The portrayal by artists of some of Britain's most famous landscapes not only reflected their beauty but influenced the way successive generations viewed the countryside, a new exhibition will reveal.
An exhibition at Tate Britain with an accompanying television series, announced yesterday,will explore how three centuries of artists from Thomas Gainsborough to Barbara Hepworth captured enduring images of the country and had a far-reaching impact on their audience.
It will look at six regions of Britain through the eyes of major artists, as well as a few minor ones such as Edwin Butler Bayliss, whose work was previously unknown to Tate curators but was discovered by BBC researchers in the basement of a Wolverhampton art gallery while preparing the series.
The exhibition, A Picture of Britain, will include a total of 250 works and feature ceramics, posters and sculptures alongside oil paintings and watercolours by artists as diverse as J M W Turner and Gilbert and George.
David Dimbleby will present a television series of the same name on BBC1 in which he will visit the inspirational landscapes and explore how artists influenced British ideas of beauty and rural life. It will show, for instance, that it was only when 18th-century painters decided that the Lake District was beautiful that the general public overcame its long-standing aversion to what was seen as an evil wilderness and began to visit the area.
Thatched cottages and ruined follies were not always viewed as signs of a rural idyll until artists beguiled the public into believing they were. The gardens of the Stourhead estate in Wiltshire, for instance, were landscaped to reflect the work of Claude Lorrain, a French painter.The BBC was involved in planning the project from the beginning, in the first collaboration of its kind.
Despite some initial misgivings by the experts, Richard Humphreys, the Tate's curator, said that the result was a much better exhibition than the gallery might have achieved on its own because of the resources the BBC was able to bring to the project. "Normally the Tate would have been more boring and historical about it," he said.
The framework of six regions, which will each have a gallery and a television programme devoted to it, is used to explore subjects such as nationhood, industrialisation and the romantic yearning that arose alongside the process of industrialisation. Mr Humphreys said that the show would be very much an exhibition of rural rather than urban Britain: the "Romantic North" will highlight Britain's "discovery" of nature through the writing of Wordsworth and the paintings of Turner. However, Britain's industrial landscape as captured by Joseph Wright of Derby and others would be included, he said.
David Dimbleby said the Tate curators and exhibition were the "bedrock" on which the television series was based. "The idea is if you watch the film, you will be excited by it. There will be echoes from the films that will make what you see on the walls [of the galleries] all the more interesting and pertinent."
The exhibition will run at Tate Britain from 16 June to 4 September and the television series will be broadcast at about the same time.