For a moment it was like a
scene from a very strange dream.|
An attractive young woman peers
down at the small herd of Red Ruby cattle - beyond, landscapes of Devon,
Cornwall and Cumbria rear heavenwards in a series of boundless
A painted Tamar reflects a painted sun, not far away an oil
colour Stonehenge is blackened by clouds and, beyond again, a calf that
has been split in two - a real calf, once of living flesh and blood -
looks forlorn and hopelessly, irrecoverably, dead.
Most spooky of
all, the glass cases that house the two, formaldehyde-pickled, bovine
halves, reflect some far more sinister creatures that seem to move
endlessly in some other, alien, world.
They are harmless video
images - they are the hugely magnified microbes of foot and mouth
Amidst all the wonderful, gorgeous, romantic vistas of the
British countryside - right there in the centre of Love, Labour and Loss
celebration of the pastoral - are the very cells that nearly dealt a death
blow to the British countryside a year ago.
Just seeing them moving
about on a screen is enough for Leila Winslade. The images send shivers
down her spine.
I had taken the farmer's daughter to catch a sneak
preview of the exhibition at Exeter's Royal Albert Memorial
WMN readers may remember that Leila's father Les - a beef
farmer from Knowstone in central Devon - lost his entire herd in last
year's onslaught of the dreaded disease.
Leila later penned two
moving and impassioned essays for this newspaper - and so we thought it
only right that she should be the first to visit the exhibition that we
helped to sponsor.
Her thoughts are recorded in the panel on page
three, but - as the WMN's roving feature writer covering the peninsula
from end to end - I was interested to see how the exhibition would
"celebrate the countryside in art".
Our tour began in what could be
called the No Harsh Realities Zone. Which is a pretty good place to begin
and end any tour of the British countryside - especially if you are an
urban-dweller or a politician. Except of course, it's not for
"We've painted this gallery a sophisticated red," we were
told by exhibition curator Clive Adams. "The sort of colour a rich
landowner may have chosen a couple of hundred years ago."
landowners were good on fantasy. No harsh realities for them.
great parklands kept away the riff-raff while, indoors, painters knocked
up gorgeous landscapes in which handsome shepherd boys whiled away lazy
hours piping flutes and gazing hopefully at nubile girls of the generously
"'Staffage' - that's what we call them," mused
Clive. "The shepherds I mean - leaning about on their staffs. It is all
part of the fantasy of the pastoral."
Like today's city-dwellers
and the old-fashioned toffs, I like the fantasy of the pastoral. It is
where I want to go when I die. I could happily gaze at the works by Claude
Lorrain and others for hours. Turner and Constable were at it too - the
former's Sunshine on the Tamar is an exquisite study of the region's
Ford Madox Brown went a wee bit too far with his
Pretty Baa-Lambs. It's not so much the postcard-blue sky, but the cloying
stand-offishness of the lovely lady showing her daughter the
Another old-fashioned fantasy in the countryside was the
size of your bullocks. I beg your pardon - I hear you say. It's true - the
rich landowners of yesteryear were mono-minded when it came to the size of
their livestock. That's why you get those extraordinary paintings of bulls
that are so rotund and gigantic, they look like someone has applied a
bicycle pump to one of their orifices. Several of these huge misshapen
creatures hang in the second gallery at the exhibition, which is where
we're introduced to the business side of farming.
"Look at that
portrait of the Collins brothers," laughed Clive. "They used to breed
these giant cattle - look at them - all guts and gaiters."
blown-up cattle were obviously painted with much artistic licence - unlike
the wonderfully real bovine models which were made of plaster some 200
years ago. They belong to the Natural History Museum and have hardly ever
been exhibited before, which is a shame as they are superb.
far end of the agriculture-as-business section there's a small painting by
William Collins called The Sale Of The Pet Lamb. It's a bit of a
tear-jerker, as the kid in the scene beseeches an adult to rescue his
It gets worse. There's a of scene of horrendous cruelty taking
place in a London butcher's shop - brought to us by the first cartoonist,
William Hogarth. At this end of the exhibition we're getting the message
that the pastoral idyll is there - not to look pretty, but for a reason -
to fill our larder.
And so lastly in the third galley we are
introduced to the modern countryside. The pre- and the post-war pantry of
rolling acres and sun-filled scenes.
"The vision of the countryside
as a idyll was still perpetuated, but it was a myth," mused Clive Adams.
"After the 1947 Agricultural Act, the rot set in."
cheerful picture of sheep being sheared by smiling folk is the last of the
After that we are into photography and messages of
meaning; we are engaged by microbes and calves split in two.
Montag's video screen depicting foot and mouth viruses attacking animal
cells is hardly a cheerful metaphor for our beloved countryside, but it
is, alas, a real one. As for Damien Hirst's Prodigal Son (calf in
formaldehyde) - well, it's shocking but I agree with Clive: "It is
beautiful. The way an animal works. It's close to the way we work when you
think about it. Quite beautiful."
Close all right. Too close to
home, perhaps. But then, that's the point of this exhibition - it is close
Especially for those of us lucky enough to live in, or
near, the countryside.
Love, Labour and Loss is at the Royal Albert
Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter from Saturday until January