Recording Britain features a remarkable collection of work depicting the changing face of Britain during the Second World War. Between 1939 and 1943 the Recording Britain scheme commissioned more than 90 artists to make inspiring pictures which would be ‘sympathetic records’ of vulnerable buildings, landscapes and lifestyles. By the time it ended the collection comprised over 1500 pictures, representing almost every English county, and much of Wales. The name ‘Recording Britain’ is somewhat misleading as no scenes were recorded from Northern Ireland and Scotland was covered under a separate scheme!
The exhibition includes a selection of over 70 paintings from the original scheme, from prolific artists such as John Piper and Michael Rothenstein, along with a host of lesser-known contributors. Watercolours were particularly favoured by the Recording Britain committee, and dominate the selection, representing a revival of traditional techniques falling into decline in the 20th century.
The scheme deliberately focussed on the unassuming and everyday landscapes often overlooked both by artists and the public at large. There are no paintings of famous buildings or dramatic beauty spots – instead they capture the quiet corners and local scenes which give the British landscape its essential character. From gently rolling countryside to crumbling rural architecture they record the landscape in slow quiet decline, under threat from bombing and invasion alongside the equally transformative effects of progress and development.
Many scenes were painted in Derbyshire, including the works of Richard Seddon depicting Norton and the Porter Valley, now both firmly within the Sheffield city boundary. Two works by Seddon feature in the show – these were added to the exhibition by special request due to their local relevance. Others works capture scenes from the Peak District, including Karl Hagedorn’s view of Bakewell and a series of paintings by Kenneth Rowntree, who was commissioned to paint scenes (14 in total) around the villages of Ashopton and Derwent. These villages were set to be submerged by the new Ladybower Reservoir; the white boards marking the high water line are clearly visible in Rowntree’s paintings. The exhibition features three works from this series, plus a new film made by Museums Sheffield exploring the story of the submerged villages and showing more of Rowntree’s works.
As well as art from the 1930s and 40s the exhibition features a host of later 20th century and contemporary work which exemplifies the ambitions of Recording Britain, including paintings and photographs by Conrad Atkinson, Tony Ray-Jones, Richard Long, David Nash, Laura Oldfield Ford, Keith Arnat and Ingrid Pollard. These works explore questions of local and regional identity and sense of place, and the relationship British people have with their own landscape.
All of the works from the V&A date from the 20th century and we felt it was important to set the exhibition in the wider context of the English landscape watercolour tradition. A small selection of works from Sheffield’s Visual Art collection explores this tradition from the 1700s through to the 20th century, including examples from Paul Sandby, J.M.W. Turner, Eric Ravilious and Paul Nash.
We were fortunate to be able to work with Sheffield-based agency Llama Digital to create a new mobile phone app to support the exhibition content. Video and audio content including British Pathé footage and poetry by John Betjeman will be delivered to iPhones (an Android version is in development) as visitors walk around the exhibition. This is very much a pilot of new wireless technology and we hope that in the future we can use this technique to deliver all kinds of additional content for both temporary and permanent displays.
Recording Britain is showing at the Millennium Gallery from Thursday until 2 November 2014 – entry to the exhibition is free.
Top - Kenneth Rowntree, Grainfoot Farm, Derwentdale, Derbyshire, 1940 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Middle - John Piper, The Tithe Barn, Great Coxwell, Berkshire (detail), 1940 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Bottom - Tony Ray-Jones, Glyndebourne, 1967 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
May 02 2014