by Judith Williamson
The image in this ad appears to be a photograph. It shows a crisp and dynamic scene on an autumn day: hounds are running through a wood, towards the camera, while a young couple hide behind a tree, to the left of frame, sheltering a fox. The couple’s bicycles are foregrounded, seeming to lean against the tree trunk, with the fox’s tail curling over the crossbars: the fox itself looks outwards to the front of the picture. Copper beech leaves carpet the ground and are captured in minute detail, with all the sharpness that photography can produce; while each hound appears caught in action, either running forwards, or sniffing the air or the ground.
What this scene represents (to anyone with some cultural knowledge of British customs) is a fox hunt, with a young man and woman rescuing the fox from the hounds. The story told by the image is absolutely clear. And yet the image itself doesn’t add up – the space doesn’t make sense. The position of the couple with the bicycles and the fox, at one side of the leaning tree, doesn’t mesh with the right hand side of the picture, where the hounds are racing forwards, apparently almost level with the bikes. The ground level, around the tree roots, appears discontinuous from left to right. There is no sense of a single perspective or coherent space.
The effect of this discontinuity is to separate the image’s meaning from its literal referent – the actual things that were photographed. This goes beyond the obvious lack of realism in that a pack of hounds would not run straight past a fox just because it was behind a tree – which is, of course, the ad’s joke. Over and above that, the image fails to add up as a photo because the spatial relations are so bizarre. The couple are portrayed as being ‘behind’ the tree, but in fact they are foregrounded in front of it, and are not the slightest bit concealed from the dogs, who are barely a metre from them in terms of the represented space.
So the picture has the quality of a photograph, and yet functions as pure narrative: it only exists to convey an idea. We are so accustomed, in contemporary images, to this combination of photographic status with cartoon-like direction of meaning, that it hardly seems strange. This ad’s image represents a foiled fox hunt, but does not actually present it, even as an enactment: it presents two young models, with a digitally added picture of a fox, cut and pasted onto an image of fox hounds in a wood. All the resonance lies not in what is actually pictured but in what is referred to, and in the picture’s style.
The predominance of browns in the image gives it a sepia-like quality, as if it was an old photograph, which creates a ‘historical’ resonance. Even the style of the man’s cap gives it an old-fashioned look, and the dark clothes and tweedy shawl the woman wears feel timeless and classic. Only the bikes are brand new. The ambience of the whole scene, its intended atmosphere, conjures up the faux-traditional lifestyle of Madonna’s days with Guy Ritchie, playing at country landowners. A good coat, a woollen cap, a traditional Brooks saddle – accessorise with a fox, and there you have it: alternative country gentry!
These meanings only make sense in relation to the ad’s context: it appeared in an international magazine, Monocle – "a briefing on global affairs, business, culture and design", in other words, a medium existing outside localised communities. The realm of international media, which ranges from flight magazines to professional journals, has a cultural language of its own. This ad seeks to portray ‘Britishness’ in a way that would fail with a British audience, just as Madonna’s attempt to inhabit country lady-ship failed to convince. The missing element here is, above all, class. Foxhunting and its opponents do not exist in a social vacuum. There is no way that country-ness and classy leather saddles could be signified within a British context without portraying the class of the figures in the drama, no matter how caricatured or unconvincing. What is so striking here is that there is not even the slightest hint at any social dimension, the man and woman look like generic models, rather than either county folk or activists. This is the limbo of supra-national imagery: as much as it speaks of ‘Britishness’ nothing in the ad looks specifically British.
The website Brooksengland.com (the "england" makes clear that an international market is addressed) states: "Inspired by the timeless products designed by our predecessors, we have revived the original slogan 'Saddles, Bags, Etc' and introduced a range of cycle bags and other accessories. Brooks England is steeped in history, a prestige brand that boasts almost 150 years of tradition and expertise. But quality and style never age." The blurb in the ad is kept to a minimum – just the slogan "Unquestionable British Tradition" and the period script of the inset box – but the russet-toned image, and the woman’s prominent bag, visually underline the reference to traditional leather, while the hunt idea links the image of horse saddles with those of the bike.
Everything here is a signifier for something else: the entire ad is built on layer upon layer of evacuated meaning. The spatially disjunct elements of the photo have been emptied of whatever ‘reality’ they each started out with and brought together to signify ‘fox hunt’. This, in turn, is emptied of any actual meaning regarding fox hunting, and used purely to signify British heritage. The insertion of the cool young fox-savers then builds on this meaning, adding the suggestion of modern/ alternative to the traditional/classic. This signification produces the desired meaning connotation for the product, the traditional Brooks saddles on the modern bikes.