Our bodies and minds are not of recent origin. They are the direct consequence of millions of years of surviving, and evolving, in landscapes and in climates different to present-day England. The preferences of our distant ancestors, and their ways of looking at life, still condition many of the decisions that we, and our most recent relatives, make1.
The Industrial Revolution created many very wealthy, self-made men who had fortunes to spend on whatever their dreams might hold. Almost to a man, they created the most enormous, often impressive and always costly ‘stately homes’ about as far away as they could possibly get from the smoke and grime that had created their wealth. This English love affair with the countryside is curious, and became ever more so as still more railway barons and mill owners found the fortunes to turn even Scotland into a land of artificial gothic castles. The English countryside is beautiful, often voluptuous, and strangely seductive. Retiring Roman centurions certainly thought so as they built their villas in the Cotswolds; Norman barons thought the same as they erected their hunting lodges, and so too did the Tudor merchants as they built their spacious houses. It was the landscape architect, Capability Brown2, who was to show off the magnificence of these stately homes by creating around them extensive parklands, each having an uncanny resemblance to a tamed version of the African savannah. Which, in the light of recent research on the human brain, is especially curious.
Recently psychologists have carried out experiments on children and adults in different cultures to discover which environments they innately prefer: deciduous forests, mountainside, coastlines, savannah, prairie, rainforest or snowfields. The results are interesting. Amongst children below the age of eight there is an almost universal preference for the savannah, a landscape of rolling grassland, scattered tree cover, open vistas, and streams. A place in which you feel safe, where you sense you have all you need for survival. As people get older their choices become partially shaped by where they have actually lived. Older still and their preference reverts to the savannah3. In designing his country parks in this way Capability Brown was appealing to a subconscious identification of the cues that make people feel good. Mill owners and railway speculators, who knew all about the grimiest aspects of life, nevertheless knew exactly to where it was they wished to escape4. Most of them had more money to spare on their ‘dream’ than do today’s stock brokers, celebrities, investment bankers, venture capitalists or pool winners, who have to content themselves with a manageable farm on the edge of a village where they can breed horses, plant trees and, ideally, hunt pheasant, fox and hare. Parliamentary debate about fox hunting in 2005 told us much about the image of Englishness held deep in the subconscious5. It seems that the predispositions we have inherited from our hunter/gatherer past keep on coming back to shape the thinking of the most rational twenty-first century minds.
In the summer of 2005 the English were invited to vote for their favourite painting and eventually selected Turner’s6 “The Fighting Temeraire”7 painted as she was being towed to the breakers yard at Rotherhyde in 1838. The graceful beauty and dignity of this veteran of many battles, a ship that had fought alongside HMS victory8 at the battle of Trafalgar in 1815, contrasts with the cheeky impertinence of the ugly little tugboat, all framed within the context of one of Turner’s finest sunsets. The Temeraire came from an ancient tradition of shipbuilding. Several hundred men, many of them sons and grandsons of men who had built ships before on those same slipways, had laboured for three years to create not only one of the most powerful warships the world had ever seen, but a ship the shape and design of which ‘matched’ the elements of water and wind in every conceivable way. Every person involved in such construction was a craftsman, from the men who sought out appropriate oak to make the ‘knees’ which would strengthen her hull, to the master ship builder whose knowledge of water flow and structural form had been passed down from craftsmen to apprentice over many generations.9
These ships reflected a perfect understanding of how to deal with all the tensions of maritime life. In the imminent breaking up of the Temeraire Turner gave visual substance to the passing of that tradition so obviously subservient, only two generations on, to the new industrial society as represented by the functional, dirty steel tugboat10. It seemed that the England of 2005, in chasing this art yearned for a way of life that had more intrinsic meaning to it than the material affluence that enabled many people to hang cheap replicas of Turner’s paintings in their homes, but denied to most people a job as full of meaning and significance as that of either the shipbuilders, or of Turner himself.
Thesis 37: 24th August 2006