Romanticism: Girtin, Turner & Constable
As young men, the friends J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Girtin were employed by Dr Thomas Monro, the physician who tended Cozens after he lost his sanity, to copy drawings by Cozens and other artists
One of Girtin's most spectacular conceptions is Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire - Evening, a watercolour of around 1801, based upon sketches of the ruined Cistercian abbey of Kirkstall, near Leeds. Its dramatic lighting, solemn palette and panoramic scale recall earlier Dutch landscapes, while the motif of a church tower at sunset had become a commonplace since the publication in 1751 of Gray's most celebrated work, the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard; which includes the lines:
'Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,...
'Save from yonder ivy-mantled tower,
The moping owl does to the moon complain'
The powerful impact of this composition is achieved by the contrast between the sombre palette and simple forms and the vivid streak of sunset light between the horizon and the clouds.
Through a much longer career, Turner sought to confirm the status of landscape as a serious art form, striking comparisons with old master paintings, and favouring themes with historical subjects or literary associations. His sources ranged from Ovid and the Bible to authors such as Milton, Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. Moving beyond the Picturesque repertory and Sublime subject-matter, which were well-established by the early 19th century, Turner explored the psychological, emotional and symbolic range of the landscape genre.
Turner's Hornby Castle, from Tatham Church is one of 20 watercolours commissioned as models for engravings illustrating Thomas Dunham Whitaker's An History of Richmondshire in the North Riding of the County of York, published in 1819-23. Turner enlivened the foreground with a vignette of gossiping villagers, milkmaids and a cat lapping up a puddle of spilt milk. In 1886 the art critic John Ruskin thought this watercolour 'the most delicate and precious drawing [the V&A] contains'.
While Turner travelled extensively, and essayed a wide range of subjects, his contemporary John Constable focused almost obsessively on his native Suffolk, and a handful of other locations in London and southern England which he knew intimately.
The composition of Constable's Dedham Vale, painted in September 1802, is based upon that of Hagar and the Angel, by Claude Lorrain, who Constable esteemed as 'the most perfect landscape painter the world ever saw'. In 1823, he wrote equivocally, of Italy:
'Oh dear. O dear. I shall never let my longing eyes see that famous country…Am I doomed never to see the living scenes - which inspired the landscape of Wilson & Claude Lorraine? No! but 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
"never more, hear
Her green leaves russel
Or her torrents roar".1
Constable admired the poetry of Wordsworth, whom he met several times. Towards the end of his life, the painter copied out one of the poet’s most famous verses:
'My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.'
sensations evoked by the wonders of nature.
Even as Girtin, Turner and Constable celebrated the British landscape, large tracts of it were rapidly disappearing beneath spreading cities and factories.
While nostalgia for the rural fruitfulness and pastoral simplicity of a world untouched by the Industrial Revolution became an enduring theme in British painting, other artists sought to explore ever more distant regions.
1 J. Constable (ed. R.B. Beckett), John Constable’s Correspondence, vol. 6, Ipswich 1968, p.117.