Opulence and Anxiety: Landscape Paintings from the Royal Academy Kate Whiteford: Airfield 2007
Both at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until 10 June
This spring at Compton Verney the emphasis falls on landscape.
A portentously titled exhibition, 'Opulence and Anxiety', is the result of a fishing expedition at the Royal Academy which veers from the fabulous to the frankly execrable. Almost all are diploma works, so the artists' own choice, but what has been trawled from the murky waters around Burlington House seems to offer more insight into the nature of an increasingly marginalised institution than into the condition of British painting (and still less that of landscape painting).
Yet the Victorian retreat to the rural was far more complex than just a fear of industrialisation. George Vicat Cole submitted Autumn Morning as his diploma work in 1891.
Abinger Church tower, grazing sheep, long shadows and a hint of smoke are all the stuff of rustic cliché, but off to the right more smoke emerges from the trees. This is pretty unlikely to be, as the catalogue would have you believe, a 'swathe of morning dew', but evidence of the continued vitality of industry in this corner of Surrey, where the gunpowder and paper mills were still in full production.
Having set the tone with glorious paintings such as William Hodges' 1778 view of Benares or Turner's own diploma offering, Dolbadern Castle, the visitor is forced to face the stultifying offerings of late Victorian and Edwardian Royal Academicians - a relentless diet of Highland cattle, snow-bound ocks of sheep and rainbow-hued skies.
The 20th-century selection does little to redress the balance:
Algernon Newton's peculiarly haunting canalscape apart, there is not much to linger over.
The show is bound to be a crowd-pleaser but I would question whether the accumulated deficit of British academic art, even after the justifications in the catalogue, can ever be in credit.
More coherent and convincing, Kate Whiteford's companion exhibition 'Airfield' is divided between indoor exhibits (wall paintings, works on paper and video) and outdoor ones - a 'landing strip' stamped onto the lawns and Point Blank, a distant eyecatcher in the mist.
Her thoughtful exploration of the intricate layers and levels of landscape and archaeology at Compton Verney includes an aerial video of Capability Brown's serpentine lake snaking through the parkland, reuniting the original scheme, long since split into various ownerships.
Aerial stills of the local airfield during wartime equally reveal its short but busy past.
There are now plans to trace and reopen Brown's series of lakeside paths at Compton Verney. Historic evidence and recent marks, archaeology and the accumulation of wear, all combine to reveal a peculiarly (or typically? ) complex history of a small patch of the English landscape. And Whiteford's investigation of the seen and unseen gains an extra dimension when you discover that during the war Compton Verney was requisitioned and served as a camouageresearch station.
Gillian Darley writes on architecture and landscape