Picture Book of Britain

Delicately interwoven collages combine western and non-western pictorial traditions to produce lavishly illustrated photographs for this Photoworks commission.

This exhibition ran between 6th – 29th October 2006

British artist Henna Nadeem has worked with found photographic images of the landscape. Photoworks commissioned Nadeem to produce new work using photographs sourced from a series of highly popular books published between 1937 and 1975 by Country Life Magazine entitled The Picture Books of Britain.

Finding her material in books and magazines, Nadeem looks for images that evoke strong western pictorial traditions. These traditions have, over centuries, suggested the world’s coherence, emphasising nature’s benign power as an ideal space beyond the events of human history and civilisation. In a process that undermines the solidity of these images and ideas, Nadeem uses pattern templates derived from a variety of non-western sources as a basis for grafting images together into delicately interwoven collages. The mesmerising results present a perceptual challenge as two visual traditions collide and vie for prominence.The Picture Books of Britain are lavishly illustrated with landscape photographs. They can be seen as part of a wider concern in the 1920s and 30s with surveying the nation in search of its essential character. This was particularly strong as the possibility of war loomed. The historic and enduring landscape of Britain was and still is imagined to be at the heart of Britain’s national identity.

The Picture Books of Britain are romantic and unequivocal celebrations of the land as a stable and timeless image, set against what were to many the less palatable realities of a period of immense social change. As the book jacket to the reprinted Second Edition pronounced in 1947: ‘Pictures such as these are part of our birthright…they will be welcomed more warmly than ever in a time of change, when more powerful means than the builder’s pick and shovel have destroyed much that was dear.’

Just as the books seemed to consciously offer the consolations of a heavenly place, now totally unhinged from the particularities of actual locations or events, so Nadeem has pushed her work to new extremes and to powerful hallucinatory effect. In these collages 1960s Britain seems in the grip of parallel realities, not just an unstable, evolving place but one going through a gradual and at times nightmarish metamorphosis.

As well as referencing some of the most memorable graphic art of that time with its own non-western affiliations, Nadeem’s extraordinary works claim a space for an unheard generation, for children growing up and finding their voice. It is this blend of childlike innocence and knowing subversion that gives the artist’s work its critical tension and this series its particular poignancy.

Nadeem’s new series has been brought back together in a unique bookwork, published by Photoworks, which in concept and design refers back to the original Picture Book series.