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Eyes on the horizon

25 January 2013

JUST when was it that someone first opened the curtains - or stood on the top of a hill - and declared "What a wonderful view!"?

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?

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