- Constable by Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams
Tate Gallery, 544 pp, £45.00, June 1991, ISBN 1 85437 071 5
- Romatic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition by Jonathan Bate
Routledge, 131 pp, £8.99, May 1991, ISBN 0 415 06116 4
The catalogue of the Constable exhibition which opened at the Tate in June is probably the glossiest, the heaviest, the most unwieldy volume ever to accompany an exhibition of the work of a British artist. It is also one of the dullest. Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams have resisted the tendency of the last fifteen years or so by which the catalogues of major exhibitions have often been presented as major interpretative studies of the artist and his times. Constable is a catalogue, nothing more. It maximises our knowledge of the facts of Constable’s work and minimises their significance. The matter of interpretation – the attempt to understand the works in the context of the world in which they were produced – is briefly addressed in the introduction, which represents all ‘readings’ of Constable’s work as either ‘literary’ or ‘sociological’ and as incapable (therefore) of being incorporated into ‘the main body of Constable scholarship’. The proper concerns of that scholarship are displayed in the catalogue entries themselves: admirably careful to identify the places represented, the date of each work, its relation with other works in Constable’s oeuvre, and no less careful to repel and refuse – though not to argue against – interpretations advanced by other scholars and critics.
But however unusual this volume may look in comparison with the kind of ambitiously interpretative catalogue we have become used to, it is entirely characteristic of the series of catalogues of major exhibitions of 18th and early 19th-century British artists held at the Tate in the last seven or eight years – George Stubbs in 1984; Manners and Morals: Hogarth and British Painting in 1987; Wright of Derby last year. None of these was quite as blandly factual as Constable, nor so studiously innocent of the desire to situate the objects on display within a context wider than the work of the artist himself. But together they produce the sense that a Tate house-style has emerged, the main feature of which is a tenacious refusal of curiosity about how paintings might embody and communicate meaning.
The style needs to be understood in a number of different time-frames. At one level, it is simply the latest manifestation of a long tradition in the study of British art of the period from Gainsborough to Constable. Since the late 19th century, this has largely been the province of scholars who were not in any sense intellectuals, though there have been exceptions. What they valued in English Art – and that is the appropriate term here – was its Englishness, a quality they recognised mainly in their own bluff unconcern with ideas. At another level, however, it may well be the result of a consciously chosen policy. The key event here is the Richard Wilson exhibition of 1982-3, organised by David Solkin, whose thoughtful and carefully researched catalogue attempted to situate Wilson’s landscapes in a range of historical contexts including the moral and political ideas and ideals attached to the ownership of land in the 18th century.
Editorials in the Daily Telegraph and in Apollo denounced Solkin’s work, and appeared to think it grossly inappropriate that ‘tendentious views’ should find expression in the official catalogue of an exhibition sponsored by Britoil. Apollo went further, informing the Trustees of the Tate that their curatorial staff, faced with the emergence of ‘the Marxist interpretation of British Art’, had been revealed as lacking ‘the objectivity usually expected of the public servant’. It went on to warn that ‘if some measure of self-policing (or self-discipline) is not instituted’, the Trustees might find themselves obliged ‘to take a more active part in the management’ of the institution. Since then, there has been no more speculation about the politics of culture in the catalogues that emanate from the Tate, and no embarrassment therefore has been offered to the United Technologies Corporation (Stubbs), Pearson PLC (Hogarth), the British Land Company (Wright of Derby) of Barclays (Constable), without whose generosity these major exhibitions of British Art could not have been afforded. It goes without saying that if the Tate has responded to this outcry, it has been only by a more careful choice of exhibition organisers, which did away with the need for any active ‘policing’ of what the catalogues were allowed to say.
Vol. 13 No. 17 · 12 September 1991
The argument of Romantic Ecology was that it might now be useful to read Wordsworth with the grain, as Victorians like Ruskin read him, instead of against it, as the most influential critics of the 1980s read him. John Barrell’s review (LRB, 15 August), which had a lightness and a wit that one does not associate with the prose of his books, was a splendid rebuttal of this contention, in that it showed what would be lost if people stopped reading against the grain. Where would we then go for the comic spectacle of the contention that Marxist praxis has not been notably ‘green’ (despite a certain ecological thrust in Engels) being converted into the accusation that New Historicist literary critics were responsible for the environmental devastation of Eastern Europe? Who but a reader against the grain could transform the argument that Margaret in ‘The Ruined Cottage’ and the dead girl in ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ are not given immortality in a Christian heaven, but achieve a kind of immortality in nature (Wordsworth as Lucretian?), into the proposition that ruined cottages are all that women are good for while they’re still alive? But I fear that Professor Barrell and I are like the stooping poet and the little girl in Max Beerbohm’s caricature, ‘William Wordsworth in the Lake District, at cross-purposes’: he thinks that Romantic Ecology has no interest in ‘economic issues’, whereas I thought that one of its aims was to reassert Ruskin’s claim that the fundamental material basis of political economy is not money, labour and production, but ‘pure air, water and earth’.
University of Liverpool
John Barrell is always a pleasure to read. His is a particularly fascinating type of fiction, invaluable as a stimulus and goad for those of us who believe that the historian’s reconstructions of the past are based on a methodology as rigorous as those of the natural scientists, involving the complex analysis of an enormous variety of primary sources; constant attention to the origins and validity of all concepts; care not to take multiple instances of ‘class awareness’ as proof of ‘class consciousness’; caution in approaching the staggering assumptions which lie behind the Marxist notion of ‘ideology’; rejection of the Hegelian tradition of reifying ‘eras’ and ‘systems’; and acceptance that Marx was a decent, ordinary guy who said some perceptive things, as well as, like the rest of us, some pretty daft ones.
Thus David Solkin’s Richard Wilson Exhibition of 1982-83 was certainly, as Professor Barrell says, a ‘key event’ of a sort: almost comic, in fact, in its relentless thrusting-down-the-throat of every stale and exploded Marxist cliché (‘thoughtful and carefully researched’, forsooth!). The problem with Marxist interpretations of history and art (and, therefore, with Cultural Materialism and New Historicism) is not that of political tendentiousness (who cares two pee for the views of the Daily Telegraph?), but that they trivialise the historical context to conform with a handful of Marxist formulae, and what’s more, are usually wrong. ‘Finding out’ in historical study is always an arduous and taxing procedure. It is upon patiently assembled, carefully validated detail (of the sort Professor Barrell scorns in the Parris and Fleming-Williams catalogue) that historical knowledge advances.
Vol. 13 No. 19 · 10 October 1991
‘The argument,’ says Jon Bate (Letters, 12 September), of his Romantic Ecology, ‘was that it might now be useful to read Wordsworth with the grain … instead of against it.’ It might well be: but first Professor Bate has to show us how he knows which way the grain runs in Wordsworth’s writing, and why he is so sure that his intentions and Wordsworth’s are the same. In the meantime, I can’t begin to recognise my remarks on his reading of ‘The Ruined Cottage’ in his own account of them. Nor did I suggest – well of course I didn’t – that Bate believes that ‘New Historicist literary critics were responsible for the environmental devastation of Eastern Europe.’
‘Marxist criticism,’ according to Romantic Ecology, ‘claims to bring texts down from the idealist stratosphere into the material world,’ but the Marxist version of materialism it thereby fosters is like ‘high capitalism’ in ‘privileging the wealth of nations over the wealth of nature’, with all that this has entailed for the destruction of the environment. All this is said in the context of some remarks about the industrial pollution of Eastern Europe and a comparison of Chernobyl with Three Mile Island. My point was simply that if Marxist criticism must bear some responsibility for encouraging the pollution of the planet, then surely Professor Bate’s apparently even-handed acknowledgment of the environmental damage done by high capitalism should lead him to attribute a similar responsibility to varieties of literary criticism which have been on easier terms with capitalism.
In my remarks on the Constable catalogue, I was not at all scornful, as Arthur Marwick (Letters, 12 September) suggests, of its attention to factual detail, which I described as admirable. What I objected to was the catalogue’s refusal to make any attempt to attribute meaning to Constable’s picture’s, and its way of rejecting, without even a show of argument, the interpretations of other critics. 1 was not at all put out that Professor Marwick regards my own accounts of the past as fictitious, and of course I was pleased that he finds them so fascinating. As for the rest of his letter, I can’t imagine why he wrote it, and I have no idea what would be an appropriate comment on it. As far as I can make out, he wants to say that no historians are Marxists, that David Solkin’s Richard Wilson catalogue is a tissue of Marxist clichés, that Marxist interpretations of history and art are ‘usually wrong’, and that Cultural Materialists and New Historicists are ipso facto Marxist. He also seems to think that I am a Marxist, which I’m not at all sure about. If he cares to say why he thinks these things, I may care to roll up my sleeves and reply, but I doubt it.
University of Sussex
I write in a spirit of considerable gingerliness to take exception to John Barrell’s treatment of Constable (LRB, 15 August). Not only is anyone who loves the paintings deeply in his debt for his treatment of both Constable and Turner in the past, but he has shown himself to have a quite terrific way with those who disagree with him. Surely the thing about Constable is exactly that people can find in his pictures an answer to their need ‘to identify a people and its territory’. Somewhere in the preface to Single Spies, Alan Bennett says something to the effect that treason has fallen out of fashion because people are no longer clear what there is to betray in their country, and do not know what to love in it. Amen to that, we might say, after 12 years of Mrs Thatcher and her Goths in Parliament. The power of Constable is, however, that he shows so plainly what there is to love.
It hardly matters whether a day in the country is spent in the Home Counties (at the name of which John Barrell might well have a number of his characteristically bitter jokes to make), or Constable’s so unhomely East Anglia, or among Thomas Girtin’s Yorkshire abbeys. The resonant name of John Constable serves, as they say, as signifier for all these other names which so reliably and reassuringly teach millions what to feel in front of their pictures and their metonymous landscapes. Patriotism is now none the worse for having shrunk to these familiar and uncontentious places.
University of Warwick