Early on in her wonderfully fluent and revealing study of the relationship between artists and writers and the British countryside, Susan Owens points out that were it not for creative types, the countryside would not be seen as landscape at all, merely as land. It was, she notes, poets and painters who gave the countryside its alternative status: while it was first and foremost a place to be measured according to the yields and utility of fields, woods and rivers, it also came to be a realm for the free play of the imagination and the emotions.
Owens, an art historian, adroitly mixes literature, art and culture to show how perceptions of the British countryside have changed over the centuries and how artists and writers have been at the vanguard of these shifts. There is no one starting point for her history. An imaginative response to the landscape is evident in the earliest British writings that touch on nature, such as those of the monk Gildas in the sixth century and, in the seventh, St Cuthbert, who built himself a cell on the Farne Islands without windows but open to the sky in order to restrain, in the words of Bede, ‘both the lust of the eyes and of the thoughts’. He was all too aware that the natural world had the power to deflect his meditations from their holy course and send them who knows where.
Landscape is also prominent in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As Gawain waits a year and a day for his appointment with the monstrous axeman, the poet meticulously describes the changing seasons. And the more you look, the more frequently the landscape makes a literary appearance: the blasted heath