The Virtues of Topography

John Barrell

  • Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape
    Royal Academy, until 17 February
‘Temple of Apollo’ after Claude Lorrain by William Woollett (1760)
‘Temple of Apollo’ after Claude Lorrain by William Woollett (1760)

Among various unforgettable moments in a life much of which has been spent thinking about landscape in literature and the visual arts was a remark made ten years ago by Kirsty Wark in the programme which follows Newsnight on Fridays, in which she was chairing a discussion of the Gainsborough exhibition then at Tate Britain. Gainsborough’s landscapes, she invited one of her panel to agree, were ‘irrelevant’. She meant, I think, that they had nothing to say to the present day, and I can’t forget her remark only because I repeat it so often to my students. Now that so many of them want to learn only about the contemporary, and many universities feel increasingly little obligation to teach them much else, the remark is useful to get them thinking about whether they might learn as much about the culture of the present day by studying what appears to be ‘irrelevant’ to it, as they can from works which claim to speak directly of the times we live in.

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