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Landscapes/Cityscapes Situational Identity in British Literature and Visual Arts (20th-21st Centuries)


Catherine Bernard


Ce numéro présente un ensemble de travaux qui explorent la manière dont la représentation de l’espace — paysage ou paysage urbain — cristallisent la fabrique de l’identité. Du Modernisme à la période contemporaine, des paysages élégiaques ou liminaux imaginés par Virginia Woolf ou Jon McGregor, aux topographies urbaines de Jonathan Coe ou aux dystopies de Sarah Hall, se dessinent des espaces textuels qui façonnent une identité collective contradictoire, dans laquelle le sujet se noue à un passé-présent toujours réinventé.

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1Contemporary identity, as Raphael Samuel’s monumental study of collective memory—Theatres of Memory—insists, is closely inscribed in the spaces we share, imagine, reinvent and remediate; ‘living history’, in that sense, is to a great extent history of/in space: ‘As well as the recovery of the real historical past, there is also the creation of imaginary ones—‘Tudor’ gardens, Victorian steam fairs, Edwardian shopping streets’ (169). The very same year Samuel published his essay, W.J.T. Mitchell also pondered the indirect and yet powerful relations between landscape and identity in his no less influential essay, Landscape and Power. The theses he chooses to open his essay on are worth returning to, so explicit they are in the dialectical relation they establish between culture, identity and landscape, whether landscape is to be understood as a cultural construction or an artistic genre:

1. Landscape is not a genre of art but a medium
2. Landscape is a medium of exchange between the human and the natural, the self and the other. As such it is like money: good for nothing in itself, but expressive of a potentially limitless reserve of value.
3. Like money, landscape is a social hieroglyph that conceals the actual basis of its value. It does so by naturalizing its conventions and conventionalizing its nature.
4. Landscape is a natural scene mediated by culture. It is both a represented and a presented space, both a signifier and a signified, both a frame and what a frame contains, both a real space and its simulacrum, both a package and the commodity inside the package. (5)

2Such a reading of the cultural fashioning of our relation to landcape has been of of specific relevance to British culture. Several studies have, since the late 70s, stressed the tight correlation between the fashioning of collective identity in Britain, the rise of a specific sensibility to landscape and the underlying political and economic agenda of nature engineering, from Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City (1973) to David Matless’ Landcape and Englishness (1998). In 2012, the British Library’s contribution to the Olympic’s festivities took the form of an exhibition focusing on Britain’s spatial imaginary: Writing Britain. Wastelands to Wonderlands, although, meanwhile, Iain Sinclair lamented the depletion of that same collective imaginary at the hands of urban speculators, in Lights Out for the Territory (1997), London Orbital (2000), or Hackney, that red-Rose Empire (2009). More recently, such explorations have also turned to the weather imagination and the way it informs English literature and visual arts (see Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers & Artists Under English Skies [2015]), or to the affective impact of site and space (see Berberich, Campbell and Hudson).

3The very etymology of the word ‘landscape’, derived from the Dutch ‘skip’—view—from the start underlines the constructedness of our relation to space and the way our understanding of space is necessarily mediated: by vision and our cognitive processing of the world in which we are caught, by culture and its inscription of space. Writers and artists have of course always entertained an intimate relation to space and its hermeneutic potential, literary and aesthetic space being both metonymic vehicles and the very matter of meaning, both ‘a frame’ and what the ‘frame contains’, to return to Mitchell’s theses. Identity, as literature and art reveal, is always scaped, entangled in a complex relation that reproduces inherited forms of cultural identity, even as it re-invents it. The foggy London of the opening chapter of Bleak House, the prospects Elizabeth Bennett discovers from the various stately rooms of Pemberley, the labyrinthine and organic Dublin of Ulysses, the spatial polarity of E.M. Forster’s Howards End are but examples of the cultural hermeneutics of space inscribed in and invented by fiction. From Romantic poetry to Thomas Hardy’s or D.H. Lawrence’s mytho-poetic visions and Simon Armitage’s reappropriation of that tradition, English literature has invented itself in an organic embrace with landscape, i.e. nature always already culturally inscribed.

4From Gainsborough’s early insights into the discursive potential of landscape and cityscape painting to Turner’s modern take on landscape and seascape painting under the double injunction of myth and modernity (see The Fighting Temeraire [1839]) or L.S. Lowry’s industrial scapes, English painting has captured and informed the mutations of English identity in its relation to space and vision; it has in that sense dovetailed with the visual framing effects of fiction and the cultural language of space as inscribed in the longue durée of England’s spatial imaginary. As this issue of Études britanniques contemporaines testifies, intermedial treatments of landscape and cityscape are thus crucial to the understanding of the fashioning of identity in relation to site-specificity. Ted Hughes’s Remains of Elmet (1979), as well as Hamish Fulton’s blend of poetry and site-specificity art are examples of the way writing, images, and site-specific works allow art to reinvent England’s relation to its own situational memory. Such intermediality has also been of key importance to the exploration of England’s conflicted urban imagination: from Dickens’s foundational definition of urban city-writing, to Zadie Smith’s new take on urban identity in N-W (2012) and Swing Time (2016) or Howard Jacobson’s recent dystopian vision of a world that may no longer be mapped in J (2014).

5As the first section of this issue—‘Mental Landscapes’—amply shows, literary landscapes are informed by a subtle language in which form inscribes identity and also functions as a hermeneutic tool. Landscape carries with it a collective memory that is sedimented in the textual palimpsest; but as these articles also show, the over-inscribed textual landscape does not merely recollect a morphing collective memory, it also informs our understanding of our identity and functions as what Pierre Bourdieu might have defined as a complex habitus, that fashions our understanding or our entangled identities, even as it is fashioned by it.

6The second section—‘Landscapes of the common’—highlights such a dialectics further, by turning more specifically to an analysis of landscape and cityscape as contested sites of identity. The legacy of utopia and dystopia in contemporary literature testifies to the political agency of literary space. Whether landscape is that of Northern England, or of an increasingly globalised Britain, space is more than the site of situational agency, it becomes an agent of identity politics. Landscapes and urban scapes are thus the site of a political questioning regarding the making of the common and of an unstable sense of identity, emerging at the juncture of the subject and its other, whether from within or from without. The last section—‘Cities of the mind’—focuses more closely on the echoes of such questions on the representation of urban space and, even more specifically, of London, that world city of the mind.

7From Modernism to contemporary literature, from Chesil Beach to global space, the articles here gathered testify to the inexhaustible creativeness of literary space and to its relentless capacity to capture our changing relation to our collective sense of selfhood. The cosmopolitanism of the modern age and of the great avant-gardes, the globalisation of our current age have made the study of such situational identity ever more urgent; understanding how, in Henri Lefebvre’s terms, we happen, take place in space, as much as we are produced by it (199), is key to our understanding of the politics of the literary. A lot has already been done to fathom such a complex relation; a lot is still to be done to grasp the spatial agency of literature and art.

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Berberich, Christine, Neil Campbell and Robert Hudson, eds., Affective Landscapes in Literature, Art and Everyday Life, London: Ashgate, 2015.

Hardyment, Christina Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands, London: The British Library, 2012.

Harris, Alexandra, Weatherland: Writers & Artists Under English Skies, London: Thames & Hudson, 2015.

Lefebvre, Henri, La Production de l’espace (1974), 4th ed. Paris: Anthropos, 2000.

Matless, David, Landcape and Englishness, London: Reaktion Books, 1998.

Mitchell, W.J.T., ed, Landscape and Power (1994), 2nd. ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Samuel, Raphael, Theatres of Memory. Past and Present in Contemporary Culture (1994), rev. ed. London: Verso, 2012.

Sinclair, Iain, Lights Out for the Territory, London: Granta Books, 1997.

Sinclair, Iain, London Orbital, London: Granta Books, 2002.

Sinclair, Iain, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: a Confidential Report, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2009.

Williams, Raymond, The Country and the City (1973), London: The Hogarth Press, 1993.

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Catherine Bernard, « Introduction »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 10 décembre 2023. URL :

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Catherine Bernard

Catherine Bernard is Professor of English literature and art history at Paris Diderot University. She has published extensively on contemporary art (Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Rachel Whiteread, but also Gillian Wearing and Mark Wallinger) and on recent English fiction (Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Pat Barker or Graham Swift). Her research has also turned to English modernism and more specifically Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. She has published a critical edition of Flush, for the Pléiade Edition of Woolf’s works (2012), and a critical edition and translation of a selection of Woolf’s essays (Essais choisis, Gallimard, Folio classique, 2015). She is also the author of a monograph on contemporary British fiction and contemporary art: Matière à réflexion. Du corps politique dans la littérature et les arts visuels britanniques contemporains (Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2018). She is the President of the Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines (SEAC).

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