The dark side of the landscape

Discuss transformations in the representation of work and leisure in landscapes of the nineteenth century

The Victorians lived in the first industrial age. They resisted the separation from the disappearing ideals of a rural life because they knew that they were in danger of losing them altogether. The industrial revolution, the railway and the expansion of the cities intensified their nostalgia for a happier past. During the nineteenth century, as the population of the towns overtook that of the countryside for the first time in history, centuries-old patterns of life and tradition seemed suddenly to melt away. The Victorian patron, usually a townsman, wanted a pretty, idealized view of the countryside, with peasants happily attending their tasks, or their country pleasures. As we shall see even their work was often depicted as a rather pleasurable activity. What the patron certainly didn't want to know about, were any of the unpleasant things going on in the country.[1]

Many artists provided for the demand for pretty landscapes. The main thing we should remember when looking at Victorian pictures of country workers is that they were mostly painted by artists living in towns, for other town-dwellers.

Almost every society has its dream of a golden age. Arcadia, the land of the happy shepherd, is that of ancient Greece. In modern western society the development of landscape painting provided a new way of seeing it. From the seventeenth century Arcadia was represented as a calm land, immersed in golden light. In the following centuries, as the national identity grew, it became increasingly common to see local landscape as the Arcadia in which the nation had once lived in a more ideal time.[2]

The roots of the local Arcadia can be found in Dutch art. 'The Dutch were stay-at-home people. Hence their originality', wrote John Constable in the 1830's.[3] The artist was looking back on a tradition of celebrating local landscape which he brought to a new level of importance. In the second decade of the nineteenth century John Constable rose to become the main promoter of Georgic image.[4]

In the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth centuries, it was an almost constant feature of landscapes in oils that they included people, and so to greater or lesser extent they were subject pictures.[5] In the work of Constable, the figures are often so small that we can hardly notice them. The nobility and gentry almost never appear in Constable's pictures. The only figures he paints are those of working poor, and there are never many of them. Sometimes one or two figures might be working in the foreground, with perhaps one or two more. Constable seems to have been a supporter of the conservative party, convinced that the social and economic stability of England depended on a blooming agriculture. That is probably why he thought it was necessary to minimise his figures until they merge with the landscape, to distance them, and even when they are in the foreground to paint them as vaguely as possible.[6] The labourers do not step between the spectator and the landscape. It was a new type of harmony between labourer and the landscape, the one only possible if a worker is distant or unclear. Constable attempted here to adapt the old Georgic vision of England, as rich and peaceful land where hard work is appreciated and rewarded. That vision was endangered by a rising fear among the new industrialists of the power of a labouring class.

Some indistinct figures appear in Constable's Haywain painted in 1821. Having first allowed our eye to be drawn to the horizon, we largely ignore the figures. The people are presented as in harmony with the scene and also barely distinguishable. They animate the stillness of the meadow, and support the stability of an ideally structured economic and social order.[7] If they were less symbolic but more realistic images of men at work, we could risk focussing on them as men, not as components of a calm and anonymous industry.

There are of course a number of Constable's pictures in which the figures are much closer to us. The Dedham Vale with Ploughmen of 1814 for example. His ploughman has his back to us, and we cannot read his expression. The artist probably thinks that it would be inappropriate to show the overworked ploughman smiling as he works. Constable assumed that people who worked extremely hard are cheerful for that reason, hard labour being is its own reward. We cannot get from him the sense that he has something to complain about, nor even that he is complaining. Once again we receive what John Barrel in his book on landscape painting calls 'necessary and characteristic vagueness in Constables working men.[8]

A comparison could be made of Constable's Dendham Vale and J.M.W.Turner's Ploughing Man. Turner's picture cannot be described as a regimentally Georgic vision of hard labour though. But it does not seem either that the only alternative to that is a vision of rural England in terms of an idle Pastoral. The men in this picture are in the field to perform manual labour. For the moment they are not working, though they might be discussing how to mend a broken plough. They are not therefore seen in terms of an idle Pastoral. They cannot be characterised as addicted to work either, as in Constable's Georgic. They appear to us not as Arcadians, but as common men. Behind them looms the misty image of Windsor Castle, but nothing in the composition of the picture makes us look through the figures in the foreground, in favour of that sublime image behind them.[9]

J.M.W. Turner's Ploughing up Turnips, near Slough, (1809) makes a patriotic image of the fruitful British land, portraying a harvest as ordinary as turnip[10] and a vision beyond the seat of the king. The scene on the Thames is also significant. Much patriotic writing at the time depicted the Thames as the heart of Britain and the site of its most productive areas. During the Napoleonic wars, when Britain was cut off the trade with the continent, increased domestic food production was very important. Haymaking and other traditional operations were often represented in poetry and art.

The picture shows us a cold and wet morning within sight of Windsor castle. King George III, "Farmer George" employed in the late eighteen century the latest methods of farming. Turnip cultivation was one of them. Windsor castle in the background calls to mind king's role in promoting new technology in agriculture. Turner's sympathy for the labourers is clearly detectable. The workers are wearing dirty clothes, their bodies bent nearly double, marked with a lifetime of hard labour.[11] What a contrast with George Stubbs's Haymakers of 1785 for example, where all the workers are models of efficient labour, wearing white shirts, with no sight of dirt on their hands, all in the rudest of health.

Turner's painting challenged the existing conventions for depicting rural landscape. It is a celebration of English agriculture. The turnip lifters are essential to the meaning of the canvas. It is a patriotic statement: even in the face of Napoleonic wars, British peace and prosperity will be secured through agricultural plenty achieved by cooperation between classes.[12]

Frosty Morning was exhibited in 1813. This ascetic winter landscape was one of the most personal of Turner's exhibited pictures. It records a scene he witnessed while travelling in Yorkshire. A pair of labourers has been hacking at a pile of frozen turnips and are about to pack them onto a cart. Further to the left we see a gentleman with a shotgun, standing with his daughter and watching the labourers. All are clearly affected by the bitterly cold weather. Their discomfort gives meaning to the landscape; their poses are underlining the frostiness of the new morning. In the same process the cold landscape gives meaning and identity to those peoples, as the freezing conditions make them hate to work, it detaches them from their imposed identity as workers, and reveals them as men with interest of their own at hart, as well as those of their employers.[13]

Turner was particularly fond of this painting, which was critically acclaimed at the time. The Spectator saw in it 'the true tone of nature... imitated to perfection'. Years after Turner's death, Claude Monet saw it and declared it to have been painted with 'wide-open eyes'.[14]

Henry Wallis' Stonebreaker was first exhibited in 1858 at the Royal Academy and was greatly admired. Many viewers assumed that the subject was asleep, worn out by his hard labour, but he has actually been worked to death. There are signs suggesting his demise: the hushed colours and the sunset give a sense of finality. The hammer slipped from his hand. He has not moved for so long that a stoat has climbed onto his leg. The dead worker might have been employed on a farm previously, as he wears the clothes of a rural labourer. He might have lost his 'better' employment due to changing social situation. Instead, he had to accept the help of the workhouse and one of the worst jobs at the time - breaking stones. The work was often given to the poor and destitute by local Parish boards, the stones being used to fill holes in the parish roads.[15]

It is believed that Wallis was sympathetic with the plight of the poor and painted The Stonebreaker as his comment on the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 which formalised the workhouse system and discouraged some forms of support for the poor. Those able to work were forced into long hours of labour in order to qualify for the housing and food provided by the workhouse and the exhausting work sometimes resulted in the death of the workers. It was later claimed that by this painting, Wallis moved away from the Pre-Raphaelite principles towards those of an early Victorian Social Realism.[16]

Wallis's piece of work provides a strong contrast with John Brett's painting of the same name, which he completed the year after Wallis's version. Although Brett's Stonebreaker also shows a figure of poor breaking rocks, this time the subject is a boy, neatly dressed and rather healthy looking. He is working in a beautiful, sunny countryside, accompanied by a jolly little dog. The picturesque spot has been recognized as Box Hill in Surrey. There is the milestone in the forefront of the painting which gives an idea on the distance from London (23 miles). We can also see a railway bridge and an embankment in the middle distance and the spire of St. Michael's Church.

Some people could read the canvas as a critique of child labour in Victorian times. Pre-Raphaelite artists (John Brett was a great admirer of the art produced by PRB) often commented on social issues like demoralisation of Victorian city life, family life or women's, etc. However, the boy's clothes are neat and clean, the puppy is playful, and the beautiful sunshine gives the impression of happiness all around rather than depression, therefore it is hard to say that he is being exploited. [17]

In his essay on the Brett's picture, David Cordingly argues that there is a possibility that the painter knew of famous Stonebreakers by Courbet, which work had been shown at the Paris Salon in 1851. One of Brett drawings depicts a standing boy in a position similar to one of the figures in Courbet's picture. This could be a coincidence, though. Brett may also have seen The Stonebreaker's Daughter which was painted by Landseer in 1830.[18]

In the same article Cordingly quotes selected writings by other art critics. Allen Staley for example in The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape (1973) suggests that we are looking at a painting of a young boy 'who must labour while birds sing and his dog plays in the midst of a sun-filled landscape'. On the other hand Andrea Rose, the author of The Pre-Raphaelites (1977), tells us again of PRB's involvement in representing the labour. She says that the question of proletarian rights had been brought to public notice by the Chartist demonstrations of 1848, 'and the face of the labourer, previously ignored as a subject worthy of depiction in art, was looked upon with sympathy and interest by the Pre-Raphaelites'. A completely different reason is suggested in an article 'Geology and landscape painting in 19 England' written in 1979, in which Marcia Pointon argues that the answer to the image lies in the juxtaposition of the child and the stack of flints. She points out that breaking stones was an occupation for people in all ages, and 'the existence of this youthful stonebreaker implies therefore a whole life-span'. The flint stones, she says also, may be connected with fossils and represent the vastness of geological time. [19]

Compared with the Wallis image, Brett's stone breaking seems to be almost an image of a pleasurable pastime. The only sad reminder what years of hard work might make the boy become is the old, dead, broken tree bark.

Willaim Dyce's, Pegwell Bay, Kent - A Recollection of October 5th, 1858 could be read as an image of Victorian leisure. The painting was the product of a trip the artist made in the autumn of 1858 to the then popular holiday resort of Pegwell Bay near Ramsgate. The scene includes various members of the artist's family, all busy with what seems to be the gathering of shells. The figures in the foreground are Dyce's wife, their son, and the wife's two sisters. The artist's interest in geology is shown by his careful recording of the windswept faces of the chalk cliffs. It is probably one of the most truthful and honest of all Pre-Raphaelite landscapes, and has always been deservedly admired.[20] This work can be viewed at few different levels. I mentioned already that at first sight the painting could appear to be just a happy record of a family enjoying a day at the seaside. But if we look at it closer, we would have discovered that the tide is low and across the bay many other people are also searching for something. They are looking for fossils. In the year 1859, when this picture was painted, Charles Darwin's The Origins of Species, upsetting religious ideas on the creation of the universe, became a bestseller. The barely visible trail of Donati's comet, which appeared three months earlier, places the human lives in wider dimensions of time and space.[21] As comets were considered bad omens, Dyce, in painting this work, might have been reflecting on the religious worries of his time.[22]

We can also find obvious images of leisure in nineteenth century landscape art. Grand and sumptuous picnics were a feature of Victorian life, when there were plenty of servants on hand. Henry Nelson O'Neil, A Picnic, 1857 is a particularly impressive example: white tablecloth, china plates and cutlery, lobsters and champagne. The romance is blooming on the right of the picture, but, overall there is not much joy in the picture.

Samuel Palmer's Pastoral with Horse Chestnut Tree (1831-32) idealize the life of the farmers and country peasants as those closest to nature and thus to God. In the 1830s Palmer produced a wide variety of images that praise pastoral surroundings. In this group of works, simple rustic scenes appear as amazing spectacles. Pastoral with Horse Chestnut Tree pays homage to the generosity of nature, as a lonely shepherd, surrounded by his flock, sits under the canopy of a blossoming chestnut tree.

All over Europe from the 1840s onwards, the struggle between capital and labour influenced both writers and artists. Gustave Courbet's The Stonebreakers was described by the painter's friend Pierre Joseph Proudhon, the anarchist philosopher, as 'the first Socialist picture ever painted... a satire on our industrial civilization which continuously invents wonderful machines to perform all kinds of labour, yet is unable to liberate man from the most backbreaking toil'.[23]

From around 1870 emphasis on scenes of poverty in British painting grew. The revelations in government of the hunger, disease, unemployment, insufficient accommodation, and the lack of clean facilities among labourers might have contributed to the growing interest in images of poor. Conditions became severe after the depression of 1873 and in many areas did not improve much until the turn of the century.[24]

Some artists began to use sombre palette and technique in the depiction of the surrounding landscape. Those painters emulated Nature in its least appealing aspects, in contrast to the fresh and sensuous glitter of many Pre-Raphaelite's works. In their pictures the season always appeared to be late autumn or winter. Sunsets and sunrise are rare, so are blossoming and healthy plants, picturesque cottages with ivy and other staples, popular for so long. Even John Everett Millais, once Pre-Raphaelite, in his Chill October (1871), showed something of this atmosphere with its grey sky and low, flat marshland. Contemporary critics sometimes accused landscape artists of deliberately seeking ugliness. Much later, writer Howard Rodee argues though, that their aim was to 'evoke a mood of gloom and melancholy and the dreary landscape was especially appropriate as setting for what was often referred to then as "dismal labour"'.[25]

Victorian painters responded to hard labour in different ways, some honestly and realistically, others less so. Most preferred to paint a beautiful landscape, with farm workers seen only as small and distant figures. They would show groups of farm workers, usually resting. Consequently, some of those images of working man seem almost like scenes of leisure. Even if they were working, they looked happy and cheerful about it. This is particularly true of harvesting scenes, painted by artists John Costable, George Vicat Cole, Edmund George Warren, and many others. It is only among later Victorian artists that one finds the back-breaking toil of life as a farm worker depicted with any real degree of honesty.

Bibliography

  • John Barrel, The dark side of the landscape, Cambridge University Press 2001;
  • Bloomsbury Collection of Modern Art, British Landscape Painting. Nineteenth Century, Bloomsbury Books, London 1970;
  • Kenneth Clark, The Romantic Rebellion. Romantic Versus Cl;assic Art, John Murray Ltd, London 1976;
  • David Cordingly, 'The Stonebreaker': An Examination of the Landscape in a Painting by John Brett, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 124, No. 948 (Mar., 1982), pp. 141-145
  • Lionel Lambourne, Victorian Painting, Phaidon Press Ltd., London 1999;
  • Michelle L. Miller, J.M.W. Turner's 'Ploughing Up Turnips, near Slough': the cultivation of cultural dissent, in The Art Bulletin, Dec. 1995, Howard D. Rodee, The "Dreary Landscape" as a Background for Scenes of Rural Poverty in Victorian Paintings, Art Journal, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Summer, 1977, pp. 307-313);
  • Howard D. Rodee, 'The "Dreary Landscape" as a Background for Scenes of Rural Poverty in Victorian Paintings', Art Journal, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Summer, 1977)
  • Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 1999;
  • William Vaughan, British Painting. The Golden Age, Thames and Hudson, London Ltd., 1999
  • J. Treuherz: Hard Times: Social Realism in Victorian Art (London, 1987), pp. 36-39
  • http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk
  • http://www.tate.org.uk
  1. Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 1999, p.85
  2. William Vaughan, British Painting. The Golden Age, Thames and Hudson, London Ltd., 1999, p. 205
  3. As cited in William Vaughan, British Painting. The Golden Age, Thames and Hudson, London Ltd., 1999, p.209
  4. William Vaughan, British Painting. The Golden Age, Thames and Hudson, London Ltd., 1999, p.209
  5. John Barrel, The dark side of the landscape, Cambridge University Press 2001, p. 17
  6. John Barrel, The dark side of the landscape, Cambridge University Press 2001, p. 134
  7. John Barrel, The dark side of the landscape, Cambridge University Press 2001, p. 149
  8. John Barrel, The dark side of the landscape, Cambridge University Press 2001, p. 151
  9. John Barrel, The dark side of the landscape, Cambridge University Press 2001, p. 154
  10. Turnips were used to restore the soil nourishment and made great winter food for life stock.
  11. Michelle L. Miller, J.M.W. Turner's 'Ploughing Up Turnips, near Slough': the cultivation of cultural dissent', in The Art Bulletin, Dec. 1995, p. 1
  12. See Michelle L. Miller, J.M.W. Turner's 'Ploughing Up Turnips, near Slough': the cultivation of cultural dissent', in The Art Bulletin, Dec. 1995, p. 1
  13. John Barrel, The dark side of the landscape, Cambridge University Press 2001, p. 155
  14. http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?cgroupid=999999996&workid=14752)
  15. http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/picture-of-the-month/displaypicture.asp?v=2&id=7
  16. J. Treuherz: Hard Times: Social Realism in Victorian Art (London, 1987), pp. 38
  17. http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/picture-of-the-month/displaypicture.asp?v=2&id=7
  18. David Cordingly, 'The Stonebreaker': An Examination of the Landscape in a Painting by John Brett, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 124, No. 948 (Mar., 1982), pp. 145
  19. All publications quoted in David Cordingly, 'The Stonebreaker': An Examination of the Landscape in a Painting by John Brett, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 124, No. 948 (Mar., 1982), pp. 145
  20. Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 1999, p. 133
  21. www.tate.org.uk/servlet/Viework?cgroupid=9999999961&workid
  22. Lionel Lambourne, Victorian Painting, Phaidon Press Ltd., London 1999, p. 100
  23. Quoted in Lionel Lambourne, Victorian Painting, Phaidon Press Ltd., London 1999, p. 327
  24. Howard D. Rodee, 'The "Dreary Landscape" as a Background for Scenes of Rural Poverty in Victorian Paintings', Art Journal, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Summer, 1977, p. 307
  25. Howard D. Rodee, 'The "Dreary Landscape" as a Background for Scenes of Rural Poverty in Victorian Paintings', Art Journal, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Summer, 1977, p. 308

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