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Recording Britain

Kenneth Rowntree, Grainfoot Farm, Derwentdale, Derbyshire, 1940 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Thursday 3 April 2014 - Sunday 2 November 2014

In the winter of 1939 an extraordinary art project was begun. Beneath the spectres of invasion and aerial bombing, the Scheme for Recording the Changing Face of Britain rapidly commissioned artists to paint ‘places and buildings of characteristic national interest’. The resulting collection of over 1500 paintings created a remarkable, yet highly selective, snapshot of a fast-changing country. Now held by the V&A, highlights from the Recording Britain collection will tour to Sheffield in 2014.

Recording Britain features many beautiful watercolours by prolific artists such as John Piper and Kenneth Rowntree, along with a host of lesser-known and even largely unknown contributors. Yet the story of the project is as fascinating for its politics as its artistic output. Why was the focus so often rural?  Why was watercolour chosen as the medium instead of photography? Recording Britain was rooted in an idealised, pastoral vision of the country felt to be threatened not just by war but by creeping commercial forces. In the words of critic Herbert Read:

‘There will be little point in saving England from the Nazis if we then deliver it to the jerry-builders and ‘development corporations’

By focussing on quiet corners and local scenes Recording Britain takes us off the beaten track of iconic British landmarks and postcard images. As a vivid account of local and regional identity and an exploration of the sense of place, Recording Britain has found echoes in the work of many artists and photographers from the 1940s to the present day. In addition to works from the original collection, the exhibition will feature a host of contemporary works which exemplify the ambitions of Recording Britain, including paintings and photographs by Conrad Atkinson, Richard Long, David Nash, Laura Oldfield Ford, Keith Arnatt, Ingrid Pollard, and more.

Exhibition organised by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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