Women walking: the rural and the Romantic.


This was written for Women Walking, a week of events at Somerset House, 11-17 July, culminating in a weekend programme, which included presentations, on 17th July, from Louise Ann Wilson and Alison Lloyd. This is my response to their work, which I gave following their contributions. 

In Louise Ann Wilson’s Warnscale, (2015), the everyday world is left behind and the landscape becomes a ‘symbolic metaphor’ for a personal journey.

I was thinking about this in relation to Ruskin’s objection to the  ‘pathetic fallacy’ of the Romantic poet:  the idea that perceptions of landscape can be distorted by over-association with our own emotions. The rain pours like tears; clouds gather angrily; the brook babbles merrily; the crow caws mournfully and so on. And at first I wondered whether this was another version of it, an extended imposition of human grief on an indifferent mountain. However, what strikes me as different to this (and perhaps an answer to Ruskin from some of the Romantics, too), is Louise’s very precise and detailed observation, and response to the more-than-human world around her.

For instance, she describes the very idea of the walk as emerging from her observation of the treatment of sheep, in her previous work, The Gathering, (2014), recalling the way the ewes were checked to see whether or not they were pregnant, and if not, deemed ’empty’ and ‘turned up’ to the mountain. In Warnscale the place works on the walker as much as vice versa, making this a space of transition and exchange. When Louise and two women involved in the project join Clare Balding for the Radio 4 programme Ramblings they tell her that there are moments when one can’t think of anything but about where one is, and that’s when the symbolic resonance happens.

Environmental Humanities scholar Kate Rigby suggests that, in spite of problems with the concept of the Sublime, one can sometimes find in Romanticism a kind of ‘ecstatic dwelling’. I love the way she describes this as an invitation:

To open oneself to the givenness of earth and sky in the abiding strangeness of even the most familiar of places, as well as to tarry or stray in places that are genuinely foreign, places, perhaps, where one is exposed to the elemental and uninhabitable, from which, in our daily living, we are bound to take shelter…(Rigby 204:138)

It seems to me Louise’s work contains this invitation too, and it interested me to read that Dorothy Wordsworth and Barbara Freeman’s notion of the ‘feminine sublime’ both inform this work. Freeman describes this concept as a deliberate modification of Burke’s ‘Sublime’ as an aesthetic which describes the female subject’s encounter with and response to what is other and beyond her, yet which ‘neither celebrates self-presence and the self’s capacity to master the other nor consecrates the immediacy of its absence.'(Freeman 1997:2 and 9). The Self neither dominates nor disappears. It’s in the moments where one is fully immersed in place that the place speaks back.

The other, related thing that I wondered about was the the idea of the woman’s body as the land, a possibility that we are rightly wary of, yet which is somewhat present here, but present in a conscious and political way. In particular the resistance to ideas of productivity and domestication for the walking woman are shown as analogous, particularly in The Gathering, to the required productivity and domestication of farmland and farm animals, suggesting an ecocritical sympathy, one might say empathy with the exploited land.

Alison Lloyd’s work, on the other hand, does something else. In her photographs the walking woman occupies the role of the lone wanderer who is more usually identified with the walking man.


Caspar David Friedrich ‘Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog’ 1818.


Alison Lloyd, Dartmoor, 2015. 

I had been thinking about Caspar David Friedrich’s image of the ‘Wanderer’, the man in a black frockcoat, back turned to us, standing on the rocky summit, looking out at the view, or perhaps one should call it a prospect, with all the capitalist potential that implies. I wondered whether one might paint a woman in such a situation, and how that image might be altered in critique of it.

It was after I had been thinking about Alison’s images in relation to this that I found the one she used for publicity for ‘The Grand Tour’ last year (above). For yes, there is Alison almost silhouetted, dressed in blue-black, surrounded by swirling blue clouds and a rocky terrain similar to Friedrich’s painting. But unlike his ‘wanderer’ she’s walking towards us, and holding a bit of paper, and looking off to her left, as though she’s noticed something. She doesn’t dominate the view, rather a stone circle encloses her. Unlike the ‘wanderer’, this figure seems to hesitate.

In other images, Alison shows herself walking through countryside, out in open space, but she is not taking heroic possession of it. Often the camera seems to be placed low to the ground, and she is crouching, leaning towards it. At other times, she is walking in a path where overhanging branches frame her and obscure that elusive prospect. Or she’s a small figure on a path, almost lost in a landscape, almost buried in it. So again, there is a sense of dwelling in, rather than looking at or owning the landscape.

In the work of both these artists, then, I think we can see ways of responding to walking in the open that take familiar tropes from male walking art, perhaps in particular familiar tropes from Romanticism, and change them in important ways. The woman-as-land image, filtered through the embodied consciousness of a woman walking, becomes a way of seeing the countryside responsively and empathetically, while the heroic male walker has been replaced by a less imposing figure, even though perhaps no less heroic, in her disorienting encounter with the landscape.

Barbara Freeman (1997) The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women’s Fiction, University of California Press: Berkeley.

Kate Rigby (2004) ‘Ecstatic dwelling’, Angelaki, 9:2, 117-142.