The British Passion for Landscape
Currently on view in Pastures Green and Dark Satanic Mills: The British Passion for Landscape are scenes of the agricultural, pastoral, and wild regions of the British Isles together with views of the industrial and mining operations that launched the Industrial Revolution and then made Britain its dominant power. There are also scenes of another sort—cityscapes that record the appearance of urban areas where the British population was increasingly concentrated, especially London, the archetypical modern metropolis. These works record places where daily life took place, focusing on the settings rather than the people going about their business. The cityscape was a latecomer in the canon of artistic genres, arising during the eighteenth century in Venice. There, beginning in the 1730s, Antonio Canaletto invented the genre vedute (views) of this unusual city. These canvases were souvenirs especially prized by British aristocrats on the Grand Tour; Canaletto also traveled north, painting views of London and some surrounding areas. It is interesting to note that many of the later cityscapes of London have also been by foreign artists, although some British masters contributed in important ways to the genre.
In the eighteenth century, British, French, and German masters traveled to Italy to paint for the tourist market, concentrating on the ruins in Rome and sites made famous by classical literature. The Welsh artist Thomas Jones, a student of Richard Wilson’s (who had gone to Rome before Jones and continued to turn out Italian views even after his return to Wales), was in Rome by 1776. There Jones depicted the Colosseum and other usual subjects, and in 1780 he moved south to paint the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius. In April 1782, before vacating his first rooms in Naples, in a building with a roof terrace, he painted two remarkable sketches, one of which is Buildings in Naples. Not only did he record the geometry of the buildings, but he also seized accidents of age and wear on the facades and the temporary play of light, so that we are there with him on that April day. He produced a few other similar oil sketches on paper before returning to Britain in 1783, but they were only rediscovered in 1954. The painter and art historian Lawrence Gowing wrote that they “are gentle and precise and they illustrate nothing. They simply are. That is precisely what is so forward-looking.” One might think of Stendhal writing presciently that it would take fifty years before his Vie de Henri Brulard (anticipating Sigmund Freud’s theories) would be understood—for Jones it took 172 years before his time-bomb cache of sketches made its impact.
During the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) many French citizens sought refuge in London, including Claude Monet, who wanted to avoid the draft. The capital of the British Empire was by then the largest city in the world. Monet painted the Pool of London, the stretch of the River Thames that was the center for mercantile trade. The Pool was located below London Bridge, which limited further progress upriver by oceangoing vessels. On the north bank are the stately Custom House, where duty was collected and goods were confiscated; Billingsgate Fish Market, the biggest in the world; St. Magnus the Martyr Church, by Sir Christopher Wren; and Cannon Street Station, a railroad hub for southeast England. A few ships lie at anchor; coal barges ply the river. Most congenial to Monet was the smoky atmosphere caused by burning coal, millions of tons of which were consumed in Britain every year. Monet preferred the upstream view, rather than the forests of picturesque masts and rigging that guidebooks extolled in the downstream view. The Pool was a sight no city could match, and the Custom House was a modern counterpart to Venice’s Dogana and the official office regulating unprecedented amounts of international trade.
The Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka made his earliest visits to Britain in 1925 and 1926. This peripatetic artist, who had already painted cityscapes in Dresden, Prague, the South of France, Amsterdam, and elsewhere, turned naturally to a series of London views. London, Waterloo Bridge treats the city as whole, bisected by the Thames, taking a bird’s-eye perspective and suggesting the pulsing, surging life coursing through the streets and up and down the river. A bright palette and interior light illuminate the riverfront buildings visible from Kokoschka’s hotel at the curve of the river—the location considered to give the most magnificent panorama over the Thames in the direction downstream. The old Waterloo Bridge in the foreground would soon be replaced by the one we now know. “All of my London views have become historical documents,” Kokoschka remarked of his cityscapes a few years before his death in 1980. The mutability and vitality of London must have been part of its appeal, as was its cosmopolitanism. Kokoschka spent the World War II years in England, where he had friends and familiarity with the land, and it was a haven for the artist whose works had been deemed degenerate, withdrawn from German and Austrian museums, and sold in Switzerland by the Nazi regime.
Frank Auerbach came to Britain as a child, in the Kindertransport from Nazi Germany. As a member of the “School of London,” with his friends Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and Leon Kossoff, he has dedicated his career to exploring painting as a contemporary medium. His art has been centered in the London neighborhood north of St. Pancras and King’s Cross stations, a diverse area even for what Auerbach called “this higgledy-piggledy mess of a city.” Park Village East, near the zoo in Regent’s Park, is one of the more elegant streets. Auerbach made many drawings in front of the motif, using felt-tip pen, pencil, and crayon on paper, and then painted the large canvas in his nearby studio. In describing his process he said, “Everything feeds into painting if you are receptive. Nothing is planned and nothing needs to be justified.” His emphasis on the sensation helped him capture not only forms but also seasons and weather. This living painter, deeply rooted in his environment and devoted to rendering its daily reality, brings us into the present and the current manifestation of British empiricism in art.
Betsy J. Rosasco
Research Curator of European Painting and Sculpture
Pastures Green and Dark Satanic Mills: The British Passion for Landscape is organized by the American Federation of Arts and Amgueddfa Cymru–National Museum Wales. The exhibition tour and catalogue are generously supported by the JFM Foundation, Mrs. Donald M. Cox, and the Marc Fitch Fund. In-kind support is provided by Barbara and Richard S. Lane and Christie’s. The exhibition at Princeton has been made possible by support from the Frances E. and Elias Wolf, Class of 1920, Fund; the National Endowment for the Arts; Christopher E. Olofson, Class of 1992; and Susan and John Diekman, Class of 1965. Additional support has been made possible by the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; the Judith and Anthony B. Evnin, Class of 1962, Exhibitions Fund; the Rita Allen Foundation; the New Jersey State Council on the Arts; Katherine P. Holden M.D., Class of 1973, and Joshua Jaffe M.D.; and the Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum.