Tracks: Walking the Ancient Landscapes of Britain by Philip Hughes

Softback review by Liz Dexter

This quietly stunning book will appeal to anyone interested in art, landscape, walking, geology, geography, maps and ancient monuments. Deceptively simple paintings reveal both the landscape and the walk to see it, and notes and notebooks give context and background.

The self-taught artist Philip Hughes has a preoccupation with the landscapes of ancient cultures and a love of travel and walking. He has his Establishment credentials, too, having served on the Council of the Royal College of Art, the Board of the Design Museum and as Chair of the Trustees of the National Gallery, but it’s clear from the date and geographical range of the pieces represented here that he very much ploughs his own furrow and pursues his own interests.

An excellent introductory essay from the novelist and poet Kay Syrap, who has written on other artists, sets the scene and puts Hughes into his context, as well as examining some of the series of sketches and paintings in depth. She summarises his work as coming from

… an artistic practice that is characterized by the tension between representation and abstraction, between precision and the surreal.

and through this brings unexpected things to our attention, from the quartz veins in rocks to the exact placement of stones and mounds in their landscape. She also draws out that he concentrates on the routes to the places as well as the places themselves, and in some of the collections included here he approaches somewhere from multiple directions.

As for context, Syrap connects him to the 1960s and onwards school of land artists (Richard Long perhaps being the most well-known of these) and I can see that in the simple abstractions and concentration on shapes and paths, although he doesn’t himself alter the landscape apart from changing its colour in some pieces.

The main book is divided into walks or paths, ranging from the Scottish Isles to West Penwith on the westerly tip of Cornwall. Each section has a map (from a different source each time) and a colour image or two at minimum; some include sketches, pieces made decades apart and set side by side, sequences of small pieces interspersed with sections of maps which were exhibited together, and some pieces where electromagnetic and photographic surveys are altered to make art pieces. Many of the pages from sketchbooks or images have his distinctive handwriting featured, and these notes are brought into the text as well, adding a commentary and more context.

I was particularly interested in the places I knew – the South-West, the Ridgeway (one painting is even of a section I ran during my ultramarathon in 2019, and then the next page shows it in the snow, red skis charmingly inserting themselves into the bottom of the picture, which was a special moment as I read it), but all the sections, even on places you think you know, like Stonehenge, show them in a different, new light. Two pictures of a part of the South Downs Way, a gouache and an etching, were made in 1974 and 2010 respectively and show a similarity and repetition which is comforting but a difference in detail that is fascinating.

Being a Thames & Hudson book (the paperback edition of an initial hardback, and lacking the endpapers of the former edition), the quality is high, the reproductions lovely, and all the details there, author biographies, lists of his exhibitions and a decent index.

This is a fairly short review as it’s an easy book to read quickly, not much text, lots of images. However, it’s a book you will want to return to again and again. The spare images, with no fussy detail, are calming to view and the notes charming. Highly recommended.

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Liz Dexter doesn’t plan to run along the Ridgeway again any time soon but will think about the pictures of it in this book when she does. She writes about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Philip Hughes, Tracks: Walking the Ancient Landscapes of Britain (Thames & Hudson, 2020). 978-050029536-6, 192 pp., col. Ill., paperback

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