The London to Chichester train passes through water meadows, with the slopes of the South Downs rising in the near distance. It’s a profoundly English landscape. There are views of the English Channel from the rolling hilltops. Plentiful flints embedded in the chalky soil. Castles and hill forts linking the visitor back into the deep past. And it is, not entirely coincidentally, exactly the landscape explored in the exhibition I’m about to see.
Sussex divides people. It is without doubt one of Britain’s most “beautiful” counties, providing views of land and sea that have been “aestheticized and romanticised” (as this exhibition puts it) in art and literature to the extent we feel they “belong” to all of us. Sussex also represents southern England at its most affluent and, many would say, complacent; a place so snootily divisive it managed to conceive of itself as more and less desirable halves – the west and east respectively – as early as the 12th century.
These are, of course, only ideas about Sussex, a place whose reality lies at least as much in the scuzzier sides of Brighton and Hastings as it does in chi-chi bucolic villages. But as this exhibition on artists’ responses to Sussex makes clear, art, by its very nature, deals as much in ideas about places as their actuality.
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