On the defensive
In 1939 Suffolk artist Colin Moss joined what would be one of the oddest outfits of the Second World War - the Civil Defence Camouflage Establishment at Leamington Spa. He was one of 200 or more artists, architects, engineers and horticulturists employed there, who set about camouflaging factories, power stations, dockyards and airports against enemy attack.
In a small but intriguing exhibition at the Wolsey Art Gallery, watercolours by Moss record some of these camouflage schemes and their installation - notably one for Stonebridge Park power station near Wembley, where anamorphic images of pitched-roof houses are wrapped around the big cooling tower. Seen from the air, presumably these would have blended into the suburban setting, but what Moss presents are the means behind the illusion - not the illusion itself - and those means are pretty crude. Certainly from ground level such camouflaged structures must have seemed surreal.
Moss's work is a pendant to a larger show at the Wolsey called 'War Fields', which looks at the impact on the British landscape of the Second World War through paintings commissioned or acquired by the War Artists Advisory Committee.
Louis Duffy's A Blockhouse Somewhere in England is an inventory of the concrete forms that infiltrated the countryside in the guise of shelters and anti-tank defences - the rows of cubes and truncated pyramids one still finds on the coast or in the Home Counties. Cubic forms recur in John Piper's Shelter Experiments near Woburn, Bedfordshire: the elemental, block-like bomb shelters portrayed in a circle - an allusion by Piper to prehistoric henges? - and reflected in a waterfilled crater in what is otherwise a wasteland.
Only one of Piper's signature church towers in the distance anchors this strange image to the Bedfordshire of its title.
The show suffers from a glut of Land Girls - picking peas or milking cows and generally obscuring the view - and the majority of the works are more valuable as evidence than art. But there is a value in that evidence, because often it is of a passing moment - of something which is now concealed.
Ranelagh polo ground in London is turned into allotments, a Georgian country house sprouts Nissan huts as bizarre wings, a Suffolk common becomes a battlefield during military training. Landscape is emphatically dynamic, being made and remade.
A different note is struck, though, in a coda to the show - a small selection of works made at Orfordness in Suffolk, site of defence research for much of the 20th century, and where components for nuclear weapons were tested during the Cold War (AJ 4.5.95). Now in the stewardship of the National Trust, this is a haunting place, seen here in a large careful oil painting by John Wonnacott and three brusque charcoal sketches by Dennis Creffield. The shingle-banked, reinforcedconcrete test chambers could almost be burial mounds; they have a cryptic timeless quality.
At Orfordness, defence has made a long-term difference to the landscape, for while the camouflage and allotments were transient, all that concrete is going nowhere fast.