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Questioning what is beautiful: John Angerson in Burford 75 years after J.B. Priestley visited the Cotswolds on his English journey. Photo©Graham Harrison

John Angerson's English Journey

Published in 1934, J.B. Priestley’s English Journey became one of the most influential books in the nation’s response to the Great Depression. When photographer John Angerson retraced the writer’s footsteps three quarters of a century later he found a changed landscape, but one in which Priestley’s observations, and the observations of some great British photographers remain as pertinent as ever, writes Graham Harrison.

“I am here, in a time of stress, to look at the face of England, however blank or bleak that face may chance to appear, and to report truthfully what I see there.” J.B. Priestley, English Journey, 1934.

J.B. Priestley’s English Journey is a portrait of England in crisis, a unique document made at the point in history when the prosperity of the Victorian age which had been propelled through the second decade of the Twentieth Century by a war economy, tumbled into the abyss of worldwide economic depression.

Political extremism stalked the south while mass unemployment and the grim desolation of boarded up factories and silent shipyards haunted England’s northern regions.

Priestley’s account of a nation in decline was to influence political thought in Britain for decades and inspire photographers as important as Bill Brandt and Humphrey Spender to venture to the unfashionable north to capture on film the industrial landscapes and the lives of the working people.

In February 2008 photographer John Angerson began his own journey. Just as J.B. Priestley had done seventy-five years earlier, Angerson started in the south before traveling to the Cotswolds, the midland cities, then the north and finally England’s east coast.

In Jarrow Priestley had found mean streets “heavy with enforced idleness, poverty and misery,” in Liverpool he found tenements where “the open doorways gave out the reek of unwashed humanity.”

Priestley became a major voice in the campaign for the state welfare which began to transform the social landscape of Britain after the Second World War. Angerson’s English journey encountered a landscape which was in its turn being threatened by the greatest financial crisis since the the depression of the 1930s.

With recession hitting England in 2008 John Angerson shows us a country that has nevertheless been pasteurised in the intervening years, its edges softened and the regional identities which Priestly captured so well in English Journey, often blurred into the “dead uniformity” predicted from the book’s pages.

John Angerson cements his visual argument by using a 5×4” Wista Field camera. In an age when the purveyors of information through TV and increasingly through the internet, believe movement is essential to hold a viewer’s attention, John makes a statement in favour of the carefully composed still image.

J.B. Priestley was a prolific writer producing some 200 books, countless essays, plus 50 plays and dramatic adaptations in 89 years.

At his best this son of a schoolmaster makes the reader stop for a moment and think for themselves, makes them pause and consider an observation. Much as a good photographer does.