The phrase Soft Estate refers to the description given by the UK Highways Agency to the natural habitat that the motorways and trunk roads it manages occupy; an often unstepped on hinterland that most of us only view as a high-speed blur from the corner of our eyes as our transport travels down these autobahn edgelands.
Soft Estate is also the name of a book/project/exhibition by Edward Chell, which interacts with and documents these verges and landscapes; literally interacting with as some of the work is printed using road dust from such places, other work uses (I assume) engine oil, features plant life illustrations from these verges laser etched onto brightly chromed exhaust pipes or uses the same materials and colours as road signs themselves.
I only really quite recently came across his work but I very much connected with it, in particular his oil on shellac on linen prints; I thought I saw an echo of my own imagery, spirit and inclinations there, although to my knowledge neither of us had seen one another’s work when embarking on making it.
Indeed there is a ghostly, spectral quality to these paintings; they are literally hauntological in that though they are created in contemporary times, there is something about them that makes them seem like documents of a modernities future and past.
They’re just a lovely capturing of the point and spirit at which nature tumbles alongside and into mankind’s march of progress.
And there is a meditative, calming sense to them. I’m not quite sure why but they ease the soul and provide a moment’s respite.
This post/page is largely concerned with Edward Chell’s own artwork, as featured prominently in the Soft Estate book.
However, the book is also a collection of essays and effectively an exhibition catalogue, albeit one which exists as a handsomely produced artifact in its own right.
It includes a piece of writing by Richard Mabey, one of the original authors on what have become known as edgelands (the overlooked landscapes at the edges of town and cities; often undeveloped or transitional/liminal areas where nature meets industry and bleeds into the ragged edges of urban development). The inclusion of his writing here can be seen as providing a continuing line from and through considerations of edgelands in their various forms. Peruse the reprint of his Unofficial Countryside book at Little Toller here.
I may well return to the book around these parts later in A Year In The Country. In the meantime, if you should like to peruse a more in-depth consideration of the book and it’s themes then a visit to Landscapism’s page on it here may well provide such sustenance or in more concise manner New English Landscape’s thoughtful review of the book can be visited here.
View Edward Chell’s superlative oil paintings and other work at his site here.
As a final point, some of Edward Chell’s work has been installed in Little Chef restaurants. For those of you who don’t know these places, they are British roadside family cafes/restaurants. As a child we would visit them occasionally (which was a real treat back then before the days when eating out had become more the norm) and they were one of the first places that I ever ate and tasted what I suppose could be considered more American style burger and chips. Though they were served on a plate with knives and forks in a more traditional restaurant setting. Another transitional/liminal point I suppose.
I don’t know how many of them still exist but I rarely see them anymore and when I do I always have a momentary frisson of excitement, I’m back to being that kid looking forward to visiting them. On those rare spottings they feel like endangered species, a quaint remnant of times gone by before the ubiquity of transnational chains and the utilitarian installations of motorway service stations.
It made me smile to see his work here. A nice, humorous coming together of cultures.