09:00 - 04 October 2002 
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 vistas.

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 disease.

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 museum.

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 real.

"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."

Rich landowners were good on fantasy. No harsh realities for them.

Their 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 apportioned variety.

"'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 grandest river.

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 lambs.

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."

The 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.

At the 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 pet.

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."

John Gilroy's cheerful picture of sheep being sheared by smiling folk is the last of the heavenly scenes.

After that we are into photography and messages of meaning; we are engaged by microbes and calves split in two.

Baro 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 to home.

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 4.