Solitary Reapers

Christopher Salvesen

  • The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting 1730-1840 by John Barrell
    Cambridge, 179 pp, £15.00, March 1980, ISBN 0 521 22509 4

How salutary to feel guilty about enjoying paintings of the English landscape and peasantry. One aim of Dr Barrell’s book is to animate out suspicions about the difference between the actuality of rural life in the later 18th century and the Romantic era and the image that we derive from various pictorial and literary sources. The work of E.P. Thompson is invoked to remind us that the labourers in the fields were often impoverished, exploited and degraded. In three essays and an introduction Dr Barrell looks at the figures in the paintings of Gains borough, George Morland and Constable in order to trace changes in the way that rural workers and the rural poor in general were represented, and to suggest a tradition in which a gradual desire for greater naturalism was compromised and inhibited by considerations which were not only aesthetic but also moral and social. He ends up asking about Constable ‘why a painter apparently so anxious to paint a landscape rich in human associations should have placed his figures so often in the middle ground, until they become almost invisible in the landscapes they have made.’

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