Fountains Abbey as you may never have seen it through the lens of Joe Cornish

Leading photographer Joe Cornish spent three years much of it during lockdown, photographing Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. The result is a stunning exhibition spread across the World Heritage site.

When Joe Cornish was asked in 2019 to do a two-year photographic study of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal he didn’t at first see it as a dream project.

“I love wilderness and do have a bit of prejudice when it comes to formal landscapes,” admits North Yorkshire-based Cornish.“But I love Fountains Abbey and working for the National Trust and so of course I said I’d do it.” And the more time Cornish spent in what he calls ‘scout mode’, walking miles and miles around the Abbey, its formal gardens and deer park, the more he became absorbed and inspired by the project

“Fountains represents a microcosm of our complex relationship with nature over many centuries,” says Cornish. whose work is inspired by his love of nature and our relationship to it.

Snow Storm at Fountains Abbey by Joe Cornish

What started out as a two-year commission ended up being three when the pandemic hit and for a few months not just Fountains Abbey but all National Trust properties were forced to close.

“We did have a crisis meeting in 2020 because the National Trust was having to cut its arts funding due to the pandemic but I asked if I could continue anyway and they were so supportive.” In many ways the pandemic and lockdown actually inspired Cornish’s photography.

The result is a stunning detailed exhibition of 59 photographs of Fountains Abbey and Studly Royal as you may never have seen it.

The bulk of the exhibition is in Fountains Mill where visitors can view photos taken at moments rarely seen by visitors. Images captured at dawn, in twilight, in the chaos and stillness of a snowstorm and when the estate was completely deserted.

Joe Cornish in Studley Deer Park

Photos found here also explore the buildings of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal and their connection to the natural and artificial landscapes surrounding them.

The series Inner World which delves into the textures and shapes of trees dominates an entire wall. All four seasons can be seen throughout the pieces in the mill and visitors are able to hear from Cornish himself as he introduces his exhibition and inspiration in a short film.

“Sweet chestnuts have the most incredible burs and scars – every single one is completely unique – and have taken the photographs in such a way that you can let your imagination go. They are quite abstract close ups, you can see what they are but they can also spark the imagination.”

All 24 photographs are displayed on oak frames beautifully crafted from fallen oak trees from the deer park.

Work featured in the new Joe Cornish photographic exhibition at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. Picture: Storm Cloud Spring Joe Cornish

“It’s a very holistic presentation,” explains Cornish. “All the frames are built using medieval techniques – you won’t find a screw or a nail anywhere.”

There are three other locations for the exhibitions which Cornish hopes will encourage people to explore other areas of Fountains Abbey.

Follow the signposts up to the Banqueting House and be rewarded by a visit to one of the more extensive 18th century follies on the estate. Within the ornate alcoves inside,there are two large scale panoramic photographs of the sweeping views in the water garden. “Capturing panoramas at this scale is a tricky process, especially when the subject is filled with crisp shapes and moving water,” says Cornish.

Journey up to the Octagon Tower in the water garden to view a series of six photographs that he has themed The Fallen.

Perspective_of_Time at Fountains Abbey by Joe Cornish

From this folly, there is an elevated view into the Studley deer park where living trees thrive among trees that have succumbed to old age, storms, infection or other disasters and now lie where they once stood.

The Fallen series explores the imaginative possibilities of fallen trees, many of which have a powerfully sculptural quality. The title Cornish has given them acknowledges the heroic job they do, providing a refuge for many species of tiny creatures, fungi and microbial life.

“We in the western world don’t like to talk about death but I love to show how fallen trees that are dead then become home for so much life. The National Trust changed their policy years ago to leave fallen trees as they realised they are such an important part of biodiversity.”

The Fallen also was inspired by those who lost their lives during the pandemic.“We tend to think of the fallen as those who have died during wars but during the pandemic so many people lost their lives.”

The final area where photographs are located is in the Temple of Piety which is an apt place for a series of four photos exploring the reverence of some of the mature trees that can be found on the estate. The exhibition map guide details where these trees can be found, and it is quite the experience to be in their presence and think about the hundreds of years of history that have passed below their ancient branches.

Cornish is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest contemporary landscape photographers. He lectures and exhibits in the UK and overseas, leads workshops and has written a number of successful books including his best known First Light

Alexa Vernon, Marketing Manager for Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal viewing the amazing photographs on display within Fountains Mill.

His photographs are much more akin to fine art and hail back to his fine art background as he never set out to be a photographer or was especially interested in nature.

“We were not the type of family who went camping or walking in wilderness or anything like that. But I am quite an introvert and at university I found solace in nature,” he says.

“I always felt a bit inadequate to my peers when it came to fine art while at Reading University and there were times when I felt like a failure,” admits Cornish.“The camera gave me a way out. I am completely self taught – I realised that the camera did what I wanted to do with my pencil. As soon as I had a camera in my hand I started taking pictures, it felt like that was what I was meant to do. I suppose photography chose me.”

A working photographer since 1980, the father of two moved to North Yorkshire after meeting his wife who is from Yorkshire. They decided they didn’t want to bring up their children – who are now grown up – in London. and has a gallery in Northallerton. He has devoted almost four decades to landscape photography, especially in the north of England and Scotland.

Cornish is a renowned thinker on the role of photography, especially in environmentalism. He has reduced the amount of flying he does as he is very aware of his carbon footprint.

He is drawn to wilderness and nature and seeks to translate a sense of connection with the natural world through the careful study of its texture and colour, space and light.

“It is all about light and that’s what takes the time. I am not a very patient person but I am determined and I have perseverance.”

For more information visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk

Simon Baxter and Joe Cornish have joined forces for the first time to exhibit a selection of their images, representing six years of photographing trees in the North York Moors National Park, for the exhibition entitled: A Woodland Sanctuary, which begins on 16 July and runs until 10 September. For more information visit www.northyorkmoors.org.uk/awoodlandsanctuary

Alexa Vernon, Marketing Manager for Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal viewing the amazing photographs on display within Fountains Mill.