Friday, January 26, 2007

The Lake of Albano and Castel Gandolfo

When art historians read changes in style as reflecting broader political changes it is often possible to argue from both ‘sides’. For example, Ann Bermingham in her essay ‘English Landscape Drawing around 1795’ argues that the impact of the French Revolution was seen in a rejection of earlier forms of landscape composition, based on the idealised classical landscapes painted in seventeenth century Italy, in favour of more naturalistic drawings where the forms of nature took on a more individual character. From a liberal perspective, this would be consistent with an appreciation of the real qualities of the English countryside, rather than the kinds of views sought on the Grand Tour. However, from a conservative point of view, the change in landscape painting could equally be seen as a rejection of the systematic abstractions of theory and the open intellectual spaces of the prospect view, in favour of local scenes demonstrating the timeless qualities of the native landscape.

These political differences reflect contemporary changes in picturesque theory. The conservative position was essentially that taken by Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight in their criticisms of the gardens of Capability Brown and the picturesque theories of William Gilpin. Both Brown and Gilpin had imposed the harmonious compositions of painters like Claude onto the real landscape. Thomas Hearn provided the illustrative etchings of Brownian and Picturesque gardens for Knight’s didactic poem The Landscape (1805). Ann Bermingham sees the new style embodied in Hearn’s art. She contrasts Hearn’s detailed view of Oak Trees (c1786) with a slightly earlier view of The Lake of Albano and Castel Gandolfo (c 1779) by John Robert Cozens. So Cozens’ older painting could be either a comforting conservative souvenir of an idealised Italy or a liberal artistic expression of the eighteenth century’s expanding horizons. Take your pick.

4 comments:

snarlerson said...

I look back to my time in Herefordshire, where my children were born, as a golden era. So your mention of Payne Knight and Uvedale Price brought memories flooding back. I went to both Downton and Foxley (the homes of Knight and Price respectively) during my work activities. The owner of Downton Castle wanted to discuss the possibility of obtaining a grant for its restoration. The house was very impressive and I recall going down to the Gorge where I had some feel of what the landscape must have looked like. But whether it is in a better or worse state now, I have no idea. I recollect that the owner was still in shock from having found a family from Birmingham having a picnic on his front lawn.

Foxley was less promising. The ex-Guardsman Major, who owned it, was a member of the Committee I worked for. I met him there and he explained that the house had gone. I seem to remember that it had been trashed by soldiers billeted there in the War. (Possibly by Canadians or do they always get the blame for destroyed houses?). When it was returned to the family, it was demolished. There were no signs of the gardens. The Major was a keen forester and so mature and growing conifers were much in evidence. However, the shape and feel of the valley on which the estate and its gardens centred was apparent.

It is strange that such an obscure county should produce two seminal figures in the history of landscape planning, arguably England’s greatest contribution to the arts. But I cannot believe that it was Herefordshire’s peripheral location which led to their conservatism.

Plinius said...

Very interesting, Snarlerson. Was Richard Payne Knight living at Downton when he wrote his scandalous treatise for the Dilletanti Society, An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus?

snarlerson said...

I believe that Payne Knight was at Downton by the time he wrote the piece you cite. The greater part of the castle was erected for him in the period 1772-8 (TWNFC, xliii (1979), p.75)

snarlerson said...

You might like to read
Charles Watkins and Ben Cowell (eds.), 'The Letters of Uvedale Price', volume 68, The Walpole Society (2006)