There is a painter in Henry James’s Roderick Hudson called Sam Singleton: ‘He painted small landscapes, mainly in watercolours . . . improvement had come hand in hand with patient industry.’ His appearance (he is a small plain man), his regular working hours and his modest equanimity (he has a tendency to blush) are a foil to Roderick’s good looks and labile temperament. Sam’s little pictures of Rome and Switzerland are not a match in size or effect for Roderick’s marble Adam and Eve, yet, on the verge of a forced return to America, Singleton reckons to ‘have laid up treasure which in Buffalo would seem infinite’. There, he says, he will ‘live in my portfolio’: find the meaning of his life, that is to say, and maybe something from which a national school will grow, in his transcriptions of Old World scenery.

I read Roderick Hudson on the train that took me down through France to the Auvergne, with a watercolour box and binoculars, the paraphernalia of two amateur pursuits likely to expose one to curiosity or mild derision, in my luggage. Bird watching, which is becoming more common, draws fewer curious glances than painting in the open air, which seems to be becoming rarer.

Sam Singleton ‘sallied forth every morning, his sketching tools on his back in search of material for new studies’. Roderick, by contrast, doomed by a fatal attraction and the consequent failure of inspiration, ‘used to sit and con the moral’ of unflagging industry ‘as he saw it figured in Singleton’s bent back, on the hot hillside protruding from beneath his white umbrella’. White umbrellas were regular kit for outdoor painters: you find them in, for example, Sargent’s picture of Monet at work, in photographs of Sargent himself on sketching excursions with friends, and in any number of cartoons by Daumier or from Punch, often showing painters suffering under the brutally sceptical gaze of bucolic critics.

Sketching out of doors in the sense of making notes (think of Turner’s travel sketchbooks) has a long history, painting out of doors a more ragged one. Not every Impressionist painting was made on site: Turner’s great Venetian sunsets flared, most flamboyantly, in the studio. If the amateur painter who unfolds his stool in the countryside is in any tradition of long standing it is that of the topographers, and he cannot even take up that role very usefully as his companions will probably have the facts of the landscape he is recording already asleep on the exposed film in their cameras. He is also acutely aware that the idea of what makes a picture is a cultural construct: guidebooks lead us to, and we tend to notice, scenes that match conventional paradigms.

‘River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl’ by Salvator Rosa (1650s).

It is a situation in which exuberant originality becomes more desirable than ever. The impulse that has driven landscape painters from visions of a classical golden age, by way of the facts of flat Dutch fields and the fearful excitement of Salvator Rosa’s rocky defiles, blasted trees and picturesque brigands (there is an instructive exhibition of Rosa at the Wallace Collection until 18 September), on to industrial landscapes and Kiefer’s ravaged seas and fields of stubble, is nowhere more easily felt than in one of those agreeable landscapes that are both part of the comfortable ancient furniture of the European mind and the now exhausted source of pastoral utopias. What picture can be made from a place which is as pretty as a picture?

Yet there is still pleasure to be had in the pursuit of mundane appearance. Along the way, imitation can be tempting. You identify elements which are recognisable as elements because you can imagine the way Cotman would have made a neat brown patch out of the over-grazed meadow you are looking at, or the way Francis Towne would have constructed a neatly penned crag on the basis of the rock that overhangs it. There is pleasure, too, in the mechanics of the business: in looking for your own way with the brown of fallen leaves or the glitter of sun on water.

In the face of almost inevitable defeat in tasks like these, attention elsewhere offers rewards: painting it is a good way to learn the look of a piece of country; it makes you notice things. It is while engaging in the slow business of doing not much more than mechanically plotting the lights and darks, the advances and recessions of what is in front of me – while doing my best, I realise, to imitate a snapshot – that I become aware of facts which have nothing to do with picture-making. It is as though I have become an honorary member of the company of military engineers, surveyors, explorers and natural historians who, before photography made them redundant, learned drawing and painting as tools of their trade.

Here in Auvergne it has been a dry summer: the fields I painted green in other years are brown; the stubble is hardly topped by new growth in meadows which have been mown; and patches of bare earth show in others which have been mown and then grazed. The cattle population has changed, too: there are fewer dairy herds, more troupes of rust-red, angular, nimble, long-horned Salers. The tree-covered slopes of the valleys which cut their deep Vs into a plateau of gently rolling upland are still dark green, but skeletons stand up, mainly conifers which have succumbed to a succession of dry years. Over a longer period – the last thirty years or so – improvements (tarmac, street lights, the new village café and hall) have made the first pictures I did here historical documents: my friend’s barn where we played ping-pong is now the Museum of the Chestnut.

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