Identity in Landscape & the Rural Idyll

"The English love of pleasant scenery, of the country, of home... are amongst the most marked and best characteristics of our race."

- Thomas Horsfall, Government of Manchester, 1895. 

 

In the lifetime of Thomas Horsfall (1841-1932), England was going through an identity crisis. The changes brought by both the Industrial Revolution and Britain's rise to a global imperial power forced England to reconsider its identity. As England underwent rapid changes brought by industrialization and overseas empire, traditional aspects of their national identity were challenged. By 1851, a majority of English people for the first time resided in cities, greatly altering England's perception of the countryside and of itself. Through the empire, England came into contact and exchange with the wider world, while the maintanance and practice of empire became a defining feature of Britian. For those who favored a more traditional sense of Englishness, the British Empire was seen as a detriment becuase of the negative affects it had at home and how the imperial mission abroad distracted resources from meaningful social reform at home.  

 

"For this we eat, for this we drink, For this to idiocy we sink, To bursting point our Budgets swell, And in our slums gaunt paupers dwell. But who to heart such things  would take, When glorious Empire is at stake?" 

 

- Poem by Sir Wilfrid Lawson MP criticiszing funds spent on empire instead of alleviating poverty

 

Art was often at the frontline of this conflict, increasingly social in its role, serving as both commentary and critique, as well as a vision for the future. Individual artists like JMW Turner and John Constable, and art critics like John Ruskin, played a key role in the discourse on national identity. Ruskin himself called for greater clarity on what it meant to be English and the Englishness of art, bemoaning that England’s art was becoming “sentimentality German, dramatically Parisian, and decoratively Asiatic.” (John Ruskin, preface in The English School of Painting, 1885). By the second half of the 19th century there were two competing identities at play, Englishness, associated with the rural, natural, and local; and Britishness, associated with industry and empire.

 

In art, Englishness came in the form of beautiful, idealized landscape paintings that presented the rural idyll of England. English painters like Constable and Turner excelled at painting landscapes to such an extent that landscape painting itself as a genre became seen as the traditional English artform. Nostalgia was essential to the emotional appeal of these works, providing glimpse into the past, before industrialization, when almost everyone lived in the countryside. For the industrial working class, who may have only been one or two generations away from this idyllic and natural past, these works allowed them experience the wonders of nature again. And thus for those upended by the changes of industrialization and empire, these rural and natural landscape paintings became portable symbols of Englishness for those who have left home, from urbanites in London or Manchester to colonists scattered around the globe. 

 

“I was born to paint a happier land, my own dear England- and when I forsake that, or cease to love my country- may I as Wordsworth says ‘nevermore hear Her green leaves rustle or her torrents roar’”

- John Constable

The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838

JMW Turner. The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838.

The strikingly beautiful oil painting The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up, 1838, by J.M.W Turner perfectly encapsulates the identity crisis and national anxiety caused by England’s rapid industrialization and rise to world imperial power in the 19th century. It portrays in stark contrast the two competing identities of the local, rural past, and the industrial, global present. This painting depicts the Temeraire, the ship commanded by Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar to defeat Napoleon, being tugged into port to be decommissioned by a small, steam powered tugboat belching smoke and ash into the air. The Temeraire, once the finest ship of the Age of Sail, serves as a poignant symbol of the old England so often romanticized by artists, while the tugboat is the embodiment of industrial Britain.

The Temeraire looks like a ghost ship, a naval substitute for the English landscapes devastated by industrialization. The tugboat, adorned with a smoke stack, the most potent symbol of industry, leads the Temeraire to its demise. This a creates a powerful analogy for the identity crisis of industry vs nature, and England vs Britian. 

A Surrey Cornfield

George Vicat Cole, A Surrey Cornfield, 1864.

Harvest-Time

George Vicat Cole, Harvest-Time, 1860.

A Surrey Cornfield and Harvest-Time, both by George Vicat Cole, are prime examples of the rural idyll in art. These depictions of peasants reaping wheat by hand in a field rejects any hint of modernity, providing an idyllic snapshot of pre-industrial English life. Pastoral depictions like these sought to imbue the observer with a sense of Englishness; that this beautiful, agricultural scene is what England once looked like and should still.

 

George Vicat Cole’s representation of the the rural farm workers is highly idealized. The peasant farmer was especially important because they were seen by English romantics as the embodiment Anglo-Saxon virtues and thus a bulwark of Englishness. The peasant farmer, along with the shepherd, became the symbolic occupation of romantic Englishness and would be a common subject matter for 19th century English painters, and can be seen in numerous works across the century.  

“In painting, landscapes and sea views are the pieces in which the English have the fewest rivals in Europe. Some of their pictures almost surpass every idea that one can form to one's self of perfection in this style of painting,”

- Author and art critic Charles Nodier, 1820 

Our English Coasts, 1852, or Strayed Sheep

William Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts or Strayed Sheep, 1852.

Our English Coasts 1852, or Strayed Sheep by William Holman Hunt presents a pastoral vision of England. Hunt was a member of the Pre-Raephaelite Brotherhood, an art movement that encapsulated Ruskin's ideas of 'truth to nature', which saught to reimangine the English countryside in terms of real, observed color rather than the traditions of academic high art. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood made statements with both their artistic style and their chosen subject matter. Besides it idyllic imagery, its title also carries important connotations regarding Englishness. By entitling this work our English coasts, Hunt helps to make the imagined community of rural England more real. The scene presented, of a sunny emerald coast and a lazy herd of sheep belongs to the English. It is our England. The title invites observers to embrace nature, the rolling hills and lazy sheep as what makes our England, England. 

 

Landscape paintings, much like the Surrey Landscapes of George Vicat Cole, were often entitled  geographically, like A Surrey Cornfield, so when an urban laborer views the painting he can visualize what Surrey, or any other part of England actually looks like. A Manchester man could learn what Yorkshire or Cornwall looks and feels like through these paintings, and begin to fill in their imaginary map of England. Works like these actively engaged with the question of English identity, drawing connections between the land and the people of England. 

 

Written by Dean Messinger 

 

FOR FURTHER READING

Identity in Landscape & the Rural Idyll