Picturing Cornwall: a review

This is a review of Rachel Moseley’s book Picturing Cornwall: Landscape, region and the moving image, (University of Exeter Press), which was published late last year (2018).

In 2016 in my review of academic work on Cornwall since the millennium, I noted the progress made in analysing the representations applied to Cornwall and the Cornish. Rachel Moseley takes this a step further in the first book-length account of the screen imagery of Cornwall over the course of the twentieth century. She does this by analysing how Cornwall has been pictured in travelogues, fiction and supposedly more factual documentaries.

After a brief introduction, the book establishes its theoretical credentials. Relevant work in Cornish Studies, sociology and geography is identified. Lefebvre’s theories on the use of landscape in film, the role of moving images in the social production of space and Urry’s influential account of the tourist gaze and commodification take central stage. Rachel Moseley informs us her approach is a critical regionalist one.

Chapter 2 addresses travelogues. A place-myth of Cornwall was established early, drawing on existing stereotypes in literature and art and became ‘remarkably consistent’. In travelogues such as the early GWR films, Cornwall was a view for the incomer, an archaic land of romanticised tradition, myth and mystery. This place-myth then erased Cornwall’s links to modernity, drowning them in a backward rurality. It was a view of the edge, bypassing inland Cornwall and its ‘potential chaos’. She goes into some detail about the technical means of achieving this, panning sweeps of the coast, close-ups of waves, women perched on the edge of cliffs, long shots of picturesque fishing villages and the like. This was a ‘prospect’ view, establishing ownership, something she describes as part of an internal colonialism, producing a dependence that limited economic welfare and undermined cultural integrity. Travel films set the ‘timbre, content and vocabulary’ for later representations. Timeless archaism, romantic mystery and peripherality became the stock in trade for fictions set in Cornwall,

A combination of prospect view and view from the edge

Most of this will already be familiar. But in chapter 3 she suggests two developments occurred in fictional representations of Cornwall. The first expanded on the peripheral. Rachel Moseley has already written of the ‘woman on the edge’, a figure perched precariously on clifftops. Here, the Cornish landscape is used as a metaphor for troubling questions of identity – gender and Britishness – at times of social change, war and uncertainty (such as the present). Although Cornwall serves an external function here, it reinforces the idea of Cornwall as periphery. This reached a peak in the second series of Poldark, with its ‘hysterical insistence on the edge of Cornwall’ combined with a ‘nostalgic tourist gaze and landscape porn’. We might add ‘not just landscape’ as glistening pectorals and galloping horses backlit by an apparently permanently setting sun appeal to a particular demographic.

The emphasis on the liminal in screen fictions could also occur in more threatening guise. Precariousness and passion segued into downright fright and horror in films such as Straw Dogs, for example. Nonetheless, a distanced tourist gaze and a vicarious fascination with a potentially barbaric periphery was leavened in screen imagery by the inviting possibility of paradise. The second shift in screen fiction was towards a ‘rhetoric of immersion and affect’. This produces a more emotional response to place on the part of the viewer, less detached and more intimate than the controlling prospect view. Cornwall was reconstructed as a place ‘which invites the outsider in’. But this reconstruction is no less colonialist in practice. The device of aesthetic immersion leads to a desire to consume Cornwall and its place-myth and to actual relocation to this romantic edge. This is oiled by the material mechanics of tourism, as the place-myth helps drive Cornwall’s second colonisation.

The third substantive chapter of the book, chapter 4, takes as its subject what Rachel Moseley terms ‘actualities’. These include the obvious cookery and property relocation shows where Cornwall fulfils a role as a refuge for consumers. These continue the use of spectacular, picturesque and comforting imagery. Cornwall is promoted purely as a holiday destination, a place of stasis quivering passively under the tourist gaze. However, the focus of the chapter is on other programmes. The woman on the edge re-appears in A Seaside Parish. In Cornwall with Caroline Quentin the viewer becomes a virtual tourist, invited into an ‘alternative, enviro-conscious lifestyle’ to be bought with the right amount of ‘cultural and economic capital’. Here is the latest version of the tourist gaze, the ‘Cornwall lifestyle’ much beloved by property developers and local elites alike. All Roads Lead Home ended with an embarrassing moment of ‘emotional outpouring’ from an incomer expressing their love of Cornwall, the end result of the ‘aesthetic affect’.

In short, the current televisual place-myth merely confirms the traditional myth, rather than deconstructs or develops it. Even well-meaning attempts to challenge that myth from outside end up reproducing it through adopting familiar technical devices, the swooping aerial helicopter shots of Coast for example. ‘More often than not they partake in the fixing and reiteration, producing [Cornwall] as static, spectacular and to be looked at’. The contradiction between the outside tourist gaze and the possibility of a more intimate insider view is unresolved. As a result, the place-myth is so powerful it tends to close down critique, which is probably why so few of the political elite in Cornwall are prepared to question it.

The final chapter sums up how outside imagery, bound up with the tourist gaze and reproduced by influential social groups, sustains colonial relations of looking. Cornwall is pictured as ‘traditional and unchanging, epic in scale but narrow in outlook, a place located at the very edge of a territory, its interior unknowable and, in the main, unpicturable’. Nonetheless, chapter 5 also offers examples of insider film practice, by amateurs and independents, which offer some antidote to the stifling colonial view. Yet even here the post-colonial subject finds it hard to avoid the point of reference provided by a ‘proprietary and neo-colonial prospect stance which emblematizes the political and economic relations of tourism’.

Rachel Moseley’s book provides a comprehensive account of the screen representations of Cornwall, one that builds on work undertaken within Cornish Studies. Individual aspects of this are already well known but her analysis of the way it articulates together and its relation to wider economic and social relations is a valuable addition to the literature. That said, there are a few issues with the work.

Picturing Cornwall is not the easiest of reads, with a good deal of cultural and media studies technical language, which sometimes obscure the main points being put forward. It’s heavy on description, taking us through detailed scenes of films and TV programmes in a manner that occasionally verges on the repetitious. The technical aspect of the discussion – audio devices, camera positioning, shot arrangements and the like – are no doubt of great interest to the media student but may leave the general reader somewhat bemused.

Perhaps the most useful insight of the book is its identification of the way the screen myth works to combine the precarious positioning of Cornwall in the English psyche with an immersive aesthetic, seducing the consumer into a desire to partake in that elusive place-myth, by re-locating to Cornwall and purchasing it. The myth then puts boundaries around critique while trapping local elites into (both intended and unintended) collusion with it.

But are academic accounts themselves immune from this same process? Rachel Moseley speculates at the end of the book about the possibility of incomers ‘being in place’ and asks whether a truly critical approach can only stem from subalterns, insiders at the sharp end of internal colonialism. Do we detect a tragic yearning here, a not uncommon desire to be accepted, to arrive and to belong? The introduction to the book, recalling family memories and car journeys holidaying to Cornwall, an echo of Daphne du Maurier’s arrival by train, establishes the author’s position, while possibly grating a little with native perspectives, as does the dedication ‘to everyone who loves Cornwall’. Sometimes we can kill the thing we love.

Finally, academics have interpreted the Cornish predicament, but the point is how to change it. If, as this book argues, Cornwall’s screen image is the result of internal colonialism buttressed and reproduced by the tourist gaze then the obvious answer is to end both that colonialism and an over-dependence on tourism. In doing that help from empathetic outsiders will be invaluable, but the impetus will ultimately have to come from the colonised subjects themselves.

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