I look at Fay Godwin photographs almost every day of my life. Four photographs hang in my sitting room and have been there for 25 years or so. Perhaps more than anyone, Fay Godwin’s work has been a perennial influence on me as a photographer.
You can’t expect to take a definitive image in half an hour. It takes days, often years.Fay Godwin
Later Godwin was to say that there is no such thing as a definitive picture
I first came across Fay Godwin’s work in 1985 at the Photographer’s Gallery, London, at her solo exhibition of the National Trust Properties of Wessex. 1 Subsequently I grew to appreciate her work through three books: The Oldest Road: An Exploration of the Ridgeway (with J.R.L. Anderson) 1975; The Drovers Roads of Wales (with Shirley Toulson) 1977; and Land (with essay by John Fowles, and introduction by Ian Jeffrey) 1985.
Plenty has been written about Godwin over the years. Perhaps one of the best reviews was Ian Jeffrey’s introduction to ‘Land’ but his obituary in the Guardian is also worth reading. ‘On Landscape’ has a piece on her and the content on Fay Godwin’s retrospective site is useful. This short article does not seek to go over this ground. Rather, I want to analyse what it is about her work that affects me personally.
Three themes are very evident to me: the physical nature of taking landscape photographs, the historical connection to the land felt through photographic observation and the literary idiom used to express what we feel when taking those photographs.
The deep connection that I feel between walking and taking photographs is something which Godwin must have felt 2. I also have walked some of the drover’s routes of North Wales pictured by her in ‘The Drovers’ Roads of Wales’, the paths of The Forest of Dean, the bye-ways of Camber Castle and Romney Marsh (See Romney Marsh and the Royal Military Canal with Richard Ingrams, 1980) and the hills surrounding Glen Coe – all places where she spent much time and, I daresay, physical effort.
Indeed one of my photographs taken at the Roman Encampment near Trawsfyydd was inspired by her pictures in the Drovers’ Roads book.
Walking ancient paths give you the physical experiences that others before you have felt. This connection I feel when I walk the Drovers’ Roads of North Wales. The physical immersion of the walked path bears upon the photographs that you take. The physical geography leaves impressions on photograph and on person alike.
In his introduction to ‘Land’ Ian Jeffrey conjures up the name of Edward Thomas as being a person who would have been fired up by the spot near Trawsfyydd where Godwin took pictures – and he is quite right.
Thomas’s “careful depictions of rural England and his prescient understanding of modernity’s tendency toward disconnection, alienation, and unsettledness” 3 is just the way to understand Godwin.
For we might be tempted into thinking that Godwin’s photographs echo some romantic notion of what England, Wales or Scotland should be. On the surface, many of her photographs catch the physical beauty of the British landscapes. But this strain of ‘Britishness’ sometimes associated with Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Housman ( and prevalent in today’s ‘lock-down’ Britain) is not what Godwin is about. At times she railed against the picturesque. Godwin’s pictures are not of cricket pitches on village greens, pubs with bunting or picnics at Glyndebourne. No, her connection is far more nuanced and watchful.
We get from Godwin the beauty of the path above Lumbutts in Yorkshire and the grandeur of the white-clad skyscape above Maenserth standing stone. But we also get empty Pillboxes on the Kentish coast, an old thrown-away plough on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, a boundary fence on Skara Brae on the Orkneys and the juxtaposition of a tumbled down Richborough Castle in Kent with its nuclear power station as neighbour.
What we get is a complex point of view. It is always watchful, never resting, always probing. It is the complex changing nature of British landscape that motivates her pictures. 4
For Godwin’s landscapes are not indifferent to human agency. Central to her pictures is a commitment to recording a historical narrative. Nature is either taking back what is hers or relinquishing to humankind’s grasp over her. Occasionally a truce breaks out, but an uneasy tension between the two is always evident. I think that her pictures therefore imbue a sense of melancholia borne from an alienation she felt from the Land, partly driven by public policy and private ownership. I too feel this alienation from the Land.
Fay Godwin’s extensive associations with literary people have been described in many articles. She took portraits of many well known writers and several of her books combine her photography with poetry. She was married for a time to an influential literary agent and publisher.
Her collaboration with the poet Ted Hughes in ‘Land’ and more notably in ‘Remains of Elmet’ are perhaps the most notable of her associations. The play of photographs against poetry was a common occurrence in the 20th Century. One thinks of the photo haikus of Ann Attwood or ‘Writing the Picture’ by David Hurn and John Fuller. The associations are always fraught with risk. Pinning words to a photograph can undermine a viewer’s experience of that photograph, or so I find.
But on a personal level I find that poetry can inspire me to connect to a place or feeling.
‘The cherry trees bend over and are shedding
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed’.
– The Cherry Trees, Edward Thomas
Thomas would have been a more appropriate backdrop to Godwin’s photographs than Hughes, but of course that is a highly subjective view.
Godwin’s photographs may now seem ‘old hat’ to many. Black and white landscape photography is on the decline. But for me, Fay Godwin’s pictures still speak loudly as I sit in my study during the Coronavirus lockdown and plan my next walk down some little-visited ancient track.
- The National Trust had commissioned Godwin to take photographs of their properties – a commission which later might have seemed incongruous to her when she took a stance against the ‘privatisation’ and regulation of public land and property. ↩
- After all she became President of the Rambler’s Association ↩
- Taken from the Poetry Foundation‘s excellent piece on Thomas ↩
- To look at Godwin’s pictures is like getting a crash-course in the ‘Making of the British Landscape’. W.G Hoskins – see The Making of the English Landscape by W.G. Hoskins; Hodder and Stoughton 1955 ↩