Peter Henry Emerson and Thomas Frederick Goodall, Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads

Quanting the Marsh Hay,
Peter Henry Emerson and Thomas Frederick Goodall, Life and Landscape on the Norfolk BroadsIllustrated with Forty Beautiful Plates from Nature Executed in Platinotype, London, 1885–86

Peter Henry Emerson trained in medicine, qualifying at Cambridge in 1885, but turned to writing and photography after election to the Council of the Photographic Society. Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, a collaboration with the painter Thomas Frederick Goodall,[1] launched a series of photographically-illustrated books about the East Anglian landscape and its peoples that he published over the next decade. Goodall was a member of the New English Art Club, a break-away from the Royal Academy of Arts, and his dedication to modern French-style open-air painting led him to convert a traditional East Anglian houseboat into a floating studio. The photographs in Life and Landscape were correspondingly ‘taken directly from nature’,[2]and printed on platinum-containing paper that allowed a wide tonal range. Both Emerson and Goodall nonetheless greatly admired the sense of moral dignity in the peasant paintings of Jean-François Millet and Jules Bastien-Lepage in France, and the faces of their reed-cutters and marshmen are thus typically shaded, so that, like Millet’s figures, they appear types rather than individuals. Equally, though Emerson and Goodall rejected the manipulation of negatives or printing for ‘artistic’ effect, their images have a strong sense of design that implicitly aligns their craft in handling the camera with the workmanship of the reed-cutter, fisherman, or gunner taking aim at wildfowl.[3]

The Broads are the shallow lakes that fill the pits created from peat-digging in Norfolk and Suffolk in medieval times.[4] Today, this human-made landscape, covering some 303 square kilometres, forms Britain’s largest National Park wetland, and shelters over a quarter of the country’s rarest animals and plants, from the swallowtail butterfly to the bittern and European eel (Fig. 1).[5]

Fig. 1 Papilio macheon Britannicus (Old World Swallowtail), found only on the Norfolk Broads, seen at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen, sitting on a mix of grasses and sedges. This species is slightly smaller and slightly deeper yellow than those found on mainland Europe. Image:  LittleHow, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via

By the late nineteenth century the railway had opened the Broads to visitors, like Emerson and Goodall themselves; Goodall married an East Anglian. However, the Broads’ popularity as a ‘boating playground’[1] was still in its infancy. Wherries – tall-sailed boats introduced in the early seventeenth-century – were still key forms of transport, and Emerson and Goodall document the work of the area with close attention to its traditional nomenclature and practices – ‘Rowing Home the Schoof-Stuff’ (coarse wheat); ‘Quanting the Gladdon’ (poling reeds in a punt) and so on. We might thus perhaps apply the term ‘taskscape’ to the imagery of Life and Landscapes. Invented by the anthropologist Tim Ingold, this describes ‘the pattern of dwelling activities’ of a particular landscape, and its character therefore as a ‘temporal’ site; shaped by its use over time.[2]

Emerson and Goodall certainly highlighted the role of time in the making of their images; each was the result of watching and waiting for ‘nature in one of her ‘propitious moods’, as Emerson put it, though some of the figures were probably also posed.[3]They also used differential focus in their photographs, believing this approximated best to human perception of specific moments in the larger flux of time.[4] The marsh-dwellers’ tools and actions thus stand out crisply in the forty plates in Life and Landscape, with their surroundings more blurred; a reminder that Emerson admired his contemporary James McNeill Whistler’s images of landscapes in fog or twilight. The accompanying texts are used to evoke colour and movement – aspects that the nineteenth-century camera could not, of course, yet capture. In his text for ‘Coming home from the Marshes’, for example, the first photograph in Life and Landscape, showing workers carrying their scythes, Emerson describes how ‘to the left stretch masses of golden-ochred rush; to the right the rich greens of the marshes, and throughout winds the river, a vein of the deepest cobalt, whilst overhead roll masses of snow-coloured cumuli, flying before the wind’.[5] Here is an environment harmonious to the eye, yet full of a grandeur that, consistent with Darwin’s theory that organisms respond to the world around them, has implicitly shaped the strong physique and noble minds that Emerson perceived in the Norfolk ‘waders’. The workers – women and well as men – make their environment productive as well as ‘beautiful’, and with his doctor’s eye, Emerson notes that they are ‘happy and healthy’. Where, in 1848, with fears of Continental-style popular revolt at their height, Macauley had characterised the working people of the fens as ‘half-savage’,[6] Life and Landscape tells a very different story. The marsh-people’s healthy, open-air life is now implicitly superior to that of their confined urban counterparts, debilitated by industrial pollution.

The idealism of this vision has often been noted; in the agricultural slump of the 1870s and 80s rural life more typically involved privation and disease. In the context of emergent Broads tourism, Emerson and Goodall must, however, have been aware that the ‘taskscapes’ they portrayed were doomed; ‘Poling the Marsh hay’ (women carrying reeds) indeed suggests the carrying of a funeral bier.[7] In this sense their concern to evoke ‘beauty’ answers to the ‘picturesque’ aesthetic, that found poetry in change and decay.[8] But the ultimate message of their work surely lay in its medium, photography, whose images develop through timed exposure to light. With this in mind, the single, open flower is richly suggestive that, clasped in the boatwoman’s hand, features in ‘Gathering Water Lilies’. For water lilies, used on the Broads for fish-bait[9] (Fig. 2), open in response to light, just as the photographic plate responds to exposure. In this sense, Life and Landscape is perhaps less a nostalgic elegy than a prescription for a future based on closeness to nature. In his commentary for ‘The Old Order and the New’, juxtaposing a modern steam pump house with an abandoned windmill, Emerson noted ‘Thus nature, aided by science, has changed an arm of the sea into fertile fields’.[10] Though over-exploitation of those ‘fertile fields’ has now caused environmental degradation, his choice of words, that places nature at the forefront, is still valid today. 

Fig. 2 European white water lily. Image: Jacek Halicki, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Clare A.P. Willsdon

[1] (accessed 5.10.21).

[2] Tim Ingold, ‘The Temporality of the Landscape’, World Archaeology, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Conceptions of Time and Ancient Society), Oct. 1993, p. 153.

[3] Emerson, Naturalistic Photography for Students of Art, London 1889, p.238, quoted in Fuldner, op. cit. Naturalistic Photography recapitulates many points made first by Emerson in Life and Landscape.

[4] See discussion of Emerson’s interest in Hermann von Helmholz’s theory of perception, and Herbert Spencer’s The Principles of Psychology, amongst other scientific texts on perception, in Carl Fuldner, ‘Emerson’s Evolution’, in Tate Papers ( ), accessed 5.10.21; cf also Spencer’s Lamarckian argument that (in Fuldner’s words), the working of the mind reflects the ‘accumulated experiences of an individual’s entire line of descent’, i.e. itself encapsulates and embodies time. 

[5] Emerson and Goodall, op. cit., p. 10, quoted in Jennifer M. Green, ‘“The Right Thing in the Right Place”: P. H. Emerson and the Picturesque Photograph’, in Carol T. Christ and John O. Jordan (eds), Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination, Berkeley 1995, p. 92.  

[6] See Introductory essay for ‘Landscapes of Work and Power’, at .

[7] ‘Poling the Marsh Hay’, at (accessed 5.10.21).

[8] Cf Green, op. cit., and Wolfgang Kemp and Joyce Rheuban, ‘Images of Decay: Photography in the Picturesque Tradition’, October Autumn, 1990, Vol. 54, pp. 102-133, (accessed 5.10.21).

[9] As noted in the related text by Goodall; see Matless, op. cit., p. 66.

[10] Emerson and Goodall, op. cit., p. 35.

[1] For this series, see David Matless, In the Nature of Landscape: Cultural Geography on the Norfolk Broads, Chichester 2014, pp. 62-7. For Emerson’s collaboration with Goodall, see Kenneth McConkey, British Impressionism, pp. 28-9, 132-3, and Neil McWilliam and Veronica Sekules (eds), Life and Landscape: P H Emerson – Art and Photography in East Anglia 1885-1900, Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia, 1987.

[2] See Preface to P.H. Emerson and T.F. Goodall, Life and Landscapes on the Norfolk Broads

[3] Cf Charles Palermo, ‘The World in Ground Glass: Transformations in P. H. Emerson’s Photography’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 89, No. 1, March 2007, p. 134, and Tim Barringer, Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain, New Haven and London 2005, pp. 27-9.

[4] The peat was laid down when Britain was joined in prehistory to Europe, and tributaries of the Rhine flowed across a marshy plain now part of the North Sea; see Richard D.G. Irvine, ‘Anthropocene East Anglia’, The Sociological Review Monographs, Vol. 65(1), 2017, p. 163. 

[5] See (accessed 5.10.21).