For a time it seemed that Utopia had lost its currency. In the literary and the cinematic, from The Handmaid’s Tale to Black Mirror, dystopias seemed to offer the more compelling vision. More recently, as such bleak satires became hard to distinguish from current affairs, the balance tilted back a little. Utopia may well mean ‘nowhere’ but its near-equivalent, the similarly pronounced ‘Eutopia’, translates as The Good Place.

Drawing its title from Thomas More’s 16th century travelogue of an island that cut itself off from the mainland, the better to exist in splendid isolation, The Whitworth’s latest exhibition is hardly without its 21st century parallel. The ideal world it dissects is explicitly a British one, as rose-coloured as the deep pinks used to denote ‘British possessions’ in maps from the days of Empire.

It’s telling that, when taken as a whole, the pieces say much about the English and little about the present. The pastoral, cattle-littered landscapes of Constable and Gainsborough worked by hands not deemed worthy of depiction find their present-day echo in the Sunday afternoon snugness of Countryfile; the idylls they represent are those of the idle, those whose second homes price out others who can only dream of a first. If heaven is indeed a place on earth, they suggest it’s a little place in the Cotswolds where one hobnobs with David Cameron and Alex James.

Nathan Coley, You Don’t Know About Me, 2019 Handprinted Zuber wallpaper, aluminium lightbox with LED lights Courtesy the Artist and Parafin, London Photograph: Peter MalletWhen, with presumably the best of intentions, the workers have been remembered by the artist as in the avowedly Socialist Walter Crane’s Living Picture, the effect is unintentionally kitsch. Although rendered in monochrome, the land girls and boys of Crane’s image have the idealised implausibility of a Sofia Coppola film still.

The other countries of the union are paid scant regard. Other than their appearance in ‘humorous’ caricature, their representation is limited to a canvas of Timorous Beasties’ upscale wallpaper, a print of the cemetery underside of metropolitan Glasgow; an item which its park bench down-and-outs could scarcely afford. Whether this contrast between the luxury home furnishing itself and the casualties of capitalism it depicts is satirical or merely insensitive is left to the viewer to decide.

There’s little here that’s truly disruptive, and what there is that goes against the grain does so politely. Simon Roberts’ Between The Acts, as slyly subversive as a song by Black Box Recorder, is a welcome exception. Its wind-blown holidaymakers stroll the white cliffs at England’s edge, a destination that seem as much suicide spot as beauty spot. On a smaller scale, there’s something just as seditious in Janis Jeffries’ Home Of The Brave, a piece of lace stitched at Greenham Common, like a punk version of a young lady’s sampler from a National Trust home.

Grayson Perry, Map of Nowhere, 2008, Colour etching from five plates © Grayson Perry, Courtesy the artist, Paragon | Contemporary Editions Ltd and Victoria MiroEven the ‘intervention’ offered by the Whitworth Young Contemporaries feels compromised by this pervasive sense of politeness, their selections mostly echoing the Argos catalogue surfaces of Richard Hamilton’s Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Home So Different. There’s no urgency or alarm, none of Greta Thunberg’s frustration at the backward-looking present’s unwillingness to face up to what’s heading toward it.

What such consensus tends to overlook is that, for all the comforting pull of nostalgia’s repainting of the past as an unforeign country, one of keeping calm and carrying on, the contrarian spirit is as much a part of these islands’ cultural history as its periodic relapse into flag-waving servitude.

Ultimately, it’s dissatisfaction as opposed to self-satisfaction that drives culture forward. Even Utopia needs its dissidents.

By Desmond Bullen

Main image: John Constable, Dedham Church and Vale, Suffolk, 1800, pen, ink and watercolour, courtesy the Whitworth, The University of Manchester


Utopias is on at The Whitworth until September 27, 2020. For more information, visit the website here.