John Lendis’s ‘View from Kelmscott’ paintings, currently on display at John Ruskin’s Brantwood, are not at all, thank goodness, the sort of genial, mild, greenly ‘English’ landscape images one might have expected from the title of the series. They are, instead, eerie and unsettling (as one sees from comments in the Visitors’ Book), avantgarde in both their pictorial techniques and some of their semantic content (London Underground and SONY signs built into the image, for example). They express paralysis and defeat, projects of aborted break-out, articulated through those powerful Victorian icons of graceful female death, the Lady of Shalott and Millais’s Ophelia; and the most extraordinary picture here, in my view, is accordingly the ‘Winter Boat’, with the Lady of Shalott trapped in a bleakly snowy treescape.
Why should this be, and what is the ‘View from Kelmscott’? Surely not just bucolic fields and the stripling Thames, nor even just Morris himself and his family and friends; but rather Dick Hammond, Ellen and the utopians of News from Nowhere: ‘gaily-coloured tents arranged in orderly lanes, about which were sitting and lying on the grass some fifty or sixty men, women and children, all of them in the height of enjoyment and good temper’ (chXXXII).
But then this, alas, was a utopia that never in fact happened, a future that failed to materialise, that went down in the bloodbath of Stalinism, the counter-revolution of Fascism, World War and, for us today, that dismantling of the post-war Welfare State we’ve been witnessing since Thatcher and Reagan and now under the banner of globalisation.
‘I wish I had a river I could sail away on’ is the title of one bleakly longing painting here, but she doesn’t. Thwarted hopes, broken utopias, political paralysis, the vibrant energy of Morris’s Ellen shattered into the deathward-tending horizontal stasis of Millais’s Ophelia, or the ‘Kelmscott Ophelia’ as she becomes here. Thomas Hardy once wrote that ‘If a way to the better there be,/It exacts a full look at the worst’; and in these haunting Kelmscott paintings John Lendis has given us a disturbing image of that Hardyesque ‘worst’ blighting our most beautiful utopian English landscapes.