A Scene Most Unfit for a Picture

On Tuesday August 24 1824 the artist John Constable took his ailing wife Maria up on to the South Downs at Devil’s Dyke in Sussex. He recorded the visit in a letter to his friend, John Fisher (Beckett, VI, p. 172), and in the course of his description he comments: “Last Tuesday, the illest day that ever was, we went to the Dyke – which is in fact a Roman remains of an embankment, overlooking – perhaps the most grand & affecting natural landscape in the world-and consequently a scene the most unfit for a picture.”

Constable seems to have made almost no work of Devil’s Dyke, there is just a drawing in London’s V&A Museum of the view looking inland over a hedge. Perhaps this was too well-trodden a beauty spot.

It was the Victorians who first turned Devil’s Dyke, the largest chalkland dry combe in Britain, into a place of beauty. They built a branch railway to transport sightseers from the nearby coastal resort of Brighton, as well as a steep cliff railway from the Dyke to the village of Poynings and a cable car across the dyke itself. In 1893 a crowd of 30,000 visited on Whit Monday. Besides the views, they enjoyed a fairground, two bandstands, and a camera obscura, considered to be one of the finest in England.

The Downs today have been allowed to revert back almost to their natural state. Now in the care of the National Trust, the landscape around Devil’s Dyke still bears a few scars of human involvement and reshaping.

With its rolling chalk downlands, Sussex has long lent itself as geographical muse for artists from the 18th century to the present day. In terms of popularity, the mid-20th century is perhaps the zenith of Sussex landscape art, as the county welcomed numerous leading artists and writers, including Eric Ravilious, the Bloomsbury Group, Surrealists Lee Miller, Edward Burra and Paul Nash, as well as abstract artists such as Ivon Hitchens.

Taking Constable’s quote as a starting point, this work is an attempt to explore the limits of a photograph – in all it’s historic and contemporary forms – to capture the essence of a landscape and could therefore be described as an experiment in failure.