And was Jerusalem builded here
among these dark Satanic mills?
William Blake, 1804
These lines from Blake’s poem refer to a period of great change in the Western world – the Industrial Revolution. At this time two of England’s greatest Romantic landscape painters were to emerge, each with a distinct viewpoint from which they addressed their work. In this essay I will expound the idea that these two landscape artists painted their worlds from respective utopian and dystopian views. The concept of utopia is a state where everything is for the best and all is in harmony. Contrarily, the concept of dystopia is a state where everything is as bad as it possibly could be. Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775- 1851) revealed a more inquisitive attitude toward industrialization, whereas John Constable (1776-1837) was far more nostalgic and wistful for an Englandof another time. Constable’s view of England during the Industrial Revolution was dystopic because he witnessed the environmental and social degradation that was overwhelming his beloved countryside and painted the other extreme. However Turner embraced the new technologies that afforded him the ability to move at will aroundEnglandandEuropeand painted a utopian world where these technologies were all working for the betterment of human society.
The Industrial Revolution began inGreat Britainand resulted from the development of technology to aid manufacturing. Before this time, manufacturing was mainly a rural occupation of cottage industries. However,Great Britainhad large resources of iron and coal, and after the invention of the steam engine by James Watt (1736-1819), these became the prime resource upon which industrialization depended. Moreover, many other raw materials came from Britain’s colonies and, as it was the leading colonial power, these colonies provided ready markets for manufactured goods. Industrialization meant that coal-powered machines replaced handwork, and factories became the best method of bringing together machines and the people to operate them. The significance of this was a great increase in the production of goods and also of the population. This larger population congregated around factories in the cities and towns, creating overcrowded and unsanitary conditions for many of the working class. Women and children were mainly employed by the factories, as they were the cheaper employees. This left many men unemployed that were previously employed as farm workers and with the country becoming more urbanised, civil unrest grew.
Turner was born at the beginning of this era in Covent Garden,Londonin 1775. His father was a wigmaker who found himself in financial hardship when wigs became unfashionable after the French Revolution. As his mother had also become mentally ill, the young Turner was sent to stay with his uncle in the country at Brentford. It was here that the landscape must have inspired him as he filled many sketchbooks with drawings of the surrounding countryside. Turner’s father was very proud of what his young son had produced and put some of Turner’s sketches in his shop window for sale. Even though Turner had had very little education, he was then accepted into theRoyalAcademySchoolon the quality of these drawings. From this young age he travelled throughoutEnglandandWalesproducing many drawings and watercolours. At twenty-four, he was elected an associate of theRoyalAcademy, and in 1802 became a full member. From an early age, Turner had many patrons, a number of these being major financiers and industrialists of the Industrial Revolution.
In his book Turner and the Industrial Revolution, William Rodner argues that more than any other aspect of industrialism, save the railroad, urban manufacturing captured the attention of Turner. The smoke-laden communities that he sketched on his travels around Britainin the 1790s were landscapes that ‘linked familiar custom with wrenching innovation’ (Rodner 1997). Turner’s sketchbooks contain many singular studies of grinding wheels, mill wheels, sluices and new bridges which attest to his interest in the new inventions of the age. The watercolour Llanstephen Castle by Moonlight, with a Kiln in the Foreground 1795-6 shows modern industry in the form of a lime kiln in the foreground, but is set against ancient heritage in the form of a ruined castle. This device represents a vision of Britain as ‘a place at once historic and modern’ (TateBritain). Another watercolour shows Leeds, a centre in the wool and flax industries, as a growing metropolis. The activities of cloth workers outside the mills are pictured. It is a representation of facts, atmospherically rendered, with the circular composition leading the eye to the smoking factories in the background. Turner does not concentrate on the distressing working conditions inside the factories; he seems to look at the industrialisation of Britain as a necessary part of its greatness.
During the first decades of the nineteenth century Turner concentrated on painting splendid neo-classical scenes, as well as magnificent landscape and marine paintings. These were readily accepted by both collectors and the general public. He adopted advanced printing technologies, notably steel- engraving, for an increasingly large and influential middle-class market (Rodner 1997). He also continued as teacher of perspective at the RoyalAcademyalthough his investigations into light also drew marvellous results. In the oil painting Keelmen Heaving Coals by Night (1835) Turner transcends the grim realities of the Industrial Revolution with gradations of light, creating a powerful, swirling vortex. Keelmen in their dark flat-bottomed keels haul coal from Northumberland andDurham down the River Tyne, transferring it into the sailing ships. Behind the ships Turner, with a few lines of paint, suggests a distant cluster of factories. It is aNorth Sea view that would have been a familiar sight to the British public; ‘sooty, modern industry chilled by the colours of a winter’s night’ (National Gallery of Art). The painting is described by the New York Times critic, James Atlas, as ‘a hallucinatory vision ofEngland on the threshold of a new age and the industrial inferno it portended, shimmers like a Monet (Atlas 1997). It is a grim industrial scene painted in a grand neo-classical manner.
As the Industrial Revolution was a time of technological and scientific innovation, we are told by the art historian Kenneth Clark that Turner was perfecting for his own private satisfaction an entirely new approach to painting. It consisted of transforming everything into pure colour and was a truly revolutionary procedure. As emotional and romantic as it may seem, Turner’s colour was not decorative and was always started as a record of an actual experience (Civilization 1968). His approach to colour was influenced by Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s (1749-1832) book, Theory of Colour, which was published in 1840. Goethe wrote; ‘The sun, when seen through a certain amount of haze, presents a yellowish disc… [it] announces itself to us via a red hue as it shines through a dense mass of mist’ (Goethe 1840). One can see this effect rendered in many of Turner’s works, especially his marine paintings and his views of London. This may have been due to the immense amount of smoke in the sky found over the ports and towns in England. In the oil painting Snowstorm- Steam-boat off a Harbour’s Mouth 1842, the brushstrokes travel around in the same direction influencing the observer’s gaze. A ‘whirling’ movement results as the viewer’s gaze passes through various areas of colour on the surface of the painting. Each colour contrasts and out of this contrast every colour emerges, which is the basis of Goethe’s theory.
Rodner observes that Turner examined a wide range of steam subjects with such commitment and insight as to deserve recognition as the premier artist of the Industrial Revolution. He had firsthand experience of his subjects as he travelled widely and often throughout Britainand northern Europeusing steamboats and trains. He enjoyed friendships with leading members of the scientific community, such as Charles Babbage (Rodner 1997). The Great Western Railway became the subject of the earliest railroad painting by a major artist. It dramatically exposed one of the principal aspects of industrial advancement after 1830 and, as writer Clarence Jones states, ‘Turner admired modernity.’ He even owned shares in the company! Rain, Steam, and Speed- The Great Western Railroad (1844) was a purely artistic painting. Here as the train speeds over the great engineer Brunel’s bridge at Maidenhead, Turner is glorifying the railways and the industrial age- ‘depicting the rush of progress carrying humans forward at an ever-increasing pace’ (Jones 1994).
As Turner embraced this new world, John Constable (1776-1837) rejected it by resolutely not including any of the new technologies in his mainly agrarian paintings. No speed or steam for him! His dystopian view of the effects of industrialization was to paint a solid, ‘merry oldEngland’ based on oak trees, country cottages and water wheels. In his biography on Constable, Clarence Jones tells that Constable was born in East Bergholt,Suffolk. He was the middle son of a large middle-class family and his father was a prosperous corn-merchant who had considerable property interests around the region.Suffolkand the mills that his father owned became important subjects in Constable’s paintings, so much so that the area became known as ‘Constable Country’. In 1799 he won his parent’s permission to study at theRoyalAcademySchoolinLondonand exhibited for the first time in 1802. He was now fully committed to art based on nature and landscape with ‘a serious, moral and intellectual purpose’ (Jones 1994).
Constable’s long engagement with Dedham Vale, or the StourValley, begins with the River Stour which runs through the Suffolkcountryside and is featured in the oil painting Dedham Vale 1802. The church in this painting is a landmark and a symbol of country life, of which it was the centre. Constable saw this valley as a microcosm of the whole world the way he would like it to remain, ‘ I should paint my own places best,’ he said. ‘I associate my careless boyhood to all that lies on the banks of theStour’ (Jones 1994). Robert Hughes writes in his review of Constable’s work that ‘[his] entire view of rural England presents Arcadia in a new guise (Hughes 1983). Hughes goes on to state that Dedham Vale and the River Stour looked markedly different to Constable’s contemporary, the writer and reformer William Cobbett. His view was that, ‘they were full of rick burners, machine breakers, hanging judges and brutal yeomanry’ (Hughes 1983). Constable wrote that his paintings were an attempt to give ‘one brief moment caught from fleeting time a lasting and sober existence’ (Craske 1997).
Between 1810 and 1816 Constable divided his time almost exclusively between Londonand East Bergholt. In 1815 he painted two rather small canvases, that he never exhibited, of his father’s and mother’s gardens at his family home, Golding Constable’s Kitchen Garden and Golding Constable’s Flower Garden. They are painted with extraordinary detail and give a ‘near-idyllic’ view of the English country life at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (Jones 1994). It is interesting to note that it was a retrospective view, as the estate was soon to be sold upon the death of his parents. Elizabeth Helsinger tells us in her essay on Constable that he was much influenced by his family’s possessions and the social status they provided. Therefore, rather than see his local environment in the context of larger social structures or the history of the time, Constable felt his environment as ‘an enclosed circle of security which his family had provided’. He wrote to his wife about his family home, ‘Here we are so much one,’ under ‘this dear roof’ ‘with all my family at our comfortable and happy fireside’ (Helsinger 1989).
Britain’s National Gallery Art Educator, Louise Govier, describes The Haywain 1821 as a beautifully tranquil painting. It depicts happy and contented agricultural workers going about their business. However the historical reality behind the painting is quite different. In fact, after the Napoleonic Wars many of the men who had previously been employed on the land came back to find that the machinery of the Industrial Revolution had replaced much of their work and, added to this, the agricultural blockades of the Wars had been lifted leaving agricultural areas such asSuffolk in the doldrums. There was much unrest and hardship that Constable would have been aware of, particularly as his family owned much of the property in the area (National Gallery of Britain). It must be asked why Constable decided to depict this scene in such an idealised way. Did his view of his home make him nostalgic for days from his boyhood? Or was he just trying to ignore the disturbing outlook and replace it with a dream? Robert Hughes states that Constable was full of uncertainty and fear of change, ‘ He did not so much idealize stability as worship it…Peace, security, the untroubled enjoyment of unproblematic Nature: such is the main motif of Constable’s work’ (Hughes 1983).
The Valley Farm 1835 shows a view of Willy Lott’s House at Flatford from the River Stour. The farmer lived continuously there for over eighty years and for Constable, the Tate catalogue tells, it came to represent an important part of the Suffolk landscape, a nostalgic symbol of the ‘natural’ way of life (Tate Britain). Helsinger suggests that it is an image of desire rather than faithful representation. There is a note of melancholy in both the distance and the stillness that Constable has achieved in the painting (Helsinger 1989). In the longing for ‘bygone days’, the farmhouse becomes an icon of Englishness and, it must be remembered, that this was one of the first of Constable’s works to become a successful print series. Constable’s dystopic view is reflected in the poem by the Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.
There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in Celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream
William Wordsworth, 1804
It is with these lines from Wordsworth that the fundamental difference between the attitudes of Turner and Constable become apparent. Turner was essentially a progressive. He was born in an urban environment in financially difficult circumstances and saw in the Industrial Revolution all the opportunities of a new age. Constable, however, was essentially nostalgic for an age that, in his imagination, had been lost. He was born in ruralSuffolkin very comfortable circumstances and saw in the Industrial Revolution an age of ugliness and want. Furthermore, Turner was a traveller who loved to constantly discover new subjects to paint, whereas Constable fixated on the one small area in which he had been born. These differences also seem to show in the circumstances of the buyers of their work. Turner’s clients were progressive thinking industrialists, aristocrats and financiers, while Constable’s, for the few he had, were mainly conservative members of the clergy and the military.
Finally, it is recognised that both artists had a remarkable effect on late nineteenth and early twentieth century art, with Constable having an influence on the Impressionists, and Turner an influence on the Modernists. Maybe this is, in essence, the result of their utopian and dystopian visions. The Impressionists saw dystopia in the slums ofParisand looked to the beauty of the everyday, while the Modernists looked to science and theory for their new Utopia. Therefore, Turner’s attitude towards the industrial age was a utopian portrayal of atmospheric progress and the new civilization that would rival Greece or Rome. While Constable’s work reveals a reaction to his dystopian view of industrialized England, painting pictures of pastoral scenes; places where time has not been allowed to move on. Both artists, in their Romantic attitude, ignored the realities of the Industrial Revolution.
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