Landscape gardens, narrative painting and ‘High Summer’

 

 

'The Lascivious Squire' C1800 by Thomas Rowlandson, pencil, ink and colour washes.

 

The last thing to be made after a series of pictures is completed is the lecture accounting for it.  The danger in such hindsight is the tendency to correct false turns, erase blunders and give to the development a steadfast and inevitable direction never discerned at the time of making.  Such presentations tend, for example, to foreground ideas and to present these as if conceived fully formed and separated from unconscious wanderings and the graft of making images.

 

I must say that increasingly I think that my pictures ‘speak for themselves’.  My earlier work, that concerning twentieth century history, required some unpacking as the public could not be expected to have an intimate knowledge of the subject matter; whether it be early Soviet history or the fate of the Jews of Bohemia during the Second World War.  Recounting these historical narratives offered a productive way of speaking about my pictures.  But since I have turned my attention to contemporary Britain... I have felt lost for words.

 

I intend, therefore, to write here about some of the paintings and gardens that I was looking at whilst making High Summer, in the hope that the connections linking these disparate images and places will best be revealed in the work itself.

 

For some years now I have been studying the marvellous body of work left to us by William Hogarth.  I would like briefly to discuss his An Election Entertainment which was the first in a series of four paintings Hogarth made concerning the 1754 election campaign in Oxfordshire.  It is presently housed in John Soane’s labyrinthine museum in London.  I learnt something from this picture which I have employed in my recent work, and it concerns the use of ironic contrast.

 

The scene is set in a functions room in the fictional constituency of ‘Guzzledown’.  Outside the window the Tories are parading under the same banners as the Whigs, who now occupy the hall they have just vacated.  With no real difference between the two parties the election has degenerated into a slanging match over trivial issues and the bawdy electorate are seen making the most of the bribe of a free lunch.  At one end of the arrangement of trestle tables the ambitious and foppish politician Sir Commodity Taxem seems over whelmed by his drunken supporters. In the foreground of the picture a Whig attorney collapses as he is struck on the head by a brick thrown through the window, and to his right the mayor is bled by an apothecary to help him recover after a surfeit of oysters.

 

The picture alludes through its form and subject to Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.  Hogarth creates an ironic contrast between that painting’s sense of obligation and sacrifice and the corruption and fatuousness of the present scene.  In ‘High Summer’ I too attempt an ironic contrast, between the idealised Arcadian setting and antics of the contemporary tourists wandering though it.

 

The seed of the ‘High Summer’ series was planted twenty years ago when I first visited Rousham Park near my hometown of Oxford.  Rousham is a small landscaped garden offering vistas framed by trees, winding paths, streams, classical statues and garden buildings which include temples, a Palladian gateway and a variety of follies.  Its importance is as a prototype where the ideas associated with the English landscape garden were first worked out by designers Charles Bridgeman and William Kent.  They in turn were influenced by the classical landscape paintings of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin (of whom more later).  The dominant style of garden design when Kent began working at Rousham in 1738 was still the formal geometrical garden with its straight vistas and clipped trees.  Bridgeman’s most important innovation had been the ha-ha; a ditch surrounding the garden in place of a fence or wall, which gave the impression of including the surrounding landscape within the garden’s design.  Kent treated the construction of the garden as if making a series of painted views, connecting one to the next by serpentine walkways.

 

I also used two other gardens from this period, at Stowe in Buckinghamshire and Stourhead in Hampshire, which are larger and more elaborate than Rousham.  Stowe offers a particularly interesting example of how a political statement could be encoded into a seemingly innocuous garden design.  Its owner, Viscount Cobham, along with other radical Whigs took Republican Rome as their model.  The Palladian houses they built in fact became badges of this ideology.  Cobham began his garden in 1715 when he was dismissed from the army for his Whig beliefs and retired to his estate.  He had John Vanburgh rebuild the house and design temples for the garden whilst Charles Bridgeman laid out the grounds.  The Viscount resumed his army career but again resigned in 1733 over Walpole’s Excise Bill.  A new coalition of disaffected Whigs and old Tories formed against Walpole who had by this time been in power for twenty years.  This group gathered around Fredrick, Prince of Wales, and the new style of gardening was associated with this disgruntled coalition.

 

At this point William Kent arrived at Stowe and laid out his ‘Elysian Fields’ and ‘River Styx’.  With James Gibbs, who replaced Vanburgh on his death, he designed ‘The Temple of Ancient Virtue’ containing statues of amongst others Socrates and Homer.  Near by, and in implied contrast, stood ‘The Temple of Modern Virtue,’ which was a ruin containing a headless figure generally taken to be that of Walpole.  Further political inscriptions were made in the ‘Temple of British Worthies’ with its busts of Whig heroes and the ‘Temple of Friendship’ containing a statue of the Prince of Wales and other opposition figures.    

 

As has already been mentioned, one of the major sources of inspiration for these gardens were the landscapes paintings of Claude and Poussin, brought back from Rome in quantities by English aristocrats and their agents.  For the wealthy the Grand Tour formed an obligatory part of their education.  These were the original tourists, travelling for pleasure and self-improvement rather than for war or religion.  Like modern tourists some encounter mishaps, were robbed or fell ill, and once away from home others indulged in promiscuous sex, gambling and gluttony. Never the less, many also cultivated a great knowledge of, and love for, Italian painting and their legacy is to be found in our national collections.  First hand experience of European art was also considered essential in the training of an artist and William Kent, for example, had travelled in Italy for ten years before commencing his career as a landscape designer.  

 

One can still see in some of these English country houses the effect of a Claude painting hanging beside a window which opens up onto an echoing classical landscape by William Kent.  Part of the designer’s artistry was in adapting the grand scale of the Roman Campagna to that of the English country estate with its meadows and rolling hills.  An interesting reversal of this scaling down can be seen in the fine watercolour by JMW Turner The Rise of the River Stour at Stourhead c1824.  The artist brought an epic sense of scale to the scene by trebling the height of the hill bordering the lake and diminishing the size of the Pantheon across the water, thereby increasing the size of the tarn.  It is a most Claudian of views.  Turner’s admiration for his predecessor is also exampled by his donation of two important paintings by himself to the nation on the condition that they should hang alongside Claude’s landscapes, which they do to this day in the National Gallery.

 

So now let us turn our attention to the ideal landscapes of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin.  Landscape had developed as a genre firstly in Holland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, where a new source of patronage was to be found amongst the rising merchant classes who purchased small paintings for their homes. Rather as if zooming in on the landscape background to a religious painting, the genre now placed nature centre stage. Nature was a source of pleasure and individual contemplation, and in this sense it was seen as politically democratic.  It could also be shown as potentially uncontrollable and awe-inspiring.

 

An important component of these early landscapes were signs of civilisation, without which they were considered to have no real subject matter.   The industry of peasants observed working on country estates typically provided such reassuring subjects. The genre of landscape embraced high and low - it encompassed both sublime imitation and every day reality. Through the skill of the artist in rendering detail, nature was given a visible and tangible reality, but it was also assumed that behind that reality lay the workings of God.

 

There was a troubling erotic element to nature’s reproductive fecundity, which was often expressed through the actions of satyrs and shepherds.  These transgressive subjects might cause unease and moral turbulence in the viewer but they could be legitimised by idealisation, and the myth of Arcadia accomplished this.

 

The main sources of Arcadian myth are Theocritus’s ‘Idylls” and Virgil’s ‘Eclogues’, which situate it either in the little known Peloponnies or distant Sicily.  The depictions of temples and other buildings in the paintings of Poussin and Claude do not strictly accord with these accounts of Arcadia. They are in fact based on observations made in the Roman Compagna of Ancient Roman ruins and again testify to the important model classical civilisation continued to offer in the 17C.

 

Ideal landscapes provided a setting for the drama of human emotions and actions whilst also showing a Utopian world evoking the dream of some longed for perfect life. Precedence was given to the laws of pictorial composition over the strict observation of nature.  On a metaphysical level they invited speculation on the role of God in the formation of the natural world.

 

There is one further landscape painting I would briefly like to look at, as it too has echoes in High Summer. The Forest Fire by Piero Di Cosimo hangs in my local museum, the Ashmolean in Oxford.  Painted around 1505, its size and shape suggest it was a spalliera panel, whose function in a domestic context was as a backboard to a chest or bench.

 

The collection of animals depicted strikes us as rather odd and improbable.  For although many are native to the countryside around Florence - the oxen, red deer, domestic pig and even the brown bear which at that time still roamed the forests - others are decidedly alien, particularly the lion and lioness.  There is shown a great variety of birds, some of which look drawn from dead specimens in the market.  They include starlings, partridges, a pigeon, a woodcock, peregrine hawks, goldfinch and a common crane.  The picture begins to look like a catalogue of species, motivated possible by an interest in the emerging natural sciences.

 

But this does not explain the fire and the two strange hybrid figures.  Theories abound; that the fire is a metaphor for love; that taming of fire was seen as the first step towards civilisation and language; or that it was simply a test of the painter’s virtuosity.  But what of the addition of satyrs heads to the pig and deer?  It remains a troubling and enigmatic picture with its odd mixture of natural and unnatural elements.  Pasturelands was the picture most directly influenced by it in my ‘High Summer’ series.

 

I would like to turn now to someone I felt to be a fellow traveller whilst making this series - Dr Syntax.  The creation of Thomas Rowlandson, the good Doctor was a cultural tourist and eccentric who first appeared in Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque in 1812.  The tale is told through a series of pictures with verses by William Combe attached.  On his journey all manner of ills befall Syntax, he is robbed, lost, made drunk and near drowned, all in the search for an illusive picturesque landscape.  Rowlandson satirises here the Rev. William Gilpin’s ideas, developed in the 1760’s, of picturesque beauty which celebrated texture, roughness and ruggedness over the smooth lines of the parklands of Capability Brown.  In  Dr Syntax pursued by a Bull we see Syntax sketching outside Oxford and Combe’s accompanying text reads-

 

‘But as he ran to save his bacon,

by hat and wig he was forsaken.’

 

Political satire has seemed to me an increasingly relevant means by which an artist can deal with the post Cold War world.  And so, along side Hogarth and Rowlandson, I have been looking at James Gillray’s work. The marvellous image, Monster Craws at a New Coalition Feast was made in 1787 and I quote from the recent Tate catalogue-

 

‘The subject is a familiar one; the greed and miserliness of the King and Queen, and the perpetual need for funds of Frederick, Prince of Wales.  All three are seated in front of the Treasury gate.  They sit gorging themselves on a great bowl of guineas, inscribed ‘ John Bull’s Blood’.  The print is a satire on a partial reconciliation between the Prince and his parents after Pitt had recommended a settlement of his debts, and the granting of additional income, including the revenue from the Duchy of Cornwall.’

 

 

The final historical ingredient I would like briefly to discuss are the scenes of every day life found in Dutch Genre painting.  I must say that I think it a great achievement when I see people still laughing in front of humorous paintings made some 300 years ago. (Humour is maybe the most difficult of art forms.) We can still recognise the types portrayed and understand much of the symbolism.  And my favourite is the irascible Jan Steen.

 

As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young by Steen represents a popular proverb and makes a punning play on children smoking and blowing on pipes in imitation of their elders. It was painted c1663.  The well-humoured family group includes the characteristically wayward Steen who appears as the father, mischievously teaching his son to smoke.  Its stance is morally equivocal and therefore appealing to modern sensibilities.  The expressive animation of the figures and the technical quality of the paintwork I find extraordinary.

 

A brief word about the term ‘genre’.  It was used historically either to describe a type, kind or category, as in ‘the genre of landscape’, or specifically to denote representations of everyday life in the term - ‘Genre Painting’.  In the latter sense it was often contrasted with the weightier category of History Painting, whose subjects were drawn from religion and classical mythology (as we have seen, for example, in Claude’s work).  The two offer again a ‘high / low’ opposition.

 

In The Merry Threesome c1670, Steen takes a familiar and well-worn theme of a lustful and foolish older man being flattered and fleeced by an attractive young woman whilst an old crone distracts him with wine.  Steen gives the story a new twist by the attention the young woman is drawing to her own activity, pointing to the thieving hand, yet the laughing fellow knowingly goes along with the deception. (There is no fool like an old fool).  This treatment makes the theme less moralising and more comic and theatrical.  Steen’s casting of himself as the leering musician enhances the self-deprecating humour of the image.

 

I hope in this brief account to have shown the value I place on the study of such paintings.  Contemporary art education seldom introduces students to art much before their own era, and so if they wish to learn from the narrative tradition in painting, they have to become autodidacts.  They are fortunate in having great national collections and galleries in this country, in which the student of landscape can learn as much as by travelling the land, like poor Dr. Syntax, in search of the elusive picturesque.

 

 

John Goto

Oxford 2001

 

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Notes on individual pictures-

Eco Warriors
The term ‘eco-warrior' was coined by the UK media to describe environmental activists, particularly those engaged in sabotaging test-sites of GM crops.   On such occasions police helicopters overhead would emit sudden loud sounds and photograph the protesters as they looked up.

Hunters
Hunting remains a deeply divisive issue in Britain, fought along class lines and between city and country dwellers.   Landowners increasingly rent out shooting rights to the nouveau riche, whom a generation ago they would have treated as trespassers and poachers.

Dancer
The British like to think of Morris dancing as an ancient countryside tradition. In it's modern form, however, it is little more than a hundred years old and it's future looks uncertain as younger generations shun its ‘beer and bells' image. The dancer here is accompanied by a troupe of Chinese evangelists and Afro-Caribbean gospel singers.

Movie
Another lucrative source of income for hard-pressed aristocrats is the use of their estates as locations for historical movies and costume dramas.   Tourist numbers increase afterwards as people flock to see where ‘Mr. Darcy rode through the countryside, complete with wet shirt and brooding good looks'.

Sporta
The landscapes created by William Kent and Capability Brown are fast being consumed by golf courses and other sports facilities. Each activity is signified by its own styles of specialist designer kit.

Society
English Landscape Gardens are a favorite location for staging society events - from weddings and opera to horse trials and corporate dinners.   In hired formal suits and top hats the guests look quite at home until we realize that to gain entry they have had to climb in over the back fence!

Beach
The English seaside resort has struggled to survive as a holiday destination since mass tourism to the Costa del Sol began in the ‘70s.   Rising sea levels are producing coastal erosion and traditional fishing fleets have all but disappeared.

Deluge
Climate change has produced a succession of very wet summers in the UK with widespread flooding. Building higher flood defensives is increasingly considered uneconomical and results in homes that can no longer be insured or sold.   Tomorrow's poor will live by the scenic water's edge.

Plinth
We observe here representatives of the art world gathered for the unveiling of a shrouded statue. Community and amateur artists mix with the cognoscenti, whilst tourists and school children look aimlessly around. A cut out figure in the shape of a well known gallery director bestows his blessing on the gathering. To the right, dressed in a sports jacket, Goto leans on the canon. Carved into the base of the plinth is the motto ‘Et in Arcadia Ego'.

Dreamers
In a recent report, ‘Challenging the Rural Idyll' it was claimed that ‘Limited opportunities for people living in rural areas leaves them vulnerable to the misuse of alcohol and drugs.'   One of the authors of the report asked ‘what do you do when you are surrounded by green fields and empty space? It is probably drink, drugs and sex.'

Brigands
In recent years people living in rural areas have suffered greater increases in violent attacks, sex offences and robbery than those in urban centers in England and Wales. The closure of rural police stations and a fall in the number of front-line officers is widely blamed for this.

Pasturelands
Since the early ‘70s another source of income for country estates has come from the introduction of wildlife and safari parks.   Incongruously set in the English countryside, the parks are emblematic of a greater uncertainty about nature and our relationship to the natural world.

High Ground
One of the abiding images of the Kosovo conflict in the late ‘nineties was of distant plumes of smoke rising above otherwise idyllic countryside. Women, children and elderly civilians are seen here amongst regular and irregular forces, which may be their protectors, or their abusers. Behind them a deserted temple overlooking a lush valley is used as an observation point and command centre.

Farmer
The foot-and-mouth epidemic that swept through Britain in 2001 devastated many farms. Herds that had taken generations to breed and foster were wiped out overnight. Farms were sealed off and funeral pyres of slaughter cattle appeared nightly on the television news. The prospect of financial ruin was for many farmers less burdensome than the feeling that they had let their fore fathers down, and suicide rates amongst the farming community increased nationally.

Harvest
Farm subsidies are targeted disproportionately towards the big farmers, such as the so-called wheat barons, who have transformed much of East Anglia into a Western prairie, in contrast to the landscape that John Constable made famous.   The merger of large supermarkets chains has also increased the monopoly of food production and supply.