a friend to piece together the intervening days. Reading Grey’s notebooks Murray realised why Gray has long been thought of as the first ‘modern’ travel writer, his observations are filled with wit and warmth and he is acutely observant of the landscape. As a lover of the Lake District himself Murray decided to follow in Gray’s footsteps around the area.

Before doing so he came across a book of engravings of the Lake District landscapes which had been published in 1789. These engravings were based on paintings by Joseph Farington who had visited the Lakes in 1775 and again in 1777. The views he painted were often areas that Gray had visited, though not always and it is possible that he had a copy of Gray’s Journal with him. This volume led to Murray’s decision not to only follow in Gray’s footsteps but as he went to try and find the viewpoints from which Farington had painted and to take photographs of the landscapes as they are now.

It is this combination of words, original paintings and engravings and Murray’s own photographs which make up both the book and the exhibition. The exhibition provides an excellent overview of the book and a chance to see Gray’s original notebook, the text of which is reproduced in Murray’s book.

The book provides an excellent overview of attitudes to landscape in the Romantic period. I was lucky enough to hear Mr. Murray speak on the subject at the Wordsworth Trust Arts & Books festival earlier this year. Prior to the late eighteenth century mountains and mountainous landscapes were just impassable inconveniences to travel which filled observers with terror and fright. As the period progressed this sense of terror became tinged with awe as mountains landscapes became fashionable. Some of Gray’s descriptions of the Lakeland scenery have been criticised for exaggeration but it is important to remember that these landscapes were still filled with danger for the unwary traveller. Gray was also following the fashionable picturesque way of viewing the landscape whereby the combination of imagination and truth, the honest and the pleasing, create a ‘perfect’ landscape.

Farington’s relationship with the picturesque is slightly more complex. As Murray travelled and photographed the landscapes he found the Farington was not prone to picturesque embellishment however his work had also been described by a contemporary as ‘making accurate images of the lakes unnecessary being as [his images] are accurate and beautiful.’ This suggests that Farington was following the picturesque fashion and subtly changing the landscape. Murray however has come to the conclusion that Farington was imposing picturesque foregrounds over topographically accurate mountainous landscapes and that he never tries to match Grey’s dramatic descriptions of tumbling rock falls and precipices. Whether Murray is right in his conclusion is for you to decide as you compare Farington’s images with Murray’s photographs.

It is this ability to compare the landscape as it was, or at least as it was consumed by the eighteenth century viewer and as it is today which is the highlight of the exhibition. In different images we see the impact of roads and building on the landscape, how trees obscure views that were once admired and how a bit of shrubbery can completely change that character of a fell. More interesting is the impact of what has been removed, where once there were small hamlets there are now flat expanses of green. You also get a real sense of the changes enclosure has made on the landscape.

Through the exhibition Murray hopes to inspire us to similar photographic projects – to go out and connect ourselves to the landscape, art and history. Our perceptions, necessity and time all have an impact on how our landscape changes. The exhibition itself is vibrant and different and really comes into its own through the interactive element. There will be a smartphone app available allowing you to go out, match up the landscape with Farington’s images and take your own photographs easily. Personally I would like to see a little more of Gray in the exhibition as he seems a little neglected in favour of the images however this is an exhibition which uses the image to its best advantage. This exhibition speaks to you long after you have left it and headed out into the landscape of the Lake District.

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