Nottingham artist and countryside lover Georgina Barney embarked on a journey to capture the farming landscape of Great Britain and bring it to the attention of the wider public. Danusia Osiowy discovers more about her journey.
Ever since she was a child, Georgina Barney wanted to follow a farmer around with a feed bucket and, in her own words, ‘get stuck in’. But it wasn’t just the practical tasks she was interested in.
Such was her curiosity for the countryside, she also aspired to create visual memories to share with the public using her love of photography as the vehicle.
After graduating with a first-class honours degree in fine art from Oxford having studied at the Ruskin School of Art the previous summer, Georgina secured funding from Arts Council England and Farming and Countryside Education (FACE), which also helped her contact farms, featuring her project on its website.
In early 2007, she left London on an overnight bus bound for Ullapool, an idyllic town of about 1,500 inhabitants in Ross-shire, Scottish Highlands.
She says: “It was the beginning of a journey round a series of 14 widely different farms in England, Scotland and Wales.
“I was spurred by curiosity about the landscape and a concern for our relationship with the environment.
“Ullapool was the first farm I visited. It was a small salad growing business supplying local markets and hotels.
“I spent a memorable few days forking seaweed into wheelbarrows, onto a trailer and then using it as a traditional form of mulch, adding alkaline into the soil.
During her journey, Georgina created a series of striking drawings and photographs while also keeping a blog, entitled GB Farming, recording the extraordinary diversity, technology and creativity she experienced in the British countryside.
From a traditional croft on the Inner Hebridean Isle of Eigg to an industrially-scaled ‘agri-business’ in East Anglia supplying major UK supermarkets, her journey captured the polar opposites in farming.
“I learned there is no one best answer to the ideal model of farming – the industrial and the self-sufficient – they are all valid expressions of place, people, economics and landscape.
“But my personal empathy does lie with the family farmer – there is something I love and find inspiring and alluring in their generational relationship with the landscape. It is a special gift they have; and also a burden at times.”
She recalls her time at Northumberland cattle farm as one of her standout memories.
“The farmer, David, also worked a lot with children in education, so he was good at explaining everything he was doing and why, so I learned a lot.
“We went to visit a pedigree South Devon herd as he was buying a bull. I loved watching as he and his father discussed which one to buy.
“The pedigree side of breeding reminded me of buying and collecting art, in a way.”
Along the way she met a wealth of characters, from the titled owners of country estates to environmental activists and traditional livestock farmers.
“I really came to respect each person, their commitment to the land and what they were trying to achieve with it.
“The more alternative environmental communities were really impressive and inspiring in this way – the community on the Isle of Eigg, for example, had pioneered a new model of land ownership in the 90s and also knew how to party.”
Arriving as a stranger to each farm brought its own challenges and she worked to overcome the taboo of her lack of knowledge as a city dweller.
“Sometimes I had to ‘prove’ myself – most did not think me of much use at first which, on reflection, was probably fair enough.
“It is evident there are clear gendered perceptions too on farms, of who can do what, so this was something I encountered a little too.
But often by the end of my visit we had struck a rapport and it was hard to leave.”
Since completing the project, Georgina has continued to develop her own work as an artist, undertaking a number of projects in the farming community.
This includes being an artist in residence at Harper Adams University; holding a poetry and discussion event with the then Defra Secretary Caroline Spelman at the Southbank Centre, London; following the award-winning Blackbrook Longhorns through a showing season and researching historic livestock portraiture and the legacy of agriculturalist Robert Bakewell.
Her work has also been recognised as a significant snapshot of contemporary agriculture, appearing in The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival; SYSON Gallery, Nottingham; Attenborough Arts, Leicester University; and the Harris Museum, Preston, in the major exhibition ‘Green and Pleasant Land? Rural Life in Art’.
A book featuring her solo journey through the farming landscape of Great Britain is set to launch next year to mark the 10-year anniversary of her eight-month project.
“A decade on from my original farming project and I feel it is a great time to look back and reflect on what I have learned since, and how the project has been important to my work as an artist.”
A selection of artwork and writing has been prepared as a book to celebrate her subsequent 10 years of work exploring the relationship between art and farming.
“Over the 10 years which have passed since, GB Farming has exceeded my ambitions for the project as a young artist.”
“Next year will be its 10-year anniversary and the issues in farming which first roused me to action, such as climate change and environmental stewardship, are no less urgent.”
She recently held pop-up exhibitions to help fund the book’s production, raising £2,000 through a Kickstarter campaign.
To encourage donations, Georgina offered rewards including signed and numbered copies of the first 100 prints of the book, original drawings, a limited edition screen print and a bespoke dinner at the artisan Small Food Bakery, Nottingham.
With the recent funds raised, Georgina will focus on bringing her book together and next year she hopes to take it on tour, give readings and show artwork around rural centres in the UK.
“Using my lens to view the countryside, our island offered me a new education as rich as my formal training as an artist.
“I travelled to rural territories as undiscovered and exotic as any far-flung country.”
Going forward she also believes there is a key role for artists to connect with farming and break its isolation.
“There are some good educational initiatives out there and widening public interest, but farmers are also pretty biased and naturally concerned with the politics of it.
“In my work I have met a number of artists from farming families and they are the best people qualified to speak from experience and share this through their skill as an artist.
“Artists are able to ask more open-ended questions, start conversations, and make people consider something differently.”