The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting 1730-1840 
by John Barrell.
Cambridge, 179 pp., £15, March 1980, 0 521 22509 4
Show More
Show More

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.’

It is an ingenious question, though patently unfair to Constable: unfair also to Dr Barrell to quote it as though the whole of his argument was reductive in this way. All the same, his readings are avowedly tendentious and he might be disappointed were his book to be praised simply for making us do what any good criticism should: look at particular paintings with new insight. In admiring Gainsborough or Constable ‘we should ask ourselves whether we do not still ... identify with the interests of their customers and against the poor they portray.’ He goes on to remark that it is in fact impossible for us to identify ‘with the exhausted and underfed labourers’. But surely it is over-emotional to say that we identify ‘against’ them?

At one point Dr Barrell defines himself, engagingly enough, as ‘a leftist’ – the fitting word to embody his capacity for down-to-earth, mostly sensible commentary, which is not over-committed to any theory yet shows strong feelings about the fate of the underprivileged and the conduct of the past. This kind of retroactive radicalism works well on paintings which we interpret most immediately as rural idylls but which may also be felt to emerge ‘from a world of social and economic relations that are anything but idyllic’. A painting which seems to represent harmony between man and nature, and, more specifically, harmony between a landowner and the workers on that land, may reveal beneath its surface, as it were, ‘evidence of the very conflict it seems to deny’. Even so, the ultimate effect of such painting is pastoral. We return to Gainsborough’s cottage children or Constable’s scenery with our historical conscience alert, but also with renewed pleasure in what are essentially ideal images. We may feel uncomfortable at the picture of a ragged child gathering firewood, because it seems to exploit human misery. But there is bound to be an element of appropriation in painting rural life, or, to put it another way, in making peasants your subject-matter. The aim is not to exploit or to condescend, nor to attempt a documentary record, but to create a work of the imagination. Leftist criticism is always likely to seem a little confused about the proper relation of pastoral and politics; imaginative and social feelings are often at odds. Such confusion would have made no sense to a Romantic artist or critic. Hazlitt once defined ‘a true Jacobin’ (and he was thinking of himself) as someone ‘who had seen the evening star set over a poor man’s cottage, and connected it with the hope of human happiness’. It was, he admitted, a pastoral definition and he could offer others less romantic. But his ability to harmonise his radicalism and his imagination is instructive.

To make a point about the late paintings of Gainsborough, Dr Barrell quotes Hazlitt, approvingly and with some aptness, on the poetry of Crabbe: ‘his song is one sad reality, one unraised, unvaried note of unavailing woe.’ In other words, Crabbe evokes sympathy for the poor by accepting their poverty as a fixed, inevitable thing. But the monotony of this is what Hazlitt emphasises, and the one unvaried note of Crabbe is harmonised in Gainsborough into something more complicated and more satisfying. The long development of Gainsborough’s imagery, so interestingly related by Dr Barrell, is itself an indication of the harmony at work in his late paintings of the children of the poor. This development can be seen as a move from the world of the Pastoral to that of the Georgic. Idleness and industry, relaxation and unremitting labour, are the poles of country life. Gainsborough’s earlier paintings happily blend the two ideas: rest or play are the rewards of work, a message already delivered in Thomson’s The Seasons and other sententious georgic poetry-though some occupations and, indeed, some individuals will always be more industrious than others. The ploughman probably works harder than the shepherd or the woodcutter, the milkmaid is generally a more realistic image of rural labour than the shepherdess, but the significant feature of all these characters as represented in the art of rural life is that they combine the Arcadian and the actual.

Dr Barrell begins his essay on Gainsborough with an analysis of a painting of 1755, ‘Landscape with a Woodcutter Courting a Milkmaid’. His readings are subtle and for the most part persuasive, though points of iconographic disagreement naturally arise. Is the boy in ‘Peasant with Two Horses’ actually slouching? On further examination, perhaps he is; but here, as in some other cases, the black and white illustration is not quite as clear as it might be (landscape on the dark side). When Gainsborough moves from Ipswich to Bath he brings forward his characters in a changed spirit, which owes something to the literary conception of the comic pastoral. In ‘The Harvest Wagon’ of 1767, ‘the grandest of Gainsborough’s landscape compositions of that period’, the clownish men struggling over a cask of drink and the attractively dressed girls sitting expectantly in the cart constitute a ‘dynamic and earthy vision of the English peasantry’ – but one which was already giving way to the demand for a more overtly moral view. Gainsborough’s second version of the ‘The Harvest Wagon’ (1784-5) is more sedate: the drinkers have disappeared, the girls are now mothers with their children. As the century wears on, the image of Merrie England gives way to something much more sober. The peasant loses vitality and social energy, and becomes merely ‘cheerful’: as Dr Barrell sharply observes, this seems to mean, in the language of the period, ‘that he is careful not to be heard to complain.’ It would have been instructive to hear more about what connections were made in social feeling between economic and spiritual poverty. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’: does this idea inform, however subliminally, Gainsborough’s late fancy-paintings, the ‘Cottage Girl with Dog and Pitcher’ and the rest?

Dr Barrell claims that the best paintings of George Morland offer a corrective to the ideal version of the poor to be found in Gainsborough’s late work. Where Morland’s clients and admirers ‘wish to see the image of a unified society, he shows them a divided one; where they wish to see the poor as cheerful and industrious, he shows them as discontented, desperate, contemptuous, or defiantly idle.’ This essay is a very useful reappraisal of an artist whose work is relatively unfamiliar. Morland’s extreme independence, his preference for low life, his refusal to be patronised, gave an extra sympathy to his paintings of the rural poor. His dissipated, eccentric career and the great popularity of his work attracted biographers, and their reactions show how far he went in disturbing his contemporaries by his lack of idealism. In ‘The Alehouse Door’, a small work of 1792, two labourers are shown at a table, one of them clutching a pot of ale. One of Morland’s critics described it: ‘A group of English figures regaling themselves, which, like true sons of liberty, they seem determined on in spite of all opposition.’ Dr Barrell brings out the nervous political tones of this: the ironic adoption of the language of popular radicalism (‘true sons of liberty’), the feeling that the men are resisting their expected roles as industrious temperate workers, the suggestion that what little money they have would be better spent on their families than on beer (though there is only one pot between them). It seems very likely that they are talking radical politics.

Morland’s best images are of relaxation or relative idleness: ‘Midday Rest at the Bell Inn’, ‘Gypsy Encampment’. In Constable’s landscapes the idea of work, as mediating between man and nature, is nearly always present. Yet Dr Barrell is troubled by the lack of social feeling in these landscapes and by the small number of labouring figures actually depicted. Of course, Constable is primarily interested in landscape itself – that and local feeling (‘the sound of water escaping from mill-dams’) is what made him a painter. But it seems fair to attribute to him a desire to show man in harmony with his surroundings. Comparison with Wordsworth suggests that both artists wanted to preserve an ideal of man in relation to nature by keeping actual examples of working men, naturalistically and specifically realised, at a distance. ‘Shepherds were the men who pleased me first,’ says Wordsworth in The Prelude, and he brings them forward in larger-than-life images: ‘like an acrial Cross’ or ‘in size a Giant, stalking through the fog’ (sheep to match like polar bears). But Wordsworth also insists that these men are in no way Arcadian figures, but representative working men. It so happens that their particular occupation gives them independence and requires solitude: the Lakeland shepherd is ‘man free, man working for himself’. Conditions are obviously different in Constable’s East Anglia, yet Dr Barrell finds a similar kind of solitude imposed on the workers depicted in this landscape, unemphatic or even difficult to decipher as they are. Wordsworth is happy to keep his shepherd, his representative of work, at once distant, solitary and dignified. He is quite comic, both in The Prelude and ‘Home at Grasmere’ (‘I look for Man, the common Creature of the Brotherhood’), in his admission that at close quarters even shepherds are, after all, only human and by no means ideal. But he also sensed the paradox in the idea of solitary labour, especially perhaps when contemplating, through the essentially communal activity of harvest, the Solitary Reaper (‘Will no one tell me what she sings?’). Her song is also Wordsworth’s song; the lone singer and worker is the image of the solitary artist. There are no figures in Constable with whom he could be said to identify as an artist. But the way so many of them seem to withdraw into the texture of the painting, which so worries Dr Barrell as a sign of Constable’s social uncertainties about the role of labour, may be taken as a sign of the egotism, subjectivity and loneliness of the working artist which Constable knew full well. Dr Barrell draws attention to ‘Golding Constable’s Flower Garden’: there is, he notes, ‘a single figure in the distance who seems to have been given the unenviable and rather unlikely task of reaping by himself the whole field of corn’. Whether or not this is the case (and he admits a perfectly sensible suggestion that the figure may be clearing weeds from the margin of the field), it doesn’t seem to matter that the solitary weeder (or reaper) is indeterminate, ‘a blob of white and two thin lines’: the solitude and the self-sufficient materialisation in paint are what give to this largely objective landscape its imaginative power.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences