Landscapes of Power
During the inter-war period, thousands of electricity pylons sprang up across the British countryside. Aesthetically and politically suggestive, they fundamentally reshaped how artists viewed and understood the landscape.
James Purdon, Friday, 21st December 2012
In the summer of 1943, Penguin New Writing published a send-up of the previous decade’s most acclaimed new poetry. This good-natured squib begins with a group of day-tripping poets – bearing a strong resemblance to W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and their Oxbridge coterie – boarding a tour bus. Whisked away from the ‘brown and violet half-light’ of high Modernism, they emerge from the waste lands of the 1920s into the new English countryside: ‘Everywhere trippers in shorts and on bicycles poured along the roads, swarmed up lamp-posts, threw caps in the air. Pylons! Arterial roads, semi- detached villas, Butlin’s camps, ping-pong, scooters! Hurrah! But chiefly the pylons.’1
Of all the infrastructural developments in Britain between the wars, it was the appearance across the country of the National Grid’s electrical transmission towers, or pylons, that caught the imagination of poets and painters. It did not take long for critics to start talking about Auden and his friends as the ‘Pylon Poets’, and the name stuck. More diverse in style and attitude, British visual artists could hardly be described as a school of ‘pylon painters’, but the pylon quite literally looms over some of the most interesting landscapes exhibited in Britain between the First and Second World Wars. In time, pylons have become familiar; like windmills and canals before them, they have modified our prejudices about what landscapes ought to contain. In the early 1930s, however, pylons were potent. Carrying the industrial magic of electricity they became charged objects, conductors of meaning requiring comment. More often than not, the comment was negative. (For a time in the late 1920s the letters columns of The Times became the site of a running battle between pro-pylon and anti-pylon factions.) But there were those who understood the fascination of these new interlopers. As early as 1937 the architect John Leslie Martin could be found arguing in Circle, the avant-garde casebook he edited with Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo, that the ‘new aesthetic’ which would provide the subjects to match new developments of modern form and technique in the visual and plastic arts was to be sought ‘in the motor-car and the aeroplane, in the steel bridge and the line of electric pylons.’2
Probably the first British painter to recognise the significance of the pylon was the Catholic Cambridge dropout Tristram Hillier (1905–83), whose Pylons (1933; Fig. 1) appeared in the Unit One exhibition organised by Paul Nash (1889–1946) in 1934. Hillier’s artist’s statement, which can be found in the book Herbert Read edited to accompany the exhibition, is a good place to start asking questions about pylon painting, since it indirectly suggests two reasons for the attractiveness of the subject. The first of these has to do with national policy for the arts. In response to Read’s queries about the relationship between art and government, Hillier offers his opinion that it is, or at least that it should be, the obligation of the State to safeguard cultural production as a social good. ‘Much could be done to assist in cultivating the public taste’, he writes, ‘and, at the same time, in supporting the artist, this latter being an important consideration at the present time…when the rich private collector is fading into the realm of mythology.’3
Hillier’s view suggests that, like national-scale electrification, art ought to be considered a kind of public works project too important to be left to the whims of private enterprise. Proposed and begun under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, the project to construct a national electricity grid had already given rise to the topsy-turvy spectacle of a Conservative government pushing for a large nationalised infrastructure funded by the Treasury in opposition to the interests of private businesses in the regions. To compound the irony, the Electricity Supply Act was shepherded through Parliament in 1926, the year of the General Strike. While socialism was making its presence powerfully felt in British cities, a Conservative government signed into law Britain’s biggest ever programme of public works. By the time the last of 26,000 planned pylons went up, in September 1933 in the New Forest, the project had seen out a Conservative administration, then Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour, and was now the responsibility of a national coalition. The National Grid, it should be understood, was not just a network made up of steel and cable, but a high-tension system compounded of materials, electrical forces, politics, design, and cultural representation. And the icon of that network – the form that seemed to offer itself as a local synecdoche for its nationwide totality – was the pylon.
But the second, and more important reason for the attractiveness of pylons to British painters entranced by surrealist exemplars was that, by virtue both of their form and of their role in the network they sustained, no great leap of intuition was needed to see them as objects capable of mediating between abstraction and repre-sentation. If Hillier wore quite clearly the influences of Salvador Dalí, Yves Tanguy, and (later) Giorgio de Chirico, that was in part because he found in those artists a mode that might resolve the conflict between Parisian Cubism’s radical geometrical abstraction and the more staid representational work of the older generation of British artists to whom his teacher Henry Tonks (1862–1937) belonged. In his artist’s statement for Unit One, Hillier would describe his method as alternating fitfully between abstraction and concretion. ‘At times’, he writes, ‘the plastic form revealed in a group of objects so completely sub-ordinates for me any associative feeling that I know no adequate means of expression but a use of purely abstract shapes’; at other times, the rendering of ‘the relation of one mass to another…while depicting recognisable objects’ requires distortion of the rules of perspective only for the sake of fidelity to the sense of spatial rhythm felt by the artist.4 As industrial artefacts go, you could hardly find an object better suited to the synthesis of these modes than the pylon. With its solid airiness, its engineered abstraction, and above all its incar- nation of electrical insubstantiality within industrial substance, it appealed to artists who like Hillier found themselves pulled between competing aesthetic theories: the represen-tational and the abstract, the romantically organic and the classically austere.
And yet, although Hillier called his painting Pylons, what it depicts are not the grand trelliswork towers of electrical transmission, but the smaller local distri-bution apparatus of pole and transformer familiar from an earlier time. Hillier, who had been based in the rural southwest of France, painted a scene of electrical trans-mission that could hardly be more different from the futurist-classical pylons then being erected across England. It is as though his painting consciously reaches for the worn-in, the delapidated, at precisely the moment when the rhetoric of electrification was employed most insistently in the summoning of a clean, rational, clutterless future. Only two years later, the narrator of Paul Rotha’s (1907–84) Central Electricity Board-funded documentary The Face of Britain hymns ‘the Pylons’ as they ‘carry their living load over mountains, fields, and rivers, never checking in their stride…industry is at last freed from the restricted areas, and need no longer be chained to the coal-fields. And the heavy smoke-clouds of the past can be dissipated forever’5 (Fig. 2). Maybe so; but even Rotha stops short of setting up a line of pylons that might obscure the view of the fresh-faced young couple who, at the close of the film, gaze out over the rolling English sward.
Hillier’s instinct for anachronism would come to be proven right insofar as his rather ramshackle pylon refuses to associate electrification with the march of man’s technical prowess towards a rational future of straight lines and electrical efficiency. In the background of his painting, three poles intersected by wires figure the crosses of Calvary while in the foreground a serpentine rope slithers out between the mounds upon which the figure of electrical intercession rises. What we attend here is an infrastructural scene that allegorises the Fall and the Crucifixion in a visual language appropriate to the transubstantiation of electrical modernity, while implying strongly that we are in the presence of a vast national-scale machine with the capacity to restructure the relationship between time, space and power – electrical, economic, and social power – in everyday life. Similar themes run through the history of pylon painting, as artists tried to capture the lightning, everywhere-at-once temporality of electrified landscape, the switch flick of instantaneous power. Despite their new significance, these pylons often seem, like the moment of the Crucifixion, to stand outside time, and this atemporal iconography of power finds echoes in other inter-war paintings. For pylons are timeless in another way, too: unlike most of the built environment, neither their forms nor their locations changed much from one decade to the next. A lone pylon still occupies the same place in a 1960 ink drawing of Bolton by Julian Trevelyan as it had done in his 1938 collage of the same view (Fig. 3), untouched by the changes in the industrial landscape around it.6 In Trevelyan’s series of collages, produced as part of Tom Harrisson, Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge’s social research network Mass-Observation, spindly pylons are the local manifestations of a national-scale network: Mass-Observation’s technological counterpart. As they stride up and over the skyline, announcements from the local newspaper pasted into the image evoke a more traditional version of networked community.
In a poem published in the year of the Unit One exhibition, Stanley Snaith described the pylons striding across the hills: ‘One after one they lift their serious shapes/That ring with light.’7 One after one, says Snaith: not one after another. And there is significance in that insistence on singleness. The conceit of movement – the idea that the whole line of pylons stretching into the distance should appear like the trace of a single object in motion – records the efforts of writers, filmmakers and painters to find some adequate response to the collapse of time and distance produced by the instantaneous movement of electricity across the landscape from power station to lightbulb.
The great steel pylons that had been ordered for the National Grid conformed to a design originally proposed by an American firm, Milliken Brothers, and were adopted subject to modifications proposed by the resolutely anti-modernist architect Reginald Blomfield (1856–1942). As early as 1929, Blomfield was using the same metaphor of movement in arguing for the pylons’ aesthetic merit as well as their utilitarian value: ‘Anyone who has seen these strange masts and lines striding across the country, ignoring all obstacles in their strenuous march, can realise without a great effort of imagination that [they] have an element of romance of their own. The wise man does not tilt at windmills – one may not like it, but the world moves on.’8
For Blomfield, to whom continental ‘Modernismus’ was anathema, the pylon fitted into the tradition of a particular kind of Classicism. Even the word ‘pylon’ emphasised this connection. Initially borrowed from Greek by French Egyptologists as a term for the gateway towers of Egyptian temples, the word pylon had remained in current use in part because it had been applied to the steel towers used to mark the course in the new extreme sport of aircraft racing. Besides this, Egyptian-style pylon gates had been very much in vogue in the early 1920s as proposed structures for the commemoration of the Great War dead, and the enduring Egyptological interest only increased with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922. There does not seem to be any firm evidence for the often-repeated claim that Reginald Blomfield’s adaptation of the Milliken design was intended to reflect the form of Egyptian temple architecture. Indeed, on the few occasions when he took to the pages of The Times to defend the aesthetic merit of the pylons against nimbyish detractors – including such eminent figures as Rudyard Kipling, J.M. Keynes, and Frank Brangwyn – he preferred to describe them as ‘cable towers’ or ‘masts’. But it cannot be denied that Blomfield’s tweaked pylons do seem strangely exotic, flaring outwards at their bases rather than standing brittly vertical like the French models visible in Hillier’s La Route des Alpes (1937). It is hard not to think of the pylon as being caught up in some form of eerie pharaonic mysticism, as reflecting some event of temporal displacement or anachronism with the potential to curse as well as to fascinate. How else is one to explain their frequent association with ruined buildings and blasted heaths? For so they appear not just in Hillier’s works, but in Humphrey Spender’s (1910–2005) Industrial Landscape with Pylons (1938; Fig. 4) – where impotently isolated pylon grids stretch out across barren fields – and in Felix Kelly’s (1914–94) washed- out, oneiric At the Fort (1946; Fig. 7).
Yet it was impossible to get away from the feeling that the pylon marked a certain kind of spoliation, as well as heralding a new electric utopia. No question: these are structures which instantiate a peculiarly atavistic power of taboo, that prohibitory magic which Freud describes as being ‘transmitted by contact like an electrical charge’.9 Consider the enormous humanoid pylons which stride through Julian Trevelyan’s 1938 watercolour Landscape with Pylons (Fig. 5). Looming above the town, reminiscent of H.G. Wells’s martian walkers, they are yet more expressive of human shape and movement than the hollow men who scuttle along the roads below. Trevelyan’s pylons, like Hillier’s, prominently display their DANGER signs in a splash of warning red. It seems for all the world as if these splayed colossi, raised up like Ozymandias, might yet stand sentinel over the deep England they threaten to abolish. It certainly seemed so to E.M. Forster, who in ‘The Abinger Pageant’, a pageant play from 1934, lamented ‘arterial roads, by-passes, petrol pumps, and pylons – are these going to be England? Are these man’s final triumph? Or is there another England, green and eternal, which will outlast them?’.10
And yet, looked at from a particular angle, pylons themselves evoke a far longer lineage of totemic objects, of physical manifestations of quasi-divine power in the landscape. Like the herms of classical antiquity, pylons mark the notional limit of urban space, being themselves creatures of countryside and wilderness. Look at Eric Ravilious’s (1903–42) Wilmington Giant (1939) in the right way, and this vast figure, arms spread out to grasp two straight lines, the whole thing viewed through the wire of a rickety fence, begins to resemble the familiar form of the pylon; follow the trail of ancient stones across the face of Paul Nash’s Landscape with Megaliths (1937), and they too seem to stalk off over the horizon like a prehistoric pylon line. These are paintings about the relationship between landscape and forms of non-human power; though they are often described as belonging to the pastoral tradition, nothing could be further from the truth. These are not post-pastoral, but de-pastoralizing works, displacing the human figure from the picturesque through an encounter with the sacralised objects of prehistory. For Hillier, Trevelyan and others, pylons seem to have generated a similar mixture of awe and estrangement, the idol of a new object of veneration – progress, in its avatar as electrification – which remains hidden from view.
During the war years, pylons all but disappeared from English painting. In 1940, the American artist Charles Sheeler (1883–1965) painted the extraordinary power-tableau of Conversation – Sky and Earth (Fig. 6), depicting the Hoover dam and its grid. But this is an altogether different proposition: an unambiguously triumphalist vision of landscape set to work, with steel towers soaring up into what the newly composed official song of the Army Air Corps had called the ‘wild blue yonder’. For British painters interested in technology and industrialism new military subjects were more pressing, while for the most part pylons were still too new and dissonant to fit into the kind of rural idyll that was supposed to remind the home front what it was fighting for. Pylon painting began to wane, only to return in the 1960s as an adjunct to more contemporary anxieties about the expansion of motorways. Edward Burra (1905–76), whose paintings of the 1930s and 1940s remained resolutely unpylonised, would later develop an interest in the electrical grid’s criss-crossing of other networks of production, supply and consumption. But Burra’s pylons aren’t excrescences upon the landscape: rather, they channel its various moods, becoming part of landscape insofar as they participate in the formal treatment of the scene. In Picking a Quarrel (1968–69; Fig. 8), for instance, dark industrial pylons loom on a far hill, trailing wires haphazardly, as if under the influence of the messy scene of industrial Grand Guignol in the foreground. English Countryside (1965– 67) puts in view a quite different line of pylons stretching – well-spaced, rational, almost noble – across a landscape bisected by a clean blue ribbon of motorway and over-looked by a distant aeroplane. And then there is the uncharacteristically stark and simple ink drawing Pylons (Fig. 9), in which thinly pencilled wires themselves barely register between the pylons poised on either side of a rolling valley. Here, these solitary structures are connected not only to each other within the landscape, but to the landscape itself: one pylon, pencilled in, seems of the foreground; its apex crackles with inked voltage, pulling its counterpart out of the wooded hill behind while also linking itself to the highlighted tree that balances the left of the drawing.
In many of these images, from Hillier’s first pylon to the wisped cobweb in East Anglian painter Mary Newcomb’s (1922–2008) The Pylon (1973; Fig. 10), wires stretch out beyond the frame to an elsewhere, as if to invite the making of connections. Align them in the right way, and these images could almost constitute a pylon line of their own: tradition figured as transmission. And yet, whatever Burra’s and Newcomb’s pylons are, they are not, as those of the 1930s were, out of place. If anything, they are the figures that produce a sense of place in these wintry and desolate interurban expanses of motorway and toxic verge – monitory remnants of a future by now well worn in. James Purdon is a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge.
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