Review of England on Fire: A Visual Journey Through Albion's Psychic Landscape

 A copy of the book was kindly provided to me for the purposes of this review. All comments are my own. 

In the midst of jolly days out at Hampton Court and pulled pork sandwiches at Warwick Castle, we often forget that England's history has been actually very turbulent. Famines, civil war, executions and ghosts that haunt our country pubs. Shakespeare plays held outdoors in the summer might talk of fairies, ardent love and ermine-wearing kings, but what has really been going on, under the surface? 

A new book, England on Fire, is a compilation of English art which explores 'Albion's psychic landscape' -  from ancient standing stones in the middle of the countryside to expressive ghost-like beings that cast torch-light into woods. Words are one thing, say the authors, but what about England's sub-conscious, what have we really been thinking? 

The book is certainly beautiful. Hard-back, with glossy pages and an introduction from co-author Mat Osman. Chapters are headed with enigmatic titles such as Weeds and Wilderness; Myth, Magic and Ritual and Visions and images are accompanied sometimes by explanations and other times with a simple caption. Each chapter has its own introduction, too. 

Artists often react to events around them, and the subject matter of the art here is varied. A seventeenth-century woodcut of a devil mowing a field of oats was an event that was actually said to have happened, in 1678. A twelfth-century enamelled depiction on gilded copper shows us a warrior fighting a dragon, the dragon curling backwards around the disc to attack its prey. An early eighteenth-century oil painting of a ruined house that looks as if it could crumble to the ground with the slightest breeze. Photographs, oil paintings, portraits, ink paintings, sculpture and sketches all combine to give a diverse and moving account of England's thoughts, reasoning and emotion, put together thoughtfully by co-author  and curator Stephen Ellcock. 

England on Fire is definitely thought-provoking. As you flick through the pages, you really do get a sense of the subconscious and often poignant undercurrent of England's 'jousting and days out' heritage. You can see what's scared us, what's enthralled us and what we've made fun of. You'll also see what we've rebelled against, too.

It's also, weirdly, quite soothing. Devils mowing fields and stone grotesques that silently scream at us from cathedral walls are uncomfortable to look at, especially in uncertain and difficult times, but, as Osman says, 'no matter, we've been here before'. 

Love art? You'll love it. It'll inspire you and help you feel closer to the artists themselves in a very human way. Love history? You'll love it too: it's a beautiful record of the cultural expression of  our ancestors, and lots of modern artists, too. 

Find the book at (affiliate link, your purchase helps the blog continue at no extra cost to you) Amazon or at Watkins Publishing or check with your local bookshop. 

Have you read England on Fire? Let me know what you thought of it in the comments below.... 

You might also like Sketching St Luke's Church, Reading; a review of John Callow's The Last Witches of England and Medieval Wall Paintings in Checkendon, Oxfordshire. 

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  1. I found your comments quite interesting. Earlier, I had been reading Mantel, THE MIRROR And The LIGHT in which the term "blood-truffler" was applied by Cromwell to Stokesley, Bishop of London (p.367) so I set out to search Tudor swear words and found your blog. I moved to your next comment and there I found a review of ENGLAND ON FIRE: A Visual Journey Through Albion's Psychic Landscape which I have ordered through your link. Thank you for your work. I'll be returning!

    1. Fantastic - I hope you enjoy it, it's a really interesting book! And 'blood truffler' is a great Tudor swear word! I'll have to look it up. Thanks for stopping by :)


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