OUR LOVE FOR BITE SIZED HISTORY – PETWORTH, GOODRICH & WHY IT’S GOOD TO WATCH TOURISTS
ONE SUMMER, TWO VISITS! THE PETWORTH ESTATE & GOODRICH CASTLE
A while back I took a trip upwards to the Petworth Estate in West Sussex. Petworth is funny because it is a bit like Picturesque England summed up in one National Trust property!
Shortly after when camping in the beauty of the West Country, I also dropped in on Goodrich Castle to check out some classic border castle history and buy into the myth of romanticised knights in castles and maidens running round.
But lets step back a bit – I have started further on than intended with no form of rhyme or reason yet given.
I have touched on this in previous posts, but I often find myself not photographing a place or location, but being more fixated on the people within that space and how they interact with it – or the smaller hidden details in a landscape that, for me, reveal so much more about a place and its people.
Social history is also a fascination of mine providing a basis for trying to understand the motivations of people in the past and how this has affect our society day. Especially how today, we try to engage with, and form a picture of the past, to fulfil a need of our own.
THE PETWORTH APPEAL – ENGLISHNESS SUMMED UP IN ONE PROPERTY!
I was reminded of this interest when I visited Petworth a while back. Now for me, Petworth ticks quite a few boxes of my key interests:
- Its National Trust and I have a bit of a fascination for Stately Homes and the organisations that preserve this part of our cultural history
- It was owned by a very rich family! Again, the insanely rich upper classes and their position in society is another topic I like to explore
- Petworth’s gardens were created by Capability Brown. Brown’s gardens try to replicate a picturesque ideal of the British countryside which I find an curious phenomenon
- It’s massive
- Artists such as Turner stayed at Petworth and created a lot of work there – so the house is riddled with paintings by famous and classic British landscape and portrait painters
- There is a deer park – you don’t get posher than that!
- It is a tourist attraction and places people visit for recreation holds a keen interest with me.
So my visit was somewhat of a double whammy – not only is it interesting historically and visually – but there are loads of people engaging with the space in different ways who I can watch and photograph! I wonder how images of this subject can allow us to question the relationship with our own heritage that is today a huge industry.
THE GREAT BRITISH LIE – THE PICTURESQUE LANDSCAPE
Petworth is perhaps a definition of the picturesque – a topic rather keen to my Photographic sensibilities. For me, the Picturesque is a strange phenomenon – a false visage of Britain, created during the Industrial Revolution as a way of attempting to preserve an old nostalgic impression of the country, held by the more privileged classes. This impression of an idealised land was born out of the works of painters like John Constable and Photography quickly took up the mantle with Photographers like Emerson and Robinson selecting their photographic subjects in a way that could preserve the ideal they longed to protect.
However, what really interests me is the fact this has idealised sensibility has been maintained – for generations ever since. A large percentage of people still consider the classic picturesque landscape as the ‘real’ Britain – yet in reality, it never existed. People still hanker after Constable reproductions, visit National Trust houses and view them with a romanticised nostalgia, frequently singing the praises of what I think, are very bland Photographs of the staple British village or a thatched cottage or a horse looking out over a landscape.
SUBVERTING THE PICTURESQUE
I love Photography that subverts this and suggests that there is something else beneath this glossy veneer. The likes of Martin Parr, John Davies and Paul Reas (to name a few) all work with and around these themes and I think produce work infinitely more interesting, beautiful and important to our visual culture than any traditional landscape image can.
So, lets turn back to Petworth and you can see these places hold such an interest for me. In fact – most National Trust and heritage sites in general have a similar appeal, the Trust itself being formed in 1895 right in the middle of a time of massive industrialisation and social change. Visiting sites like Petworth is great research for a variety of ideas I am constantly mulling over and looking to explore photographically and I am constantly intrigued by how people interact and use such places and what they get out of it. How the public are responding at heritage sites is often more interesting than the place itself.
A similar curiosity took me at Goodrich. Visitors seem to follow a rather set path around these sites, following the carefully set out paths and markers and more often than not, cutting off one of their primary senses by grasping an audio tour handset close to their ears. It is as if we go to historical sites with the intention of being given a fully crafted heritage experience – complete with designated views and points of interest, a potted history and a distinct and designed impression of a place and its people.
But stepping out of this world and taking in the environment a a slight distance lets you not only gain your own perspective of history, but also bare witness to how people engage and react with it. I wonder whether we all crave to experience and justify our views of British history and seek visual evidence for an impression of Britain we have crafted in our minds. Maybe we choose to visit historical sites based on which of these ideals we want to preserve. Whether that desire be based upon the lie of the picturesque or something more modest – I wonder how much we are all manipulated by and the sold the story of pop history.
I also find myself drawn to the signage dotted around and how they provide a very blunt and immediate block to the historical illusion we have gone to absorb and subscribed to. It becomes impossible at best to disengage with the present day and get what we really desire from the place – the picturesque itself falling foul of health and safety, public control and conformity.