The Iconography of England

n., pl., -phies.

    1. Pictorial illustration of a subject.
    2. The collected representations illustrating a subject.
  1. A set of specified or traditional symbolic forms associated with the subject or theme of a stylized work of art.

Today, an interesting article entitled ‘What do new passport images say about modern Britain?’ appeared on the BBC website. Apparently, I had missed the fact that the template for the UK Passport is to be/has been changed, and now features

“… images representing the four nations along with symbols of the UK’s maritime heritage.”

Grand indeed. So, what are these ‘images’ and ‘symbols’? Well…

“… the four nations are represented by landscape scenes of the Giant’s Causeway, Ben Nevis, the Gower peninsula and the white cliffs of Dover – the result of a Home Office staff competition to select national symbols.”

Thus, the Home Office has surprisingly picked up on an integral aspect of British (and particularly English) national identity: the natural environment. England’s green and pleasant land, if you will. I blogged on this matter a little while ago, in fact. But, predictably, there is consternation of the choice of these perfectly neutral, perfectly representative symbols.

According to the Beeb, ‘design guru’ Stephen Bayley, cries ‘cliche’, claiming that these symbols are symptomatic of the

“British disease of a soft-focus nostalgia for a past that never was”.

Good God, call the Coastguard! Alert the authorities! The Giant’s Causeway has fallen! The white cliffs of Dover have never existed! There are so many wartime songs to re-write!

According to the article…

Mr Bayley says a truer reflection of Britain would be to focus on its arts – music, poetry and fashion – technology such as Formula 1 cars and innovative architecture.

Is there anything as dangerously short-termist as fashion and technology?! It will soon look ridiculous. Perhaps he’s one of these ‘spend lots of the taxpayer’s money needlessly’ types…

However, Mr Bayley does correctly note that

“National iconography shouldn’t be a tired old museum piece. The image bank needs topping up.”

I wondered what the key imagery of the country is. What constitutes the Iconography of England? So, logically enough for an internet blog, I went to search engines and their images: simultaneously the home of compulsive, stereotypical tagging of what is usually someone else’s image, and a fairly decent insight into what people think ‘stuff’ is. I used ‘England pictures’ as a search term; it was one predictably prompted when I attempted to use ‘English iconography’. No big words allowed…

First up, Google!

Click to enlarge

An interesting combination. Some typical images here: the odd pastoral scene, the Cross of St George, pictures of London, the football-related imagery (outdated England football strips, the Three Lions overlaid on the St. George’s Cross, the England-Germany score from 2001 etc). Two things are interesting here. Firstly, odd things like Miss England and the pictures of the 2006 film This is England suggest that England is indeed a nation attuned to fashions and phases. Secondly, the maps. It seems that pains have been taken by numerous authors/hosts to make it very clear what England actually is in a geographical sense. One gives details of the major cities and the key towns of historical importance. Another is a map of the key motorways. One gives us a colour-coded breakdown of the counties of England. One even provides us with emboldened National Park locations.
So we can deduce that what the key features of England’s geography and physical appearance are mean very different things to different people.

Next, Bing!

Click to enlarge

Perhaps Bing uses a more literal search than Google, as once more, maps appear to dominate. (Apologies are due to our Welsh friends for the quite brazen assimilation of Wales into England in one of the maps shown here!) More pictures of the built environment appear. There is just the one football-related image herein, the Three Lions. The Three Lions is arguably one of the key icons of England, and excellent evidence of how Royal symbolism has been adapted for a wider use, and for fame in its own right as a symbol of something entirely different from its origins.

What is also interesting is that historic places such as ‘Stonehenge’ are only mentioned as alternative searches in the toolbar, rather than as symbols of England in their own right.

I found this a roundly unsatisfying demonstration of the Iconography of England. Fortunately, I stumbled upon an interesting website named ICONS, which describes itself and its purpose thusly:

“ICONS – A Portrait of England is a rich resource of material about our lives and cultural heritage comprised of the top 100 icons that best represent England, as voted by you.”

Unbelievably, this was an initiative by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport under the Labour Government. Yes, Labour doing something for England! Whilst it was a suitably multi-culti project, the resulting icons are recognisably and assuredly English, including everything from Winston Churchill’s ‘V for Victory’ gesture to the River Thames to one of my own personal favourites…

I wholeheartedly encourage you to visit the ICONS website, and pick your own from their list. It is a most fascinating collection, most of which – lamentably- will not appear in your passport.

But what of the key question? What do you consider to be the key image(s) of England?


About Byrnsweord

I am an Englishman. Constantly striving for the truth and to conserve what is good about England. You can find my on flickr at my blog over at and my Twitter account at Byrnsweord is min nama.
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2 Responses to The Iconography of England

  1. As a designer myself, I can safely say that Stephen Bayley is a pretentious dickie-bow wearing no-talent pillock. One of his ‘triumphs’ was the early work on the innards of the dome which were bloody rubbish. And when it all started to go a bit Pete Tonge – he flounced out and baled (or should that be Bayleyed?) rather than face the music…

    I wonder if Bayley realises that technology and fashion once developed immediately becomes obsolete… The C5, Sinclair ZX, TSR2, Blue Streak, penny round collars, hipsters, maxis etc, etc…

  2. Interesting subject. It’s a mystery to me how the Home Office managed to come up with something vaguely right for this. I thought I’d Google ‘Britain Picture’ to see what came up, and there were, among the maps, quite a few photos of Susan Boyle. On the whole I prefer Miss England.

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