Our Isles x Forest + Found
Idylls of the Field
Photograph by Angus D. Birditt
Idylls of the Field is an exhibition by Forest + Found, the renowned artist duo, held in the Lemon Street Gallery in Cornwall. Forest + Found exhibited a number of works at the gallery exploring the concept of the rural idyll. The following essay was written by Angus D. Birditt and exhibited alongside the works, also looking at what we perceive as the rural idyll.
“My field is framed with oak and ash, and a copper sun. Its foreground is still; filled with cracking wheat and embroidered with jewels of cornflower and poppy. The air is perfectly warm; heavy with a sweet smell of hay and carrying the rapid clicks of swallow chatter. There is a lane, narrow and gravelled, bending in from the east and cooled by the dense crown of a walnut tree. Shorthorns slowly amble its course to new pastures that I wish to see."
The origins of the rural idyll are as rich as they are abstract. From politicians to peasants, farmers and artists, this collective image of the rural idyll has been wielded throughout time as an instrument to conjure power, hope, beauty and loss – sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. As illustrated when Poet John Clare wrote of his rural idyll being lost before his eyes – and with it his access to roam – in the wake of the Enclosure Acts.
Taking the title of the late 19th Century book by Francis A. Knight, Idylls of the Field is an exhibition of new works by artist duo, Forest + Found, set in the heart of Withiel, a small and ancient settlement in rural Cornwall. The original book is an intimate observation of nature, in which Knight describes in immersive detail the birds and fields that surround him. This lyrical document of the British Isles written in the century that followed the Industrial Revolution, was the catalyst for both artists, Max Bainbridge & Abigail Booth, to question the poetic veneer Knight so vividly describes and to dig deeper into the realities of the rural environment that are so often masked behind the romanticised ‘idylls’ of nature.
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
- The Mores, John Clare, 1820
Photograph by Forest + Found
As much as this complex and contested construct of the idyll is embedded in our sense of collective identity, it is also wholly personal. It is this deep personal connection, between the viewer’s own experiences, memories and intimacies of the changing rural landscape, reflected in the tactile nature of their works, which Booth and Bainbridge invite us to delve into, in an alternative interpretation of ‘Idylls of the Field’ as it resonates today.
Bainbridge’s sculptures embrace using nature as their sole material, making use of fallen trees in their entirety. Each of his works reflecting living entities found in the natural environment - a voice of nature, symbolising its strengths, complexities and fragilities. His turned vessels titled Land Jars, a series of which sit low to the ground echoing the circumference of a fallen tree, aim to question the viewers’ existing ways of looking at nature, challenging the perception of the tree as a lone figure, and reframing it as a living complex being, part of a connected web of many others. Meanwhile, a freestanding sculpture titled Twisted Hollow brings the viewer directly into confrontation with the stripped back body of a maple tree whose life was cut short to make way for the picture-perfect rural view.
Photographs by Forest + Found
Booth’s works on the other hand are made from reclaimed domestic textiles dyed and painted with pigments unearthed from the soil beneath our feet and extracted from the trees and plants that line our hedgerows. Patched and sewn together to create a tangible connection to the intimacy of their imagined past lives, her works respond to the tranquillity and autonomy that is often associated with the rural idyll, yet they allude to something darker taking place beneath the surface.
With titles such as Trespass, Hollow Land and Ghost Wood, they reference traditional West Country quilts in composition, presenting a series of borders, that at their heart, each hold a relic of the rural idyll observed directly from nature – a miniature oil painting of a bucolic landscape, a carved branch of apple wood and a pocketed curiosity in stone. These visual ‘enclosures’ echo across the gallery space evoking a very different reality, one that represents the true boundaries and lack of freedom to roam in the rural environment.
The conversation between both artists’ works as they meander through the gallery space come together to challenge the viewer’s perspective on the true realities of our contemporary rural environment; with the intensity of hand stitching closing in around the centred rural idyll in Booth’s works, and the dark scarring evident in one of Bainbridge’s vessels produced from the presence of barbed wire engulfed by a tree that once straddled an invisible boundary, promotes an urgent need to respond to the rural landscape’s impending demise.
Photographs by Forest + Found
We may think the rural idyll is an enduring scene of big trees, patchwork fields, black and white cows and a sky full of birdsong. But if truth be told, much of that scene is an already thin veneer on the impending realities and stark fragilities of rural life. Ash trees are falling in increasing numbers due to ash dieback, with several salvaged and sculpted by Bainbridge into works for this exhibition. Many of these patchwork fields reflected in Booth’s quilted canvases are now infertile, farmed too conventionally using a cocktail of chemicals on the land, fuelling a devastating loss of biodiversity. However, things are changing.
The rural idyll has indeed historically formed an idyllic representation of the natural environment, disguising its true and often fraught realities with its innate beauty. To the eyes of the persuaded, the rural sphere is one of mystery and nostalgia, whose social and technological developments are charmingly unhurried.
Yet, as Bainbridge and Booth would have us reflect upon - in reality the rural entity is indefinable, at times, unforgiving, and has arguably fed and progressed its urban counterpart. Yet more presently, it holds the key for our collective survival through regeneration and increased biodiversity, as we strengthen our connection and respect for nature in a collaborative movement to improve and rejuvenate the land.
Idylls of the Field
Essay by Angus D. Birditt | @ourisles
Photographs by Forest + Found | @forestandfound