Skeletal trees puncturing the pale, bruised skin of December skies; black moorland dotted with the dark silhouettes of ancient marker stones. As a regular rambler around the windswept pathways of the North York Moors, the idea of the “eerie” as an intrinsic part of the English countryside strikes a very distinct chord with me. So I was intrigued to be contacted by Steve Marshall, curator of St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery in Hampshire, about their current exhibition: Unsettling Landscapes.
Subtitled The Art Of The Eerie, it’s a collection of artwork exploring the more disquieting aspects of the English rural experience: from the early 20th century imagery of Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash to the contemporary work of George Shaw, Stanley Donwood, Sarah Hannant and Julian House. Co-curated by best-selling writer Robert Macfarlane – who has also written for the exhibition’s sumptuous hardback catalogue – it’s an affectingly evocative collection: both disturbing and bewitching in equal measure.
I was delighted when Steve agreed to discuss, over Zoom, the inspirations behind the exhibition. Here’s how the conversation went:
Bob: So it was a Robert Macfarlane feature in The Guardian that inspired all this? “The Eeriness of the English Countryside“?
Steve: It was, yeah. One Saturday back in 2015, I came across that article and it really struck a chord with me. He started by discussing the work of M.R. James, and then looked at film, literature and contemporary art. So the idea had been stuck in the back of my head for a few years, waiting for the right opportunity. I talked to St Barbe about it, and they thought it had some mileage – I wasn’t sure, because this sort of thing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea! But they said yes, and I then got in touch with Robert to ask if he’d be up for writing something for the catalogue. And he agreed, despite being a very busy man…
That’s quite a coup!
Yeah, I was really pleased. He’d written that article for The Guardian, and another for the Tate magazine, which was more about the fine art side of things. So we asked if he could bring those two pieces together, and maybe steer them a little towards the actual content of the exhibition. We spoke on Zoom during lockdown, about that content and about who we could include – he had ideas, and so did Gill Clarke, our co-curator. So, between the three of us, we came up with a huge list of artists that we’d like to put in there. So Rob takes the credit for getting the ball rolling.
I’ve always been interested in art. When I was a teenager, I loved surrealism. Particularly those working in the 1930s, who were very interested in dreams and the subconscious – that artwork is all very strange and weird, and has an eerie edge. And then the Neo-romantics of the 1940s added wartime angst: they took the English landscape and turned it into something dark and threatening. And so, the more I delved, the more it felt like too good an opportunity to miss.
Is this borne of a practical interest in the landscape as well? Do you enjoy rambling in wild places?
Yeah – I did a lot of walking when I was younger, and I’m interested in wildlife and ecology. I’ve been learning a lot in lockdown. And the exhibition we did a year before this one was based on the seasons. It really chimed with the lockdown experience of doing the same thing, day in day out, and noticing the gradual changing of the landscape as the seasons moved along.
I suppose a lot of the landscape art I’ve worked with has been in the pastoral vein. People like Samuel Palmer, with his lovely evocations of the English landscape. And things like railway posters, where everything looks so beautiful and enticing. So it was really nice to flip that on its head and explore this darker undercurrent a little.
I like the line in Robert’s feature where he says he draws a contrast between the eerie and the horrific. Which I think is a line that isn’t always drawn. I’m definitely drawn to the former rather than the latter. I can see the comfort in the unsettling and the melancholy. I know I talk about Bagpuss a lot, but it’s the perfect example for me: it’s certainly eerie, but it’s also a very welcoming refuge.
Yeah, I think Robert really nailed it there. It’s quite a hard thing to pin down…
It’s a sliding scale, I think!
It is, and there comes a point where the eerie tips over into horror. Mark Fisher once commented that when knowledge is achieved, the eerie disappears… and that’s a good point, I think. So either the thing making you uncomfortable is visible – tipping you into horror, and confrontation – or everything is fine: “Oh, the eeriness was caused by that”. You dismiss the eerie because you find a rational explanation. And I think that’s nice, you teeter between the two.
With Bagpuss, yes… it’s got unsettling elements, but it’s also really comforting. And I think for us, the haunted generation, that’s very much part of our growing up. It was a formative experience. I’m not a big fan of jump scares and blood, but I love that unsettling, disquieting, not-quite-right feeling. I think there’s an appeal to that, and that’s part of what we wanted to do with the exhibition. Some people might assume it’s too dark, and they won’t like it… but it’s quite gentle.
So what is it about the English countryside that we find so eerie?
Well, we split the exhibition into four themes, and the first of those is absence/presence. Which again, goes back to Mark Fisher: his idea that we feel the eerie when something is present that shouldn’t be, or when something should be present… but is missing. So it could be the absence of figures from a painting. Take someone like George Shaw, he depicts his childhood and adolescence in Coventry in the 1970s and ‘80s, and there’s never anybody there! That’s unsettling in itself. That emptiness. These are places that should have mums with pushchairs, but there’s just nobody.
And then there are the things that shouldn’t be there, things that are jarring and incongruous. There’s a photo by Jason Orton of a wall that just appears in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by bracken and heathland. And you think, “Well, why is that there?” It’s just looming out of the mist.
Another of the themes is unquiet nature. This idea that nature isn’t always comforting, it can also be threatening. Going back to the Neo-romantics, people like Graham Sutherland, John Minton and John Craxton… they were influenced by Samuel Palmer’s “paradise on Earth” ideas from the 1830s, but they were working in the 1940s. So they might get called up to the army, they might be killed, they might be bombed…. there was a lot of unsettling angst around, and suddenly tree forms stopped looking beautiful. There’s an Edward Burra picture in the exhibition where all the twigs look like claws that might reach out and trap you.
Then there are ancient landscapes. Places like Stonehenge and Avebury are amazing places that have a real presence, and – despite all the archaeological work that has gone on over the last century – we still don’t really know what went on there. We talk about ritual spaces, but what were those rituals and who were they for? We can’t say. And I think that uncertainty is where storytelling and myths and legends creep in.
All these themes overlap, and the last one is just about atmosphere: how light, and the seasons, and even the time of day can make something seem eerie. So that’s how we’re looking at the countryside… and how it can feel… odd! [Laughs]
It’s interesting that you make the case about the post-war depictions of the countryside being very dark. I sometimes wonder if times of great national trauma bring out an interest in nature… but also, possibly, an interest in the eerie, especially the eerily pastoral. It seemed to happen after both World Wars, and also during the turbulent economic times of the 1970s. And possibly during the present era, too – with the whole Folk Horror Revival movement. Is there something in our national psyche that drives us towards the weird when we’re traumatised?
I think there must be, mustn’t there? Maybe we still feel like this misty, murky Northerly land that’s on the edge of civilisation. Do we still lean towards that? Before Roman times, the British Isles were seen as a land of giants, a very strange place. And they still are a strange place… you don’t have to scratch too deeply beneath the surface to find this stuff.
And obviously there’s anxiety around right now – we’re still going through a pandemic, we’ve got the climate crisis, and I think these things are reflected in our artwork. There’s a painting by Kurt Jackson in the exhibition called Joyce’s Pool, looking at the source of the River Avon, but it’s very dark. It’s almost monochrome, with a dark bank above the pool and trees above. It’s definitely eerie, and the point he’s making is that contemporary farming practice, with its pesticides and slurry, is killing these places. So the absence in that picture is life – it should have been teeming, and there’s nothing there.
I loved a phrase in your sponsor Stuart Southall’s introduction to the catalogue – “eerie is in the eye of the beholder”. Do we all have our own personal eerie, do you think?
I think we do. When I’ve taken tours around the exhibition, I’ve made the point that there’s no right or wrong to it. Someone might look at one of the pictures and find it really beautiful, someone else might find it really disturbing. I guess the point we’re trying to get across is: how much of that was actually intended by the artist? And how much of it depends on us and our interests, and the baggage we carry around from the places we’ve been to and the experiences we’ve had? We all look at things differently, and that’s the thing about art – it means something different to everyone who sees it.
And that’s absolutely fine. I think sometimes people are put off art galleries – they think they’re not clever enough to come in and look at it all. But we’re very much along the lines of “You can’t get it wrong. Just come in and make of it what you will”. And I think, if you talk to the artists, they’ll say the same.
I mean, we have tried to delve into what the artists were thinking. With the living artists, we’ve asked them about their work, and for those who are no longer with us we’ve tried to find out their situations at the time – what were they worrying about? What was going on in their lives? But absolutely, we all bring our own interpretations too. And that’s totally fine.
So are there pieces in the exhibition that you don’t think were actually intended to be disturbing, but have somehow become so?
I think so… I mean, there are some artists where you can say all their work has an eerie quality to it. Edward Burra’s biographer said his mission in life was to be unsettling! So all of his pictures are strange and macabre. He loved that. A lot of Paul Nash’s work has this strange, dreamlike quality, too – he was interested in surrealism. George Shaw, too – his work carries an atmosphere. So I think there are some artists where you can say, yes – their intention was to unsettle.
But there are others who I think were simply pursuing their own vision… and it just came out that way! There’s a Richard Eurich painting of a house in Wales, and you could just look at it as a landscape. It’s a house, on a hill, on a stormy day. But that house has got such a presence… it’s sinister, and it dominates everything around it. Then you’ve got F.L. Griggs, the etcher… his mission in life was to conjure up an England that doesn’t exist any more. He became a Catholic, and he regretted the reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries. He felt if none of that had happened, England would have been a better place. More devout, civilised and more architecturally beautiful. So he re-created what he would have liked it to be…
That’s a medieval lost future! Mark Fisher would be proud…
It’s pure hauntology! It’s out of his reach, but he can recreate it in his pictures. So, not surprisingly, there’s a melancholy air to his work… he was wanting this to be the reality, but the nearest thing he could do was to create beautiful etchings that got it across. So I don’t think he was trying to be eerie or scary… it’s just a longing for things that he couldn’t have.
I wanted to talk about George Shaw’s work actually, which I find stunning. The one that’s almost atypical of the exhibition – and yet it fits perfectly – is a piece called The Boys All Shout For Tomorrow. Which is suburban… it’s a street with a hole being dug in the road. But I’m fascinated by the way in which the new 1960s and ‘70’s housing estates couldn’t quite obliterate the eeriness attached to the landscapes that preceded them. When I was a kid, my Gran lived on a 1960s estate in Middlesbrough, and on the edge of that estate was a 17th century bridge with a folk story about the Devil attached to it. The tale being that, if you stood in the stream beneath it, you could see his hoofprint on the underside of the bridge. And all the kids on the estate knew that story. The folklore survived. And I see something of that in George’s work… it’s about the oddness bleeding through into an environment that should be new and modern and comforting, but… isn’t!
Yeah, I think you’re right – Robert Macfarlane makes the point that the eeriness is all still running under the surface, and it doesn’t take much to disturb it. A lot of M.R James’ work draws on that idea, too… it doesn’t take much to bring these things back to life. Or un-life! And yeah, The Boys All Shout For Tomorrow is the estate where George grew up, with that huge pile of rubble in the foreground. And it is slightly incongruous, because the idea was that the exhibition should all be about the countryside, but of course… you don’t have to go very far back to a point when these streets were the countryside. Another picture by George sits alongside that one in the exhibition, and it depicts the woodland very close to where he lived: this edgeland, overtaken by suburbanisation. Still there, but not like it used to be. It has an unsettling feel because it’s now somehow out of place.
He talks about places being haunted by people that aren’t there, but have recently been there. And they’ve left evidence: flytipping, or the remains of a fire. He seems to be haunted by that. So yeah, it was nice to include The Boys All Shout For Tomorrow. Something a little bit more urban. There’s a whole other urban eerie, isn’t there? Maybe that’s another exhibition for another day…
Can I ask about another couple of exhibits, please? Sarah Hannant’s damaged magic lantern pictures are very unsettling. Can you tell me a little bit about them?
We’ve worked with Sarah before, and she’s done some really interesting projects. She’s photographed artifacts from the Witchcraft Museum, and the photographs are really quite scary… let alone the artifacts themselves, the photos have a real aura around them! She also worked on our exhibition The Seasons last year, and she did a book called Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids. About all those rituals and traditions that are scattered around England: the hobby horses and the straw men. When I mentioned to Sarah that we were doing this exhibition, she’d already been working on the Magic Lantern pictures, those old glass slides… and they were a really good fit.
So she’s treated them, and they’ve degraded: the emulsion on the surface is bubbling up.
But they are genuine vintage slides?
Oh, yeah. There’s one called Recover, with a very pastoral look to it – there are trees and people, but it’s all blistered. The other one, Fissure, is a coastal scene with a rupture in the middle of a cliff. The surface of the photograph has just come away. And it looks like ectoplasm! Like an ectoplastic presence in the middle of everything. It immediately made me think of Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad… the part when the professor is fleeing across the dunes…
Absolutely! That makes for one of the most disturbing pieces of TV I’ve ever seen.
I mentioned that to Sarah, and she said she’d never read the story! So she went away and did that, and said it was bang on… isn’t that a funny thing? So yeah, there is something naturally eerie about old photographs, and she’s seized on that… and then helped them on their way a little to make them even more strange and distressed. She brings out that strangeness, and it’s really interesting and original work.
In a similar vein, there’s Jeremy Millar’s A Firework for W.G. Sebald. Even when you know exactly what you’re seeing – the smoke from a firework – it’s truly unsettling. It looks like a ghost in a field.
Again, it’s very M.R. James! The last picture looks like it might be Sebald’s face…
Jeremy was looking at two things, really. He was thinking about Sebald’s books about his travels though Suffolk, which make for very strange and eerie literature. But also about the Peter Greenaway film, Drowning By Numbers, in which the coroner sets off a firework whenever someone dies. So Jeremy did this for Sebald, in the place where he died. And yeah… there’s the sense of it being the ghost of W.G. Sebald, appearing somewhere on the A146! There’s something quite wonderful about that.
And I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I didn’t ask about the Ghost Box artwork in there. That must have been your suggestion, surely?
It was, yeah. I was comparatively late discovering Ghost Box… it must have been from a review somewhere, and Belbury Poly were the first act I discovered. Certainly I didn’t know about the label in the early days, when albums like The Willows were being released. I feel slightly deprived at having missed all that! But it strikes a chord, doesn’t it? From a visual point of view, the artwork conjures up a world. They see themselves as artists exploring a parallel reality… this half-remembered world, but all the references are there to make you think of the Radiophonic Workshop and Public Information Films and library music from that period. And it’s fun…
I think that aspect of Ghost Box often gets slightly overlooked. There’s a lot of playfulness and good humour.
I think particularly with Belbury Poly, there’s an element of humour that runs all the way through. And some of the music is really jolly! Although The Willows has some pretty disturbing stuff on it…
So I’ve been a fan for a little while, and I really wanted them to be involved with this. I got in touch with Jim Jupp, and he was really keen, and has been really helpful. He’s a lovely chap. So we were a bit spoiled for choice, really: what could we put in? In the end, there are three items in the catalogue: Chanctonbury Rings, As The Crow Flies – which is possibly my favourite Ghost Box album – and The Gone Away.
And I’ve discovered from your catalogue that it’s actually Jim’s hands on the front of As The Crow Flies. Every day’s a school day, isn’t it?
Exactly! And what he’s written in the catalogue is really nice – about how he and Julian House consult with the artists themselves to work out how the artwork should look. They think so carefully about the visual references, and you can tell the music and the artwork is so lovingly crafted.
And The Gone Away has the feel of the Cottingley Fairies photographs, so again it’s that idea of absence/presence… these beings that once were around, but have now gone. Or have they? We’ve got other Ghost Box posters, CDs and album sleeves in a case in the exhibition, too. The Owl’s Map and Peel Away The Ivy… things we think have a real eerie, pastoral feel.
It’s a great fit, it really is. That Chanctonbury Rings artwork… Justin Hopper says “If there is a thin place on my personal map, it’s Chactonbury, where a glimpse of another world peeks through”. And it’s a place with a reputation for being haunted, a place where witchcraft has been – and maybe still is – carried out. Coincidentally, Robert Macfarlane writes about going there in The Old Ways. He spent the night there… and then regretted it!
He was really spooked, wasn’t he?
Yes! He was woken in the middle of the night by a screaming sound coming from the tops of the trees, and it worked its way round to where he was sleeping. Quite terrifying! So there’s something about the place, and that piece of artwork really conjures it up. It looks intimidating and uninviting and dark.
Speaking of Robert, it must be great to have his regular collaborator Stanley Donwood involved with the exhibition, too?
Yeah, they’ve worked together on a couple of books – Holloway and Ness. I’d read both of those and thought they were really good, so it was just a case of agreeing with Robert and Stanley what we’d put in the exhibition. We’ve got one of the illustrations from Ness, showing these ex-military installations on Orford Ness – which is a very eerie strange place, full of Cold War relics. They were probably testing Weapons of Mass Destruction there! That, and one of the Holloway drawings, both appear in the catalogue. And then there are two drawings that Stanley did earlier this year… one of a lane in Ireland, called Dark Hedges. It’s possibly the most horrifying picture in the exhibition – the eerie is almost tipping over into something a bit more overt. It basically shows two car headlights shining down the lane. And he says that, when you turn the lights on, everything is supposed to get better… but actually sometimes they reveal things you’d rather not see! The trees crowd over the lane and hem you in… and you don’t want to go down there. What’s lurking in the darkness there? Beyond the light?
One of the nice things from my point of view is working with all these people. Stanley came down the other week to see the exhibition, and he loved it. He said he was really honoured to be rubbing shoulders with Paul Nash and John Piper and Graham Sutherland. And George Shaw, too – he’s a fan of George’s. And I said we were really honoured to have him here! Stanley is someone I’ve known about since The Bends came out, so it’s nice when these things converge. Some of the work he’s done for Radiohead is really unsettling, too. But he and George Shaw and both really nice, down-to-earth people and they’ve always got interesting things to say – they’re both quite cheeky chappies and it’s a real pleasure to be working with them.
And one final one… as North-Easterner, almost all my experiences of eerie landscapes are tied to the North York Moors, where I still go walking pretty much every week. And looking at Near Whitby, the painting by Edward Burra… yep! That’s exactly what it’s like.
He nailed it, then? Yeah, towards the end of his life, Edward Burra would get his sister to drive him to different places. He’d had health problems for most of his life, so he never had that much energy and was often in pain. Art was his escape. Hence, maybe, the macabre edge that’s in all of his work. And for his later watercolours, from the last few years of his life, she’d just drive him to a lay-by at the side of the road and they’d park up while he simply sat and looked. He never took a sketchbook, he’d just absorb what he saw. Then he’d start painting from scratch in the studio, based on his memories. And maybe that’s a good way of really capturing the character of a place, and not getting bogged down in topography. I don’t know the North York Moors as well as you do, but they seem a really intimidating place…
It can be very bleak and empty up there. It’s like Mordor! But I love that. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s the haunted heath, isn’t it? Where Grendel is lurking… Rob Macfarlane makes the point that there are waymakers going down the side of the road in Near Whitby, and they look like tombstones. And you can see sunlight illuminating the valleys and fields beyond, but it somehow doesn’t lighten things. It’s nature untamed – a wildness that is still wild.
I’m from Dorset, so I think of Thomas Hardy and Egdon Heath. And for Hardy, heathland was ambivalent. It didn’t matter what human dramas were taking place, it just endured. It was there and it always would be there… it didn’t matter what all these little people scurrying around were worrying about. The heath was just watchful. An intimidating blankness…
Unsettling Landscapes: The Art of the Eerie runs at St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery in Hampshire until 8th January 2022. For more information (and to order the catalogue) visit:
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