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Factory challenge

08 September 2017


Lachlan Goudie sketching at Farnborough, a former aviation wind tunnels test site, in BBC Four’s Awesome Beauty: the Art of Industrial Britain

Lachlan Goudie sketching at Farnborough, a former aviation wind tunnels test site, in BBC Four’s Awesome Beauty: the Art of Industrial Britain

LIKE those of us who preach sermons, the presenters of TV documentaries know the inexpressible value of kicking off with something really arresting. Destroying with a blowtorch a copy of the nation’s favourite picture, Constable’s The Hay Wain stands on the interface between the arresting and the irritatingly provocative; but it was so much of a piece with the rest of Awesome Beauty: The art of industrial Britain (BBC4, Tuesday of last week) as to be legitimate.

The artist Lachlan Goudie made an impassioned plea for a rethink of what we generally consider appropriate subjects for pictures. Our preference for the pastoral idyll is not just sentimental nostalgia: it also limits our sense of what is beautiful. His own work — and one of the delights of this splendid programme was the way in which, wherever he went, he painted as he talked — celebrates Britain’s industrial environment: the factories and infrastructure that created our global pre-eminence, when we actually had any.

He showed us how he stands in a distinguished line of artists who have followed this path — Joseph Wright, of Derby, Turner, Muirhead Bone, and Sutherland — who have sought to open our eyes to the beauty and colour, the energy and sublimity of the machine.

His plea had significant theological overtones: I assume that a God of incarnation would prefer us to look hard at, and find delight in, what is actually around us rather than retreat into a fantasy world of supposed rural innocence.

Second, the Industrial Revolution ushered in a landscape where human intervention greatly trumped nature’s handiwork. Nineteenth-century artists such as Turner and John Martin found the sublime in the mills, furnaces, and railways of their age: a mortal challenge to God’s original creation.

As Goudie conducted us from steelworks, power stations, mines, and refineries, a further theme emerged. This was, in reality, an elegy: the subjects that he wishes us to celebrate as places of inspiration and beauty now fall into the category of “heritage”: the closed shipworks, the mines shut down, and the unemployed workforce.

He found a small ray of hope in conclusion: we left him at the space technology factory in Stevenage sketching the weird robots being built to explore and exploit Mars.

ITV, in its latest ploy to secure the Sunday-evening costume-drama audience, has just started its second series of Victoria. It is light stuff: the characters’ attitudes and expressions are far more of our own time and the conventions of TV soap opera than anything one can imagine actually happening at the Queen-Empress’s court. The costumes, though, provide us with an agreeable gentle letting-down from the splendours of Sunday’s vestments to the drabness of Monday’s working dress.

In From Russia to Iran: Crossing the wild frontier (Channel 4, Sunday), the explorer Levison Wood’s account of trekking through this beautiful, wild, and dangerous terrain shows that he cares about people, politics, and economics, not just scenery, as he negotiates another post-industrial landscape.

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