This is how it happened: 100 million years ago, Sussex was covered by a warm, shallow sea. Life teemed in the water, from plesiosaurs to tiny marine plants. Forget the monsters; focus in on those plants. Green algae they were, and when they died they left microscopic skeletons of pure calcium carbonate that drifted down like snow to settle on the seabed. They built up over the long march of the centuries, about 30ft every million years or so.
This went on for perhaps 60 million years, until the great geological machinations that sent up the Alps raised a vast chalk mountain range across southern England (although such names are meaningless in the language of deep time). This range was eroded over the next 20 or 30 million years until only its frayed outer edges remained: the North and South Downs.
Now skip forward an aeon or two to the point when, 117 years ago, an artist was born whose work brought that landscape to life: Eric Ravilious. He made worlds from the intermingling of chalk and grass, sea and light; transfiguring the South Downs in a series of paintings which, once seen, will change the way you look on chalk hills for ever.
Wool vest, £870, cotton shirt with scarf, £680, and wool-gaberdine suit trousers, £3,100 (including jacket), all Ermenegildo Zegna XXX
John Nash's paintings of the Great War are deeply moving, nightmarish views across the anti-landscape of the trenches. He fought at Passchendaele and Cambrai; at the latter he was one of only 12 from his battalionto escape death or injury. He became an official war artist in 1918, and returned to Britain traumatised, seeking to find his way back to health by painting the English countryside. His first such works were of Buckinghamshire cornfields, long-shadowed with the coming of evening; the corn sheaves stand in stooked pairs, leaning on one another like wounded men marching into the distance.
These past months, with horizons circumscribed, I've been more aware than ever of how British artists have shaped the way I view the countryside. I live on the Kent-Sussex border, where Wealden clay meets downland chalk, and both brood over the claggy reaches of Romney Marsh, which just a moment ago, geologically speaking, was far beneath the waves. Ravilious and both Nashes (John's brother Paul lived in Rye and painted the marshes beautifully) have all helped me to see under the skin of these familiar places.
We have been rediscovering holloways and green lanes about my village this summer. We have swum in a reservoir in woods that are honey-tinted by the light, touched by a melancholy that Nash understood. And in the evenings, when I run up to our church perched on a whaleback of chalk, then stand looking over the patchwork fields of the Rother Valley, I love the sight more for the feeling that Ravilious would have painted it just like this, so that the landscape seems to breathe the light from it, and you feel drawn into the folds of the earth.
My favourite book is a novella by JL Carr called A Month in the Country. It's about a soldier, Tom Birkin, who comes back from the Great War broken, just as John Nash was broken. He goes to a fictional village called Oxgodby in Yorkshire and sets about restoring a mural there that has been buried under coats of whitewash. The book is about art and nature, about the invisible wounds that trauma leaves upon us, and how they might be healed. We all require a bit of healing just now, and landscape viewed through the lens of great art can do things to what, in other times, might be called our souls, that might, in those other times, be thought miraculous.
Five more looks inspired by the country
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Wool jumper, £745, tweed trousers, £945, embroidered knit hat, £350, and wool scarf, £335, all Dolce & Gabbana
Cashmere cardigan, £3,300, cotton-poplin shirt, £460, and cotton trousers, £810, all Hermès
Cashmere and wool jacket, £!,400, matching gilet, £1,300, and trousers, £900, all Giorgio Armani. Hat, stylist's own