The Hodge May 21: Memories Better Than Photos

Country Matters

‘A man must plough with such oxen as he hath’.


During the nineteenth century and earlier, technical books were illustrated at a time before firstly the invention of, then the widespread use of photography. Many such illustrations are beautiful representations of the period showing in great detail how the forms of buildings, machinery, dress and animals looked at the time.

Agricultural books are well represented, and the Georgian and Victorian eras were a golden age when writers explored the developing science of crop growing and animal husbandry. We are used to seeing the naïve paintings of farm animals from this period showing vastly exaggerated features.

But these are largely commissioned works by proud owners of champions and the paid artists emphasised the points that the judges favoured, producing monstrous creatures on canvas that probably shared little with the subject itself. The more technical illustrations for books tend to show a more actual representation of what was on the ground at the time giving us the chance to compare with what we have today.

What is interesting when it comes to machinery is that without mass production, the tools used varied across the land, almost by county. Indeed, almost every area had its own style of waggon and essential items such as ploughs were often different too. There was good reason for this as the topography and environment meant that what suited, say, a light, brackish soil in one part of the country, would have been useless on Cotswold brash – the local conditions around here with many large chunks of limestone in the earth to be ploughed.

Having such detail from times past helps us understand the challenges and solutions found in an era before the combustion engine, computers, GPS and so much more that helps farmers today produce so much more from every acre of productive land. But the challenge is to maintain such improvements in the coming years whilst the human population continues to expand across the world.

Captions for pics:

1. Typical naive painting of a prize-winning pig

2. Ayrshire cow (1836)

3. Victorian horse-drawn plough

4. A waggon from the area of Woodstock in Oxfordshire (1813)

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