Nicholas Penny

  • Constable: The Painter and his Landscape by Michael Rosenthal
    Yale, 255 pp, £15.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 300 03014 2
  • Constable’s England by Graham Reynolds
    Weidenfeld, 184 pp, £12.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 297 78359 9

When vegetable gardens were more commonly cultivated and poison was less frequently employed, and rabbits and mice were more of a menace to middle-class households than they are today, the classic picture books were published that encouraged children to love these creatures which their parents endeavoured to exterminate (or today, breed to kill). Sympathy repressed in the daily business of managing pantry, garden and farm was safely released in the bedtime fiction: but there must always have been awkward moments, such as the one I vividly remember when my mother endeavoured to allay my distress at discovering a crate of rabbits on its way to a laboratory by distinguishing between ordinary rabbits and ‘bunny rabbits’. Anyone who encourages in children a fondness for real as well as fictional farm animals must expect to have to make some painful explanations, although the English language, thanks to our Norman conquerors, provides some protection: we now eat lamb, it is true, but formerly we ate mutton (not sheep) and we still eat pork (not pig), veal (not calf) and beef (not cow). There are few more interesting problems for the student of pastoral art than that of identifying the shifts in convention determined by the need to avoid painful collisions between life and art.

For the last half-dozen years, one of the most lively debates among historians of English art has concerned the ways that rural labourers were represented in 18th and early 19th-century painting. The debate has attended too little to the contradictions which can be observed in our own attitudes to more recent pastoral art. We need not doubt that Mr McGregor, had he been blessed with children, would have read them The Tale of Peter Rabbit; and it is not hard to imagine someone still smiling over the enchanting Mrs Tittlemouse as they set a mousetrap. Why should we find it surprising that an art-lover in 1790 or so, who wept at a picture of an undernourished, ragged child gathering firewood, and who commissioned a portrait of his wife and children as cottagers with spinning-wheels, could also be indifferent to the plight of his own poor tenants? And why should we be amazed to discover that a connoisseur who relished pictures of drunk lechers in dark and dirty taverns also subscribed to organisations dedicated to suppressing country alehouses?

There are differences, however. Whereas paintings of rural life provided fictions of simpler, more ‘natural’ beings for sophisticated adults, these same adults are supposed to transmit the similar fictions provided by children’s picture books to simpler, more ‘natural’ consumers. With the paintings there was also an incentive to pretend that they were not fictions at all. There is good evidence, well presented by John Barrell in his dicussion of Gainsborough in The Dark Side of the Landscape, that increasing comfort was derived in the late 18th century from the belief that the hard-working, honest, loyal, loving families clustered around cottage doors which were admired by visitors to the Royal Academy might also be seen by these same visitors out of their own coach windows. That it was not only softhearted noble ladies who were expected to fool themselves is suggested, for example, by an elegy on the Duke of Bedford published by the Farmer’s Magazine which included the desperately optimistic image of ‘swains’ who, ‘enraptur’d as they roam’, tell their children how ‘These wastes to bloom the noble BEDFORD gave.’

Maybe there were times when people believed that pastoral art did represent life, and even that the labourers did entertain pious sentiments regarding enclosures, but many picture-lovers were deliberately looking at nature, and even at life, as if it was art. They cultivated, in particular, a taste for the objects – dead trees, rough tracks and tattered thatch – that distressed both the landowner anxious to increase the efficiency of his farms and the philanthropist concerned for the welfare of the rural poor. The perplexity which this taste could cause is well demonstrated by Uvedale Price’s late 18th-century Dialogue on the Distinct Characters of the Picturesque and the Beautiful, which opens with two connoisseurs on a country walk astounding their companion by engaging in a rapturous discussion of the finer points of a group of dirty gypsies gathered in front of a hovel. Price’s point is to show how the conventionally ugly can give pleasure to picture-lovers. But morality as well as beauty was at issue. Had they considered this spectacle in their capacity as magistrates, the two connoisseurs could only have reacted with alarm.

The uninitiated companion had no trouble in admiring pictures, or real views, which displayed a healthy and agreeable landscape. His own experience as a landowner would also have conditioned him to be gratified by evidence of fertility and efficient husbandry such as had been documented by many paintings of the English landscape made before, and by some made after, the fashion for old hovels and blasted oaks. Although in no sense unsophisticated or even artistically conservative, the earliest masterpieces of John Constable, the views of the Stour Valley painted in the second decade of the 19th century, seem to have been intended more for this companion than for Price’s connoisseurs.

These paintings by Constable are of a landscape known as well as seen: a landscape which was ‘his’, not only because he had grown up as part of it but because his family owned and managed much of it; a landscape which was pleasing enough to the ‘eye of taste’, but was still more pleasing to the responsible imagination of the landowner proud of ‘improvement’, as well as to that of the godly magistrate bent on preserving the traditional ‘order’.

It is said that until a few years ago the foreground of Constable’s View of Dedham (in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) was regularly misinterpreted by art-historians as representing a pit in which men dig, whereas it is actually a dunghill. This is not a case of Constable finding visual appeal in something still more repulsive than a gypsy hovel. Quite the reverse. A good pile of muck was a glad sight to the farmer. And Constable was careful to paint, as Michael Rosenthal points out, not only the way it is shovelled and carried off, but, in a delightful miniature scene in the middle distance, the way it is ploughed in. This was a surprising wedding present, we may suppose, to paint for the daughter of a local squire, but Rosenthal reminds us that the most routine agricultural processes were felt to be poetic, and he quotes some passages from Constable’s beloved Bloomfield on the ‘fat’ning treasure from the nightly fold’.

Rosenthal, as well as supplying us with fascinating material concerning the design of ploughs, useful references to the Constable family’s commercial interests culled from the local newspapers, and an enclosure map, also provides a revealing analysis of the Protestant platitudes essential to the epistolary style of Constable’s mother and expounds expertly the religious and patriotic sentiments so strikingly mingled with materialist pride in the pastoral poetry of this period. This matters because the principal eye-catcher in the distance, but also in the centre, of this celebration of muck is, as so often in Constable’s compositions, a church tower.

Most of the commentators on Constable’s art, including the first and by far the most eloquent of them, the artist himself, have emphasised his struggle to achieve a new kind, or degree, of truth to nature. This is restated in familiar terms by Graham Reynolds in Constable’s England, the sumptuous ‘book of the exhibition’ which recently closed at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and Constable’s effort to paint exactly what he saw is well supported by the excellent plates which, for the most part, reproduce sketches rather than finished works. The Boston View of Dedham is included, however, and is described as ‘one of Constable’s most natural renderings of his native landscape’. As Rosenthal admirably demonstrates, it is not enough to say this. In such a work priorities, inseparably related to social values, are implied by the selection of foreground incident, by the choice of viewpoint and by the organisation of the composition.

During the 1820s Constable became less interested in, and much less dependent upon, his native landscape, and more interested in nature in general and, above all, in weather as a sublime force. He was now capable both of a more self-consciously personal and experimental art than previously, but also of adjusting his art to appeal to a public which he perceived as alien. Eventually he found some powerful emblems both for domestic tragedy and High Tory despair. Rosenthal explains all this with uncommon sensitivity, but his chief concern is with the change of attitude revealed by the views of the Stour Valley that Constable did paint in this period.

Rosenthal points out, in his devastating analysis of The Cornfield of 1826, that for a shepherd boy to drink at a brook in these circumstances was ‘not only improbable, but potentially disasterous’, that a border collie should not be left in control at this juncture, that the dead tree should be felled and the gate mended, and that there is also an ‘inadequate work-force’ in the field itself (I am a little surprised that he should be so sure about this last point). Similarly, in the Dedham Vale of 1828 where we might have expected to see useful work – men muck-spreading or boat-building or barefooted children towing barges on the navigable Stour – we find in the foreground gypsies camping in waste land. To account for this change, Rosenthal refers us to a map of East Anglia (the only unattractive illustration in the book) spotted with signs denoting outbreaks of incendiarism, machine-breaking, riotous assembly and the places where threatening letters were discovered between December 1821 and July 1822, and he documents in superb detail the alarm this caused among Constable’s acquaintance and class.

It may be objected that Constable was not a true figure painter and so was not concerned with the attitudes of the labourers, but even when he did not include any figures in his work he had been painting landscape which was shaped by labour and which implied a social order made possible by labour. Precisely because he did not have to concern himself too much with the feelings of the labourers (their expressions can seldom be discerned) it was easier for him to believe that he was not painting fiction. He must have felt that the harmony achieved in his compositions reflected a truly harmonious way of life. After the horrors of 1821-2 he cannot have felt this. Their effect on him, however, may not have been entirely conscious. In any case, the evidence that Constable himself was in any sense profoundly disturbed is rather more negative and fragmentary than Rosenthal would like.

Even if Rosenthal has slightly exaggerated his case, he certainly leaves us with a greatly enhanced awareness of the ideological content of Constable’s paintings. We are also permitted to enjoy them – even encouraged to do so both by Rosenthal and by the publishers who have supplied so many good colour plates.