The Romantic Tradition in British Painting 1800-1950
Blake and Reynolds
In his paintings, prints and poems William Blake strove to visualise the visionary imagery of the Bible, and the epic poetry of Thomas Gray, Milton, Bunyan and Dante. He expressed the essence of his creed in characteristically uncompromising terms as the 'Principal 1st' of his early tract All Religions are One (1788): 'the Poetic Genius is the true Man'. 1 Blake’s watercolour of Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels illustrates a scene from Milton's Paradise Lost (1667). Its figures are typical of his repertory of expressive poses stemming from Michelangelo and the Antique. While Blake's political radicalism, religious nonconformity and highly personal aesthetics limited his immediate influence, he was applauded by later generations as a heroic pioneer.
The annotations made by Blake in his copy of the Discourses on Art by Sir Joshua Reynolds epitomise the conflict between Romanticism and Classicism in Britain at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.2 Despite the passion of Blake's celebrated tirade against 'the Opression of Sr Joshua & his Gang of Cunning Hired Knaves', the visionary poet, painter and printmaker actually shared substantial common ground with the urbane and influential Reynolds, the past master of the Grand Manner. Consequently, the expletives which Blake liberally sprinkled over his copy of the second (1798) edition of the Discourses range from 'Villainy!', 'A Lie!' and 'Nonsense!' to 'True!', 'Excellent!' and 'Well Said!'.
The contradictions in Reynolds's Discourses which so irritated Blake arose from their author's attempt to reconcile increasingly subjective and individualistic thinking with the rational and ideal traditions of European art criticism. Blake tended to skip over their points of agreement with a perfunctory word of assent, while locking horns with what he interpreted as 'Reynolds's Opinion…that Genius May be Taught & that all Pretence to Inspiration is a Lie & a Deceit'. He scornfully concluded 'The Enquiry in England is not whether a Man has Talents & Genius, But whether he is Passive & Polite & a Virtuous Ass & obedient to Noblemen's Opinions in Art & Science. If he is, he is a Good Man. If Not, he must be Starved'.
As an instance of mistreated genius Blake cited James Barry, who concentrated on history painting with a ferocious intensity which alienated him from society and his professional colleagues. Following Barry's death in poverty, Blake planned a poem in his memory, and bitterly recalled how he had 'Lived on Bread & Apples' and remained 'Poor & Unemploy'd except by his own energy', although he 'Painted a Picture for [Edmund] Burke, equal to Rafael or Mich. Ang. or any of the Italians'.3 Blake's elevation of faith and inspiration above reason and knowledge embody an outlook which was quintessentially romantic.
1 Quoted in D. Bindman, The Complete Graphic Works of William Blake, London 1978, pl.33, p.468.
2 J. Reynolds, Discourses on Art (ed. R.R. Wark), New Haven & London 1988, pp.xxvi-xxxi, 284-319.
3 Ibid., pp.284-5, 290.
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 beholdIt seems peculiarly apt that the elderly Constable, whose oil sketches of the sky have such remarkable immediacy, was so moved by this poem linking the innocent profundity of childhood experience with the 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.
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.'
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.
During the 1920s young British artists began to re-discover the work of their Romantic predecessors. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Britain's national existence was seriously threatened, opportunities for foreign travel were severely curtailed, and the government sought to encourage a patriotic sense of identification and engagement with the landscape and its monuments.
In 1940 a scheme was launched 'to make drawings, paintings and prints at the war fronts…and on the land, and of the changed life of the towns and villages, thus making a permanent record of life during the war which would be a memorial to the national effort'. 1
John Piper's Tithe Barn, Great Coxwell, Berkshire is a characteristic product of this elegiac and backward-looking figurative genre, dubbed 'Neo-Romanticism' in 1942 by the painter and curator Robin Ironside. He observed:
Among the artists to be considered here under the vague heading of "neo-romanticism", John Piper is, by temperament, most in tune with the national heritage... a romantic vision which, though still profiting from the lessons of abstraction, was distinctly descended from the English water-colourists of the late 18th and early19th centuries''
It is a vision that has revived the possibilities of the "picturesque" in the painting of landscape and architecture, possibilities which embrace the most dramatic of nature's effects and which Piper has developed with an unruffled skill and a vivid theatrical sentiment' 2
This insular movement faltered in the face of Abstract Expressionism and the pop culture of the 1950s and 1960s, and was revisited as Kitsch by the pop artist Peter Blake and his short lived Brotherhood of Ruralists in 1976. The subsequent resurgence of figurative painting, and a general reassessment of man's relationship with his natural environment, encouraged a revival of interest in Romanticism.
Despite their impeccably post-modernist credentials, the haunting sculptures of Rachel Whiteread evoke a romantic sense of yearning for a lost or unrealised past. Her sculpture House (1993) was a concrete cast of the interior of a Victorian terraced house - the most characteristic type of British residential property, and a receptacle of memory for their millions of inhabitants - which were demolished in untold thousands during post-war urban renewal. The interaction between a tremulous present and an inexorable past is similarly characteristic of the novels of Peter Ackroyd, whose dark mystery tale Hawksmoor (1985) includes the following:
'From the south wall of the church he could see an area which, although perhaps designed as a cemetery by the architect, was now merely a patch of ground with some trees, faded grass and, beside them, the pyramid. From the east wall there was nothing to be seen except a gravel path which led to the entrance of an old tunnel…although the grey stones of its entry suggested that it had been built at an early date…it had been used as an air-raid "shelter" during the last war and since that time had like the church itself decayed. Stories had accumulated around this "house underground", as the local children called it: it was said that the tunnel led to a maze of passages which burrowed miles into the earth, and the children told each other stories about the ghosts and corpses which were still to be found somewhere within it. But Thomas, although he believed such things, always felt himself to be safe when he was crouched against the stone of the church itself' 3
At the start of the new millennium, the history of 20th century art in Britain looks less like the triumphal progress of international modernism than the periodic reassertion of an insular, painterly figuration, distrustful of theoretical systems, and deeply attached to the art of the past. Although it has assumed many guises since the 18th century, the romantic spirit continues to haunt British art.
Footnotes1 T.E. Fennemore in 1939; quoted in D. Mellor, G. Saunders and P. Wright, Recording Britain, London 1990, p.7.
2 Quoted in P. Cannon-Brookes, The British Neo-Romantics, exhibition catalogue, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff 1983, pp.17-18.
3 P. Ackroyd, Hawksmoor, 1985, p.29.
Romance, sublime, picturesque
Romanticism is a much used and abused term which has persistently eluded concise definition since it was coined in the mid 17th century, but its origins lie in the rebirth of interest in medieval literary romances. In 1764 the novelist Tobias Smollett provided a rather school-masterly definition of Romance:
'It was spoke all over Italy, Spain, and the southern parts of France until the 13th century... As the first legends of knight-errantry were written in Provençal, all subsequent performances of the same kind, have derived from it the name of romance; and as those annals of chivalry contained extravagant adventures of knights, giants, and necromancers, every improbable story or fiction is to this day called a romance.' 1
In his Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, published in 1705, Joseph Addison described the 'solitary Rocks and Mountains' of Provence where the hermit saint Mary Magdalene 'wept away the rest of her Life' as 'so Romantic a Scene'. 2 In 1712, in The Spectator, Addison defined his aesthetic response to the sublime in nature, in terms which had an enormous influence upon subsequent poets and painters:
'By Greatness, I do not only mean the Bulk of any single Object, but the Largeness of a whole View, considered as one intire Piece. Such are the Prospects of an open Champian Country, a vast uncultivated Desart, of huge Heaps of Mountains, high Rocks and Precipices, or a wide Expanse of Waters, where we are not struck with the Novelty or Beauty of the Sight, but with that rude kind of Magnificence which appears in many of these stupendous Works of Nature. Our Imagination loves to be filled with an Object, or to grasp at any thing that is too big for its Capacity. We are flung into a pleasing Astonishment at such unbounded Views, and feel a delightful Stillness and Amazement in the Soul at the Apprehension of them'.3
Addison's vision of landscape was conditioned by his experience of 17th-century landscape paintings, above all by the canonical trio of Italian masters Claude Lorrain, Salvator Rosa and Gaspard Dughet, then known as Poussin. Their works were enthusiastically acquired by British collectors, and in 1753 Dr John Brown characterised the beauty of Keswick in the English Lake District in terms of their respective styles:
'The full perfection of Keswick consists of three circumstances, Beauty, Horror and Immensity united…But to give you a complete idea of these three perfections, as they are joined in Keswick, would require the united powers of Claude, Salvator, and Poussin. The first should throw his delicate sunshine over the cultivated vales. The second should dash out the horror of the rugged cliffs, the steeps, the hanging woods, and foaming waterfalls; while the grand pencil of Poussin should crown the whole with the majesty of the impending mountains'.4
This 'Picturesque' concept of landscape had a pervasive influence upon landscape painting and garden design in England, which endured well into the 19th century. In 1756 it was supplemented by the concept of the 'Sublime' propagated by the statesman and writer Edmund Burke. His Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful argued that both beauty and the awe-inspiring experience of the Sublime were perceived emotionally. Burke conditioned the thinking of a wide range of artists, including Reynolds, but his theory that both beauty and the Sublime were generated by subjective rather than objective criteria became a central tenet of Romanticism.
After visiting the Grande Chartreuse in the mountains of Savoy in 1739, in company with Horace Walpole, Thomas Gray enthused: 'a monstrous precipice, almost perpendicular, at the bottom of which rolls a torrent…concurs to form one of the most solemn, the most romantic, and the most astonishing scenes I ever beheld’, and continued:
'I do not remember to have gone ten paces without an exclamation, that there was no restraining: Not a precipice, not a torrent, not a cliff, but is pregnant with religion and poetry'.5
Gray was so moved by this sight that he wrote an ode, in Latin, in its honour.
Although painted nearly 50 years later, The Falls of the Rhine at Schaffhausen, by the expatriate Alsatian painter Philip Jacques De Loutherbourg, similarly emphasises the overwhelming force of untameable nature.
In 1754-7 Gray composed The Bard, an ode based on a legend that Edward I had executed the Welsh bards when he subjugated Wales during the 13th century. In its location of a blood-soaked medieval legend in a wild and spectacular mountain landscape, The Bard is a doubly romantic conception. Initially greeted with a mixture of praise and consternation, it proved highly influential. Gray’s close friend Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, channelled his own antiquarian and architectural interests into an analogous project: the creation of the neo-Gothic villa Strawberry Hill in the countryside outside London. A significant and wide-ranging collector of art and antiquities, Walpole was also the author of the first 'Gothic novel', The Castle of Otranto (1765). He noted ironically how the persistent fashion for Italian scenery encouraged many British poets and painters to ignore their native landscape:
'As our poets warm their imaginations with sunny hills, or sigh after grottos and cooling breezes, our painters draw rocks and precipices and castellated mountains, because Virgil gasped for breath at Naples, and Salvator [Rosa] wandered amidst Alps and Apennines. Our ever-verdant lawns, rich vales, fields of hay-cocks, and hop-grounds, are neglected as homely and familiar objects'.6
The collector William Beckford expressed strong reactions to the landscape and weather of Italy, and commissioned John Robert Cozens to paint watercolours of Italian scenery. His painting, Peasant's Hut between Naples and Portici, includes the dejected figure of a shepherd, which adds a human element and invites the viewer to engage emotionally with the subject. This characteristically solemn interpretation of Italian scenery hints at the melancholia which eventually overwhelmed the artist, and moved Constable to observe 'Cozens was all poetry'.
In 1793 Republican France declared war on Britain, and with only brief intervals, the two countries remained in conflict until the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. For a generation it was almost impossible for the British to visit mainland Europe. The tradition of the Grand Tour was broken, and painters and poets sought inspiration in their native landscape. Unable to travel abroad and made patriotic by a long war against a powerful foe, patrons became increasingly aware of the unique beauties of the British countryside. These circumstances encouraged the growth of a more truly national school of painting.
1 T. Smollett, Travels through France and Italy, Oxford 1907, p.180.
2 J. Addison, Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, &c, London, 1705, p.2.
3 Idem., in The Spectator, June 1712, no. 412, pp.95-6.
4 Quoted in P. Bicknell, Beauty, Horror and Immensity: Picturesque Landscape in Britain, 1750-1850, exhibition catalogue, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 1981, pp.x, 1-2.
5 Ibid., p.xi and T. Gray and W. Mason, The Works of Gray, to which are added memoirs of his life and writings, London 1807, vol.1, pp.202, 212.
6 From Walpole’s Anecdotes of Painting in England (1762-5); quoted in J. Barrell, The dark side of the landscape, Cambridge 1980, p.7.
The concept of 'Truth to Nature' espoused by the greatest Victorian writer on art, John Ruskin, was founded upon a romantic perception of the natural world and veneration for the truthfulness of Turner and Wordsworth. Like the Pre-Raphaelite artists whom he championed, Ruskin believed that academic painting had sacrificed its freshness of vision and sense of moral purpose, in the pursuit of an essentially sterile formal agenda.
The Pre-Raphaelites favoured literary subjects from the Bible, medieval romances, Shakespeare, and modern romantic poetry. One of the Brotherhood’s leading lights, Dante Gabriele Rossetti was himself both a poet and a painter. His protegé Edward Burne-Jones accompanied Ruskin to Italy in 1862, where he discovered the linear grace of early Renaissance art.
Begun in 1870 and completed in 1882, Burne-Jones's painting The Mill depicts the three Graces dancing to the music of Apollo. The models were friends and relatives of Constantine Ionides, who commissioned the painting. His cousin Mary Zambaco, who posed for the woman on the far left, was Burne-Jones's lover.
The Mill displays what Ruskin termed 'the subtlest mythologies of Greek worship and Christian Romance', as well as acquaintance with Giorgione's poetic scenes and Botticelli's Primavera. 1 In 1891 Burne-Jones met the young Aubrey Beardsley, and encouraged him to pursue an artistic career.
Beardsley's illustration How King Arthur Saw the Questing Beast was commissioned by the publisher J.M. Dent for Thomas Malory's Mort d'Arthur, a late medieval story of magic, romance and sparring dynasties. Its decorative detail and flat surface effect were inspired by Japanese prints. Burne-Jones was appalled by Beardsley's drawings, which appeared virtually to parody the Pre-Raphaelite style.
The Aesthetic creed of 'art for art's sake' made both the style and subject-matter of Victorian romanticism appear increasingly old-fashioned. A dwindling band of adherents lingered until after the First World War.
The distaste of a younger generation is apparent from the novel A Buyer's Market by Anthony Powell. Set in 1928-9, this presents a fictitious Edwardian painter named Edgar Deacon as a shabby and outmoded survivor from a past era:
'Pre-Raphaelite in influence without being precisely Pre-Raphaelite in spirit…he disliked the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists almost equally; and was, naturally, even more opposed to later trends like Cubism, or the works of the Surrealists…his painting, in its own direction, represented the farthest extremity of Mr Deacon's romanticism, and I suppose it could be argued that upon such debris of classical imagery the foundations of at least certain specific elements of 20th-century art came to be built. At the same time lack of almost all imaginative quality in Mr. Deacon's painting resulted, finally, in a product that suggested not "romance" - far less "classicism" as some immensely humdrum pattern of everyday life'.2
1 R. Hewison, I. Warrell and S. Wildman, Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 2000, p.237.
2. A. Powell, A Buyer's Market, London 1952, pp. 2, 4-5, 9.
An early example was Vathek. An Arabian Tale (1786) by William Beckford, the extravagant patron of J.R. Cozens, who built the colossal neo-Gothic mansion Fonthill Abbey.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge also entertained fantasies of the luxurious east. His early masterpiece Kubla Khan or, A Vision In a Dream: A Fragment, was reputedly composed after an opium dream in 1797-8:
'In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea...
A savage place! As holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!...'
Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign (1798-1801) led to the foundation of the new discipline of Egyptology, and transformed European knowledge of the middle east. A flood of Egyptian antiquities entered Europe, and it was after contemplating a monumental head of the pharaoh Ramses II that the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the sonnet Ozymandias, published in 1818:
'I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read…
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Shelley's friend Lord Byron toured the Levant before settling in Italy, where he encouraged dissent against Austrian rule.
Turner's richly coloured paintings of Venice are comparable with Byron's highly coloured vision of the city from the fourth canto of his autobiographical poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818)-
'I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying Glory smiles
O'er the far times, when many a subject land
Look'd to the winged Lion's marble piles,
Where Venice sat in state, thron’d on her hundred isles!'
The force and vitality of his poetry, his libertine behaviour and libertarian ideals, flamboyant taste in dress, and early death in the cause of Greek independence made Byron appear the epitome of a 'Romantic' to his admirers.
Abridged from the catalogue of the V&A touring exhibition The Romantic Tradition in British Painting 1800-1950 (2002-2003). All the works illustrated are from the collections of the V&A, and many are on display in its Paintings galleries.