Landscapes of Work and Power

Peatlands have long histories as working landscapes and as sources of power, both physical and social and economic.  For thousands of years, they have provided a means of survival by yielding fuel, food and commodities to people living within or around them and free land for common grazing. The fragmentary glimpses into this past afforded by archaeology allow us to observe the complex interplay between peatlands and the communities which have thrived alongside or within them.  More recently we have begun to sacrifice these landscapes to agriculture and grazing, garden horticulture, and industry. Work and power have been consistent strands in this relationship. 

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Peatlands have also provided places of refuge for the poor, the dispossessed. It is not accident, for example, that tenant farmers removed from their lands during the Irish famine frequently turned to the bogland as a place of final resort. People who lived in these areas were often viewed as uncivilised and savage, as Lord Macauley, Victorian historian remarked: 

‘In that dreary region covered by vast flights of wild fowl, a half savage population led an amphibious life, sometimes wading and sometimes rowing from one islet of firm ground to another[1] 

In addition to their poverty and unusual lifestyle, other writers stress inhabitants’ individualism and hostility to outsiders. For example, it was believed that fenmen were idle as they did not cultivate the land but only grazed animals and that they were dishonest but prosperous. In the early nineteenth century, the historian John Hunter (1828, 158) of South Yorkshire condemned the people of Hatfield Chase by saying that: 

“The peasantry of a country abounding in game will be less civilized and less tractable than where there is not the same temptation to brave the hazards which attend nocturnal depredation … the temptations to marauding and plunder were great in the vicinity of a well stocked chase, in which no owner resided, and the lawless spirit which such a mode of life would generate, is probably to be in part attributed the violence with which the natives of these regions opposed the persons who undertook to reclaim the flooded land[2] 

The contrasting themes illustrated in these quotations are poverty on one hand and over- abundance on the other, but their general tenor is insularity, hostility and idleness. People who lived in wetlands were obviously seen as very unpleasant people,[3] though John Hunter’s quote also highlights that their lawlessness and violence was likely the consequence of their loss of land and livelihood because of land drainage activities in the 17th and 18th centuries.

It is not surprising, therefore, that as part of a movement to make these places ‘more productive’ and their people less ‘uncivilised’ in the 18th -20th centuries, peatlands were heavily exploited for their peat resources, for fuel and horticulture, on an industrial scale and transformed by drainage and reclamation works to turn them into productive agricultural areas. Some of our most important lowland peatlands are now buried beneath agricultural land, in some of the most agriculturally productive parts of the UK, such as Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. Elsewhere, upland peatlands have been transformed through use the use of fertilisers to create productive grazing lands. Many of our upland landscapes have been transformed in this way, leading to massive loss of blanket peatlands as a habitat.  

Peatlands are also focal points for political power. They have played a central role in the negotiation of identity and nationhood during the past two hundred years and more recently have been at the heart of the emergence of environmental politics.  Depictions of peatlands have been used to marginalise those on the fringes of Modern society but they have also been potent symbols of identity. They have provided space, physical and symbolic, within which to rethink our relationships with each other and the lands which we inhabit.  

In this section of the exhibition, we juxtapose historical and contemporary art, archival materials and scientific writing and imagery to explore the various ways in which concepts of work and power have inflected our understanding of peatlands. We will examine representations of peatlands as working landscapes and will ask how these representations have informed contemporary attitudes to and uses of these spaces. We will also look at our changing relationships with peatlands and examine the ways in which the shifting power relationships of peatlands have altered and in some created peatlands as we find them today.  

Gareth Beale and Nicki J. Whitehouse 

[1] Cited by D. Byford, Agricultural Change in the lowlands of south Yorkshire with special reference to the Manor of Hatfield 1600-c. 1875, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, 2005, p. 2

[2] J. Hunter. South Yorkshire, the History and Topography the’ Deanery of Doncaster, 2 Volumes (1828 and 1831), p. 157.

[3] D. Byford, Op. cit. p. 4.

Bright Edge Deep
Gareth Beale

Bright Edge Deep is a journey through the landscape and archaeology of Hatfield Moors, a nature reserve and former industrial peat extraction site in South Yorkshire, England. The film is a response to (and contains footage from) a walk undertaken during the summer of 2021.

Peat: Lesley (no 2)
Minty Donald and Nick Millar

Peat: Lesley (no 2) is one of a series of sculptural works by artists Minty Donald and Nick Millar which reframe industrial and global processes of extraction and extractivism as practices carried out at the scale of a single human, taking the hand as a unit of measurement and as a conduit between human and other-than-human matter. Explore this work further by clicking on the image to the left.

 Barges Unloading Turf Grand Canal Dublin
Joan Jameson

Painted in the midst of the Second World War, this picture documents a time when shortage of coal led the Irish government to stockpile peat as an alternative fuel. Explore this image further by clicking on the image to the right.

Joan Jameson, Barges Unloading Turf Grand Canal Dublin, 1943, oil on canvas, 50cm x 64 cm, Collection Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. © the artist’s estate.

Peat Cutters, Harris, 1937
Historic Environment Scotland,
© University of Edinburgh Library
Ireland 1916​
Gerald Leslie Brockhurst (1890–1978)​
Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow. © Richard Woodward
Explore this piece of work further by clicking on the image above
Peat flittin by boat, sixareen, Lera Voe, Walls, Shetland, c1940, Historic Environment Scotland, © Shetland Museum & Archives
Connemara Hills and wetlands, showing a crannog on the lake. Photo: Micheal Gibbons, with permission.
This image echoes the backdrop of Brockhurst’s piece above.

Vincent Van Gogh, Women on the Peat Moor, Nieuw-Amsterdam, October 1883, oil on canvas, 27.8 cm x 36.5 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation). Explore this piece of work further by clicking on the image above

Paul Henry, Landscape, c. 1925, Crawford Gallery, Cork.
Explore this piece of work further by clicking on the image above

Fish Yairs and Peat, by Gareth Beale

William Stewart MacGeorge, A Galloway Peat Moss, 1888​, National Galleries of Scotland, Image Creative Commons – CC by NC.
Explore this work further by clicking on the image above.
Heather Tinto Hill, South Lanarkshire. Phil: Barratt

Otto Modersohn, Moon rising on the Moor, 1897, oil on canvas, Schlossmuseum, Weimar. Image Otto Modersohn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons ( )  
Explore this piece of work further by clicking on the image above