Recording Britain - the lost landscapes of the Upper Derwent

Underbank Farm, Woodlands Valley, Derbyshire. Watercolour by Kenneth Rowntree (1940) (V&A Images)

Underbank Farm, Woodlands Valley, Derbyshire. Watercolour by Kenneth Rowntree (1940) (V&A Images) - Credit: Archant

Roly Smith tells the story of a Second World War art project which recorded the landscapes of the Upper Derwent, soon to disappear under the Ladybower Reservoir

Grainfoot Farm, Derwentdale, Derbyshire. Watercolour by Kenneth Rowntree (1940) (V&A Images)

Grainfoot Farm, Derwentdale, Derbyshire. Watercolour by Kenneth Rowntree (1940) (V&A Images) - Credit: Archant

Uniquely, Derbyshire was the only county in England which submitted a plea for a specific record to be made under the visionary wartime Recording Britain project, which has been described as ‘a pictorial Domesday of pre-war Britain.’

The project was the brainchild of art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, who was then Director of the National Gallery in London and later achieved fame as the presenter of BBC2’s groundbreaking Civilisation 1969 documentary on art history.

In December 1939, Clark proposed a ‘Scheme for Recording Changing Aspects of England’ to the Pilgrim Trust, which had been established by American billionaire Edward Harkness to promote Britain’s future well-being. A committee had been set up under the Ministry of Labour for the employment of hard-pressed artists in wartime, and Clark was keen to ‘save the whole tradition of English art.’

Although he initially bid for a grant of £4,500 to support 25 to 30 of the best landscape painters to work at £5 a week for six months, the initial grant was only for £2,500 and for 10 to 12 artists. Eventually however, over 1,500 topographical watercolour drawings of places and buildings of characteristic national interest were produced between 1939 and 1943 by more than 60 artists, including works by such well-known watercolourists as Kenneth Rowntree, John Piper, Barbara Jones, Stanley Badmin, John Sell Cotman and William Russell Flint.

The Smoke Room of the Ashopton Inn, Ashopton, Derbyshire. Watercolour by Kenneth Rowntree (1940) (V&A Images)

The Smoke Room of the Ashopton Inn, Ashopton, Derbyshire. Watercolour by Kenneth Rowntree (1940) (V&A Images) - Credit: Archant

Clark envisaged four categories of subjects: landscapes, towns and villages, parish churches and country houses and parks.

Derbyshire’s request was a particularly urgent case, as the Derwent Valley Water Board had just received permission to build a third dam in the Upper Derwent Valley to create the enormous Ladybower Reservoir. The request came from Ethel Haythornthwaite, secretary of the Council (now Campaign) for the Protection of Rural England, Sheffield and Peak District branch.

Most Read

‘A large and exceptionally beautiful area is now being worked on by the Drewent Valley Water Board for their new Ladybower Reservoir. This is the area around Ashopton and Derwent villages, about 12 miles west of Sheffield,’ she wrote.

‘Besides submerging lovely river, woodland and hill scenery, it will submerge the famous Derwent Hall, Derwent village, and the Packhorse Bridge, which it is hoped to remove and rebuild. Artists’ records of this region would be of much historical and aesthetic interest...’

Stonemasons Yard, Bakewell. Pen and ink watercolour by Karl Hagedorn (1940) (V&A Images)

Stonemasons Yard, Bakewell. Pen and ink watercolour by Karl Hagedorn (1940) (V&A Images) - Credit: Archant

The Derwent packhorse bridge, which stood opposite Derwent Hall, was dismantled before the flood, and eventually re-erected at Slippery Stones at the head of the valley in 1959 in memory of access campaigner John Derry.

The artist chosen to record this threatened landscape was Yorkshire-born Kenneth Rowntree, who had studied briefly under Eric Ravilious at the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford and who, like many other artists, was a conscientious objector during the war. He produced a total of 16 watercolours depicting the countryside, houses and farms around Ashopton and Derwent which were soon to be drowned under the rising waters of Ladybower.

In several of his pictures you can see the white boards which marked the eventual level of the new reservoir. One such was Grainfoot Farm, at the foot of Grainfoot Clough on the eastern bank of the northern arm of the reservoir just south of Derwent village. Formerly the home of the Wain family, only a small outbuilding and gateposts can be seen today.

Rowntree’s painting clearly shows the enclosed fields around the former farm, with the rocks of Derwent Edge and White Tor in the background and the escarpment of Whinstone Lee Tor on the right.

Another doomed farmstead recorded by Rowntree was Underbank Farm, on the southern bank of the western arm of Ladybower as it spreads up the Woodlands Valley towards the Snake Pass.

Once the rising waters started lapping at its doorstep, it became no longer viable as a farm, and it briefly became a weekend cottage before being enveloped by the serried ranks of planted Sitka spruce, which the water board planted in the interests of water purity. The deep furrows of the planted conifers form the backdrop to Rowntree’s 1940 watercolour.

But Rowntree was also keen to record the life of the villages which were soon to be wiped from the face of the map. His picture of The Smoke Room at the Ashopton Inn, a coaching inn built in 1824 which formerly stood at the foot of the Snake Road, is a masterpiece of meticulously-recorded detail.

The spartan wooden benches, wrought-iron legged table complete with single ashtray, and dartboard, calendar and prize trout in a glass case on the walls, is an image of an old-fashioned, unimproved country pub which will still be recognised by many. The Ashopton was as popular with visiting ramblers, cyclists and anglers as it was with local farmers and villagers.

Rowntree also recorded the plain, classic exterior of the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Ashopton, which had been built a hundred years before in 1840, and went further afield in the county to paint The Crescent at Buxton, with all its arcaded entrances blocked with wartime sandbags in case of air raids.

Kenneth Rowntree was not the only Recording Britain artist to visit Derbyshire during the project. German-born Karl Hagedorn, one of the leading figures in the Manchester art scene in the early 20th century, recorded the Stonemason’s Yard in Bakewell in a sensitive watercolour, with the stately spire of All Saints Parish Church in the background.

Recording Britain was the subject of a recent exhibition in the Millennium Galleries in Sheffield, and can be seen at The Herbert Gallery & Museum, Coventry from 30th January to 26th April 2015. It is also the subject of a book published by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which holds the collection. ‘Recording Britain’, edited by Gill Saunders, is published by V&A Publishing at £30 (ISBN 978 1 85177 661 0). Available from the V&A Shop at