The Yorkshire-born artist Edward Wadsworth once took his fellow vorticist painter Wyndham Lewis on to the hills overlooking industrial Halifax and showed him the town, smoking and steaming away in its steep-sided valley. "It's like hell, isn't it?" Lewis remembered him saying, and saw he was proud of it. This identification with an environment (even a hellish one), this recognition of the environment that identifies us helps to embed us in communities, both local and national, and assists in the construction of a national identity. This, one has to presume, is the serious sub- text of a new Tate exhibition, "A Picture of Britain", and its accompanying television programme and book.
It is also the subject of a recent pamphlet, Better Places to Live: government, identity and the value of the historic and built environment, by the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell. This begins with a lot of motherhood-and-apple-pie assertions of the value of "heritage" and good architecture. Yet there is one sharp piece of grit in the ointment - the suggestion that developers might need only make elaborate digital records of listed buildings before being allowed to demolish them - and it concludes with a series of rather challenging questions for heritage organisations. How, for instance, should they give leadership to and contribute to national debate on identity and Britishness? What can they do to create public engagement and widen the sense of ownership of the historic and built environment? And how can they introduce true diversity in terms of engagement, workforce and audience? In the context of hard questions such as these, the picture of Britain presented at the Tate is a rather safe, nostalgic one. What is the exhibition for? Who is it for?
The Britain that it portrays is primarily rural. It includes a poster by Frank Newbould, from 1942, of a homeward-wending shepherd over the slogan "Your Britain: fight for it now". A modern audience will wonder whether it is being encouraged to defend the Sussex countryside from foreign invaders or from the enemy within - the developers.
David Dimbleby, who wrote and presents the television series and has written introductory essays for each section of the book, has none of Wadsworth's ambivalence about the industrial landscape. He just doesn't like it. "The industrial revolution came and went," he writes. "We are still picking up the pieces. But the Heart of England which boasts, alongside the industrial wasteland of the Black Country, the glorious countryside stretching from Derbyshire to Shropshire or the Malvern Hills is a reminder of how easily our places can be destroyed. It is a moral for our own careless times."
The transition from London to the countryside is elsewhere represented as a move "from the world of modern labour to that of ancient toil, from prose to poetry, from greyness to colour, from death to life: from pandemonium to paradise". This may be a picture of Britain that its city-dwelling majority will recognise, but many will reject it, and the version of Britishness implicit in it will not be one that everyone can feel a part of. For instance: the ethnic diversity of today's Britain has been so little represented on guided discovery walks in the Lake District as to call their funding into question.
To the extent that "A Picture of Britain" is intended to help define some sort of nat-ional identity, it is necessarily backward-looking, comprising as it does painting (mostly) from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. It suffers in comparison with another, bolder, project from a more desperate time. In 1940, it seemed that the whole fabric of the country was threatened with destruction, either by enemy action or by the grim imperatives of national defence. It was decided to commission battalions (I hardly exaggerate) of artists to cover the country "recording Britain", so that if the worst came to the worst, a coherent memorial would remain.
The results - drawings and some watercolours - later toured the country as a series of morale-boosting exhibitions and were published in four hefty volumes, each picture with a facing page of text. The project eloquently and unequivocally stated: this is Britain now; this is what we value; this is what we are prepared to sacrifice in order to survive as a people. Few of the pictures were masterpieces, whereas many in "A Picture of Britain" are; but as a whole, "Recording Britain" still seems vital (both lively and important) in a way that the exhibition at the Tate can't. One is an authentic historical document and a fierce assertion of national identity; the other is an entertainment, a display of treasures. It takes more than possession of the family silver to make you a family.
It will quite properly be objected that the primary purpose of the exhibition was not to reflect upon the formation of national identity, but to show how the British landscape inspired generations of artists whose work in turn influenced the ways in which we see the landscape. This is an interesting topic, and it is ably explored in the book of the show co-authored by David Blayney Brown, Christine Riding and Richard Humphreys. The exhibition (pictures from the Tate's own collection augmented by judicious borrowings) is a great pleasure to the eye. The book will be a credit to any coffee table. The programme is the best sort of comfort television.
Yet a picture of Britain it is not. Too much is left out; the experience of too many people is disregarded. There are just enough industrial and urban landscapes in the show to make us feel how few they are. Stanley Baldwin once suggested that "England is the country, and the country is England", but this was already sentimental twaddle when he said it 80 years ago, as Edward Wadsworth could have told him. The immigrant experience is neglected, and the immigrant experience has been an essential component of Britishness since Roman times.
Another important bygone exhibition, seen by only a few people, "The Search for Identity: immigrant artists in early 20th-century British art", at Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery in 2003, explored this paradox. The "look" of British art is, in large part, the product of an interaction between not just the British landscape, but the British weather and the British city - between British culture in the large sense of the word - and wave after wave of immigrants in the process of becoming British. Much characteristically "British" art, from Holbein onwards, has been made by first- or second-generation immigrants. No doubt many thousands of people will thoroughly enjoy "A Picture of Britain", but it feels like a lost opportunity to me.
"A Picture of Britain" is at Tate Britain, London SW1 (020 7887 8000 ) from 15 June to 4 September