Exercise 1.3 – Establishing Conventions

As it is British landscapes that I am likely to be focusing on I decided to look specifically at British landscape painters for this exercise. Three kept emerging in my research: Turner, Constable, and Gainsborough. (1) Using their paintings as a basis a number of repeated features and themes can be seen:

  • much as in my painting for ex.1.1, there are usually three features: woodland, water, and pastoral landscapes.
  • where buildings are included they are either religious (and therefore decorous) or indicative of the rural idyll (a mill, a water wheel, a thatched cottage).
  • skies are dramatic – never dull and grey, they are either bold blue with fluffy clouds, or stormy and atmospheric – this is often used to give drama to an otherwise calm scene
  • the images are usually in landscape orientation
  • where people are present they are generally small, blend into the landscape, and are wholesome farmers at leisure, fitting into the rural idyll – there is no sign of hard work or poverty
  • tonally the paintings appear warm, as if bathed in autumn sunlight – even seascapes generally have a warm glow, although sometimes seascapes are the setting for a more dramatic and dangerous scene
  • brushstrokes are a part of the painting’s atmosphere and are very much visible (particularly for Turner) – though not quite impressionistic these are not attempts at painting reality

One image struck me as being out of the ordinary as I flicked through my searches:

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“Stonehenge” – John Constable, 1835 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum (2)

This image has much more drama and mystery than most of Constable’s paintings – it seems to lean towards the sublime more than the beautiful, with the overbearing sky and the sense of destruction and desolation on the ground. Although ruins are a commonplace theme in the landscape paintings of this period they are general of a more romantic nature, fitting within the landscape, rather than being the subject of the painting as here. Stonehenge was painted not long after Constable’s wife and best friend had died, and a year before his own death, and perhaps this influenced his altered perspective on art.

Turning to photography, Henry Peach Robinson and Roger Fenton are two of the most well known early photographers to follow the picturesque style of painting (3). More modern art photography tends to shy away from this style (though amateur photography magazines are still fond of it). However there are examples:

  • although largely a documentary project, Mark Wright‘s “The Fireside and the Sanctuary” uses romanticised landscapes to highlight the impact of fracking on rural communities (4). We see rolled bales of hay, a river running through the woods etc. But these are paired with thoughtful and melancholic looking portraits which give a sense of loss.
  • as individual images, much of Jem Southam‘s work could be seen as picturesque. For example “The River Winter” depicts a river through the trees, no people, just a traditional landscape. (5) However, as a series the images have far more power and meaning because they chart the progress of winter, triggering our emotional response to its impact.
  • Simon Roberts’ “We English” (6) depicts pastoral and picturesque landscapes, but shows people enjoying those landscapes, highlighting the way that tourism exploits the landscape traditions laid down in the nineteenth century. His more recent series “National Property: The Picturesque Imperfect” builds on this theme.

Perhaps it is notable that the picturesque in contemporary art is used mainly in order to undermine it – to exploit our shared traditions and visual language to cast light on our misuse or loss of the landscape, or to illustrate that this idyll never really existed. In some ways that isn’t hugely different from the nineteenth century painters – even they were creating a pastoral ideal that didn’t really exist in order to advance a particular ideology, masking the effects of enclosure and the agricultural revolution.

(1) A useful quick summary of landscape art and its influences in the 18th and 19th century can be found here: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/constable-gainsborough-turner-landscape (accessed 15th April 2017)

(2) http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O74470/stonehenge-watercolour-john-constable/ (accessed 15th April 2017)

(3) See Clarke (1997) pg 55 – 57 for more details

(4) http://www.markcwright.com/the-fireside-and-the-sanctuary/lda0ep52f95zf2lmjrtw3m4ds5rehy (accessed 15th April 2017) and see an interesting essay here: http://www.photomonitor.co.uk/present-critical-romanticism-mark-wrights-fireside-sanctuary/

(5) The photobook can be viewed here: http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/48-The-River-Winter.html (accessed 15th April 2017)

(6) http://www.simoncroberts.com/work/we-english/#PHOTO_56 (accessed 15th April 2017)

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