Plymouth University Art History student, Nicola Wakeham, on her experience of researching soil management in Devon, as part of Peninsula Art’s Soil Culture: Deep Roots exhibition.
The third year of my degree required an element of work experience and so I applied for an intern placement at Peninsula Arts Gallery that involved a project in association with the CCANW (Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World). The project required me to locate an image or a body of images that depicted historical work with the soil, particularly crop rotation. Any images found were to be part of a public collection, in west Devon or north Cornwall, and should demonstrate land use within that area.
This proved to be problematic. There are myriad paintings of farm animals and quaint chocolate box farmhouses but seemingly nothing regarding soil rotation as requested by Clive Adams (Director of CCANW). However, I did manage to find some textual history, in Bideford, regarding crop rotation in Devon.
This was found during August on a visit to the Burton Art Gallery and Museum; sadly their display did not include relevant paintings but it did provided me with useful information regarding Ley Farming displayed on a poster board.
Devon farming was based on the ‘ley’ system, quite different from the ‘four course Norfolk rotation’ popular in other parts of the country. In Devon, land was neither arable nor pasture, but alternated, with seven to ten years of pasture followed by two or three years of crops. The reasoning behind the rotation was to improve the soil structure and fertility but also to disrupt pest and disease lifecycles. After about 1800, turnips and mangel-wurzels were often used as the first crop to break in the ground and were fed to cattle and sheep in the winter.
This piece of research fed in well to a photograph of Mangel-wurzel pickers that I had seen two months before at Callington Heritage Centre.
Mangel-wurzels were a large variety of beet, similar to a turnip; the name comes from the German for beet (mangel) and root (wurzel). The variety was developed in the 18th century, probably derived from sea beet, and used primarily for cattle, pig and other stock feed. It can be for human consumption but only when young and tender, but more importantly it is of great value to land management.
There proved to be many benefits to planting a cover crop such as turnips and mangel-wurzels on a fallow field; these included improving the soil structure and reducing weeds, preventing erosion and compaction, also adding nutrients and building up organic matter.
Research has shown that fields left open to the elements lose more moisture to evaporation than fields that have a cover crop; they are also more vulnerable to erosion from rain and wind.
The science behind this was not fully understood until more recently but farmers probably registered that fields where they planted turnips and mangel-wurzels were less susceptible to soil compaction; this is because the crop produces a long tap root that breaches the tough deep soil and breaks it up like a natural plough. Turnips and mangel-wurzels, therefore, helped prevent soil compaction that could occur by naturally digging in; they create soil channels where moisture and nutrients could then penetrate.
In 1710, Hillman suggests that “stiff ground” can be mellowed by planting turnips and that land workers were less reliant on composts than those who did not plant them.
These crops are also an excellent cover for farmers who graze cattle on their fields after harvest. They are a high moisture plant and are packed with protein; they are favoured by cattle due to their high sugar content, but are also relatively inexpensive.
However, there was always a worry that the crop could choke cattle by a piece “lying a cross [sic] in their Gullet.” To counter this choking the farmer would butter a rope and thrust it down the beats throat pushing the turnip into its stomach. This concern is demonstrated in Trusser’s sixteenth century poem entitled Decembers Husbandrie:
Get trustie to tend them, not lubberlie squire,
that all the day long hath his nose at the fire.
Nor trust unto children poore cattel to feede,
but such as be able to helpe at a neede.
Farmers endeavoured to maximize their yields and used any means available to get the most out of their ground while keeping input costs down. They learnt that planting beneficial cover crops like turnips and mangel-wurzels were a great way to do just that, a practice that was definitely used in the eighteenth century and is still in use today.
Further museum research proved that I was able to find textual history but very little in the way of images regarding the soil – as one curator asked “Who would pay for an oil painting, or even a watercolour, of their fields, without focusing on picturesque animals?”
This led me to widen my focus a little, which allowed me to look at the painting below that I encountered at Torre Abbey Historic House and Gallery, in Torquay:
Plymouth born artist Maud Hogarth Clay painted this picture in 1914. It represents shire horses harvesting at Home Farm, Wembury, where her family lived. Clay studied at Slade School of Art and was a direct descendant of eighteenth-century artist William Hogarth, known for his satirical drawings.
I felt that her oil painting clearly demonstrated the particularly hilly nature of the terrain in south Devon and the difficulties in managing such land, requiring not the usual two horse team but four horses to pull and control the plough and harvest the steep slopes.
The size of the painting is impressive, nearly nine foot by four foot; this helps establish the power and majesty of the horses and the gradient of the incline. This is further enhanced by the composition of the painting which is arranged on a strong diagonal creating a powerful sense of movement across the scene. Additionally, the title of the painting suggests that the artist valued the earth and prized the crops that it produced.
Furthermore, the painting visually depicts the patchwork of farming fields in the background displaying a distinct variety of crops.
However, this image should not be viewed as a historical document; this is probably an idealised, idyllic version of the true work involved in harvesting fields. When one considers that World War One started in July 1914, this painting, of an early autumn scene, perhaps even acted as a sentimental memoir as the farm hands depicted would very likely have been called-up for the war effort and been replaced by ‘land girls.’ Also, industrialisation was beginning to effect farming during this period, lack of a labour force and the invention of farm tractors late in the nineteenth century meant that horse drawn ploughs were becoming redundant, therefore, this painting could be viewed as a sentimental chronicle of times and traditions that were disappearing.
There are various options of what could be displayed alongside this impressive painting: Mould’s Summer Ploughing caught my eye as it contains a ‘corn rick’; this could be complimented with a model that I found at the Cookworthy Museum, in Kingsbridge, approximately five foot by four foot. Other options include the oil painting below which further demonstrates the hilly nature of the south Devon countryside and shows beautiful ‘patchwork’ fields. It depicts the same area as August-Gold of Earth – Wembury.
This project has been a great source of fun, and frustration, and certainly increased my knowledge of soil and crops! What I have particularly enjoyed during the research was that it gave me the chance to meet and speak with guides at the various institutions I visited (between the beginning of June to mid-August, 20); most of them were volunteers, some retired, some students, but all enthusiastic about their holdings. I also telephoned and emailed a further 19 institutions who were able to tell me that they have nothing in their collections that would be appropriate: I had no idea before I started this project that there were so many museums in the area, but I felt as though I had made an effort to contact each and every one and saw and enjoyed their displays and acquisitions.
What proved invaluable to this project was having access to various historic books, such as Thomas Tusser, Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry and Dorothy Hartley, The Land of England: English Country Customs through the Ages, as they provided me with a little prior knowledge of the subject.
However, the most challenging aspect regarding this research, apart from there being no images on crop rotations, has been making contact with the relevant people. As I said, most of the small museums are maned by volunteers, who do a wonderful job, are friendly and try to be helpful, but don’t fully know their collections and the official archivists are rarely on site. Also, many of the smaller museums have limited opening hours, so it was important to research before travelling. Furthermore, each institution determine their own individual manner of archiving, not always easy to access, besides which, due to the limited space, some of their holding are ‘off site.’
I can say that this project has enabled me to visit many interesting institutions but also to gain an insight into a variety of archival practices, for which I am thankful.
Hartley, Dorothy. The Land of England: English Country Customs through the Ages. London and Sydney: MacDonald General Books, 1979.
Hillman, Daniel. Tusser Redivivus. London: J.Morphew, 1710.
Parker, David. The People of Devon in the First World War. London: The History Press, 2013.
Steiner, Rudolf. Agriculture: A Course of Eight Lectures. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1974.
Tusser, Thomas. Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
National Territory Australia. Ley Farming Systems. http://www.nt.gov.au/d/Primary_Industry/Content/File/publications/books_reports/striking_the_balance_ley_farming_systems.pdf 21 June 2015
The Natural History of the Mangold-Wurzel. http://www.mangoldhurling.co.uk/html/the_mangold.html 20 June 2015
Nicola’s research was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Soil Culture: Deep Roots is at Peninsula Arts Gallery from 16 January – 19 March 2016.