What's a landscape worth?
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 the Congo, where he taught English in a hospital. During his free time, he would sometimes go for walks in the beautiful surrounds. 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 surrounds? It was only beautiful if it could be turned into food. ‘Beauty’ was for the westerner, for those with electricity, with fridges, those who could plan for food beyond tomorrow. So are landscapes bourgeois?
Until mid-February, London’s Royal Academy of Arts is hosting an exhibition called ‘Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of a Landscape.’ It celebrates the evolution in England of the landscape as something worth noting. 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 re-imagining scenes from Greek tragedies but the story itself. Unlike painters before them, they were offering no sermon with their scenery; the scenery was the sermon.
Constable called nature ‘another word for moral feeling’ and drew on the Suffolk countryside of his childhood for inspiration. ‘I fancy I see Gainsborough in every hedge and hollow there,’ he said. Gainsborough, however, was very particular about his hedges and hollows. Despite hours spent in the lanes and woods around Sudbury, he didn’t like to paint what he called ‘real life’ believing that the finest works arose from his brain. 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 famously said.
And it wasn’t 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 which Beaumont and Turner both abhorred. Beaumont believed a painting should be ‘the colour of a Cremona fiddle.’ Constable responded by laying a violin on Beaumont’s very green lawn. The two colours differed and the message was clear: portraying the English countryside without use of the colour green was going to be tricky.
Our relationship to landscape is our relationship to wonder. When we’re struggling to survive, it can be the first thing to go: a meal is more important than a sunset. But neither is wonder the inevitable gift of the rich. There are those in the west so seduced by the busy they’ll see an e mail or tweet before they see the horizon. It’s not making money – or connecting them on social media - so why would they?