Recording Britain

15 January 2012
Ben Pentreath

I’ve been travelling a little this week—two days in Scotland, on the Moray Firth, at the fantastic project we’re about to get going on up there. As we were driving from local town to town, visiting the best places for inspiration for the new development, I was struck by how mutable, and yet simultaneously how unchanging, the landscape is. I am thinking of small, perfect towns like Cromarty, in the Black Isle, which hardly feel touched by the twentieth century (and are perhaps the better for it).

Somehow, in this mood, I wanted to spend some time this weekend looking at my four beautiful volumes of Recording Britain – that extraordinary second world war programme to record in thousands of watercolours this land and her towns and buildings. The brainchild of Kenneth Clark, the project employed hundreds of distinguished artists to paint scenes that were felt to be under threat—initially from bombing, but later extended to include places threatened by ‘progress’, and by a changing way of life.

A long, long time ago – perhaps when I was about 18 or 19, I remember going to the V&A (as it happens, with my Mum) and coming across the watercolours on exhibition. Or had she planned the visit? I can’t remember. You can read more about the collection here (and note the V&A symposium on 20th April 2012). Many of them have stuck in my mind ever since. So it was quite a pleasure, browsing in a small bookshop in beautiful Lewes, a few years ago, to come across the four volumes that I’ve photographed here.

A small, random selection of some of my favourite images. Some are examples of wonderful topographical record. Others transcend this to become works of art in their own right. Is it time for a new Recording Britain, please? I feel a St. Judes production starring Emily Sutton, Ed Kluz, Mark Hearld, Chris Brown and Alan Powers coming on…!


10 comments on this post

The books themselves, like their contents, are a veritable feast of nostalgia! Reading the comments to this post, I came across Daniel’s reference to ‘Highland Fling.’ Aha!–a Nancy Mitford novel I don’t yet own!! I immediately cut over to abe books and ordered a copy, as well as copies of ‘Don’t Tell Alfred’, ‘A Talent to Annoy: Essays, Articles and Reviews’, and her corresoncence with Evelyn Waugh. Ben, this makes 6 or so books, including your own ‘English Decoration’, that I’ve bought as a result of your blog. Well done!

I’ve been sent to your gorgeous blog from Ciao Domenica. My house is already brimming with old books, but I feel I need a set of these.


A feeling I get often!! 🙂 Ben

They are really beautiful and the V.&A published last October and updated book on the Recording Britain project which brings together highlights from this extraordinary collection. It also has an essay from our Senior Curator in the Word & Image Department Gill Saunders. The V&A will also be hosting a display of the watercolours and drawings opening 14th April 2012. You can purchase Recording Britain here

Is Recording Britain still available? Do you know where i can get one of the original copies or must i order a new copy?


Dear Lillian, I would try Abe Books – for instance click here..

What lovely books, I wonder how many of these places still exist. Im not sure whether the shop at Poole Valley, Brighton still does, might have to go and have a look now. I love the mix of artist, off now to go and research it more! Many thanks for the info.


I too brought a copy of these unique and atmospheric books. I teach an MA to military officers on the impact of war on identity and visual culture and use these as an example of the commitment to preserving national identity. It has relevance to how we approach conflict and cultures today.


I’d no idea these had ever been published in books. You’ve sent me scurrying off to Abe; thank you for taking all those photos.

And quite agree about a new St Judesified topographical production.

Absolutely beautiful! And you’re right, some really are works of art on their own. I’ve been dying to go to Scotland lately, but especially this week more than ever since I’m reading Nancy Mitford’s story of the Bright Young People ‘Highland Fling.’ sigh…if only we could insert ourselves into our books!

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