Friday, July 16, 2010

The tame delineation of a given spot

Henry Fuseli, who became professor of painting at the Royal Academy in 1799, famously warned his pupils off 'that kind of landscape which is entirely occupied with the tame delineation of a given spot.'  Such views 'may delight the owner of the acres they enclose, the inhabitants of the spot, perhaps the antiquary or the traveller, but to every other eye they are little more than topography.  The landscape of Titian, of Mola, of Salvator, of the Poussins, Claude, Rubens, Elzheimer, Rembrandt and Wilson, spurns all relation with this kind of map-work.'  In the wake of artists like Constable this distinction should have seemed outmoded but, as John Barrell points out in an article inspired by the recent Paul Sandby exhibition, 'Topography v. Landscape', the contrast between mere topography and true landscape art became more important as the nineteenth century progressed.

A View of Vintners at Boxley Kent, 
with Mr Whatman's Turkey Paper Mills (detail), Paul Sandby, 1794
Source: Austenonly

Barrell points in his article to the influence of a series of essays by William Pyne, 'The Rise and Progress of Watercolour Painting in England' (1823-4), which traced the shift from 'tinted drawing' (of which Sandby was the chief exponent) to the modern school of watercolour painting.  For Pyne, topographical images were views of ancient sites that would appeal to the antiquarian, as opposed to landscapes - rural scenes where specific buildings were secondary.  Clearly modern artists like Girtin and Turner painted both kinds of view, but later writers tended to associate their approach with the word 'landscape', whilst 'topography' became synonymous with the earlier, less sophisticated style.  In the nineteenth century the British Museum's collection of landscapes was split between those deemed art - filed in the Prints and Drawings collection - and a large group labeled 'topography' which was kept with maps in the library.

What did Paul Sandby's contemporaries understand by the word 'topographical' in relation to art?  John Barrell has been searching the online 18th century databases, checking the years between 1751 and 1800.  'I have had, in three separate searches over a fortnight, a total of between 2000 and 3000 hits for 'topographical'.  Sad I know, but that's what life is like for the semi-retired.'  Sad?  It sounds delightful fun, although I'm surprised there aren't students queuing up to help him.  Anyway, after stripping out repetitions, Barrell  reports that his pile of references was reduced down to 33: 'most of the time the adjective was used more or less as Pyne used it, in connection with images of old buildings of antiquarian interest.'  This suggests a much narrower sense of the word than we would expect given the range of scenes depicted by Paul Sandby and other 'topographical' artists.  As Barrell points out and the exhibition made clear, Sandby's landscape paintings are 'topographical' in the broader sense that we find in topographical writing - capable of conveying different aspects of a site's history, economy, architecture and natural features.  As such they may delight the cultural geographer (as Fuseli might now put it) but should also impress any interested contemporary viewer with what Stephen Daniels describes as 'the scope and intensity of 18th-century topographical art'.

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