14.10 Fred Judge and the Myth of the English Landscape
Among the more than eight thousand photographs of the British landscape that Fred Judge took between 1904 and 1924, a considerable number were of rural workers: shepherds, farmers and fisher-folk in particular. What is evident is that most of these occupations that he recorded with his camera were about to either disappear from the landscape or become irrevocably transformed thanks to technology such as the tractor. It is uncertain however how conscious he was of this. Did he, in other words, photograph labour knowing it would soon vanish, or did he see it as an enduring and permanent image of Britain’s rural traditions? The question affects how images of traditional culture are viewed and employed today.
Judge published his work as real photo postcards, achieving exceptional success with several images that sold in the tens of thousands. At the same time he was considered to be one of the leading Pictorialist photographers in Britain, exhibiting regularly and having several international shows in Europe, North America, Australia and Japan. Although his reputation waned to the degree that he could almost be regarded as a forgotten photographer, while he was active, his work was widely disseminated and discussed. Judge employed a distinctive, popular style for the time, printing his postcards in dark, sepia tones that gave the landscape a romantic atmosphere. Although he claimed to only be photographing what he saw, Judge was as interested in what the image evoked as in what it depicted. He was therefore coming toward the documentation of heritage from a very different approach to that of the contemporaneous amateur survey photographers examined by Elizabeth Edwards in The Camera as Historian.
Although he went against the standards of objectivity that Benjamin Stone, founder of the National Photographic Record Association and guiding hand of the amateur survey project, Judge’s vision corresponded more closely to an idea of Britain and the landscape that had been inculcated throughout the previous century. Reacting against the destruction wrought by industrialization, the Young England Movement of the 1840s, including future conservative prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, looked back to a pre-industrial era wherein the relationships between land-owner and worker were framed by an unwritten contract that dignified both positions. Later the architect and activist William Morris and the socialist Robert Blatchford would echo similar sentiments from the opposite side of politics. This notion of a halcyon pre-industrial age would influence ideas of the landscape from politics to popular art. It was an underlying motive behind Morris establishing the Society for the Protection of Ancient Monuments that survives today where contemporary nature writing evokes nostalgia for rural lifestyles freed from the monotony and constraints of urban existence. It is also evident in Judge’s depictions of labour as a feature on the landscape signifying dignity and self-respect. Reading Judge’s photographs of labour within the context of modern cultural theorists such as John Barrell and Raymond Williams, for whom all visual and literary images of the landscape are profoundly ideological, a romantic or even sentimental view emerges. There is an abiding sense in Judge’s work that he sought to invoke a past for his viewers where the land had been a powerful element in national identity. That past was still present during the 1910s but its end was foreseeable. All of this depended upon the viewer accepting a myth; that the people who worked the land existed within a tradition that valued them as much for what they brought to Britain’s national identity as their labour.