BOOK REVIEW / Views of the short cut through the hedge: 'Towards a New Landscape': Bernard Jacobson, 17.95 pounds

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IT IS probably one of art's failings that we tend to use the word 'picturesque' as a term of abuse. If we invoke it with reference to the English countryside, we are hoping to indicate that we know what a cliche is, thank you very much, and we're too smart to be hoodwinked by a pretty picture. Thatched cottages with honeysuckle twining over the door and pink roses tumbling over the roof; grand panoramas over handsome parkland, all mature oaks and soft lakes and temples - these have become so familiar as icons of pastoral bliss that our suspicious modern hackles rise whenever we see them.

This feeling has some of its roots in a proper historical critique of the bitter toil and hardship that is airbrushed out of these harmonious scenes. But it also owes something to a more trivial, metropolitan snobbery about rural life. The essence of contemporary experience, we often suppose, is urban. Modernity is a matter of rush and noise and crowded, hi-tech sex lives, so cities are where it's at: the countryside is just a placid retreat where people from Hampstead have their weekend cottages, with a few bucolic sound effects - sheep, bird-song - thrown in to make it seem real. The most intense and highly charged images of Englishness are those exploited by the poets of the First World War, and nothing could have been more natural, in blood-soaked Flanders, than to imagine an idealised, honey-still-for-tea England of sunny afternoons and nodding daffodils.

But these nostalgic visions were a fantasy even then, and the myth of our benign landscape as a basis for national pride has, like all our national myths, taken a bruising in recent times. Nevertheless, it will be sad if this one turns out to be on its last legs, because the English landscape has been by far the most powerful source of creative inspiration for our artists.

The muse doesn't live in town; her home is a cave, a mountain ledge or a waterfall. Many of the giants of the English novel - Austen, the Brontes, Hardy, Lawrence - grounded their work in rural life; most of our top poets - Marvell, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Tennyson - explored green thoughts; and our most celebrated painters - Gainsborough, Constable, Turner, Samuel Palmer - have painted what we would now call 'views'. Even in recent times some of the finest flowers of our literature have a rustic theme. The Enigma of Arrival by V S Naipaul is a meticulous, beady- eyed contemplation of Wiltshire downs, which the author sifts and sifts again in search of solid nuggets of Englishness.

Towards a New Landscape, a smart book produced by the Bernard Jacobson gallery, is a patchy but appealing set of eight essays devoted to the examination of what landscape could or should mean today. Painting has for years been busy surrendering ground to photography, so it is surprising that the role of the camera is not discussed. If it had been, someone could have pointed out that photography blithely skates over the political anxiety of the landscape painter - the troubling sense that there is something not quite right about the one - day - my - son - all - this - will-be-yours point of view implied by the view over countryside from the top of a hill. In the volume's most striking essay, Richard Mabey declares that the decline of the panorama is welcome if it encourages artists to come down off that hill and look at the landscape close up:

'The view from the hill, so apparently all-including on the surface, has always been the most limited when it comes to meaning. It is appropriative, generalised, and reduces humans to mere inanimate props. It is the kind of viewpoint that missed the change of old flowery pastures to chemical- drenched leys, and ancient wood to plantation; that tempts the viewer to look for order rather than liveliness; that neither spots nor cares about the short cut through the hedge.'

Mabey is also quick to notice that almost everything about the English landscape is contrived. Several of his co-contributors cite Thomas Hardy's description of Egdon Heath ('Ever since the beginning of vegetation its soil had worn the same antique brown dress'), to accompany some soppy ideas about the primordial, eternal flavour of the land, and so on. Mabey smiles a rueful smile over this, and points out that heathland, which is only produced by regular cropping, would be forest if it had any choice in the matter.

This notion of the landscape as an aspect of human architecture is taken up by Paul Barker in the book's other outstanding contribution. A discussion of Salle church in Norfolk - 'a sudden vertical insert into the horizontals of East Anglia' - opens into a sturdy and spacious portrait of the various human inscriptions in the natural world. 'No English landscape can be understood without considering its history of ownership and use,' he writes; and his account of our countryside's monumental language - the rotten mill chimneys, the old mining shacks, the modern pylons and triangulation points - is alert and full of neat ironies. Deserted tin mines are loaded with splendid evocative associations to us these days, now that they are ruins; but we are quick to edit out the telegraph poles and grain silos.

These are the high points of a book that contains, in truth, a few low ones (perhaps proving, contrary to the argument of the book, that there is still some value in climbing above the ruck of things and taking the long view.) Bernard Jacobson's introduction is short, but not short enough. He still has room for some laughably pretentious rhetorical questions: 'There are those who say, who is Cezanne? And there are those who say, so what about Cezanne anyway?' Margaret Drabble's essay on literature concentrates, for some reason, on the idea that the English love the countryside more than their mistresses - as if the love of the land were strictly a masculine preoccupation. And several of the art critics in the book are overly preoccupied with semantic quibbles suggested by the word 'landscape' - 'landscape does not exist; it can only be perceived' - which sound deep but are terribly obvious to everyone.

Whether the paintings in the book follow Mabey's directions to the short cut through the hedge is another question. With the exception of Ivon Hitchens, who would lie on the ground staring at puddles, the painters represented seem simply to be retreating another notch towards abstraction. The result is unruly smears, such as John Virtue's Landscape No 178, which looks like the blotting paper of an angry letter writer, Ben Nicholson's schematic pastels, or William Tillyer's showy swirls. Landscape is obliging, open to almost anything we wish to project on to it. And artists are as free to pour in what they think as they have ever been. But parts of this anthology seem designed to inspire nothing more exhausting than further conversations with art history, nothing more inspiring than illustrated captions.