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Constable’s Plenty

John Barrell, 15 August 1991

Constable 
by Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams.
Tate Gallery, 544 pp., £45, June 1991, 1 85437 071 5
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Romatic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition 
by Jonathan Bate.
Routledge, 131 pp., £8.99, May 1991, 0 415 06116 4
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... in these ventutes. ‘Our modern world of high finance and international banking,’ writes Sir John Quinton, Chairman of Barclays, in the Constable catalogue, ‘shows a proper concern for all aspects of our environment, but especially for the countryside.’ Wow. It’s hard to say what is more extraordinary, the statement itself – which ...

Gainsborough’s Woodmen

John Barrell, 18 December 1980

Thomas Gainsborough 
by John Hayes.
Tate Gallery, 160 pp., £4.75, October 1980, 0 905005 72 4
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... A year or so before his death in 1788, Thomas Gainsborough made a series of chalk sketches of ‘a poor smith worn out by labour’. In some of them, the smith appears as a woodman, carrying or sitting upon a bundle of faggots; and though woodmen appear in a large number of his drawings and paintings from the 1750s onwards, these particular sketches seem originally to have been made in preparation for what he was to regard as his greatest picture, ‘The Woodman’, executed in 1787 and destroyed by fire in 1810 ...

The Virtues of Topography

John Barrell: Constable, Gainsborough, Turner, 3 January 2013

Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape 
Royal Academy, until 17 February 2013Show More
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... to speak directly of the times we live in. ‘The Watering Place’ after Peter Paul Rubens by John Browne (1770) There is, however, nothing irrelevant about the new show at the Royal Academy, featuring Gainsborough, Constable and Turner; not because of anything it has to say about ‘the making of landscape’, but because it is so evidently a show for ...

Unwarranted

John Barrell: John Wilkes Betrayed, 6 July 2006

John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty 
by Arthur Cash.
Yale, 482 pp., £19.95, February 2006, 0 300 10871 0
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... to be remembered for his efforts in securing democracy, freedom of speech and fairness was John Wilkes, the subject of Arthur Cash’s informative and enjoyable new biography. Now that ‘high politics’ is taught less and less in schools and universities, Wilkes’s great political achievements, which included lowering the tone of high ...

Back of Beyond

John Barrell, 9 April 1992

Keeping a rendezvous 
by John Berger.
Granta, 252 pp., £14.99, January 1992, 0 14 014229 0
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... they look so hard.’ Throughout this very varied book, and especially when writing on art, John Berger invites us to acknowledge the absolutes and universals which, he insists, lie behind the surfaces of things. He doesn’t have a great deal to say about those absolutes, and asks us to be content with terms like the essential, the invisible, the ...

The Positions He Takes

John Barrell: Hitchens on Paine, 30 November 2006

Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’: A Biography 
by Christopher Hitchens.
Atlantic, 128 pp., £9.99, July 2006, 1 84354 513 6
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... Part Two, and to escape arrest he fled to France, accompanied by the Wykehamist gentleman-lawyer John Frost, described by Hitchens as secretary of the London Corresponding Society. The LCS was a society of radical artisans, not a gentleman’s club, and its secretary was in fact the shoemaker Thomas Hardy. The trial proceeded in Paine’s absence, and ...

In Cardiff

John Barrell: Richard Wilson, 25 September 2014

... in the last decades of the 18th century, before Wilson came to be forgotten. The portrait painter John Hoppner, an early adherent of the Joey-Barton-on-Question-Time school of cultural criticism, declared that ‘considering the qualities of Claude & Wilson as He shd. the qualities of two fine Women, He should acknowledge the beauties of Claude but say Wilson ...

Beholders

John Barrell, 2 April 1981

Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot 
by Michael Fried.
California, 249 pp., £16.50, February 1981, 0 520 03758 8
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... A family listening as their father reads them the Bible; a philosopher poring over a book; an artist, who turns his back on us as he draws; a secretary absorbed in taking dictation, and another absorbed instead in listening to the figure who dictates; a sleeping hermit. These figures, all of them represented in paintings exhibited in the Paris Salons of the 1750s, all share the same oubli de soi, are all engaged in ‘absorptive’ states which create the fiction that we, the spectators, are not there: in forgetting themselves, they forget us too ...

Diary

John Barrell: On Allon White, 29 August 1991

... The autobiographical fragment by Allon White entitled ‘Too close to the bone’, which was published in 1989 in the London Review of Books, has just been republished by the LRB, this time in book form.* Allon taught at the University of Sussex until he died in 1988 at the age of 37. He was the author of The Uses of Obscurity and (with Peter Stallybrass) The Politics and Poetics of Transgression ...

The view from the street

John Barrell, 7 April 1994

Hogarth. Vol. I: The ‘Modern Moral Subject’, 1697-1732 
by Ronald Paulson.
Lutterworth, 411 pp., £35, May 1992, 0 7188 2854 2
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... In the early Eighties, the main debate – though quarrel might be the better word – among historians of British art in its ‘great century’, from Hogarth to Turner, was about landscape. But whatever the differences between them, the most vocal participants in this debate were all finally on the same side, arguing with a largely silent (either stunned or indifferent) opposition to establish that there was a politics of landscape painting, that it needed to be understood in the context of landownership, agricultural improvement, the management of the rural poor, the changing economic relation between town and country and so on ...

The Argument from Design

John Barrell, 24 August 1995

Landscape and Memory 
by Simon Schama.
HarperCollins, 624 pp., £25, April 1995, 0 00 215897 3
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... The five videotapes of Simon Schama’s BBC 2 series Landscape and Memory must have been sent to me in a wrapping all too suspiciously plain. They never arrived, nicked, we presume, by a postal worker with a thing for blue movies. I like to think he wasn’t too disappointed. There was a lot more drapery than he could have wished or expected: in each of the programmes I remembered to record myself, the entire studio had been wrapped in muslin or bunting, by a designer whose notions of landscape art were mainly derived from Christo’s ...

At Tate Britain

John Barrell: Late Turner, 18 December 2014

... After​ three or four hours in the Linbury Galleries at Tate Britain, examining, admiring, taking notes on the Late Turner exhibition (until 25 January), I wandered into the café to take the weight off my feet and to read the reviews I had downloaded from the exhibition website on my tablet. I had been careful not to read them until after my visit, but now I wanted to see if I could use them to get me started on my own review ...

Make the music mute

John Barrell, 9 July 1992

English Music 
by Peter Ackroyd.
Hamish Hamilton, 400 pp., £14.99, May 1992, 0 241 12501 4
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... Forest with a guest appearance by Sterne, Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, a John Martin and a Turner, with snatches of poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge, and echoes of De Quincey, Shelley, Frankenstein (not sure about that); and then on to Samuel Palmer to Wuthering Heights to Ford Madox Brown to George Eliot to Whistler to Edwin Drood ...

Lever-Arch Inquisitor

John Barrell, 29 October 1998

Theatres of Memory. Vol. II. Island Stories: Unravelling Britain 
by Raphael Samuel, edited by Alison Light.
Verso, 391 pp., £20, June 1998, 1 85984 965 2
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... the National Curriculum, one of which suggests 1066 and All That as the appropriate textbook for a John MacGregor version of the history syllabus; another (mainly) on visiting heritage sites, which seems to belong to the first volume; another (mainly) on the politics of Britain in the Eighties, including two pleasingly irritable essays from 1982 on the ...

At Tate Britain

John Barrell: L.S. Lowry, 8 August 2013

... the capitals of Europe. When I took on these attitudes I was writing a book full of admiration for John Clare as a local poet, and I was learning to admire Constable as, principally, a local painter. But to be modern was to be metropolitan; and to be a ‘local’ anything in the 1960s, even for musicians in Liverpool, was to have missed the bus to London. So ...

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