Gran Tourismo

Excerpt from the new book Edgelands Journeys Into England’s True Wilderness by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts. Published by Jonathan Cape, London. February 2011 – pp 100 – 101.

The overlooked landscape of road verges has begun to attract artists. The painter Edward Chell has been drawn to this inaccessible wilderness, mundane and sublime in its infinity. Chell first noticed how rich a landscape this is, like many of us, while inching forward in gridlocked traffic. Motorway verges today are pesticide-free strips of wilderness, as difficult to reach as sea cliffs, miniature landscapes that run along this in-between space for thousands of miles. He works from photographs and sketches, but access is difficult and dangerous: these are forbidden zones, places where the traffic police will pick you up within minutes. Working on the M2 and M20, Chell learned how to make himself invisible by wearing a hi-vis jerkin and hardhat: the twenty-first-century en plein air artist in disguise.

The paintings he produces suggest the busy-ness and fecundity of roadside verges, rich and alive. He has described the powerful visual metaphor of the verge as poised between ordered, policed and restricted boundary spaces of the state that we are only allowed to look at while travelling at great speed, and the slower, uncontrollable energies of nature. Working in shellac, he is also able to suggest a strange patina, what he describes as ‘a kind of shot quality’ (which brings to mind T.S. Eliot’s ‘flowers that are looked at’ in Four Quartets). They suggest our perception of flux: the way, seen at speed, the intricacies of grassland and vegetation shift in and out of focus as our relation to the incident light changes. Because Chell is interested in vision, how we look at (or don’t look at) what lies all around us. His paintings concentrate our gaze on what’s usually fleeting and reduced to blurred texture; at the same time, their stillness seems to contain speed, and its shifting effects of light.

His attention extends to where his work is exhibited. For the work made at Cobham Slip and Maidstone Services, Chell decided the Little Chefs of Kent would make the ideal gallery, a place where the motorist, fresh from the experience of passing through corridors of grass verge, could contemplate these spaces. Working on the A66 and M6 for his Cumbrian project, Chell used the Little Chefs of Lakeland, not least because they also represent the equivalent of the old staging posts along coaching routes (the Little Chef at Appleby is on the same route the Wordsworths used on their visits to north-east England).