Northumberland’s ‘Hardest’ Geordie forces us to think about Landscape Art and the Definition of a Beautiful Landscape

By Leona Skelton

During my summer holiday in Northumberland, I visited the relatively new land sculpture, Northumberlandia, near Cramlington. Northumberlandia could certainly handle herself in Newcastle on Tyne’s drinking and clubbing centre, the Bigg Market, containing 1.5 million tonnes of rock, soil and clay, towering 100 feet high and measuring a quarter of a mile long. Changing with the seasons, and designed to mature over generations, she reflects the local people’s relationship with the environment, providing a welcome sanctuary for dog walkers, tourists and hill walkers, notably to the exclusion of cyclists. This ‘Lady’, covering a 46-acre, free access, community park, and containing over four miles of footpaths, is certainly worth a visit. As can be seen in the photos, she is perhaps best appreciated from the air, but the majority of her visitors don’t own private choppers, so they wander the ground – under her nostrils, along her fingers, over her brow and down her legs. It certainly makes for an unusual (and completely free) day out.

Northumberlandia’s Face

Northumberlandia’s Face (Photo: Leona Skelton)

The landowner, the Blagdon Estate, with the Banks Group, a Durham-based land development and mining company, funded the £3 million project privately to sugar the pill of restoring the neighbouring Shotton surface coal mine, which is now back in operation, feeding the UK energy industry. The site is now maintained by the Land Trust, with the support of Northumberland Wildlife Trust. Inspired by the adjacent Cheviot Hills, which are renowned for their gentle curves and majestic presence as they watch over the county, Northumberlandia was designed by her creator, the American born architect Charles Jencks, to celebrate the female form. Jencks describes the site as a ‘cosmic setting’, explaining that through his work, he attempts to find relationships between ‘the big and the small, science and spirituality and the universe and the landscape’ – quite an ambitious brief!

Northumberlandia’s Right Hand

Northumberlandia’s Right Hand (Photo: Leona Skelton)

The tourist attraction, which presents a very tangible and graphic example of a human impact on the landscape, inspired me to think about: landscape protection and damage; the definition and definitions of a beautiful landscape; nature, sculpture and art; and how we have forged, continue to forge and, indeed, to express our ever-changing relationship with the environment. In December 2013, shocking statistics were aired in the media, confirming that UK golf courses took up more land than UK homes. To take golf courses as an example, does constructing them damage or enhance the environment? It’s a hugely controversial and ultimately subjective question. Many golfers would argue that a well-tended and pristine golf course is a form of landscape beauty in itself, as they genuinely appreciate, admire and enjoy the environment of manicured fairways and greens, artificial lakes and ponds and sculpted bunkers filled with clean and soft sand, the hallmarks of an impressive golf course, for which a substantial number of golfers are prepared to pay large sums of money. How many golfers, however, object to the extensive use of pesticides, weed killers and machinery to obliterate nature and effectively sculpt the landscape in order for them to play their apparently land greedy game? Can both a golf course and wild flower, moorland wilderness be beautiful, admired and cherished? The answer is yes, but the respective groups of admirers, I guess, would be almost mutually exclusive.

Northumberlandia reminded me of the land art which appeared across the beautiful, albeit agricultural, landscape of the Yorkshire Dales during Le Tour de France in July 2014. The project, Fields of Vision, produced twelve pieces of artwork, which were created on the hillsides visible from the cycle route, with the intention of entertaining the cyclists and spectators, as well as showcasing Yorkshire proudly to the world in no uncertain terms. Co-ordinated by Pennine Prospects, a rural regeneration company for the South Pennines, the artworks were produced by artists, young farmers, scientists, cyclists, communities and landowners. The giant images included a flat-capped farmer, one man and his dog, a poem and the image of a bike, literally worn into the hillside by a plethora of cyclists following a designated track in the shape of a bike.

Transforming the landscape into art is not a new concept, having been an expression of human relationships with the environment since ancient times. The giant man engraved into a chalk hill above Cerne Abbas in Dorset is believed to date back to the Iron Age. If we are to develop our understanding of human relationships with the environment, perhaps these very obvious expressions of human culture, installed into the landscape to communicate a particular and enduring message, using the land itself as a medium for communication, might be a good place to start.

Finally, as I can’t possibly write a blog without referring to my current Tyne project, the Jetty Project’s ‘Cone’ sculpture, recently erected on Dunston Staiths, is also well worth a visit. It dominates the Tyne riverscape in a powerful and deeply symbolic way, I’m sure you’ll agree.



Aerial View of Northumberlandia:

BBC Magazine: ‘How much of the UK is covered in golf course?’ [24/12/2013]

BBC News, England: ‘Aerial artworks for Tour de France in Yorkshire’ [09/06/2014]

One comment

  • Marianna Dudley

    Northumberlandia: what an intriguing place. Your write-up has prompted a few thoughts and questions… Firstly, it chimes with a book I am reading at the moment, ‘The Architecture of Happiness’ by Alain de Botton, in which he makes a strong case for the way in which we humans imbue buildings, and the objects we place in them, with characteristics. So, for example, possessing a plain Scandinavian crockery set on one hand, and an ornate Sevres one on the other is an ‘invitation,’ he argues, to ‘a democratic sensibility in the former case and a class-bound ceremonial disposition in the latter’. We take this further, by looking for human characteristics in things – a quick glance at the (hilarious) twitter feed Faces in Things (@FacesPics, is testimony to this. The strong forms of buildings, and deliberate shapes of abstract sculpture particularly invite this trait (both conscious, and unconscious). The generous curves of a Henry Moore sculpture certainly suggest human shape. Land art, as practised by Robert Smithson or Richard Long, places the artist in the environment and invites us to view their traces written in stone, earth, twigs, and other expressions. But temporality is often present too, as in the walk lines of Long, that he makes by repeatedly walking on grass – they disappear, eventually, as will we. Northumberlandia is clearly different – an explicitly human form, constructed on a scale that means she will last. I guess that the artist is making a statement about Mother Nature, or perhaps a motherland, with this female giant. I base my next comments on your report, and from looking around the Northumberlandia website – I haven’t been there myself. But I question how prone and placid this woman is. She is inviting us all to walk all over her! Which in my experience, is unlike the Northumberland women I know, and certainly unlike ‘Mother Nature’/the environment.

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