The best books on the British landscape, from deep time and archaeology to romanticism and radical art

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up in Yorkshire and spent many happy hours as a teenager wandering about the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, looking at giant Henry Moores in the rolling landscape. I subsequently trained as an art historian and have spent the last thirty years writing about art, from the YBAs to our prehistoric roots. A Little History of Art was borne out of this journey. Increasingly I have been drawn to researching what art can tell us about British history. My bookshelves groan with monographs but these five volumes have helped me think more deeply about Britain’s landscapes and its past. I hope they will do the same for you.

I wrote...

A Little History of Art

By Charlotte Mullins,

Book cover of A Little History of Art

What is my book about?

Why did our ancestors make art? What did it mean to them, and what does their art mean for us today? Why is art even important at all? This little history takes us on a thrilling journey through 100,000 years of human creativity. From prehistoric handprints and the Terracotta Army to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Rachel Whiteread’s House, this vibrant new history roams from Japan and India to South America and the Middle East. It showcases a host of overlooked artists – including over 100 women artists – and celebrates art’s crucial role in understanding our collective culture. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Notes from Deep Time: A Journey Through Our Past and Future Worlds

Charlotte Mullins Why did I love this book?

This book expanded how I thought about time and about the landscape we take for granted.

It opened up the prehistoric world from a contemporary perspective, showing how a sense of deep geological time can help us understand our own place in the world better today.

Gordon explains why categories of things can be useful in deepening our understanding of a place: as she says, ‘a named landscape thickens.’

I also found this book so useful in working out how to cram 100,000 years of history into one volume for my book!

By Helen Gordon,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Notes from Deep Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Astounding ... To call this a "history" does not do justice to Helen Gordon's ambition'
Simon Ings, Daily Telegraph

'Awe-inspiring ... She has imbued geological tales with a beauty and humanity'
Shaoni Bhattacharya-Woodward, Mail on Sunday

The story of the Earth is written into our landscape: it's there in the curves of hills, the colours of stone, surprising eruptions of vegetation. Wanting a fresh perspective on her own life, the writer Helen Gordon set out to read that epic narrative.

Her odyssey takes her from the secret fossils of London to the 3-billion-year-old rocks of the Scottish Highlands, and from…

Book cover of Radical Landscapes

Charlotte Mullins Why did I love this book?

What do we mean by landscape? What do we mean by Britain?

Radical Landscapes has been a springboard for me for the book I am currently researching for Yale on British Art.

It is the exhibition catalogue for a wide-ranging exhibition that was held at Tate Liverpool in 2022 and offers twelve essays on the latest thinking on queer theory, folk art, geopolitics, community spaces, and more.

Internal landscapes, botanical specimens, protests, maps – this book helped me expand my thinking about landscape beyond the picturesque and the sublime.

By Darren Pih (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Radical Landscapes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Throughout the twentieth-century artists have responded to the landscape in emotional, physical and political ways: exploring themes of belonging to the land by interrogating the relationship between landscape history and identity, the enclosure or militarisation of land, to artists creating works that harness or dramatise natural earth processes. As the custodian of the national collection of British art, Tate's climate emergency declaration points to a wider concern and care for the environment that underpins the themes in Radical Landscapes.
Structured on three broad thematic sections; 'Trespass', 'Landscape and Identity', and 'Climate Breakdown', there will be around 100 works in total…

Book cover of England on Fire: A Visual Journey through Albion's Psychic Landscape

Charlotte Mullins Why did I love this book?

I don’t know why there aren’t more books like this – England on Fire comprises twelve visual essays that span 2,000 years of English art, from a Celtic sculpture of a head from c.100–300AD (that looks like a Modigliani) to new work by Cathy de Monchaux, Claire Partington and George Shaw.

Themes are broad, such as ‘Myth, Magic and Ritual’ and 'Rebellious Nature’ and chapters include folk rituals, landscape vistas, photographic tableaux, stained glass, and prints.

It picks a romantic path through time, with multiple works by William Blake, Samuel Palmer, and Frederick H. Evans, and it is a great way to view different interpretations of the English landscape.

By Stephen Ellcock, Mat Osman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked England on Fire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a book about English art like no other.

Forget the tired rogues' gallery of lords and ladies, forget the tall ships and haywains. These images cut to the heart of England's psychic landscapes to portray an Albion unhinged, where magic and rebellion and destruction are the horses to which the country is hitched. On these fabled shores we are all castaways, whether our family has lived here for four thousand years or for four.

Here you will find depictions of ancient trackways, chalk carvings and standing stones, of animal-masked community rituals, of streets set ablaze in protest, of…

Book cover of Digging Up Britain: A New History in Ten Extraordinary Discoveries

Charlotte Mullins Why did I love this book?

I first read this book when I was trying to pull together all the disparate locations, time periods, and art movements for my book.

This task was a little overwhelming and Digging Up Britain taught me how to make choices about what to include and what to leave out, how to weave it all into a narrative that makes sense, and how to bring prehistory to life.

Unusually, this book travels back in time as we travel through it. It is like an archaeological dig – we start with the Vikings and then the Staffordshire Hoard but end up with the Star Carr deer hunters and a million years of history.

It is a book you can dip into or read cover to cover (as I did) and it has some good illustrations and maps throughout. 

By Mike Pitts,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Digging Up Britain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Britain has long been fascinated with its own history and identity, as an island nation besieged by invaders from beyond the seas: the Romans, Vikings and Normans. The long saga of prehistory is often forgotten - but our understanding of our past is changing.

Mike Pitts presents ten astounding archaeological discoveries that shed new light on those who came before us, and radically altered the way we think about our history. His compelling, sometimes teasing, archaeological odyssey illustrates the diversity, complexity and sheer strangeness of the lives that represent Britain's past.

With 79 illustrations, 24 in colour

Book cover of Imagining England's Past: Inspiration, Enchantment, Obsession

Charlotte Mullins Why did I love this book?

I read an early proof of this book (it is published on 13 April 2023) and was hooked from the first page.

Owens opens with footfall on medieval castle stairs and the tread of time – only the stairs she walks on are seventeenth-century copies and are part of the ongoing mythologising of England’s past.

She covers King Arthur and the Crusades, Beowulf and Tennyson, Shell tourist guides, and the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. Her excellent earlier book Spirit of Place (Thames & Hudson) is focused more squarely on the British landscape but this new book connects to the myth of England, how it has been and still is constructed in all our minds.

Eye-opening and beautifully written.

By Susan Owens,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Imagining England's Past as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Imagining England's Past takes a long look at the country's invented histories, from the glamorous to the disturbing, from the eighth century to the present day.

England has long built its sense of self on visions of its past. What does it mean for medieval writers to summon King Arthur from the post-Roman fog; for William Morris to resurrect the skills of the medieval workshop and Julia Margaret Cameron to portray the Arthurian court with her Victorian camera; or for Yinka Shonibare in the final years of the twentieth century to visualize a Black Victorian dandy?

By exploring the imaginations…

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Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

Book cover of Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

Kathleen DuVal Author Of Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a professional historian and life-long lover of early American history. My fascination with the American Revolution began during the bicentennial in 1976, when my family traveled across the country for celebrations in Williamsburg and Philadelphia. That history, though, seemed disconnected to the place I grew up—Arkansas—so when I went to graduate school in history, I researched in French and Spanish archives to learn about their eighteenth-century interactions with Arkansas’s Native nations, the Osages and Quapaws. Now I teach early American history and Native American history at UNC-Chapel Hill and have written several books on how Native American, European, and African people interacted across North America.

Kathleen's book list on the American Revolution beyond the Founding Fathers

What is my book about?

A magisterial history of Indigenous North America that places the power of Native nations at its center, telling their story from the rise of ancient cities more than a thousand years ago to fights for sovereignty that continue today

Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

What is this book about?

Long before the colonization of North America, Indigenous Americans built diverse civilizations and adapted to a changing world in ways that reverberated globally. And, as award-winning historian Kathleen DuVal vividly recounts, when Europeans did arrive, no civilization came to a halt because of a few wandering explorers, even when the strangers came well armed.

A millennium ago, North American cities rivaled urban centers around the world in size. Then, following a period of climate change and instability, numerous smaller nations emerged, moving away from rather than toward urbanization. From this urban past, egalitarian government structures, diplomacy, and complex economies spread…

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