Pastures Green & Dark Satanic Mills
The British Passion for Landscape
Edited by Tim Barringer & Oliver Fairclough
New York: American Federation of Arts,
In association with D. Giles Limited, London, 2015
Paperback. 232 p. ISBN 978-1885444431. £26
Reviewed by Jacques Carré
Université Paris-Sorbonne, Paris 4
This beautifully illustrated exhibition catalogue was published on the occasion of an exhibition of British landscape views which toured the United States in 2015 and 2016. These 88 paintings, watercolours and photographs all belong to the collections of Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. The Museum was founded in 1907 and owes its exceptional wealth of landscape pictures to donations by the Davies sisters in the 1950s and more recently by the Graham Sutherland Foundation.
The catalogue is divided into six sections following a roughly chronological order, although filiations between old masters and later artists are occasionally suggested. Thus the reader is reminded of the influence of Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa on Richard Wilson and Thomas Wright of Derby. Less familiar are Graham Sutherland’s and John Piper’s affinities with the early 19th-century mystical painter Samuel Palmer. In his introduction Tim Barringer rehearses the classic story of the British love for landscape, with its paradoxical heyday in the late Georgian and early Victorian ages, a time when industrialisation and new transport networks were disfiguring the countryside. Although the exhibition is entitled Pastures Green & Dark Satanic Mills, there is a clear imbalance in favour of rural landscapes in the Cardiff collections as well as elsewhere.
In a useful essay Oliver Fairclough traces the special appeal of Welsh mountains for landscape painters. From the mid-18th century to our age of land-art, Wales has been a favourite territory for artists as well as tourists. Native artists like Richard Wilson and Thomas Jones, after their return from the Grand Tour, did not fail to paint Welsh scenes. What is more, artists and tourists were often linked by relations of patronage. Thus connoisseurs like Thomas Pennant and Watkin Williams-Wynn were not only Georgian forerunners of travellers in search of the picturesque, but they also encouraged the production of pictures such as Paul Sandby’s XII Views in North Wales (1776). The greatest watercolourists of the age, Thomas Girtin, John Cotman and David Cox, followed in their wake. J.M.W. Turner, another enthusiastic traveller, is particularly well represented in the National Museum of Wales. Two major oil paintings (including The Storm, c.1840) and eight watercolours are shown in the exhibition. The section on the sublime is complemented by rarely seen works by lesser-known artists like Henry Clarence Whaite (The Shepherd’s Dream, c. 1865) and, unexpectedly, Edward Lear.
The following section, rather awkwardly entitled ‘Truth to Nature’, lumps together purely topographical artists like John Brett and highly imaginative painters like Thomas Jones and John Constable (A Cottage in a Cornfield, 1817). Interestingly it also illustrates the work of several Victorian photographers like Calvert Richard Jones, John Dillwyn Llewelyn and Roger Fenton, who often borrowed the conventions of landscape painting in order to vindicate their status as artists.
The industrial and urban side of the exhibition begins under the aegis of the sublime, with John Warwick Smith’s sensational view of open-cast copper mines and Thomas Hornor’s emblematic Rolling Mills (c. 1817), with light effects reminiscent of Loutherbourg’s industrial scenes. However, this kind of formula rapidly became repetitive, as in Lionel Walden’s views of Cardiff at night. True modernity was more clearly stimulated by the London landscape. There is a wonderful series of paintings of the Thames, from Claude Monet’s atmospheric Charing Cross Bridge (1902), to Léon de Smet’s pointillist Waterloo Bridge (1915) and Oskar Kokoschka’s gaudy London : Waterloo Bridge (1926). We also find tamer London views from members of the Camden Town Group such as Harold Gilman.
The appeal of the Welsh rural landscape continued throughout the 20th century and beyond. The fine modernist works of Graham Sutherland, Ceri Richards and John Minton illustrated here no longer convey any sense of place but tend to abstraction. They form a strange contrast with the classically figurative pictures of Cedric Morris and Evelyn Dunbar. As for the recent photographs of land art in Welsh settings by Richard Long and David Nash, they interestingly link up with the late Georgian love of landscape aesthetics and quest for picturesque forms.
Altogether this attractive exhibition catalogue provides a fairly comprehensive view of the British art of picturing landscape. It successfully combines work by the greatest masters in the genre with the production of little-known and often unjustly forgotten Welsh painters.
Cercles © 2016
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