Constable’s Plenty

John Barrell

  • Constable by Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams
    Tate Gallery, 544 pp, £45.00, June 1991, ISBN 1 85437 071 5
  • Romatic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition by Jonathan Bate
    Routledge, 131 pp, £8.99, May 1991, ISBN 0 415 06116 4

The catalogue of the Constable exhibition which opened at the Tate in June is probably the glossiest, the heaviest, the most unwieldy volume ever to accompany an exhibition of the work of a British artist. It is also one of the dullest. Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams have resisted the tendency of the last fifteen years or so by which the catalogues of major exhibitions have often been presented as major interpretative studies of the artist and his times. Constable is a catalogue, nothing more. It maximises our knowledge of the facts of Constable’s work and minimises their significance. The matter of interpretation – the attempt to understand the works in the context of the world in which they were produced – is briefly addressed in the introduction, which represents all ‘readings’ of Constable’s work as either ‘literary’ or ‘sociological’ and as incapable (therefore) of being incorporated into ‘the main body of Constable scholarship’. The proper concerns of that scholarship are displayed in the catalogue entries themselves: admirably careful to identify the places represented, the date of each work, its relation with other works in Constable’s oeuvre, and no less careful to repel and refuse – though not to argue against – interpretations advanced by other scholars and critics.

But however unusual this volume may look in comparison with the kind of ambitiously interpretative catalogue we have become used to, it is entirely characteristic of the series of catalogues of major exhibitions of 18th and early 19th-century British artists held at the Tate in the last seven or eight years – George Stubbs in 1984; Manners and Morals: Hogarth and British Painting in 1987; Wright of Derby last year. None of these was quite as blandly factual as Constable, nor so studiously innocent of the desire to situate the objects on display within a context wider than the work of the artist himself. But together they produce the sense that a Tate house-style has emerged, the main feature of which is a tenacious refusal of curiosity about how paintings might embody and communicate meaning.

The style needs to be understood in a number of different time-frames. At one level, it is simply the latest manifestation of a long tradition in the study of British art of the period from Gainsborough to Constable. Since the late 19th century, this has largely been the province of scholars who were not in any sense intellectuals, though there have been exceptions. What they valued in English Art – and that is the appropriate term here – was its Englishness, a quality they recognised mainly in their own bluff unconcern with ideas. At another level, however, it may well be the result of a consciously chosen policy. The key event here is the Richard Wilson exhibition of 1982-3, organised by David Solkin, whose thoughtful and carefully researched catalogue attempted to situate Wilson’s landscapes in a range of historical contexts including the moral and political ideas and ideals attached to the ownership of land in the 18th century.

Editorials in the Daily Telegraph and in Apollo denounced Solkin’s work, and appeared to think it grossly inappropriate that ‘tendentious views’ should find expression in the official catalogue of an exhibition sponsored by Britoil. Apollo went further, informing the Trustees of the Tate that their curatorial staff, faced with the emergence of ‘the Marxist interpretation of British Art’, had been revealed as lacking ‘the objectivity usually expected of the public servant’. It went on to warn that ‘if some measure of self-policing (or self-discipline) is not instituted’, the Trustees might find themselves obliged ‘to take a more active part in the management’ of the institution. Since then, there has been no more speculation about the politics of culture in the catalogues that emanate from the Tate, and no embarrassment therefore has been offered to the United Technologies Corporation (Stubbs), Pearson PLC (Hogarth), the British Land Company (Wright of Derby) of Barclays (Constable), without whose generosity these major exhibitions of British Art could not have been afforded. It goes without saying that if the Tate has responded to this outcry, it has been only by a more careful choice of exhibition organisers, which did away with the need for any active ‘policing’ of what the catalogues were allowed to say.

And certainly there seem to be no constraints imposed on what may be said in the little prefatory statements by which the sponsors themselves advertise their participation 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 exonerates the entire international banking community from any responsibility (for example) for the Third World debt crisis and its connection with (for example) the destruction of the Brazilian rain forest – or the implication that Barclays’s willingness to sponsor an exhibition of landscape painting will somehow lend the statement the ring of truth. Either way, an institution which takes money from an international banker and in return allows him a platform to make a statement like this is probably not one which can be trusted to maintain the highest standards of historical interpretation. If the Tate house-style, with its promotion of art without content or conflict, was not chosen to propitiate potential sponsors, it certainly seems to have had the effect of offering them a congenially unquestioning atmosphere in which to promote their own version of modern history.

But what are we to make of a five hundred page catalogue of a major exhibition of a major artist which offers us no account of why his work is important? One possible answer is suggested by the clichés in Quinton’s foreword: ‘Constable Country,’ he writes, ‘is an especially evocative phrase to all who know and love England and the English countryside ... Constable, surely Britain’s best-loved painter, captured as no one else the essential spirit of English landscape.’ The fact that Constable has come to be represented as the national painter of England – or is it of Britain? – may now be raising the kind of problem about national identity to which in the past the idea of Englishness imposed a solution. If there has always been something insensitive about the claim that the emphatically south-eastern landscape of the Constable-country – lowland not upland, brick not stone, hedge not wall – was typically English, and so could somehow offer an image of the unity of Britain itself, beyond regional and national differences, there is now something obviously implausible about it too, in the Britain of devolutionary politics and the North-South divide.

The inadequacy of that landscape to serve as a site of national unity is emphasised still further by the fact that Constable is almost always represented as an emphatically ‘English’ rather than as a ‘British’ painter: in the multi-cultural present, the term ‘English’ denotes a particular ethnic much more than a general national identity. To call attention to this inadequacy isn’t to deny a continuing need within many people who do think of themselves as English to find images that will still define that identity: this exhibition, I take it, will be enjoyed by many because it addresses itself to just that need to identify a people and its territory, a need newly and problematically reinforced by the resurgence of nationalisms in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and by an anxiety about the threat to Englishness posed by a future federal Europe. But there are now no terms in which that need can be straightforwardly described and asserted, and no terms therefore in which the importance of Constable as ‘our’ national painter (for who are ‘we’?) can easily be defended. The pictures themselves must be left to do the talking.

Probably, too, we should read the silences of this catalogue in the context of the conjunction between the triumph of the West and a newly urgent anxiety about the durability and effectiveness of the culture which defines what it is, other than affluence, that gives value to Western ways of life. That anxiety is most evident at present in the universities of the USA, where the fear that Western cultural values are seriously threatened by literary theory and minority studies is, as Terry Eagleton has recently argued, an eloquent statement of just how vulnerable those values are felt to be. A similar sense of vulnerability emerges from the introduction to this catalogue, and has the effect of preventing the authors from making any claims at all for the value of Constable’s art.

For more than two hundred years the most common claim for landscape art, whether in painting or literature, has been that it restores to us a psychic wholeness damaged in the collisions of modern life, and that it does this by representing to us an ideal of harmony between nature and humanity. But whether you want to endorse that argument or call it to account, you need to acknowledge the bad things which art appears to make good. You have to read paintings for evidence of the absences, the repressions, the hiding-places of their power. Of course the overwhelming impression made by Constable’s paintings – especially those images of the Valley of the Stour which were made between 1810 and 1820 or so – is of an extraordinary plenitude. They are wonderfully full of information, rendered with an unfussy plainness of effect: the details of field shapes, the variety of land use, the minute geography of intersecting paths, hedges, watercourses, all seem to guarantee that each painting is the truth and the whole truth – nothing has been left out.

It goes without saying, however, that this guarantee is of no value to us unless we also distrust it: for why should we desire the image of plenitude unless we somewhere believe it to be the sign of an absence to be supplied or concealed? And except in these terms, how can we speak about the value of the effects of that landscape art, at least, which offers itself as an image of ‘quietness and repose’? To questions like this the catalogue has no answer. It insists that nothing is hidden: those like Ronald Paulson or Ann Bermingham who have suggested that Constable’s canvasses may be screening out psychic or political anxieties are mentioned only to be wished away. They have had no influence, we are told, on Parris or Fleming-Williams or the couple of other scholars who represent ‘the main body of Constable scholarship’. I’m not convinced; the unwillingness of this catalogue to engage with those who have offered to interpret Constable’s works may well be evidence of a new anxiety that Britain’s best-loved painter was somehow damaged in the 1980s by being made the object of discussion and conflict, and that he can be protected now only by a refusal to make any statement about his art which is not a statement of fact.

The triumph of the West and the crisis of the planet are the avowed contexts of another work on landscape art, Jonathan Bate’s robust and opportunistic essay Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition. The book claims to set ‘a new agenda for the study of Romanticism in the 1990s’, and it starts by proclaiming the end of the tradition of Marxist and New Historicist criticism of Wordsworth which developed in the Eighties and which became an anachronism almost overnight, it seems, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Quite how out-of-date Bate thinks all this is was brought cruelly home to me by a sentence beginning ‘Since the work of John Barrell’, which had me rummaging through my desk in search of my death certificate.

Like Parris and Fleming-Williams, Bate is not much concerned to argue with his opponents (Marilyn Butler, Marjorie Levinson, Alan Liu, Jerome McGann, David Simpson), and if he does it is often a sign that he has missed the point. When Liu claims that the category ‘nature’ is always constituted in terms of a politics, Bate replies that the limitation of this view is that ‘not even the most ardent advocate’ of the free market can ‘privatise the air we breathe’. When Marilyn Butler argues that the later Wordsworth ‘ceases to see other people as social phenomena’, he reads her a lecture about the teachings of ‘modern ecological politics’ with which she could not conceivably disagree, but which does not begin to address what she has said. In one sense, however, it would be beside the point for Bate to argue his case against the critics with whom he thinks he is at odds, for what is at stake for him is not so much the truth as the purpose of criticism, which as he says is always inevitably impure, always to some degree the expression of political belief. His own belief is that in the 1990s our most urgent need is for an ecological and environmentalist criticism; we can no longer afford the criticism of the Left, which on account of its obsession with the ownership rather than the conservation of nature is found guilty by association of devastating the environment of Eastern Europe. We are not told much about the varieties of literary criticism which may have encouraged, or at least failed to prevent, the devastation of other parts of the planet.

Bate does have one powerful advantage over his opponents, which he is candid enough to acknowledge from the outset: it is that he knows exactly what Wordsworth’s poems mean. He understands Wordsworth’s intentions, which are the very same as his own. If these claims are true, we would do well to be wary of Bate’s invitation to ‘relearn’, under his guidance, ‘Wordsworth’s way of looking at nature’, which by this account is concerned to save the planet at the cost of its human inhabitants. It is alarming enough to be told that ‘ “The Ruined Cottage” proposes that the survival of humanity comes with nature’s mastery over the edifices of civilisation,’ for it seems not too selfish to hope that in a green future we would be permitted some meagre shelter from the elements. It is thoroughly chilling to discover, in ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’, that ‘the dead female achieves new life in earth’s diurnal course. Humanity survives only in nature.’ Those urgent italics are trying at once to advance and to conceal the mysterious claim that humanity (or perhaps it is specifically the humanity of the woman) survives only in the grave.

But the weakest area of the book’s claim to derive a green politics from Wordsworth is its lack of interest in economic issues, its continual evasion of serious discussion of what we might learn from the poetry (for good or ill) about how to reconcile the need to cultivate the earth with the need to conserve its resources. The concerns of the book are political only in terms of the politics of literary criticism; as an essay in green politics it is very thin indeed.

As an essay in criticism, however, it’s at least as thick as thin. Nowhere does Bate show any sense that language could be anything but a transparent window to meaning. No poem is at all opaque or puzzling to him; he paraphrases with a serene confidence, untroubled by the ambiguities and indeterminacies which have made reading Wordsworth such a challenging and exciting experience for other critics. His style of close reading may be exemplified by the remark – and I never thought I’d read this kind of thing again – that ‘Wordsworth’s harsh northern names are characterised by rugged “r” sounds more than sylvan sibilance.’ Perhaps the fallacy that links sound with sense, persuasively demolished two hundred years ago by Samuel Johnson, is set to reappear on the ‘agenda for the 1990s’: if so, we can look forward to some lively intellectual disagreements. In the names Bate quotes, the ‘r’ in ‘Striding Edge’ is to my ear more urgently pedestrian than rugged; and in ‘Russet Cove’ Leavis would certainly have recognised an ‘r’ with the matt texture and juicy crunchiness of a favourite variety of apple.

In the readings he offers of particular poems by Wordsworth, Bate is departing from much more than the ‘New Historicism’ and the ‘Benthamite/Marxian’ criticism he deplores. He has turned his back, without argument or comment, on nearly a century of criticism which has taught us that our control of what we say or write is always imperfect, and that language, in Wordsworth’s words, may be a ‘counter-spirit’, subverting and dissolving what we think we want to express. To read as if this is not the case, and as if Wordsworth’s poetry has a simple and univocal political message to deliver, is another way of refusing debate, of answering what are offered as matters of interpretation with what are claimed to be matters of fact. If Romantic Ecology is the agenda for the 1990s, here’s my apology for absence.