The Museum of British Folklore
Project Manager, Museum of British Folklore www.museumofbritishfolklore.com
Lonely Guardians of the Fields.
Capture the unease of being confronted with a scarecrow standing alone in a large field. The effect is disconcerting: a human figure in the midst of uninhabited, open country. It feels wrong, misplaced in our modern world where human presence makes itself known nearly everywhere, particularly on this small island. Scarecrows bring the uncanny to the pastoral landscape, a fact not lost on the many artists, authors, poets and filmmakers who have used the scarecrow in their work.
Of course, the very presence of a scarecrow on the land is evidence of human intervention. It is also an example of human ingenuity, using items already owned to create something new and, despite their strange appearance, with a real purpose. Protecting crops when your livelihood depends on it is no game and farmers throughout the years have attempted to invent the most effective deterrent for pests. Modern bird scaring devices rely on such items as gas-propelled warning shots, or the employment of old CDs to reflect the light and cause birds to become disoriented.
The effectiveness of the old-fashioned scarecrow and, indeed, the effectiveness of scaring off birds which eat far more destructive crop-destroying pests are long-disputed. However, there is a tradition of scarecrows in Britain, reinforced by the various instances of it within literature and regional dialect.
Despite modern developments in bird-scaring methods, in some corners of the countryside scarecrows flourish. In particular, the East of England, with its flat, wide landscape stretching to the sea. The scarecrows photographed by Kate Cadbury in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk appear as if sentinels of the land, protecting more than the crops themselves; rather, as totemic symbols of ownership and territory.
Perhaps, in part, this is where our ambiguous feelings about scarecrows lay - echoes of a time where bodies were strung up on posts, or left hanging in the gibbet, as a warning to would be ne'er do wells. There are also claims that the Celts would construct wicker men with human sacrifices secreted inside which would be burnt whole on sacred days. This practice has been widely discredited as Roman propaganda, its origins in the texts of Strabo (c. 63BC - 24AD), who wrote about the Druid’s ritual of making human and animal sacrifices to ensure a good crop. A modern interpretation is the guy on Bonfire Night or the caricatures constructed by the Bonfire Society of Lewes which are ritually burnt on every November the fifth.
These examples of scarecrows are more mediated than the objects featured in Kate Cadbury’s series. Her subjects run the gamut of high and low art: inspiring comparisons with the surrealist Hans Bellmer and his ‘La Poupee’ series, to the poppets and voodoo dolls created by ‘ordinary’ folk to activate curses. Some of her subjects have something comic in their countenance, overstuffed and blown up big girls blouses (literally), whilst others have an air of pathos: lonely and weather-beaten in these isolated places.
Cadbury has carefully captured the characters of each scarecrow in her portraits. From the knight, sword held aloft (with the help of a stick for support), the trusty defender of the realm; to a curious specimen of an Edwardian lady who has lost her way in a field of brassicas; to the Victorian city gent, replete with bowler hat, cane and bespoke suit. There is macabre humour in the shop mannequin, body flung forward in exhaustion from its hours spent guarding crops, and the forlorn figure of a scarecrow bound to a post, head dangling lifeless, in the suggestion of a witch at the stake. Then there’s the brave pioneer, hands by its side with its face to the east winds, confronting the world with fortitude.
Whilst modern attempts at bird scaring (a variation on the pre-Industrial Revolution habit of employing small children to run about the fields hollering and with wooden rattles), may be more effective than the mute, immobile traditional scarecrow; there is obviously a desire to create these straw-stuffed guardians, as these photographs attest.
H Rider Haggard, writing in ‘A Farmer’s Year’ (1898) lamented:
‘...the mawkin nowadays is a poor creature compared with what he used to be, and it is a wonder that any experienced rook consents to be scared by him. Thirty years or so ago, he really was a work of art, with a hat, a coat, a stick and sometimes a painted face, ferocious enough to frighten a little boy in the twilight let alone a bird. Now a rag or two and a jumblesale cloth cap are considered sufficient, backed up...[by] a dead rook tied up by the leg to a stick...’
Cadbury’s scarecrows may well be made from remnants of clothing, plastic sheeting and other found materials but nevertheless have been constructed with care and attention to detail to create a significant presence in the empty landscapes of the fens and beyond.
Scarecrows can be considered as true folk objects: made from pre-existing items and re-formed without recourse to design, to create something new, whilst reinforcing old traditions in the process. Made by a farmer, or his family from old clothes, stuffed with straw or other such material to create the most human-looking shape possible, dressed, accessorised and finally, hoisted up, often in a cruciform shape, the scarecrow becomes an icon, watching over the fields in silent repose.
These portraits represent the enduring image of the scarecrow in country life and are a fitting tribute to those lonely guardians of the fields.