JUST when was it that someone first opened the curtains - or
stood on the top of a hill - and declared "What a wonderful
A relative of mine has recently returned from Congo, where he
taught English in a hospital. During his free time, he would
sometimes go for walks in the beautiful surroundings. His Congolese
colleagues found this strange behaviour. For a start, they spent
all their lives walking; so why make it a leisure activity? And
what was beautiful about the surroundings? It was only beautiful if
it could be turned into food. "Beauty" was for the Westerner - for
those with electricity, and fridges, who could plan for food beyond
tomorrow. So, are landscapes bourgeois?
Until mid-February, the Royal Academy of Arts is hosting an
exhibition, "Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of
Landscape." It celebrates the landscape. Utilising printmaking for
maximum income and exposure, these three painters were choosing to
engage with scenery for its own sake. For them, the landscape was
not merely a backdrop for reimagining scenes from Greek tragedies,
but the story itself. They were offering no sermon with their
scenery; the scenery was the sermon.
Constable drew on the Suffolk countryside of his childhood for
inspiration. "I fancy I see Gainsborough in every hedge and hollow
tree," he said. Gainsborough, however, was very particular about
his hedges and hollow trees. Despite hours spent in the lanes and
woods around Sudbury, he did not like to paint what he called "real
life". Landscapes were best imagined.
Meanwhile, Turner's commitment to landscape was really a
commitment to light. Light was his tool for creating drama. "The
sun is God," he reputedly said. And it was not just Gainsborough
who imagined things. Constable, struggling for patronage, found a
supporter in Sir George Beaumont, a man outspoken in his ridicule
of Turner's innovatory techniques. But Constable still had to teach
him that the English rural scene is predominantly green - a colour
that Beaumont and Turner both abhorred.
Beaumont believed that a painting should be "the colour of a
Cremona fiddle". Constable responded by laying a violin on
Beaumont's green lawn. The two colours differed, and the message
was clear: portraying the English countryside without using the
colour green was going to be tricky.
Our relationship to landscape is our relationship to wonder.
When we are struggling to survive, it can be the first thing to go:
a meal is more important than a sunset. But wonder is not the
inevitable gift of the rich. There are those in the West so seduced
by being busy that they will see an email, or tweet, before they
see the horizon. It is not making money, or connecting them on
social media; so why would they look?