Thursday, 18 February 2016

Vanishing Point: A Fen Painter, Farmland & Wildlife Conservation

Swans On Methwold Fen by Fred Ingrams, 2016

Greige. I muttered gloomily to myself as I walked into a grey afternoon. But I know the colours are there, even in February - especially in February; they leap out at you if you care to look. I was reminded of this when I visited painter Fred Ingram's sell-out show at the weekend. The man who fell to earth in the flat Fens (he's a self-confessed outsider, or newcomer) fell in love with them. He drives the dead straight roads until a vanishing point or change in the weather stops him in his tracks and he sets up his easel. He's found that the people who belong to these parts, such as the farmers, love his paintings. After all, among the poster print Turners and Constables that hang on living room walls or GP surgeries, the Fens are noticeably absent.

So what's out there? Some of  the flat carrot fields have been sacrificed for big conservation projects. Lakenheath Fen is one such example. The transition from monoculture to mosaic hosts a picture book of fauna and flora, but it doesn't contain them; the cranes and marsh harriers flap over the spots binoculars never notice, and sometimes Fred Ingrams is sitting there. He has added a distant flock of swans here and there, but mostly his landscapes are devoid of detail. The factory drone of farm machinery, or reality of the chemical mist of crop sprayers are absent but the paintings are illuminated with a vivid sense of storm and sunshine. To me, this is a landscape beaten black and blue. It's no pastoral idyll (see Monbiot's colourful rant about the derivation of this word) but its flat fact of industrial production is still beautiful.

In winter fields are scorched with the yellow stain of glyphosate, a herbicide treatment. Last year's green reeds are yellow blonde. Ditches and dykes shine silver among the black peat soil or cerulean blue on a fine day. Ingram's bright abstract brush strokes remind me of our five-a-day (we are urged  to eat a rainbow) - this is where our food comes from. There are carrot and sugar beet mountains out there, bright potato and broad bean blossoms, blocks and swathes of blue-green wheat and fluorescent oil seed rape.

I look at those paintings and I imagine the details too. Alder and willow trees shine purple, orange and grey at this time of year, and scale lichen is blazingly sulphur yellow. But if you were to go to the RSPB's Ouse Washes  you would find a landscape devoid of trees. Conservation management here engineers an avian monoculture. A zero tolerance policy is applied - trees get the chop as they harbour wild animals that predate favoured species of bird. Crows and mink are denied their lookouts and dens.

Scale lichen - photo by Jo Sinclair

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