Representing the English countryside is notoriously challenging. While all nations are cursed with cultural baggage and stereotypes around the appearance of and the populations within its rural parts, England is widely regarded as particularly problematic . Andy Sewell’s Something Like A Nest has been celebrated for examining and subverting pastoral clichés through his extended documentary of contemporary rural life in Southern England.
The sequence is varied in terms of subject matter and the narrative is not easy to pinpoint: Parr-esque close-ups of wares at village fêtes; oblique landscapes hinting at past activity; and images depicting the mechanics of modern agriculture, such as glistening silos and pristine glasshouses. The interior photographs help establish Sewell’s narrative more clearly however. Interior pictures have been a staple of rural commentaries: historically, Walker Evan’s 1930’s sharecropper’s homes spring to mind. Within a European context, Bert Teunissen’s Domestic Landscapes (2005) is an impressive survey, and images from James Ravillious’s study of North Devon in the 1970s and Justin Partyka’s ongoing study of East Anglian rural communities are also worth noting.
Sewell’s photographs however rarely feature the occupier directly: they are portraits of microenvironments, as opposed to examples of ‘environmental portraiture’ akin to the work of the practitioners mentioned above. In their pictures the owners and tenants tend to have modest possessions and pictures hint towards austere lifestyles. Typically, one half of the Arcadian pastoral myth is presented – simplicity, yet without the ease. The architecture and interiors depicted by Sewell, on the other hand, are much more ordinary and familiar to the urban or suburban viewer. There is realism, yet without the ‘otherness’ that this is so often accompanied with: the recurring image looking out of the window above the kitchen sink brings the art movement of that name to mind – the paintings of John Bratby for instance. Sewell is surely also using the window knowingly to remind us of how the outside (rural) environment is so often presented within popular culture as ‘other’.
Sewell’s interior images have been carefully composed to present thresholds between the food producing countryside and the sites of its consumption, with plenty of visual references throughout the entire series to our cultural framing of the countryside. This tension stands for some of the complexities in navigating contemporary rural issues, such as conflicts of interest between urban and rural populations; and food production verses conservation. Although Sewell’s series continually nods towards the pastoral, slipping for instance into elegiac form with more melancholy imagery (such as a burning pile of rubbish; a portrait of a freshly shot deer), and there are frequent references to cycles and re-birth that are typical pastoral tropes, Something Like A Nest is complex and intriguing, putting forward our domestic environment into this discourse.
 See John Stathatos’s essay ‘Fleeting Arcadias’ (2000)
Andy Sewell’s self-published monograph Something Like A Nest is available to buy through his website: http://www.andysewell.com/something-like-a-nest/-
Andy Sewell is represented by James Hyman Gallery