Kate Mellor's Island
Book Review by Wendy Wilson
Published by: Dewi Lewis Publishing
Kate Mellor quotes Paul Theroux as an introduction to her collection of coastal landscapes. "Most people on the promenade walked with their faces averted from the land... Most people looked seaward with anxious hopeful faces...". She takes us around the coast of Britain with scientific precision, using measured points in what she describes as "an essentially British posture". The landscapes are not simply seascapes, they all include a point of reference, a piece of land or some people which we recognise as British. Mellor is trying to capture the sense of enclosure provided by an island, but also the protection. She places stark windswept beaches alongside familiar seaside scenes.
The horizons are ever present and there is a great openness and sense of hope which pervades these panoramic scenes. Hurst Beach is a detached view of not just a landscape but a portrait too. People come to the coast to be as close as they can be to the endless horizon. They are searching for something and the sign in the foreground adds an irony, if not a little imprisonment, to the people dwelling on this island. There is no sense of idyllic charm to the collection. The camera and photographer are merely a detached eye surveying the very limits of a country. The continuous and endless horizons do begin to convey a feeling of entrapment within the coastline, the subjects and the camera continually looking outwards, curious about what is beyond.
Slain's Castle on the North East coast of Scotland brings the old and the new alongside each other. Both the ancient castle and the newer house behind it do not seem great or grand. The light is overcast. The castle, a stark outline against the sky, is a reminder of former days, when the coastline was fiercely protected. Scotland and Wales are forced to accept their physical joining with England, yet they too remain looking outwards towards that which infiltrates from the outside. We also see, in Brighton, boys playing at war, as if defending their own territory, their own coastline. This reminder of past days is coupled with Victorian esplanades and piers in gaudy colours, and the more mundane and modern street signs and wind proof shelters.
Westward Ho again is overwhelmed by the infinite nature of the horizon. People are mere specks running towards it. However, it would seem that they are not escaping. The child's sandcastle in the foreground is an enclosure, a fortified battlement which protects from outside. It is triumphant and safe from intrusion, surrounded by water. This separateness, this great physical distance insists that what we look at in Mellor's wide-angle views is quintessentially the island culture, and, but secondarily, British culture.
The Mull of Kintyre (as with most of Mellor's images), presents us with very little that identifies it specifically as a place, it is just coastline. The caravan in the foreground shows peoples natural wish to be away from their everyday surroundings, and on an island, this is possible only by going to the closest place to the edge of the land. People are drawn to the seaside in countless numbers every year, and Mellor explores the reasons behind this attraction. Yes, there is the sea, but that is presented as an entity, and not as an answer. We see several 'No Swimming' signs and much inclement weather. It has not been forgotten that the coastline contains ports and industry, which become the arteries of a place like Britain or Ireland.
The method of Mellor's 'mapping' of the coastline means industry and leisure are seen as of equal importance to the nature of an island, as are the rugged, stark places which seem deserted. Mellor has found the typical and the unusual, and married them neatly. She often uses foreground images to enforce the ever present limits of the edge, the sea. It is a timely record of an island, of the differences an island such as Britain feels at a time when it's European partners are marching together, and of how a specific culture rises out of it's geography.