Looking at the landscape view
The received wisdom that contemporary rural landscape views are desirable is crushing for me. Along with the cultural modification, there must also be a cultural conditioning that leads people to this perception. I have written before of the difficulties presented by the overwhelming historical and cultural influence on our landscapes, so that is not easy in Britain to see and experience a clear range of distinction between farmland and wildland that would enable us to build a value system that would refute this alleged desirability (1). While the landscape modification is explicable, evidence of an all-consuming land owning rapaciousness, the cultural conditioning is less so. What are its origins? Why is landscape, even in definition, so tied to people and their activities?
I want to explore here the contribution of
landscape painting to that cultural conditioning, because it perhaps holds
out some explanation of landscape aesthetics, or what is it that we are
supposed to like about landscape, and why we think we like it? John Ruskin
(1819-1900) artist, critic, and social theorist,
gave a lecture to Oxford students in 1871 in which he firmly realises the
phenomenon of humanisation of landscapes (2):
English geographer Jay Appleton saw in this a framework for the theoretical explanation of landscape aesthetics, and regretted that Ruskin did not develop it in any systematic way that would allow us to relate it to particular components of landscape, such as trees, cliffs or floodplains (3). He thus took on the task himself, deciding that aesthetic pleasure in the experience of landscape "stems from the spontaneous perception of landscape features which, in their shapes, colours, spatial arrangements, and other visible attributes, act as sign-stimuli indicative of environmental conditions favourable to survival, whether they really are favourable or not"
Appleton’s theoretical approach was based on evolutionary psychology, relying on Habitat theory, the recognition that a basic drive of animals is to choose locations that meet their biological needs, and Prospect–refuge theory, where the ability to see without being seen confers advantage to both the hunter and the hunted. Appleton also recognised hazards as elements of the environmental schemata, such as barriers or impediments to movement presented by impassable rivers, ravines, cliffs, and swamps, as well as natural hazards such as from fire. Shelter is thus a form of refuge that provides protection from the hazards arising from an adverse change in climatic conditions, such as intense heat, rain, snow, wind and flood. Appleton drew up lists of visual cues (sign-stimuli) that would represent symbols for prospect, such as panoramas, vistas and peepholes, and those symbolising refuges would be shelters, hides, caves, and natural (vegetation), artificial and nebulous screens (smoke, mist, dark). He then tested his hide and seek approach in examples of actual landscapes, landscape paintings, and landscape descriptions in prose and poetry, to show the benefits of the application of his theory to aesthetics. Overall, Appleton’s arguments suffer from reductionism, since in seeking a universality for his theories, he too easily reconciles as fitting, both natural and artificial sign-stimuli in his range of examples, even though it would be thought that the natural would be markedly superior.
Appleton thought landscape the backcloth to the whole stage of human activity – “For some it is a proper subject for scientific study; for others it belongs to the arts and this, perhaps, has proved one of the most difficult stumbling-blocks of all”. It is his application to landscape paintings for which his theories are mostly remembered in relation to an explanation for aesthetic taste in landscape, leading to at least one example of annotation of a Swiss landscape painting to be illustrative in course notes on Prospect-Refuge Theory (4). The painting Das Schloss Räzüns und der Galanda-Berg (1826) is by Johann Jakob Meyer (1787-1858) and shows Castle Rhäzüns above the valley through which flows the Hinterrhein river, and with a mountain range behind. The castle is shown as a refuge, and there are three vistas and a hilltop prospect pointed to on the painting, and with the river shown as an impediment hazard.
I have come across another use of annotation of landscape paintings, this time illustrative in the cause of understanding the implications for river hydrology of the landforms and the processes that shape them, as depicted in the paintings. Simon Dixon used landscape paintings with rivers in them by John Constable (1776-1837) such as the Haywain (1821) to explore what he took to be almost exclusively human modified landscapes of questionable geomorphological sustainability, and to consider “how these idealised landscape images have shaped the English psyche” in the public perception of river “naturalness” (5). Thus his annotations identified significant evidence of both modification due to agricultural activity as well as engineering, with consequent loss of natural hydrology, but all hidden in the pastoralism of the scene: the lack of floodplain woodland, sparse riparian vegetation/woodland, artificial channel deepening, over-widening from livestock crossing, canalisation, lack of in-channel deadwood because of river management, and pinch points from physical developments (mills, bridges) causing downstream erosion.
There was a serious point behind this evaluation for Simon, that in “edifying great landscape art we confuse the technical and aesthetic achievement of the painting with the desirability of the subject matter” making it harder to be objective in managing rivers in a more sustainable way. Thus the resistance to a river restoration scheme encountered by managers may just be due to misperceptions of naturalness “resulting from over 200 years of English Romantic landscape painting” rather than arising from any practical position.
I use old paintings of rural scenes as reference points for realism before the photographic age, because they may be indicators of the state of nature in a time before technology and advances in agriculture have delivered their all-consuming impact. When the scene of these paintings is at the margins of use, the inaccessible and less easily exploited areas, then confidence in the portrayal of limited human impact is even greater, so that the Swiss upland scenes of Calame’s work are more convincing of a nature-led land than the Suffolk pastoral views of a Gainsborough, or Inchbold’s fidelity in the meticulously realised sheep-grazed moorland on Skye (6).
I came across another stunningly realistic portrayal by John William Inchbold (1830-1888) early in January last year when I visited the Contested Ground exhibition at Leeds City Art Gallery (7). On walking into the main room of the exhibition, I was confronted with a wall full of 19th century landscapes, the paintings of varying size in close arrangement to form a large rectangle. It was an interesting way to get a snapshot of a landscape tradition, and I am sure that is what was intended by Debra Lennard, the curator. Lennard set out with the suspicion that those “picture-perfect panoramas” in the British landscape, as they appear in the art of the 18th and 19th centuries, are not all they seem (7). What I noticed the first time I saw this wall-sized collage was that all of these paintings - bar that of Stonehenge, Wiltshire (1873) by Inchbold - were anchored or framed by trees, often mature. It struck me then that this was idealised, since while these compositions were not necessarily lies, they were very selective scenes.
Lennard explained that the image that the British landscape brought to mind – the archetypal combination of fields, hedgerows and valleys – has been shaped by hundreds of years of landscape painting. She viewed this landscape as deeply traditional, not just because it looks back to a past time, but also because it is the product of a long tradition. Thus during the late 18th and 19th centuries, successive generations of artists copied the landscapes of their predecessors, forging a landscape tradition in Britain. Moreover, Lennard considered that these landscapes inspired powerful feelings of national belonging and a near-sacred regard for the land, even though they were crammed with cliché. Thus as long as Britishness is embedded in the landscape, Lennard believed “the ground will remain contested, forever caught between the competing claims of present and past”
The painting Lennard identified in the exhibition as exemplifying this "textbook” approach was The Golden Valley (1893) by Alfred East (1844-1913) its clichés including smoke winding lazily from a chimneystack of one of the cottages, and I would add the large tree anchoring the left foreground, the sheep in the lower middle ground, and more trees around the cottages. Burnham Beeches, Buckinghamshire (1882) by Albert Kinsley (1852-1945) appeared more promising, a woodland edge scene with young birch populating a slope, a groundcover of brambles and ivy, and with denser woodland in the far ground. However, when I looked more closely at the older trees on the plateau at the top of the slope, then the grotesqueness of pollarded beech hit me, an ugly sight of cultural fettering that would have been seen on many of the wooded commons around London, like Hainault and Epping Forests (8).
Of horror to me also was to come across Autumn (1888) a painting by a namesake showing cattle fording a brook, the centre ground anchored by a tree, and with a treeline in the distance. This Mark Fisher (1841-1923) was an American who studied in Paris, becoming a colleague of Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) the impressionist landscape painter. After a brief return to America, he settled here, thus being considered one of the first artists to bring the Impressionist style to England. It’s a bit of disappointment to me that many of his landscape paintings have cattle in them – and when he wasn’t painting cattle, he was painting sheep! More interesting was Eskdale, Cumbria (1890) by James Langsdale Pickering (1845-1912). It’s difficult at first to judge the scale in this painting, until you notice the birds hovering over the surface of water in the middle foreground. Then, you can put all the elements together, the essentials that for me make an appealing landscape, of the water surrounded by fallen rocks, a large scar behind, and trees drifting away along the spine of the hill above.
The complexity of natural woodland interiors
So many landscape artists prospered and
became famous through imitation of the pastoral idyll – Lennard identifies
Turner, Gainsborough and Constable - that there was an unwillingness to
deviate from this long tradition. However, the picturesque image of the
pastoral scene eventually became overtaken by the reality of the pace of
agricultural and technological change, as Lennard noted (7):
On my second visit, I had more time to see this, and see the progression of landscape painting in Britain as it reacted to and changed, not only with the increasing industrialisation, but also with the new art movements, such as Impressionism, the Abstract, and Surrealism. Of the abstract in the exhibition, I particularly liked November 11-47 (Mousehole) (1947) by Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) which seems to have a canvas of Cubist shapes hovering middle forefront right of this scene of the harbour of Mousehole in Cornwall, although the whole is blended together by the colour scheme of cream, pale yellow and brown, and contrasting with the blue of the sea and the green of the patchwork fields of the hill behind. Graham Sutherland’s Tree Form (1941) shows an uprooted tree with its twisted roots and gnarled bark, thrusting through the darkness, looking less like surrealism to me than a true depiction of dead wood in forests, albeit the purple tinges in the gnarling not fitting with a natural colour palette. Sutherland (1903‑1980) painted Welsh landscapes in the 1930s, returning to Pembrokeshire in the 1970s where he captured scenes that are very familiar to me, including specific locations. I like his studies of trees and gorse, and of rocks, estuaries and beaches. These are the interesting, sometimes intimate features of the Pembrokeshire coast and immediate hinterland that are so much more interesting than the cow pat fields that make up most of the landscape there. His surreal approach in depicting woodland in watercolour studies and sketches is essentially realistic for the woodland interiors of wild woodlands (9).
Very few artists in Britain paint the complexity of natural woodland interiors like Sutherland, but in Daddy Witch (2008) by Clare Woods, we see a woodland pool, overlain by a few tree branches, but bright in its reflection even as it mirrors the trees and shrubbery around it. The effect is a reversal, with Lennard telling us that Woods painting is what was revealed when she explored a woodland at night, and took flash photographs in this darkness. I had seen some large scale works of Woods before at an exhibition of her paintings at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield (10). Two were wall-filling panoramas of rocky landscapes in the vivid colour of layers of oils and enamel paints on massive panels of aluminium. Woods was inspired by Brimham Rocks in N Yorkshire for The Intended (2011) and you can certainly see the natural sandstone rock formations and the way some of them are so eroded at the base that they seem to defy gravity and balance precariously. However, Woods does not capture the trees that border directly on and into the western scarp edge of this grit stone, but then neither did Sutherland’s Brimham Rock (1937) an iconic view of one of the more precariously balanced rocks, and which was used for a poster in Shell Oil’s "Visit Britain" advertising campaign, encouraging drivers during the 1930s to sightsee around the British Isles – and use Shell petrol (11).
The profitable partnership of painter with engraver
The exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery was the
start of what proved a rich few months. In early February, I went to an
exhibition at the Royal Academy in London entitled Constable, Turner,
Gainsborough and the Making of Landscape. Its aim was to examine the
origins and evolution of the British landscape tradition and explain why
it took such a hold on the public imagination. Marina Vaizey, in her
review of the exhibition, succinctly encapsulates my view of this
While there were a few works by the “three towering figures of English landscape painting” (13) the exhibition was more important for seeing the profitable partnership of painter with engraver. From the middle of the eighteenth century, English artists and printmakers visually recorded the rural scenery of Britain, the printmakers publishing topographical prints of the important sights. This brought greater exposure to British landscapes, encouraging public recognition, as well as providing a visual record or memento of where people had traveled, or for the armchair voyager.
Whether under the influence of the Sublime or the Beautiful, or the theory of the picturesque (6) two of the landscape painters that came before the “towering figures” were the Welshman Richard Wilson (1714-1782) who had lived in Italy and adapted the conventions of classical landscape painting to his native land, and Thomas Smith of Derby (1720-1767) whose pictures brought drama to the Peak District. The quest for the Sublime in particular, seems to have led artists to exaggerate, making some depictions of known places almost unrecognisable. Thus an engraving in the exhibition of The Summit of Cader-Idris Mountain in North Wales (1774) after a painting by Richard Wilson, shows the lake of Llyn-y-Cau on that mountain. I’ve walked up there, and this portrayal is a distortion, an invention, as the height of Craig-y-Cau, the headwall behind the lake, is much exaggerated, and the seven people (one playing a trumpet?) and one horse dotted about seem incongruous.
Thomas Smith is considered to be one of the first artists to depict wild landscape scenes, which became fashionable with the development of the picturesque landscape towards the end of the 17th century. There were a series of engravings of his work in the exhibition, entitled Eight of the most extraordinary Prospects in the Mountainous Parts of Derbyshire and Staffordshire commonly called the Peak and Moorland (14). One of those prospects was recognisable as the limestone gorge of rock pinnacles and precipitous valley sides in Dove Dale, and sure enough A Prospect in Dove-Dale 3 Miles North of Ashbourn (1743) shows the river Dove winding through the valley, a prominent weir on the river in the middle foreground, along with innumerable horses on the wider banks of the river in the foreground, while two men standing in the right foreground admire the view. And yet the rock pinnacles are too massive and the valley sides too precipitous, and there are none of the trees that clothe the valley sides now (15).
Oil sketches outdoors
In March, I went to see Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch at the National Gallery in London (16). Church (1826–1900) was a member of the Hudson River School of landscape painters, along with such others as Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt. He was an advocate of the oil sketch made rapidly out-of-doors, in front of the subject, in similar vein to the plein-air of the Barbizon School (6) and which were sometimes preparatory studies for large-scale paintings. The exhibition filled only one room, but there were some wonderful paintings, such as a couple of woodland interior scenes that have great attention to detail: Forest Pool (1858-60) and Campfire, Maine Woods (1856). In the former, the pool reflects the browns and greens of the multi-layered understorey, as well as the trunks of the canopy trees, one veteran possibly dead tree at the edge of the pool leaning over, damaged bark at its base, its roots losing their grip. In the latter, a more close up view, a small fire can be seen under the apex of two fallen dead and rotting trees, and partially hidden behind small branches. The orange of the flames is captivating, and it is reflected in a shallow seepage on the forest floor.
Church does brilliant skies, bringing warm colours into his paintings. Our banner in the Sky (1886) was confusingly bold, with star-studded darkness appearing in a rip, torn into the glowing rays of sunrise, until I realised that together they depicted the Stars and Stripes of the American flag. The exhibition book says it was painted during the early years of the Civil War, and shows a tattered flag against a spectacular sky at daybreak (17). There is a brilliant sky in his Twilight in the Wilderness (1860) that was not in the exhibition but shown in the book, a red-orange sunset illuminating the underside of cloud fronts, the glow reflected in the lake below, the surrounding hills clothed in forest.
Church also does good water, especially in Niagara from the American Side (1867) the one large size canvas in the exhibition. It was a poignant reminder of my visit to the falls 30 years ago, when I was living and working in America. The detail is in the trees hanging horizontally to the side of the falls, the jagged rocks below with just the hint of a rainbow arching off canvas, its foot rising in the bottom right foreground, and then the aquamarine detail of the water as it flows over the top of the falls, tumbling down, and the white of the mist and spume thrown up. There were also a couple of sketches of towering mountains above lakes in the Bavarian alps, and which bridge the monumental scenes painted by the Hudson School along the Hudson River in New York state and in the west, with the Swiss alpine scenes of Calame. The best was Königssee, Bavaria (1868) which shows the rocky, steep, wooded slopes above the lake, the view closing as it narrows and turns a corner. A contemporary photograph shows that little has changed in 150 years.
As fortune would have it, there was a complementary exhibition taking place at the same time in the National Gallery - Through European Eyes: The Landscape Oil Sketch (18). In setting up the idea of the exhibition, the Introduction talked about advice given to students by French painter Pierre Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819). His treatise in 1800 - Reflections and Advice to a Student on Painting, Particularly on Landscape –implored the landscape painter to become an expert observer of nature, and represent it most faithfully as possible (représentent le plus fidèlement qu'il est possible) (19). Valenciennes urged his readers to create rapid oil studies in the outdoors (plein air) recognising that the constantly shifting aspects of light, wind, rain, the varying reflections created by clouds of different colours, meant that speed was necessary in capturing the fleeting effects of nature. He also recommended tree branches and trunks, running water, scudding clouds and rock faces as valuable tests of skill (Études d'Arbres, de Rochers, de Plantes, etc). Perhaps because of that, the exhibition was arranged thematically: trees, water, coast, mountains. However, Valencienne regarded the studies painted for nature as the original clip art to be reproduced in the grand landscape that would be created back in the studio, and in which there would be buildings or monuments inserted, along with people and animals, this humanisation fitting what was often the activity or event that the landscape was meant to depict – the historic/heroic landscape (paysage historique/héroique) or the hunting and battle pieces (les chasse et les batailles) (19).
As you would expect, I sought out those paintings within the themes where humanisation was not apparent. I liked the oil sketch Tree study (1840) by Jean-Michel Cels (1819 – 1894) of a mass of trees in a deep ravine, seen as an edge of tall canopy woodland, with the shades of green of the leaves becoming darker the further into the ravine. In the water section, A Torrent at Tivoli (1789-93) by Simon Denis (1755 – 1813) shows a close up view of the silver flashes of water gushing over rocks, a newly broken tree in leaf washed down the river and lodged up against one of the rocks. Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877) is a favoured artist of mine, and so I was delighted to see his Beach Scene (1874) with rock-strewn sand in the forefront, a big sky of billowing, darkening clouds, and a sliver of orangey-salmon sunset fading on the horizon in between.
The idea of landscape owes its existence to art
After the National Gallery, I walked down to
Tate Britain for Looking at the View, a thematic display that
threw up coincidences and affinities in the way artists have framed our
vision of the landscape over the last 300 years (20). I'd forgotten how
vast some of the spaces are in the Tate at Millbank – the octagon is
cavernous! Of the three, this was the most entertaining exhibition of the
day - more of it and much larger works. I had read about the exhibition
beforehand in an article in Art Quarterly, Michael Bird setting the
context with an extraordinary contrast between the land as we experience
it for our earthly needs, its proximity and utility, and the landscape as
we view it, far away and out of reach. His premise is that it is the act
of looking that constructs the view, and then makes a bold assertion (21):
Bird thought that people must always have gained some kind of reflective pleasure or interest from gazing out of windows, or from some high vantage point, and then picked out a number of examples in the exhibition that included windows through which a landscape scene is depicted, such as Winifred Nicholson’s (1893-1981) Glimpse Upon Waking (1976) because it is a view to a rural scene revealed through barely opened curtains. In Henry Lamb’s (1883-1960) portrait of Lytton Strachey (1914) the subject is seated languidly in front of an enormous picture window, the scene of Hampstead Heath behind is graced with evergreen shrubbery and small trees, and the attractive complex architecture of the trunks and boughs of very tall, leafless deciduous trees. I usually look first at the background scenery in a landscape painting, and what’s on the ground in the forefront, to see what the artist is throwing in as well, but the window view as a compositional technique looked to be good fun. If these examples were to be representative, then Bird’s assertion would ring true that the anthology of the landscapes in the display was “predominantly inland, managed ones rather than the wilder variety”
The introductory text to the exhibition had
another appealing thought, of how each painter and painting wanted me to
view the landscape, but really it seemed to describe as well my experience
of walking wilderness:
I liked John Brett’s (1831-1902) The British Channel Seen from the Dorsetshire Cliffs (1871) especially after reading that the view is probably from the cliffs above Lulworth Cove. A greener aquamarine sea, rippled with small waves, and with lighter patches where the rays of sunshine break through the clouds. The Cove was our geography field trip from school 45 years ago, and a group of us would return to wild camp there. Unfortunately, where we camped has since subsided and washed away. Dungeon Ghyll (1956) by William Townsend (1909-1973) has very little paint applied, apparently deliberately as an economy of statement by the artist, but which makes it a bit abstract. It is definitely recognisable as the rocky waterfall below Langdale Pikes in the Lake District, but avoid walking up there during biting midge season. Also good was a cracking Incbold of Gordale Scar, Yorkshire (1876) that captures Goredale Beck cascading over tufa limestone, and the moodiness of this limestone chasm, even if his colouring is a bit bronzed for what is the grey of limestone. Winter Stage (1936) by Ivon Hitchens (1893–1979) had, working in from each side of this long, horizontal format, leaded windows framing landscape views, then depictions of large canvasses of landscape views, and in the middle an opening on to a wooded landscape, all with a distinctive palette of brown hues. It is astonishing, and has the inventiveness that can be seen in Hazel Wood (1944) a later painting of his in the Contested Ground exhibition at Leeds. Black Square (2008) by Gillian Carnegie took a little time to tune in to. It was just big and black, and has bags of texture from masses of gloss and matt paint in textured strokes that reveal massive tree trunks, with a complex ground layer, and the finer detail of shrubbery between the trees. Lisa Milroy’s Sky (1997) was exactly that, wispy clouds and watery blues of the sky fill 95% of this portrait view, with at bottom a thin forest edge and what could be sand or bare earth in front.
The landscape elements of mountains and forest are large
In early June last year, Tropical Storm Andrea advanced up the eastern states of America, forcing me out of Shenandoah, cutting short my wilderness walking. The upside is that it gave me a few more days in Washington, and so I was able to visit the National Gallery of Art on the Mall. I headed for the American Galleries, and came across a small celebration of the works of George Catlin (1796-1872). I have written before of Catlin, and of his paintings and writings about the everyday life of Native Americans and their natural landscape (22) and used some of his paintings to illustrate a lecture on the spirit of wildland (23). Thus it was a great joy to see first-hand, some of the striking portraits of Native Americans from this self-taught artist, such as The White Cloud, Head Chief of the Iowas (1844-45) and The Female Eagle - Shawano (1830).
Born in Bolton, Lancashire, Thomas Moran
(1837-1926) is better known as an American painter and a member of the
Hudson River School. It was the paintings by Moran of the Yellowstone
Valley while he was on the US Geological Survey there in 1871, led by
Hayden, along with the photographs of William Henry Jackson, and Hayden's
lengthy report, that made the case for Yellowstone to become the first
National Park in 1872. Moran continued to travel and paint in the west,
the Green River becoming one of his favourite subjects. A painting by
Moran that the National Gallery had only acquired two years earlier -
Green River Cliffs, Wyoming
(1881) - had me transfixed. I sat for some time, working through the
elements. Here are my notes:
So many of the 19th century American landscape painters used the sun for dramatic effect, including Frederick Church and Albert Bierstadt. Also, clouds are a painter’s best friend when it comes to sunlight and dramatic effects. Moran had painted these cliffs a few years earlier, again using sunlight to dramatise the colours that he saw - Green River of Wyoming (1878). However, by the time Moran first arrived in the town of Green River in 1871, before heading up into Yellowstone on the Hayden Survey, it is unlikely that he would have seen Native Americans in the setting of these two painting, as the town and railroad were a growing presence that would have inhibited them from passing nearby. It would, though, have only been a matter of decades since they would have been there, rather than centuries. Thus although it may be that he did not see the exact scene that he depicts in the painting, it is certain that all the elements fit, captured as they were in sketches, and give realism to what was probably a studio painting.
I think I have worked out where the view is that the painting shows. The butte in the painting has to be in the cliff range that runs roughly SE/NW, parallel with US30/I80 in Wyoming. This road mostly follows the old Lincoln Highway, an early 20th century touring route across Wyoming. However, to get a more precise location, I used a street view mapping system to walk the roads either side of Green River, and found it on route 374 as you leave the western end of the town. It is actually a butte that is isolated and in front of the main range, since US30/I80 runs behind it. The other painting shows the same butte, but from a different angle, and indicates that separation from the range behind. Take away the roads, and it is the landscape view that Moran painted 140 years ago.
There was another painting at the National Gallery that gripped me - A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (Crawford Notch) (1839) – painted by Thomas Cole (1801-1848). I have been through this notch, a narrow pass through the White Mountains in New England, and at the same autumnal time of year when the maples glow red like they do in the painting. It’s very near the Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness that I struggled to find an easy way into in 2005. The landscape elements of mountains and forest are large, compared to the human elements of a wagon trail heading towards the notch in the centre middle ground, a house on its way (probably the Notch House) and with a horse and rider on the trail. There are tree stumps either side of the trail, suggesting that it had been cleared in response to the increasing traffic through the area. I’m not sure the brooding storm clouds gathering at the upper left are signaling the “impending cataclysm” of a catastrophic avalanche, as the interpretive text would have it, Crawford Notch gaining notoriety in 1826 when that avalanche took nine lives. As it was, a far greater disturbance was visited when the old growth forest on the White Mountains was systematically felled between 1901–1911, with fires raging over clear-felled areas, and giving rise to catastrophic changes in hydrology and downstream flooding (24). Fortunately, New Hampshire’s State Forestry Department bought 6,000 acres around Crawford Notch in 1913, halting the clear-cutting of timber that was denuding the hillsides, turning the area into a State Park, and which includes the scene portrayed in Coles painting.
Federal acquisition of land in the White Mountains began in 1914 as a result of the Weeks Act 1911, which authorised public land purchase to protect watersheds (25). By 1918, the White Mountain National Forest was amongst one of the first National Forests to be established, with over 750,000 acres. I found it astonishing to come out on one of the bare rock ledges, like the one you can see in the far left of Cole’s painting, and having a view over that vast area of forest as it is today, completely regenerated from native tree species and stuffed with wildlife.
The American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) had a temporal connection with the White Mountains. He first discovered the area in 1907 when he came there to seek relief from hay fever (26). He later searched for somewhere to live that would give him a view of the Presidential Range that make up the White Mountains, buying a farm in 1915 on Ridge Road, just south of the town of Franconia. Frost and his family lived there until 1920, and then used it as a summerhouse for nearly twenty years. I don’t know if Frost was familiar with Crawford Notch, but a similar scene to Cole’s painting was only 10 miles down the road from Frost at Franconia Notch. Frost must have witnessed the devastating results of the clear felling, as he will also have witnessed over the years the gradual regeneration of the forest after it came into public ownership.
In October, 1926, his daughter Irma married John Cone in Franconia, with Frost writing a sonnet as a wedding present. Called The Master Speed, this epithalamium is variously interpreted as an encouragement to the new couple to set their own pace in life – “the power of standing still” - resisting external pressures, so that they “Cannot be parted nor be swept away” (27). I read this poem before I knew it was for his daughter’s wedding, and found my own interpretation of its imagery. For me, to “climb back up a stream of radiance to the sky, and back through history up the stream of time” is to be able to “have the power to stand still” against “the rush of everything to waste” through the engineered transformation of human modification, and contemplate a land as it once was, and can be again, if we remove our influence. It seemed to me to be the essence of natural restoration and reinstatement that the White Mountains had undergone after they were taken into public ownership. Thus 175 years on, Thomas Cole could return to the White Mountains and be able to paint that forested scene yet again.
I think I understand now how it may be that landscape painting in Britain has contributed to such a poor aspiration for the wild nature of our land. It is a sad fact that the public beliefs of many, over history, are shaped by observing the attitudes of the loudest voices, rather than through their own logic or argument. Returning to the introductory text to the Looking at the View exhibition, it went on to say that “such views appear natural but are, in fact highly structured according to artistic conventions that have changed little over the centuries” (20). Were the artists misrepresenting what they saw, or were they really confirming that their power as an artist to create a view was consistent with the increasing ability to physically create the type of landscape that land ownership wanted. Michael Bird sees this when he said in his review of that exhibition that it is noticeable how seldom British landscape art “evinces any serious curiosity about nature, about how the non-human world functions or what it feels like to get close to it. Again and again, the view turns out to be making a case for something else”
Mark Fisher 22 April 2014
(1) Looking for wildland - developing a value system for wild nature, Self-willed land April 2006
(2) John Ruskin, Lecture 1, Lectures on Landscape, The Complete Works of John Ruskin. Cook and Wedderburn, vol. XXII, 1906, p. 12
(3) Jay Appleton, The Experience of Landscape, Revised Edition, Wiley-Blackwell, 1996
(4) D. S. Miall. Prospect-Refuge Theory. Notes on Jay Appleton, The Experience of Landscape (London: John Wiley, 1975)
(5) A geomorphological assessment of Constable’s landscapes, Simon Dixon, The River Management Blog 13 May 2012
(6) Forest, Rocks, Torrents, Self-willed land October 2011
(7) Contested Ground, Created by Debra Lennard. Starting Point - Leeds Art Gallery 28 September 2012 – April 2013
(8) The natural aspect - Epping Forest and Rock Creek Park, Self-willed land November 2012
(9) Graham Sutherland, Works on Paper. Zonca & Zonca Gallery, Milan 15 January-14 March 2009
(10) Clare Woods, The Unquiet Head. The Hepworth Wakefield 22 October 2011 - 29 January 2012
(11) Brimham Rock, Yorkshire. V&A's collections
(12) Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape, Royal Academy, Marina Vaizey, theartsdesk 16 December 2012
(13) Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape. Royal Academy 8 December 2012—17 February 2013
(14) Thomas Smith of Derby, Eight Prospects, |British Museum Collection
(15) The Tayside beavers - living wild and free in Scotland, Self-willed land January 2011
(16) Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch, National Gallery 6 February-28 April 2013
(17) Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch, Andrew Wilton, National Gallery Company 2013
(18) Through European Eyes: The Landscape Oil Sketch, National Gallery 6 February – 28 April 2013
(19) Pierre Henri Valenciennes (1800) Ideas and advice to a student of painting and especially the landscape genre (Élémens de perspective pratique:à l'usage des artistes, suivis de Réflexions et conseils à un élève sur la peinture, et particulièrement sur le genre du paysage)
(20) BP Exhibition: Looking at the View, Tate Britain 12 February – 2 June 2013
(21) Bird, M (2013) Roads on which no one is walking. Art Quarterly, Art Fund Spring 2013
(22) Mountain lions and eagles - the place of humans in nature, Self-willed land January February 2006
(23) SPIRIT OF WILD LAND - a timeline in words and pictures, Self-willed land January January 2012
(24) Protecting the Forest: The Weeks Act of 1911, The Museum of the White Mountains, Plymouth State University
(25) Passing the Weeks Act, U.S. Forest Service History, The Forest History Society
(26) The Robert Frost Encyclopedia, Eds Nancy Lewis Tuten & John Zubizarreta, Greenwood Press 2001
(27) Robert Frost, The Master Speed, A Further Range, In The Poems of Robert Frost (Random House: 1946) pg. 345