Jan 11 2011
Fay Godwin is very much a writer’s photographer, in more senses than one. Poets and novelists are drawn to her work, and she worked closely with several. She is remembered now as a landscape photographer – a career celebrated in a new exhibition of her work, Land Revisited, at the National Media Museum in Bradford – but her connections with writers go back a long way, to the days when she was the wife of the influential and dynamic bookseller-turned-publisher, Tony Godwin. They married in 1961, and I met them both in the 1960s when Tony was publishing my work, first with Penguin and then with Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
They were a memorable couple – small, slight, wiry, somewhat elfin, and charged with energy. In those early years Fay took some remarkable portraits of authors, including John Fowles, Angela Carter and Ted Hughes, but she was later to say that had she not been a young mother with two small children she would have preferred an adventurous life of photojournalism to bread-and-butter commercial portraiture. Domestic responsibilities and conflicts constrained her, as they did so many women of that period, and she appeared to adapt to her role. But her life was to change dramatically. In 1969, her marriage broke up very suddenly, and in 1973 Tony, equally abruptly and unexpectedly, departed to work in New York, where he died three years later of asthma-related heart failure at the age of 56.
Fay was now on her own, and able to develop and explore a new dimension of her art. From an urban life as a 60s north London wife, mother and hostess, she set out on a long journey into the wilder landscapes of Britain, sometimes in company, sometimes alone, often on foot, and built up over time a body of work that reflects a deep sense of place and the poetry of place. In 1970 she met Ted Hughes, with whom she formed a creative partnership which was to result in his lament for the Calder Valley, Remains of Elmet (1979). Perhaps the best known of her collaborations, this volume was very much poem-led. She responded strongly to his vision of the ruined mills, the “melting corpses of farms”, the Satanic majesty, the sluttish subsidy sheep, the black chimneys, the cemeteries, the millstone grit, the willow herb. It was through Hughes, she said, that she got to know England.
Her roots were not English. She was born in Berlin, the daughter of a British diplomat father and an American artist mother of Scottish ancestry, and her childhood was peripatetic. She had learned to enjoy walking as a girl in Austria, and joined the Ramblers’ Association in England in the mid-1950s (she was to become its president in 1987). Liberated by divorce from some of her domestic and social duties, and with growing children, she now began to walk again more seriously, discovering the history of Britain, its prehistoric megaliths, its Roman and medieval roads, its field systems, its crofts and kilns. She developed a keen sense of space and topography, patiently waiting for the light or the sky to respond to her needs, learning to battle for permissions to enter forbidden or forbidding terrain. There is a deep loneliness in some of her images, a sense of desolation, some of which may well have been acquired during her apprenticeship with Hughes. She turned away from portrait photography with a vengeance.
There are no people in most of her landscapes (and none in this exhibition), only the traces of people, the remains of people. She documented ancient trades – the drovers’ roads, the whisky roads of Scotland, the oil riggers of Shetland, the shepherds of the Lake District – but her landscapes are marked by emptiness. Simon Armitage commented that her portraits of sheep-farmers bear witness to a sense of “collective good” and “commonwealth”, but this sense of the human is unusual in her work.
One of her early major collaborative publications was Islands, a portrait of the Scillies with a text by John Fowles, published in 1978. Fowles had been much impressed by her 1975 work (with JRL Anderson) on the Ridgeway, and his long essay rambles quirkily and knowledgeably through the history and mythology of the islands, giving the highest of praise to Godwin’s art, diligence and physical endurance: “British photography has not had a more poetic interpreter of ancient landscape, of its lights and moods and forms, for many years.” This volume, unlike the Hughes collaboration, is image-led: Fowles as author extemporises on the images Godwin brought to him, while admiring from a distance her “formidable walks in pursuit of remote subjects”.
This was a period in which topographical work was beginning to enjoy a new vogue, foreshadowing the environmentally aware “nature writing” of the last decades by authors such as Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin. Richard Long was creating walking sculptures and earth sculptures, and Andy Goldsworthy was beginning to try his hand at working in ice, stone, river and leaf. WG Hoskins’s landmark The Making of the English Landscape, first published in 1955, reached a much larger audience in 1976-8 through his television documentaries. Topography was part of the zeitgeist.
The subject of my own landscape book, A Writer’s Britain, first published in 1979, was suggested to me by the distinguished Polish-born photographer Jorge Lewinski, who had independently been taking photographs of writers’ houses – Abbotsford, Knole, Haworth – and needed some extended captions and text to go with them. I happily agreed, but soon found that the houses in themselves were not nearly as interesting to me as the landscapes that had formed the imaginations of poets and novelists – Egdon Heath, Gordale Scar, Tintern Abbey, the Potteries – and I found myself writing what was in effect a history of the way writers have shaped our vision of the land. Lewinski went along with this change of direction. He did the driving and saw the places, while I, more house and family bound, sat at home and read the books.
Godwin also worked on text and author-led publications, notably on a 1983 volume called The Saxon Shoreway which follows the indefatigable and map-loving Alan Sillitoe as he takes a nine-day walk munching on rye bread and Polish sausage round the Kent shore from Gravesend to Rye. Some of these images are to be seen in Bradford now.
Godwin pursued her own pathways, building up an international reputation for her art and her polemics. She was much helped by the freedom bestowed by a major Arts Council bursary awarded in 1978. The images in her 1985 exhibition and the accompanying book, Land, were largely the result of this public encouragement and support, and many of these appear in the Bradford retrospective. She was able to travel to the Scottish Isles and to Sutherland, the land of her mother’s ancestors, and her photographs of lochs and glens and standing stones with solitary sheep are hauntingly memorable.
They have a Wordsworthian timelessness, a sense of the Wordsworthian sublime. Her imagination, like his, was attracted by the barren, the grand and the bleak. These archetypal landscapes are probably the most enduring tributes to her great talent, and they are enduring in every sense – she catches the spirits of places that have been worn and weathered, deserted and abandoned, and yet still speak to us.
Godwin also benefited, in 1987, from a fellowship in Bradford, at what was then known as the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television. This connection seems to have sent her work in a slightly different direction, away from the remoteness of wilderness and towards urban and suburban landscape and post-industrial dereliction – subjects which had long preoccupied her, but to which she now returned, experimenting with colour as well as working in her customary black and white. These Yorkshire images bring to mind the work of another lone woman landscape artist, Prunella Clough, whose paintings also dwell on the offbeat view, the telegraph pole, the cement block, the fence, the broken wiring, the litter and the plastic bag.
Godwin became increasingly concerned with our connection with the earth and our assaults on it, by the way we mess up our rivers and canals, our shores and embankments. From the 70s onwards, she had been recording subjects such as rotting cars lying in lagoons, a hawk hovering threateningly over a bunker on Dover cliffs, sheep lining up to stare over a military canal, shacks and caravans littering the countryside, pill boxes marching along the beach, Keep Out and Private and No Fishing notices thwarting the rambler. Godwin had been captured by the visual impact of these messages, but she was also concerned and outraged.
She was a pioneer of organic food and farming, distressed by the impact on land and landscape of fertilisers and factory farming, and persuaded that her recovery in the 1970s from what she described as “advanced cancer” had been aided by her naturopath doctor’s advice to commit herself to an organic diet. (It has to be said that, to some, her advocacy of raw turnip was challenging.) Our Forbidden Land (1990) is an impassioned attack on the destruction of the countryside. The text is strongly argued, and the photographic documentary of what the Ministry of Defence, bad planning, guard dogs, greed and neglect are doing to Britain is eloquent. The volume is illustrated with poems from Ted Hughes and Adrian Mitchell, Frances Horovitz and Thomas Hardy, James Fenton and Seamus Heaney. Nearly all her work has poetic reference; she also worked with the poet Patricia Beer on the National Trust book Wessex, from which Bradford is showing a few images. Her early experiences of the literary world inspired her all her life. She had moved far beyond the publicity shots of literary figures with which she had begun her professional photographic career. And she did manage through her involvement with the Ramblers and other environmental organisations to satisfy some of that early desire to become a campaigning photojournalist. She succeeded in shaping her own future.
Prunella Clough’s later work sailed off towards abstraction, and so in some ways did Godwin’s. Fowles had remarked that she managed “to lend a paradoxical air of the abstract” to many of the shots of the Scillies, and in her last years she photographed objects found on the beach and worked on studies of foliage. But a certain grand austerity remained central to her vision. She did not take pretty pastoral pictures.
Since her death in 2005, photographers have been finding their access to both public and private land more and more problematic, more expensive, and legally restricted. In Our Forbidden Land she wrote about the dilemma of access to Stonehenge, a site mass marketed by English Heritage which charges substantial sums to everybody, from individual artists to wealthy advertising companies. She foresaw a time when “the only photographs we are likely to see of the inner circles of Stonehenge will be those approved by English Heritage, generally by their anonymous public relations photographers”. Our common land would be the copyright of others. We are fortunate that she made her journeys round the British Isles when she did, before even more of our landscape was fenced off or built up. Philip Larkin, in a poem titled “Going, going”, oddly enough commissioned by the then Department of the Environment, gloomily concluded that
. . . before I snuff it, the whole
Boiling will be bricked in
Except for the tourist parts –
First slum of Europe . . .
It hasn’t happened yet, but, as Godwin and Larkin warn us, it may.
Fay Godwin: Land Revisited is at the National Media Museum, Bradford, until 27 March.