Trees of the Third War: Forests, Photography and Wales

A paper presented at Emerging Landscapes, a conference organized by the University of Westminster, London. June 2010.

This paper considers the relationship between forests, photography and Wales. In doing so it explores the possibility that fir trees and forests might provide Wales with the appropriate monuments and landscapes to symbolize the nation in the twenty-first century. The cultural dynamics enabling national symbols to emerge in Wales will be explored. Consideration is given to whether such cultural processes can be sustained when notions of identity are increasingly fluid. Consideration is given to the role of photography in these processes, and is illustrated using historical and contemporary photographs.

In the 1958 Hollywood blockbuster film epic The Vikings the two leading male characters fight over the affections Morgana, a Welsh princess. In order for the Vikings to get the princess it is pointed out that Einar (played by Kirk Douglas) and Eric (played by Tony Curtis) would first have to set sail for Wales. At this point Kirk Douglas wonderfully exclaims “Wales? That slagheap!” [1]. The notion of Wales as slagheap is of course a twentieth century one rather than any legacy of the age of the Viking warriors. A raft of international films in the late 1930s and early 1940s including How Green Was My Valley provided an international audience with an image of Wales as a once rural idyll despoiled by the imposition of a rapacious coal industry.

This had not been an entirely external imposition as images of the industry were readily created and consumed within Wales itself. The collecting of picture postcards such as W. Benton’s series of photographs of the Senghenydd Colliery disaster of 1913 not only projected the tragedies of coal mining to a wider audience, but also engendered the entering of such trauma into the collective memory of a Welsh society. Within eight days of the disaster Benton’s postcards were circulating in and beyond south Wales. It is however cinema that cements the notion of pithead as monument. Reviewing Proud Valley for the Spectator in 1940 Graham Green suggested that, “the pithead gear shot against the sky… has joined the Eiffel Tower and the Houses of Parliament as one of the great platitudes of the screen” [2]. What was often overlooked by those outside Wales was the fact that the industrial coalfield, which had come to represent the nation as a whole, was only a relatively small geographical part of it, albeit an economically important one. The visualisations of pitheads and slagheap hills of the coalfields became the symbolic monuments and landscapes of twentieth century Wales.

In the essay ‘Picturing Nations: Landscape Photography and National Identity in Britain and Germany in the Mid-Nineteenth Century’, Jens Jäger considers the role of photography in the development and articulation of national identity [3]. Whilst it is understood that most modern nations were ‘made’ in the nineteenth century, his essay suggests that as photographs of landscapes became widely available, the aesthetic perception of landscapes increasingly gained an ideological significance. As a substantial market developed for such images, photographers appropriated conventions previously developed in painting including picturesque views of cathedrals, abbeys and ruins. Britain was growing as an industrial and economic power, yet the impact of industry on the landscape was rarely a subject for photographers. The spiritual heart of Britain was projected as being its countryside, where nature provided the opportunity to enhance moral and aesthetic progress as a balance against industrialisation.

It is suggested that social developments made ‘education and culture’ the main theatre of nation building as interest expanded in geography, history and tourism. Photography was satisfying a growing movement to survey and protect a shared heritage, one that was being projected as essentially British. Whilst there were significant regional differences, titles and descriptions used in conjunction with landscape photographs emphasised Britain as a unified state. Jäger points out that developments in tourism and education were providing a receptive public and an intellectual framework, and became linked to a ‘British’ national movement. Britain was a state unified by an old monarchy and well-established institutions such as Parliament, and British identity had emerged for four different reasons; 1) through its conflicts with foreign foe, 2) through common interests such as trade, 3) through religion, and 4) through the continuity of government [4].

Whilst natural features could represent values that the English, the Scottish and the Welsh could subscribe to, there were arguably significant points of divergence between Britain and Wales in terms of building a national identity. These included cultural and religious tensions such as the Welsh Methodist Revival, which had resulted in Wales being predominately Nonconformist by the mid-nineteenth century. When Turner produced and then presented the painting ‘Dolbadarn Castle’ to the Royal Academy in 1800 he was clearly aware of the cultural significance of the castle and its surrounding ‘wild hills’. In the foreground of his painting soldiers lead Owain Goch to imprisonment at Dolbadarn Castle following the battle of Bryn Derwin in 1255 – the event marked an important aspect of native Welsh rule. Francis Bedford’s photograph ‘Llanberis – Lakes and Dolbadarn Castle’ (circa 1860s) offers little suggestion of the location’s Welsh dimension apart from the name caption. Even the surrounding hills, so significant in landscape paintings of Wales, have somehow lost their rugged potency undermining Daniel Defoe’s earlier statement that, “Welsh mountains were as barbarous as their unpronounceable names” [5]. If photographic landscapes of Wales formed part of British nation building, they were carefully constructed to suppress the points of cultural divergence at that time. Within this construct, the monuments and landscapes of nineteenth century Wales arguably became its historic ruins (notably castles) and its ancient mountains.

Trees became established as an important element of early British landscape photography as evidenced in the work of Fox Talbot and others. As photography increasingly provided a patriotic translation of landscape, ancient trees became symbols of stability and individuality [6]. Trees and forests had been manifest in Welsh culture since at least the thirteenth century and featured in ‘The Mabinogion’, a collection of Welsh prose that was first translated, published and popularised in the mid-nineteenth century. Filled with stories of great battles, kings, and Arthurian legend, the dissemination of The Mabinogion can be seen as part of the Celtic Revival of the period. The romanticism of Welsh trees, woods and forests was, perhaps ironically, promoted through translations provided by Lady Charlotte Guest, wife of industrialist John Josiah Guest, owner of the Dowlais Iron Company. The development of iron production, with its need for charcoal, was a significant contributor to the deforestation of south Wales.

In the first half of the nineteenth century forests had played an important rural-economic role in the south Wales valleys. Rhondda timber was supplied to the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars [7]. In 1804, antiquary and author Benjamin Heath Malkin, commented on the absence of any ‘settlement of consequence’ and described the valley as being “clothed with an apparently inexhaustible opulence of wood” [8]. This however rapidly changed as the coal industry denuded the valley’s forests for pit props. The imposition of industry not only had an enormous impact on a rural landscape, but also dramatically altered the perception of it as an imagined place.

By the end of the nineteenth century industrialisation marked a key point of divergence in social and cultural life in Wales with ‘Traditional Wales’ being seated in largely Welsh speaking rural areas and ‘Modern Wales’ seated in the geographically smaller English speaking industrial areas. The perceptions of Wales that subsequently developed suggested a nation heavy with binary opposites such as rural/industrial, antiquity/modernity, romantic/sordid, with the opposites essentially aligned with Welshness/Englishness.

If conflict with a foreign foe was a cornerstone of building national identity, then the First World War (the first industrial war) provided a powerful and traumatic experience shared by British and Welsh alike. For Wales, no battle on the western front was more significant than the battle for Mametz Wood during the Battle of the Somme in June 1916. The massed attack on German machine gun positions in the wood, undertaken over several days by the 38th (Welsh) Division (which comprised battalions from Wales) resulted in 4000 casualties.

Imagery emerged following the battle such as the 1918 painting ‘Battle for Mametz Wood’ by Christopher Williams showing the intimate brutality of the hand-to-hand fighting that had taken place. Perhaps the most powerful interpretation of the battle was presented in the modernist writings of David Jones in his epic prose/poem ‘In Parenthesis’. Wounded at Mametz, it was not until 1937 that his attempt to make sense of the carnage was published. Surprisingly devoid of the graphic horrors of war, Jones’s work moves from the assembly of the battalion, through its journey across the channel towards the front, and eventually to the battle for the wood itself. The tedium of training, preparing and waiting is interwoven with allegorical historical tales with references to the Mabinogion and Welsh Methodist hymns. An example of the interplay between realism and allegory is found in a moving passage towards the end of the piece when the ‘Queen of the Wood’ visits the dead giving them garlands from the wood [9].

Popular forms of photography satisfied, in part, public interest in the events and battlefields of the First World War. The Realistic Travels’ ‘stereo view’ number 51 of Mametz Wood shows a post-battle landscape. The photograph also indicates that there was much public interest in such images, with Realistic Travels producing hundreds of such war scenes. Following the war The Michelin Tyre Company had, by 1919, produced tourist guides for those wishing to visit battlefields illustrated by photographs showing the battle-blighted landscapes. Many flocked to the battlefields either out of curiosity or to visit the graves of loved ones – some came to make art in the ruins of war. An aesthetic of devastation entered the lexicon of twentieth century photography and painting often featuring smashed and stunted trees surrounded by shell craters. Prominent examples in painting include Paul Nash’s ‘The Menin Road’ and his ‘We are building a New World’, both showing such landscapes.

Artist and Academic Paul Gough has pointed out that since the beginning of artillery warfare artists had been employed to draw the landscape to highlight positions of key targets. As these artists sketched they would re-prioritize features, making them easier for gunners to identify – trees were often made more significant [10]. The military use of photography in artillery warfare proved relatively ineffective as a photograph potentially contained too much unnecessary detail. It is the case that whilst drawing could contribute to warfare, and painting expressed the impact of it on the imagination of the artist, photography was largely left to document the realism of its aftermath. Photography’s realism was however limited in that it failed to hold and fix the enormity and complexity of First World War battles and battlefields. The use of panoramic techniques to maximize the embrace of the devastated landscapes was an attempt. It is the case that the single photograph, incapable of narrative, became largely symbolic. The Battle for Mametz wood offers an example of how the trauma of industrialised warfare could be framed in the Welsh imagination as not only the destruction of man and nature, but also the desecration of ancient values and a rejection of traditional ways of life.

Following the First World War, forests in Wales became more ‘industrial’ than ‘natural’. In its first wave of planting in the 1920s, the newly formed Forestry Commission set out to rebuild and maintain a strategic timber reserve [11]. The Commission bought and expanded existing forests, many having been seriously depleted by the demands of Welsh industry and the supply of naphtha, used in the manufacture of explosives during the First World War. New land was acquired, often through compulsory purchase, resulting in the developments of plantations on existing farmland. Today examples of boundary walls and farm buildings being subsumed by the emerging ranks of conifer trees can still be found. This industrial forestation of Wales became politically contentious and was drawn into the cultural debate when ‘Gwenallt’ Jones suggested in his poem Rhydcymerau that the saplings planted in Welsh landscapes would grow to become the “trees of the third war”. This war was perceived not as military, but rather as a cultural struggle against the erosion of a deep-rooted traditional way of life in rural Wales.

Gwenallt’s poem combines the realism of the expansion of Brechfa forest in which the village of Rhydcymerau sits, with symbolism of its lost culture and way of life. The poem and its theme would re-emerge when the performance company Brith Gof produced site-specific work of the same name in 1984 and also when Welsh photographer Marian Delyth exhibited and published an image relating to the poem in the 1990s. Written in Welsh, the poem entered the psyche of an increasingly militant Welsh-language culture [12].

The twentieth century saw the development a radical Welsh nationalistic strand that perceived an essentially ‘English’ Imperial Britain was suppressing the Welsh language and corroding Welsh cultural life. Writing in 1985, historian Gwyn Alf Williams described the consequences of the various initiatives to engender ‘Welshness’ over several decades as “extraordinary”. He wrote, “In response to a militant campaign whose hunger is by definition insatiable, the British state, ruling a largely indifferent or hostile Welsh population, has in a manner which has few parallels outside the Soviet Union, countenanced and indeed subsidised cultural Welsh nationalism” [13]. Whilst events around the language campaign often made the news, as a cultural expression it most often found its voice through literature, music and performance. The ‘apparent’ lack of a coherent visual culture in Wales would only be addressed in the 1990s through the work of a small number of Welsh artists and art historians. Photography, which had emerged within the contemporary arts in the late 1970s, was but a small part of Welsh visual culture.

The discussion about forests, photography and Wales has so far framed trees and forests in terms of nature and the imagination. It has also explored the role of photography in the articulation of national identity in which trees and forests, to a large extent, had been peripheral. By the mid-nineteenth century Wales’s ancient trees and forests had become suggestive of stability and a sense of shared history through the emergence of texts such as the Mabinogion. During the early years of the twentieth century the destruction of trees and forests as seen on the ‘Welsh’ battlefields of the Somme and in the landscapes of industrializing Wales suggested the exact opposite (i.e. instability and a split Welsh society). The subsequent development of industrial forests during the twentieth century became symbolic of an oppression of culture and language, albeit more contentious for ‘Welsh Wales’ than ‘English Wales’. Forests have also had a significant impact on ‘English Wales’ with their close proximity to settlements bringing environmental problems and attracting criminal activity. More recently the image of the forest has become so difficult that key agencies discussing the future of forests in Wales have been considering a ‘re-branding’ by dropping the use of the word ‘forestry’ altogether, “which was thought to have such negative connotations…” [14].

Can fir trees and new forest developments become the monuments and landscapes representing twenty-first century Wales? ‘English Wales’ and ‘Welsh Wales’ have a shared history of trees and forests, but the reductive binary opposition of English/Welsh as a definition of its society has become archaic in contemporary multicultural Wales. Also, attitudes to forests are changing as plans to build the world’s biggest biomass power station in Wales are considered. Located in Port Talbot, it is expected to power half of the homes in Wales by burning 3 million tonnes of wood chip annually, partly supplied from Welsh sources. Welsh Forests are also among the world’s ‘must-visit’ tourist attractions with one of the world’s top ten mountain bike routes located in south Wales and with stages of the World Motor Rally Championship being held across many of the nation’s forests. Whilst its trees and forests may lack the romantic symbolism they once had, they could easily be representative of Wales’s often-fractious history. In a globalized world seemingly obsessed with entertainment, leisure and dwindling energy sources, fir trees and forests are certainly becoming important landmarks in contemporary Wales.

And can photography play an important role in the development and articulation of national identity in twenty-first century Wales? Photography’s apparent earlier success in the development of national identities during the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century is now more difficult for a number of reasons. It has been shown that literature provided the most significant symbolic projections at a time when visual culture in Wales was undervalued. Previously, photography had a popular reach with substantial markets for stereo views and picture postcards that not only provided visual entertainment, but also allowed their subjects to be projected onto the public’s imagination. As photography moved towards the contemporary arts this reach was reduced as television and (more recently) new media took over its previous roles. Another emergent problem is the suggestion that there is an anxiety about photography (itself) brought about by its changing social function, its relationship to digital technologies and the ways in which it is theorized.

In her essay “Photography’s Theoretical Blind Spots: Looking at the German Paradigm”, Sarah James suggests that photography is now at a time when theorizing has appeared to have reached a critical stalemate [15]. Her analysis points to the 1970s when photography entered an art world defined by conceptualism thus drawing photography into cultural theory. Whereas Anglo-American photography was drawn into Barthesian semiotic analysis, German photography was more concerned with ontological, dialectical and historical concerns. This point (which is only briefly and crudely put here), together with another notion in James’s analysis that there was a German post-war rejection of the idea of art-as-ideology, can be brought to the discussion about forests, photography and Wales. Firstly, considering Wales’s fractious social, political and cultural development, it seems impossible to consider a form of photographic imagery that could represent a ‘Welsh’ ideology. Secondly, photography’s role in British and Welsh ‘nation building’ depended much on the development and acceptance of what was signified in its monuments and landscapes. A semiotic analysis of forests in Wales, for example, proves problematic as signifiers shift between being either natural or industrial, and trees can equally signify ancient values, shared trauma and/or modern colonialism.

It is tempting to suggest that a shattered tree stump in a ruined field on top of a rugged Welsh mountain is somehow symbolic of a historically rich, pluralistic, progressive and outward looking Wales, but this is of course highly problematic. These have indeed become ‘Trees of the Third War’ – albeit one far more complex than Gwenallt imagined. If photography has indeed reached something of a crisis, then contemporary photographers in nations such as Wales may find that the ‘German paradigm’ presents a useful way forward. Rather than projecting some reductive symbolic significance through photography, it is surely more valuable to be concerned with the nature of the photograph itself, to discuss the ‘truths’ represented within it, and to explore the histories that brought it into being.

[1] The Vikings. 1958. [Cinematic Movie] FLEISCHER. R. Hollywood. United Artists
[2] BERRY, D. 1994. Wales & Cinema: The First Hundred Years. Cardiff. UWP (p159)
[3] JÄGER, J. 2003. Picturing Nations: Landscape Photography and National Identity in Britain and Germany in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. In: Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination. London. I. B. Tauris
[4] Ibid. (p118)
[5] DAVIS, P. 1997. Richard Wilson and Cader Idris. In: Cader Idris: Soul of a Lonely Place. Aberystwyth. University of Wales, Aberystwyth
[6] JÄGER, J. 2003. Picturing Nations: Landscape Photography and National Identity in Britain and Germany in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. In: Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination. London. I. B. Tauris (p129)
[8] MALKIN, B. 1804. The Scenery, Antiquities and Biography of South Wales. London. EP Publishing
[9] JONES, D. 1937. In Parenthesis. London. Faber and Faber (p186)
[10] GOUGH, P. 2010. [Presentation] Iconographies of Emptiness. Cardiff. Ffotogallery
[11] KENNEDY, J. 1975. Forests. In. Cambrian Forests. London: HMSO. (p6)
[12] JONES, G. 1986. Rhydcymerau. In. Welsh Verse. Bridgend: Seren. (p285)
[13] WILLIAMS, G. 1991. When was Wales? London: Penguin. (pp292-294)
[14] TABBUSH, P & O’BRIEN, E. 2002. Health and Well-being: Trees, Woodlands and Natural Spaces. Edinburgh: Forestry Commission. (p34)
[15] JAMES, S. 2009. Photography’s Theoretical Blind Spots. In: Photographies. 2 (2), pp. 255 – 270.

© Paul Cabuts 2010