Prior to the second world war English identity was often depicted using scenes associated with longevity; countryside that had arisen over time, churches with lengthy history, or people performing activities that had been enjoyed for many – sometimes hundreds of – years. Landscape scenes were used to depict a collective identity by reinforcing the idea that the land was inviolate and had not been invaded for nearly a thousand years. The idea was not entirely bucolic happiness though; Taylor writes of Masterman’s description of “black blots on the landscape” caused by the industrial revolution.
During the war years any fears over creeping industrialisation were superseded by the very real fear of invasion. The landscape itself changed as any identifying signs were removed from roads, travel became restricted and enjoyment of the countryside was no longer possible in the same way as before. Picture editors and photographers moved towards depicting the reality of the war but in a way that reminded the viewer of what the war was being fought to defend. The English countryside was shown in the same manner as before but along with features that put the war very much at the centre. Barbed wire, gun positions and evacuee children alongside the Lake District or Dover beach reminded people what they stood to lose.
Newspapers and magazines would also juxtapose romantic rural English scenes along with images of German military or political parades to reinforce the idea of “Englishness” as being worth the sacrifices that people were having to make.
From a 21st century perspective, although there is a lot of romanticism and propaganda in the photographs used during the war, in a lot of ways it was honest. The ways of life depicted probably did commonly exist even if not for the majority of people. Compare this with pretty much the same “English” symbolism propagated by many pro-Brexit nationalists, where the ways of life are now no more than reproductions; historical reenactments of country life where the reality is now very different.