Landscape as Sign Language at the Royal Geographic Society

By Richard Moss | 31 March 2014

The Royal Geographic Society is the venue for an unusual collaboration between a geographer and a photographer exploring the appreciation and experience of landscape


a photo of a fast moving river with cascading and swirling waters
Simon Warner, Upper Wharfedale
'What do we like about landscape and why do we like it?’ This is the knotty question posed by the geographer Jay Appleton in his book The Experience of Landscape.

In it he posits the theory that aesthetic taste in landscape and landscape art derives from primitive, hunter-gatherer instincts for viewpoints and shelter or concealment.

Appleton’s theory, known as the Prospect-Refuge theory of landscape appreciation, is explored in a new exhibition at the Royal Geographic Society who are bringing the words and ideas of the esteemed geographer together with the beautiful images of Simon Warner whose colour photographs depict some stunning views across England, Wales and Scotland.

Warner seems a good fit for the feted professor; both are Yorkshire based, but the environmental photographer and filmmaker has a track record that has seen him long listed for the Northern Art Prize in 2011-12 and work with a variety of partners from Harewood House and the Florence Nightingale Museum to Brontë Parsonage Museum and North Devon Biosphere Reserve.

His photographs of Stone Circles, swirling rivers, turf mazes and other examples of British bucolic beauty leads the exploration of Appleton’s key category theories of Prospect, Refuge and Hazard.

They are accompanied by a narrative commentary, detailed captions and even a bit of poetry to offer a literary perspective and to underline Appleton’s fondness for cross disciplinary thought.

It might not be immediately apparent from the beautiful imagery on show but the notion of hazard emerges as an important part of the theory; according to Appleton all places of refuge involve hiding or sheltering from something, with  environmental perception being all about weighing up risk and advantage.

The exhibition ends with a group of pictures on which visitors can try out their own newly acquired skills of landscape interpretation.

Appleton's theories of environmental aesthetics have had a big influence on landscape architects and thinkers including Simon Schama, who acknowledges him as one of the thinkers responsible for the revival of cultural geography in Britain. Philosopher of art Denis Dutton credits him with re-initiating an interest in the attachment all species display for their natural habitat.

For the rest of us, feelings of pleasure at landscapes (or looking at pictures of them) may or may not depend on whether they would make good habitats, but the idea of landscape as a sign language explaining people’s landscape preferences seems at once whimsical and intellectual.

Image, Instinct and Imagination: Landscape as Sign Language By Jay Appleton and Simon Warner is at the Royal Geographical Society, London until April 11 2014

More pictures:

a photo of a cart track running between fields toward a wooded horizon
Simon Warner, Holme Fen Cambridgeshire
a photo of a stone circle in twilight
Simon Warner, Callanish Stone Circle
a photo of a river with reeds, swans and a church in the distance
Simon Warner, Burford Oxfordshire
What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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