The Lie of the Land: Truths about Landscape and Food Learnt through Art

Philippa Clarke

“Farming looks easy when your plough is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the cornfield” (Dwight D. Eisenhower)

This essay examines instances where art and agriculture come together. The analysis is situated in the context of agricultural history in order to question our relationship with the way food is produced. It focuses on particular artworks: Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews, Mishka Henner’s Feedlots and Goldin+Senneby’s Not Approved and Shifting Ground to demonstrate significant changes in the way land is managed, as seen from the vantage-point of art criticism. The artworks are geographically varying in nature but the focus of the essay is British agriculture. The essay concludes by reflecting on the direction needed to be taken by contemporary artists inspired by the land.

Art is insight. It contains hard facts: structure, composition, motifs etc. but it also contains subtler layers derived from reading it within a wider context. As Catherine M. Soussloff puts it, when writing about painting and the philosopher Michel Foucault, it is “a form of disclosure, it refers to and includes institutions, systems of belief and subjects that come into contact with it though interpretative and viewing situations”. (Soussloff, 2017) Both Foucault and Soussloff go beyond thinking of a painting as a historical object and are interested in the potential of art to transform by exposing mechanisms of social constructions. Foucault writes about the transformative power of his writing on his own being. Soussloff is also interested in the transformations that occur when we critically interpret paintings, transformations that can be used to inform our actions in the world.

I’m interested in harnessing that transformative power through looking at art and through my own artistic practice of painting and drawing. Through art I wish to explore our relationship with the land to inform my mark-making. I am interested in how the countryside has been shaped and continues to be shaped by those who own it, work it, live in it and encounter it. This is important at a time when nature’s ecosystems are being devastated by modern farming methods and three quarters of the world’s land-based environment have been “significantly altered” by human actions (IPBES, May 2019). How we use land has never been more crucial. Looking at the intersection between art and agriculture I wish to consider how art can prompt questions about the way we farm and produce our food.

From the earliest times art has depicted food production methods. Paleolithic cave paintings show the food stuffs of a hunter-gathering society. Ancient Egyptian burial chambers were adorned with images of oxen-drawn ploughs, hoes, rakes and irrigation technology.

From a dense forest of possibility, I have chosen three artworks at the intersection of art and agriculture. The first artwork to consider is Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough: a double portrait conversation piece of Robert Andrews of Aubreries and Frances Carter. The painting is believed to have been commissioned to celebrate the Andrews’ wedding in Sudbury, Suffolk (Hayes 1980).

Mr and Mrs Andrews has been the subject of much critical attention. What interests me is what it tells us about agricultural development and the emergence of agrarian capitalism. Agricultural historian, Mark Overton, considers the 18th and early 19th centuries as “a crucial period of agricultural advance in England worthy of the description agricultural revolution.” (Overton 1996). I shall consider Mr and Mrs Andrews in the light of the agricultural innovations described by Overton.

Painted in 1748, Mr and Mrs Andrews is at the cusp of the agricultural revolution.  In the 100 years following there will be a population explosion as agricultural innovations keep pace with tripling people numbers.  Unusually for a portrait, the subjects are not in the centre of the canvas. Instead Mr Andrews stands by his seated wife on one side of the canvas whilst a sweeping expanse of landscape is given equal weight on the other.

Mr Andrews stands proud: the estate manager overseeing a thriving agricultural operation. An operation designed to maximise yield. All around are visual clues to allow us to read the painting as a social document.

The fields of green are likely to be clover. The Norfolk four-course system of crop rotation developed in the next-door county has been up and running for a couple of decades. The system promoted by former Secretary of State, Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend aka Turnip Townshend rotates wheat, turnips, barley and nitrogen-fixing clover in a four-year cycle. Cereal yields are significantly improved in nitrogenous soils. It is a sustainable way of improving productivity.

Wheat has been planted instead of a lower-yielding more traditional grain such as rye, and permanent pasture has been turned over to arable. To offset the loss of permanent pasture, the sheep we see grazing would have been fed fodder crops such as turnips, another new agri-innovation.

It is possible that the sheep could have been selectively bred. We know that another East Anglian, Thomas Coke of Holkham was pioneering selective breeding by crossing the slow-maturing Norfolk Horn with the English Leicester, a breed that thrived on turnip fodder. Between 1806 and 1807 Thomas Weaver of Shrewsbury was engaged by Coke to paint portraits for Coke and his tenants. A large conversation piece, Thomas Coke and his Southdown Sheep, shows Coke making notes about his Southdowns - a breed know for “easy lambing, docility and ease of finishing” (Southdown Sheep Society, 2019).

The estate is used for shooting. Traditionally birds were hunted by hawk or by netting or shooting on the ground but during the 18th Century what was known as “shooting flying” became popular amongst the landed gentry with the improvement of shotgun technology (Chester, 1933). To me, a country girl, the unpainted area in the lap of Mrs Andrews is definitely the beginnings of a pheasant, although critics have speculated otherwise.  Mr Andrews sports a fine shotgun with his bags of shot draped from his belt. A loyal gun dog looks up admiringly at his master reinforcing the idea of master and loyal servant.

As landowner and proprietor of a shoot Mr Andrews flexes the muscles of power. Power to manage landscape, power to control who should be on his land, power to have someone condemned to death. The penalties for poaching at this time were extreme. The “Black Act” was passed in 1723 making poaching with a blackened face a hangable offence. A farm worker could not supplement his meals with a rabbit or bird without risk of imprisonment or worse.

The landscape of Mr and Mrs Andrews reinforces an idea of England as “green and pleasant land”. An enduring image both pastoral and picturesque. Celebrating man’s dominium over nature through ripe harvest and well-fed livestock and presenting the charming qualities of natural woodland. The imagery is one of control and order. It is the same imagery that we see in Frank Newbould’s World War 2 propaganda posters. It is a landscape that is worth fighting for. 

It is also worth noting that at the start of World War II the government took control of British farming. Needing to maximise production (food rationing continued until 1953) the Labour government guaranteed prices with the 1947 Agriculture Act.  In his award-winning book, The Killing of the Countryside, Graham Harvey describes 1947 as the beginning of the “industrialization of Britain’s countryside.” (Harvey 1997).

Returning to Mr and Mrs Andrews, despite the bucolic imagery and sustainable model of farming there is a “dark side” to the landscape, a term that was coined by John Barrell when writing about the poor in English painting (Barrell 1980). This is because farming is no longer about subsistence. It has become about business. From this point onwards we will see a quest for productivity that will change the landscape forever. Pesticides, fertiliser, antibiotics and farming on an industrial scale. The stage has been set for environmental catastrophe.

In this section I shall use the artwork of Mishka Henner to think about farming and food production and just as I did with the Gainsborough, I will go beyond the aesthetic to learn more.

Philosopher John Benson, when looking at aesthetic and non-aesthetic reasons for valuing landscape, maintains that whilst it is possible to look at a landscape in terms of broadly sensory concepts: forms, colours, textures, sounds etc that this mode of perception is highly artificial. The aesthetic of the landscape cannot be separated from its function. As soon as we separate the aesthetic from the practical we are seeing it “one-eyed”. He compares it to a game of football: “An analogy would be looking at a football match simply as a temporally extended pattern of swiftly evolving spatial configurations, in abstraction from its being a contest between two sets of more or less skillful human players, the spatial configurations being the result of the players’ attempt to score. The act of abstraction may be worth doing from time to time to heighten awareness of one aesthetic element in the total experience. But it is the total experience that matters.” (Benson 2008).

It’s easy to be beguiled by the painterly quality and abstracted imagery of Mishka Henner’s large archival pigment prints Feedlots, made in 2012 and 2013. But associations with abstract expressionism or the sublime become eradicated by a stomach-turning realisation of horror that they are not about expressive marks or the wonder of nature. The patterns, shapes and colours have tricked us. Rather than giving us Benson’s “total experience” in one go, Mishka Henner has cleverly used the heightened aesthetic of abstraction to amplify the moment when one realises what the imagery actually is.

Figure 6. Coronado Feeders, Dalhart, Texas(detail) photograph by Mishka Henner (2012-13)

What we see is colossal examples of the immense extent of man’s exploitation of the natural environment and of living creatures. Rather than standing before this imagery as Edmund Burke might have us trembling in awe of the sublimity nature we stand with disbelief; shame-faced and disgusted.

Henner’s photographs show CAFOs: Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations which are used as rapid fattening units to allow a cow to reach a weight ready for slaughter in just 18 months. By contrast a Welsh beef farmer friend from my agricultural student days confirmed that it should take between 24 and 30 months to rear grass-fed prime beef. The feedlot cattle are fed a diet of grain and protein supplemented with hormones to achieve such rapid weight gain. The images show thousands of cattle and chemical lagoons used for treating the millions of litres of manure.

Just as photographer Andreas Gursky casts a critical eye over capitalism and globalism playing with the scale of landscape and humanity, Henner’s Feedlotsshines a light on the epic proportions of US industrial farming. Industrial farming that has grown from the early days of agrarian capitalism that took root in Gainsborough’s time.

There are in the region of 700 feed lots in the US, each holding as many as 100,000 cattle. In the UK the definition of a CAFO is a unit with “at least 125,000 broilers (chickens raised for meat) or 82,000 layers (hens which produce eggs) or pullets (chickens used for breeding), or 2,500 pigs, 700 dairy cattle or 1,000 beef cattle.” (Davies and Wasley 2017).

Henner’s satellite images taken from space seem to underscore how distanced we have become from the way our food is produced. It feels as if we need to go from this bird’s eye view to have a look up close. We need to reacquaint ourselves with what food really is and where it has come from. “There’s a huge difference between my Welsh Blacks and those animals in a USA feedlot” says my Welsh farming friend.

Of course big does not necessarily mean bad: arguably there are animal welfare advantages through increased monitoring and access to veterinary care but Henner’s photographs show the cramped conditions of the CAFOs and vast toxic lagoons chemically processing manure. And what the imagery doesn’t show is the cataclysmic amounts of methane, a major greenhouse gas, being produced by these operations. There is no doubt that this sort of industrial farming is harmful to the environment through methane emissions, toxic run-off and destruction of bio-diversity.

Unlike Gursky who photographs his own imagery, Henner is interested in making images when conventional aerial or drone photography is not permitted. He makes use of publicly available satellite images and his subject matter includes military outposts and oilfields where photography is forbidden. In fact it was through searching for images of oil fields on Google Earth that he came across the feed lots.

Taking unauthorized images of farms is prevented in many US states by so-called “ag-gag” laws. Henner’s Feed Lots acted as catalyst for investigative journalist Will Potter to scrutinize these ag-gag laws which he describes as “an explicit attempt to outlaw undercover investigations and whistle blowing if they negatively portray the industry”.  Despite this, Henner does not see himself as an activist. In an interview for ARTnews he says “If I was an activist, I don’t think I would be putting art on a gallery wall.” (Greenberger 2015).

Perhaps Henner would see himself more as part of a tradition of photographers who catalogue industry. The consistent way he makes images of the farms from the same height and in same format calls to mind Bernd and Hilla, the tutors of Gursky, who photographed industrial structures such as water towers and gas works in sets and grid formations. One also thinks of the images of British photographer John Davies whose black and white photographs of the British landscape juxtaposes the Turner-esque qualities of vast space and nature with the productive activities of mining and industry.

In Henner’s work the distance the images are taken from is not only for aesthetic effect. It is analogous with how distanced we are from food production.  Not only have we become disconnected from how things are grown, we have an expectation that we can eat cheap meat every day as a right. But factory farming is not just problematic for meat consumers.

Industrially grown soya, maize and grains require high levels of fertilisers, fungicides and pesticides. Soils that are intensively ploughed and chemically treated become almost biologically dead.

And meanwhile our desire for cheap foodstuffs continues unabated. Most of us do not make the connection between what we put in our mouths and the environmental cost of producing it. The Brazilian Amazon burns as more and more forest is cleared for cattle rearing and the mega-farms continue to prosper.

Although at present the British system of farming is primarily grass-based with an average herd size of 135 cattle (National Beef Association 2019) recent research by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism showed 12 industrial fattening units in the UK where herds of up to 3000 cattle are kept in grassless enclosures. This is a worrying trend.

Not Approved and Shifting Ground by Goldin+Senneby

In this next section I will continue to think about our relationship with the aesthetics of landscape and will use artwork by Swedish art collaboration Goldin+Senneby to do so.

Animal welfare and environmental concerns are not a new phenomenon. A 2003 reform to the EU Common Agricultural Policy decoupled subsidies from particular crops and introduced “single farm payments” that were subject to environmental and animal welfare cross-compliance conditions.

Goldin+Senneby brought this to our attention in their 2009 work Not Approved. This was part of their year-long enquiry into agricultural policies. Not Approved consisted of 32 photographs taken by Swedish bureaucrats in 2003 that showed landscapes that had not received agricultural funding because they did not meet the EU aesthetic criteria.

The so-called field inspection photographs are nondescript and bland. The landscape is scruffy. Captions by the photographs give some insight as to why the land was rejected: “Not approved, completely overgrown”, “Not pollarded”, “Solitary oak trees, front tree not approved”.

That there should be a defined aesthetic for landscape is an interesting concept. How is this decided? John Benson, when writing about the English landscape says that it is “to a greater or lesser extent artefactual” (Benson, J 2008). Most landscape is not designed for aesthetic contemplation and has instead been shaped by man. He cites the parklands of English country houses as exceptions which can be considered as “large scale artworks”.

Goldin+Senneby were interested in the shift between farmer as land worker and farmer as artist. In Shifting Ground (2008), a scripted speech commissioned by Goldin+Senneby, the artist, played by an actor, describes a visit to his father’s farm. His father can no longer afford to keep cows. Only the biggest farms with 200 or more cows can survive. The artist’s father feels despondent as he can no longer take pride in his milking herd. His way of life has been lost. He still maintains his pasture, ploughing and making hay in order to qualify for the twice yearly subsidy describing it as “pasture polishing”. That the farmer receives public funding for creating an aesthetic with the landscape is interesting to Goldin+Senneby. It is similar to the artist receiving arts council funding. In the work the artist has a heated discussion with the playwright who has scripted the speech. The script writer accuses the artist of ignoring the biggest issue: that of receiving public funding. The artist declares his vested interest as a recipient of public money and refuses to discuss it further.

Going back to the 2003 EU agricultural policy, it seems that environmental concerns were not really at the heart it. Rather, it was about preserving a picturesque view of the landscape where the practical use has become obsolete. A sentimental idea of idyllic rural life. Neat, tidy, well-tended and controlled.  Just as it has been since Gainsborough’s time.

In a 2018 interview with Goldin+Senneby, William Kherbek picks up on their depictions of labour as a means of aestheticizing value creation.  Kherbek sees this coming from an art-historic tradition (Kherbek 2018) and there is no doubt that the working classes have long been used in artworks for purposes both aesthetic and political.   Goldin+Senneby imbue a feeling of sympathy with the farmer and a sense of absurdity and frustration about the state of agricultural politics.

In both Not Approved and Shifting Ground the farmer has been put in the position of an artist maintaining an aesthetic with the landscape. Unlike Benson’s country house analogy, the farmer did not design the original landscape with an aesthetic intent. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to call the farmer a conservator of a museum of the past.

Preserving the image of well-tended agricultural landscape can be problematic. We know that rewilding programmes have been enormously successful at re-establishing plant, animal and insect life but these initiatives are frequently hampered by complaints that the landscape looks uncared for. Where ragwort and docks thrive so do insects but these plants are traditionally seen as examples of poor pasture and bad management. In her smash-hit book Wilding, Isabella Tree describes onerous battles with members of the public who thoroughly objected to the re-wilding of their 1400 hectare estate in Sussex finding it disorderly and untidy (Tree 2018).

It is difficult for people to separate the idea of landscape from its purpose. An untidy landscape means unreliable farm management. We urgently need to rethink what the purpose of landscape is and what it looks like. The catastrophic decline in biodiversity is reason enough. The practical use of landscape should be to provide an environment where species can flourish. With this will come a new aesthetic where the look of landscape is not separated from its purpose.

A new way of seeing

Art can play a vital role both in reinforcing a new landscape aesthetic and helping us make a connection about where our food comes from. Cultural factors including art contain the transformative powers that Foucault spoke of that can influence our behaviours, our lifestyle choices and values.

During Gainsborough’s time there is no doubt that the average person would have had a connection with where his or her food came from. They weren’t distanced from the killing of animals for meat or the cultivation of land. Even the gentry who had servants and staff to prepare food would have been familiar with 17th Century Dutch still life paintings depicting game and fish.

Today, images of food production are harder to come by. Mishka Henner’s work highlights the extreme disconnect that we have with food production. On the other hand Goldin+Senneby shows that environmental issues have been taken into consideration but only in as much as they reinforce the idea of idyllic countryside. Intensive farming continues and is big business.

And let us return to Foucault. In Foucault’s Art of Seeing by John Rajchman we learn how Foucault used before-and-after-pictures to make things visible.  These pictures were not just of what things looked like, they were “how things were made visible, how things were given to be seen, how things were “shown” to knowledge and power.” (Rajchman 1988). A second feature of Foucault’s before-and-after pictures proposed a “philosophical exercise in seeing”. Having seen the before and after, what is depicted is shown in a new light or in a different way.

In all three artworks we see control of the landscape by the wealthy and powerful, whether it be the gentry in the Gainsborough, the government in Goldin+Senneby’s work or corporations controlling Henner’s feedlots and the governments who put in place laws that prevent us from seeing them. In the latter two works, the artists have gone beyond documentary-making to harness the power of aesthetics to highlight our distance from food production (Henner) and to create a sense of the absurdity of present-day agricultural policy (Goldin+Senneby).

The environmental emergency is a call to arms for artists and art curators to challenge the status quo and visually represent a new alternative for food production and landscape management. By making things visible we put pressure on policy makers and have some influence on people’s behaviours. 

Conceptual artists such as Henner and Goldin+Senneby have been able to record, document and critique landscape through photography, performance and other interventions. The challenge for contemporary painters is huge as they have to draw attention to environmental concerns without being overly didactic or illustrative.  Environmentalism is a growing force across popular culture and the arts, whether it be rewilding plot lines in The Archers or the current Eco-Visionaries exhibition at the Royal Academy.

There are little green shoots of optimism. The Government’s new Agriculture Bill had its first reading in parliament on 16 January 2020. The Bill provides the legal framework for the way farmers will receive financial assistance once the UK leaves the EU when farmers will no longer receive EU subsidies.  At the heart of the bill is a requirement for the government to “take regard to the need to encourage the production of food by producers in England and its production by them in an environmentally sustainable way.” (Parliament, House of Commons 2020).  Farmers will receive payments for restoring and enhancing both land and water and for supporting the public in gaining a better understanding of the environment. It strikes me that artists can play a huge rule in supporting this public understanding.  The role played by artists in revolution is well documented and this new agricultural revolution should be no different.


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Figure 1. Lascaux cave. Photograph by Bandarin, F. (2006) photograph. UNESCO Permanent URL:

Figure 2. Mr and Mrs Andrews by Gainsborough, T. (1748) National Gallery Mr and Mrs Andrews

Figure 3. Thomas Coke and his Southdown Sheep painting by Thomas Weaver of Shrewsbury. (1807)

Figure 4. Poster for War Office 'The South Downs’ Your Britain Fight for it now by Newbould, F.  (1942). Imperial War Museum

Figure 5. Centerfire Feedyard, Ulysses, Kansas image by Mishka Henner (2012-13)

Figure 6. Coronado Feeders, Dalhart, Texas(detail) image by Mishka Henner (2012-13)

Figure 7. Images from Not Approved by Goldin+Senneby (2009)

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