Conrad Atkinson

For Wordsworth; for West Cumbria


Not on display

Conrad Atkinson born 1940
16 works on hardboard and card, photograph, acrylic paint, iron ore and coal
Support: 521 × 622 mm
Purchased 1981

Catalogue entry


Not inscribed
Photographs, acrylic, iron ore and coal on hardboard and card, 16 panels, each 20 × 24 (51 × 61)
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1981
Lit: Conrad Atkinson, 1975–80: Work about the North (exh. catalogue), Carlisle Museum and Art Gallery, September–October 1980 and tour, pp.5–8 and 12; Conrad Atkinson, ‘Passive Action/Active Passion’, Artforum, IX, September 1980, pp.31–7; Conrad Atkinson, ‘The Only Man who ever brought Work to Cleator Moor was Adolf Hitler’, Radio Times, 17–23 October 1981, p.23; Sandy Nairne and Caroline Tisdall (ed.), Conrad Atkinson: Picturing the System, 1981, pp.28–32, repr.pp.74–5

Since the late '60s, much of Conrad Atkinson's art has been concerned with the problems experienced by those living in the area where he was born and brought up, the industrial coastal strip of West Cumbria (formerly Cumberland). This set of sixteen panels brings together a number of Cumbrian themes, some previously individually explored by the artist in earlier works and exhibitions, and many of which are well documented in Conrad Atkinson: Picturing the System (op.cit.).

Here, sixteen panels composed of a variety of media are displayed in two rows of eight. The panels in the upper row, which are largely photographic, each contain quotations from Wordsworth, the ‘archetypal Cumbrian artist’, as Atkinson has described him. The quotations are painted in green and pink, echoing the general colour scheme of the upper part of the work and symbolically suggesting ‘man’ and ‘nature’. The colours have been kept pale, so that the viewer has to be close to the panels in order to read the text. This is a deliberate device, used by Atkinson to draw his audience towards the work. Reading from left to right, the quotations are:

1. How exquisitely the individual Mind
(And the progressive powers perhaps no less
Of the whole species) to the external World
Is fitted:- and how exquisitely, too -
Theme this but little heard of among men -
The external World is fitted to the Mind.

The Excursion, preface to the edition of 1814, lines 63–68

2. Into our Minds, into the Mind of Man -
My haunt, and the main region of my song.

The Excursion, preface to the edition of 1814, lines 40–41

3. - The Poets, in their elegies and songs
Lamenting the departed, call the groves,
They call upon the hills and streams to mourn,
And senseless rocks; nor idly; for they speak,
In these their invocations, with a voice
Obedient to the strong creative power
Of human passion.

The Excursion, published 1814, Book 1, lines 475–81

4. Cold, pain, and labour, and all fleshly ills;
And mighty Poets in their misery dead.
- Perplexed, and longing to be comforted,
My question eagerly did I renew,
‘How is it that you live, and what is it you do?’

Resolution and Independence, published 1807, verse XVII, lines 114–19

5. I could have fancied that the mighty Deep
Was even the gentlest of all gentle Things.
Not for a moment could I now behold
A smiling sea, and be what I have been:

Elegiac Stanzas suggested by a picture of Peele Castle in a storm, painted by Sir George Beaumont, published 1807, lines 11 and 12, 37 and 38

6. shoals of artisans
From ill-requited labour turned adrift
Sought daily bread from public charity,
They, and their wives and children

The Excursion, published 1814, Book I, lines 559–62

7. In disease
He lingered long; and, when his strength returned,
He found the little he had stored, to meet
The hour of accident or crippling age,
Was all consumed.

The Excursion, published 1814, Book I, lines 553–55

8. And, from the impulse of a just disdain,
Once more did I retire into myself.

The Excursion, published 1814, Book III, lines 829–30

These are not arranged in a chronological sequence but were chosen by Atkinson to show what he has described as Wordsworth's ‘clear eyed realistic view of the material relationship with nature, not a sentimental fantasy’ (Conrad Atkinson: Picturing the System, op.cit., p.31). Atkinson knew that the work would be viewed in a cultural context, and wished to point out that high culture as we view it is not apolitical or detached from real issues.

Atkinson has sometimes used images of parts of the human body (for example, a heart, lungs, hands) symbolically. Here the outstretched hands (of one of his daughters) represent man in nature, his relationship to the environment, and relate to an earlier ten-panel work, ‘Sunset: Shelley/Wordsworth’ (1978), whose central image was the work-worn and diseased hands of an ironore miner. This was also the first of Atkinson's major works to take as its themes the Romantic Poets of the nineteenth century and rural and industrial Cumbria today.

In T03229, each of the top panels relates to the one directly beneath it. The top row, representing ‘high culture’ presents a narrative sequence, whereas the lower panels give a more fragmentary and episodic picture of industrial Cumbria, appropriate, Atkinson feels, to the lives of many who live in this area.

In the upper panels, nature is represented by Wordsworthian daffodils. Reading from left to right, in the first three panels the hand dominates ‘nature’ but on a gradually decreasing scale. In the fourth panel, landscape and hand are balanced and the written text becomes easier to read. From the fifth panel, ‘nature’ begins to dominate ‘man’ and the hand gradually becomes smaller - the final image showing a small hand against a single daffodil.

Atkinson was born in Cleator Moor, a small mining village on the west coast of Cumbria - an area which has more in common with the industrial North East than with the Lake District National Park. In the last century, Cleator Moor, situated inland from Whitehaven (once the third largest port in England, after London and Bristol) and south of Cockermouth (Wordsworth's birthplace), was a centre for the mining of coal and iron ore. More recently, Atkinson described it as having been 'a distressed area, a depressed area, a special development area. My grandfather, a Labour Party activist, brought a party delegation to the West Cumbrian area in 1936 and one of the MPS on that delegation told me many years later that she had never seen such hardship. The unemployment in Cleator Moor was 82 per cent and in the nearby village of Frizington it was 96 per cent... meaningless figures to describe human suffering...

'A short boom in the 50s (while Calder Hall, the world's first nuclear power station, subsequently nationally known as Windscale, was under construction) was exhausted by the end of the 60s.

'Now, despite the fact that working people in Cleator Moor have always had to balance their lives against their livelihood, people have mixed feelings about the expansion of Windscale and the possibility of a similar influx of jobs, after the mammoth Windscale inquiry and world debate on the nuclear question.

'Unemployment has always, even in the best of times, been twice the national average in Cleator Moor and the 70s was a vicious period for West Cumbria. Many of the families in the area are one-parent families with the father away working on construction sites in other parts of the country or on the oil rigs’.

(‘The Only Man who ever brought Work to Cleator Moor was Adolf Hitler’, op.cit.).

Atkinson has looked to a number of British literary figures of the past in his search for a radical tradition in art. In ‘Sunset: Shelley/Wordsworth’, he contrasted Shelley's image as a romantic poet with his political activism and with Wordsworth, the ‘passive activist’.

In a piece published in Artforum (op.cit.) Atkinson has written about his renewed interest in Wordsworth: ‘During the late 60s and the 70s, my art practice has, to a great extent, evolved from my background and early life and from my involvement in the area of England where I was born, and have spent much of my life. This is a mining community...blasted by years of depression and unemployment, and isolated by what is essentially a middle-class, high-income bracket, outdoor museum and playground, “The English Lake District” in which the workers are “invisible” or “hidden” as were the workers in Engels’ Manchester...

'The Lake District, well known for its connection with the “Romantic” poets, and particularly Words-worth, seemed to be another world which had no relevance and no lessons for us. By accident I reread some Wordsworth, of whom I, like my friends, had had my fill at school, where, naturally, because he had been born and had lived a few miles in physical distance (but much further in terms of class and income) from the coastal industrial strip, he dominated English literature classes. I reconsidered him in the light of Raymond Williams’ assertion that the Romantic poets were centrally involved in the politics and economics of their times, and that furthermore, this involvement was central to their work-not only in the obvious ways such as Shelley's involvement with Irish Republicanism, Byron's death in Greece's war of national liberation, Blake's trial for sedition and Wordsworth's involvement in the French Revolution - but in a variety of more subtle ways.

'One of these ways was manifested in the idea of the repressive role of landscape and in the concepts revolving around the notion that landscape is “socially constructed”. The idea of the mountains and lakes as unmitigated “timeless standards” to which man returns occasionally to be “restored”, or “recreated”, is essentially a 19th-century idea, and Wordsworth approaches this notion with caution. But in a simple and direct poem “The Ruined Cottage”, he tells the story of a couple and of how, when the man has to travel away from one area in order to find work, the cottage gradually decays.

'The problem of depopulation is now characteristic of the industrial strip, whilst the Lake District is, conversely, full of holiday or “second” homes. Thus the industrial strip along the coast has all the problems of an imbalanced population-among them bad communication, and one-parent families. Where mining was once the main industry, the major employer is now the famous, or infamous, Windscale nuclear plant, which is currently expanding in order to handle the processing of nuclear waste from the rest of the world. Whereas before the coal and iron ore dust permeated the land and the lungs of the people, now the dangers seem less visible physically, but more visible ideologically.’

In T03229, Atkinson presents what Caroline Tisdall has described as ‘a corrected view of Wordsworth and a mistaken interpretation of nature, ...seen in relation to the constructed reality of the industrial strip’ (Conrad Atkinson: Picturing the System, op.cit.).

The lower panel on the extreme left is a photograph of the picket line during the strike in 1972 at Brannans' Thermometer Factory in Cleator Moor. This relates to Atkinson's work of 1972, ‘Strike at Brannans’ where he documented the year-long strike of the mostly female factory staff, who were demanding better working conditions. Inset at the bottom of the photograph (and seeming to undermine the scene above) is a more conventional view of Cumbria, a postcard of Lake Buttermere. In the second panel, Atkinson has ‘constructed’ a landscape by extending with painted lines the contours of another tourist view of the lakes. On the painted network he has written a number of phrases related to the area, for example:

'Special development area transport nuclear energy plant’

'oxide reprocessing plant £1,870,000 seasonal employment patterns’

'industrial hazards pneumoconiosis, cancer, brucellosis in Farmworkers, T.B.’

'second houses, tied cottages, sale of council houses, tourist economy’

'Alienated picturesque Lake District, National Park, deskilling’

'A&B Social groups, senior and middle management 38% of tourists’

'Strontium 90 Windscale Calderhall plutonium economy civil liberties’

Also included is a short quotation from a poem by George Crabbe ‘The Village’ (1783) contrasting an artificial poet's view of nature with the realities of life in the country in the eighteenth century. ‘Then shall I dare these real ills to hide in tinsel trappings of poetic pride?’

The third panel includes a piece of iron ore between excerpts from two poems by Richard Watson, a nineteenth-century Irish immigrant iron ore miner who having been forced to leave his land in Ireland was also eventually forced to leave Cleator Moor when the seams of ore ran out. The poems were first published in 1888 (Richard Watson, Egremont Castle and Miscellaneous Poems, published by John Welsh and Co., Whitehaven). Here again, in Atkinson's transcription, pink and green paint symbolically separate man and landscape.

Beneath Wordsworth's lines on the ‘Leech Gatherer’ from Resolution and Independence, another dying tradition is evoked; disused mining machinery with a superimposed landscape suggests the encroachment of nature, while a miner is seen at work beneath. Atkinson's grandfather and father worked as miners - his grandfather at one time in the Florence-Beckermet iron ore mine which closed in 1980. Later, his father worked for British Nuclear Fuels Ltd at Windscale from 1955–65, as did the artist himself for a short period.

The fifth panel, placed below Wordsworth's lines after the loss of his brother at sea in 1805, when, in Atkinson's words, the poet ‘could no longer look at Nature with an objective eye’, commemorates the loss of six local men in the disastrous sinking of the oil rig, the Alexander Kielland on 27 March 1980. Atkinson is making the point that local men work on the rigs because of the lack of job opportunities at home.

The next panel (which resembles the second in its use of contours) charts the changing pattern of employment in Cumbria over the previous five years.

The one following relates to the case of Malcolm Pattinson who died of leukaemia aged 36 after working at the nuclear plant at Windscale (Sellafield). Both Atkinson and his father worked there and this section of the work serves as a reminder that, despite hopes that Windscale would prove a new source of employment for the region, the effect of the nuclear industry on nature and the workforce is as dangerous (if more insidious) as that of its precursor, iron ore mining.

Pattinson's case was one of the first in which a link between cancer and exposure to nuclear waste was acknowledged in Britain. Here, in order to express the effect of the British Nuclear Plant on local life, Atkinson presents pieces of coal and iron ore on a red ground indicating an earlier choice ‘in the balance between life and livelihood that West Cumbrian workers have to face’.

The final image in the bottom row of panels is of Cleator Moor Job Centre set against a photograph of dead leaves, as ‘nature’ symbolically takes over.

This version of ‘For Wordsworth, for West Cumbria’ was not exhibited prior to its acquisition by the Tate Gallery. An earlier, but Atkinson believes, less successful version was commissioned by Carlisle Museum and Art Gallery as part of his touring exhibition, 1975–1980: Work about the North, which opened in Carlisle in September 1980. The work was intended to provoke constructive criticism from its audience, many of whom were obviously connected with the area it is based on. When the Tate wished to purchase the work, the artist decided to remake it, afterwards destroying the original version.

The compiler is grateful to the artist for his help with this entry and also to Jean Golt for making her extensive notes on the work available.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984

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