Prince Charles recently received a copy of the Arcadians’ work for his library. Fiona Russell reports on the 30th anniversary of the journal of this remarkable group.
It’s quite bonkers really,” says Patrick Eyres, pondering 30 years of the New Arcadian Journal over an Americano in a busy city centre restaurant. He takes another sip of his coffee, “but there is something of the heroically virtuous about it.”
In fact the Leeds-based journal – with its characteristic mixture of wit, scholarship and gloriously inventive art work – is many things, Heroically Virtuous being only one of them. Always Stimulating is another. Often Ahead of the Game another still. But it can also be Seriously Whacky and Occasionally Quite Mad.
What other publication – prized by artists, gardeners, academics and heritage professionals – would devote an entire issue to the naval battles staged every year on the pond at Scarborough’s Peasholm Park?
The Henry Moore Institute is preparing to celebrate the journal’s 50th issue with an exhibition of drawings and proofs in the Institute’s library and Patrick is feeling quite nostalgic. “It all began at Cartwright Hall.”
Patrick, then a lecturer at Bradford School of Art, and two of his colleagues – the painters Ian Gardner and Grahame Jones – had discovered they shared a common interest in the gardens at Studley Royal and Hackfall Wood in North Yorkshire.
They created an exhibition entitled Mr Aislabie’s Gardens, after John and William Aislabie, the 18th century owners of Studley, which mixed historical research and contemporary artistic responses. It set the template for much of what the New Arcadian Journal does today.
It was a huge amount of work and left everyone exhausted but also energised.
“We were wondering what to do next,” says Patrick. “But we didn’t want to tie ourselves down to a single precious project with only one outcome that would take years to achieve.” They decided instead to produce a periodical, “partly so that we could just keep bashing things out.”
Thirty years on, the journal retains as its starting point the subject of the 18th century landscape garden. This makes it sound rather dry, but in fact NAJ is exactly the opposite. It is erudite yes, but also adventurous, scholarly and barbed.
Patrick and his team take their cue from the late artist and gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay who famously argued “certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks”.
So, while the NAJ unapologetically celebrates beautiful places and the many pleasures they afford (the naughty ones as well as the officially sanctioned) it lands a few punches along the way.
The NAJ approaches landscape gardens as their creators did, as theatres of ideas, firmly embedded in the political and cultural debates of their times. Those debates are explored rigorously, but with a welcome light touch, and, where appropriate, the NAJ unites the gardens and their preoccupations with our own political and cultural concerns.
The result is a creative fusion which is perhaps most evident in the artwork. Patrick has developed a “regular repertory company” of artists – veterans Howard Eaglestone and Chris Broughton (who have both been involved almost from the beginning), and more recently Andrew Naylor and Catherine Aldred.
All live in Leeds or have close connections there, and all take part in the lively “summit meetings” which take place in the Headingley Ale and Wine Bar, Arcadia.
Catherine is a mere stripling in NAJ terms, having joined the team a mere 15 years ago. She enjoys the challenge of drawing for the NAJ partly because of the carefully circumscribed brief. “In some ways, it’s the limitations – I have to produce monochrome drawings no larger than an A4 piece of paper, and that concentrates the mind,” she says. “The quality of each mark becomes very important”
But within these boundaries she revels in the freedom to explore her own creative and imaginative responses to the gardens. Indeed, each of the artists has, over the years , developed their own distinctive vision.
Howard Eaglestone delights in the sexual and nautical references he finds in the gardens. Andrew Naylor – whose day-job is sculpture conservation – takes the opportunity to imagine the very sculptures he has been restoring in entirely different times and places. Chris Broughton produces meticulous bird’s-eye views of the gardens which incorporate all kinds of ghostly associations – historical, literary, even meteorological. It is an approach which brings the past to life, but without compromise (Patrick is responsible for every aspect of the production and distribution process from design and typesetting to publicity and selling).
And the enlivening attention of the NAJ frequently has practical results – not least at Hackfall Wood, where the journal played a key part in creating the momentum to conserve the landscape which has since reached a triumphant conclusion and at Wentworth Castle where Patrick and the NAJ were vitally important in the campaign that resulted in the huge restoration project currently under way.
Patrick took early retirement in 2005 partly in order to devote more time and energy to the NAJ. He admits to being occasionally “tantalised by the possibility of retiring from retirement”. But a year of celebrating the anniversary “sustained swanking around exhibitions, talks and other jolly-ups” – has clearly reinvigorated him. When we meet he has just had a whale of a time showing Prince Charles around Wentworth Castle in “a hammer horror of a mist”.
Prince Charles took away a specially inscribed issue of the NA J devoted to Wentworth Castle, and the Royal Collection has already ordered its copy of the latest issue which will be the focus of the exhibition at the Institute. It is devoted to the theme of the blackamoor, a statue of a kneeling African carrying a sundial, and the most popular lead sculpture in 18th century gardens. Patrick and his team have traced the links between the statue, the slave trade and the figures who created four gardens in particular – the royal garden at Hampton Court Palace in Surrey, Yorkshire’s Wentworth Castle and Cannon Hall, and Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire.
It’s a characteristically exuberant issue which lands a good-natured but none-too-gentle punch on the nose of the National Trust – who Patrick thinks are a little too keen to deny the links between the blackamoor statue and the slave trade.
Now all he has to do is to publicise it, and sell 100 copies (200 will go to regular subscribers: the NAJ is, and always has been self-sustaining). But have no fear, he will.
Drawings and Proofs from the New Arcadian Journal: The Blackamoor (2011) will be in the library at the Henry Moore Institute, 74 The Headrow, Leeds, March 10-May 13. The online illustrated catalogue of the New Arcadian Press can be found at www.newarcadianpress.co.uk and more of Catherine Aldred’s work can be seen at www.catherinealdred.co.uk