A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Masters of the British poetic landscape.....

My comment today relates to the BBC Series, 'A Picture of Britain', and to Tate Britain's forthcoming exhibition, likewise entitled 'A Picture of Britain' (June 15 - September 4), by exploring an often-neglected corner of the art world, namely master prints by famous British artists of 'the rural idyll'. Such prints - as do this promising exhibition and its concomitant BBC programmes - provide us with important insights into how we continue to perceive 'rurality' in Britain. They also help us to understand certain elements of '(non)-modern' 'environmentalism'......

A MASTER PRINT is quite different from a decorative or sporting print. Master prints are works of art deliberately cast in the medium of a print, whether an engraving, etching, woodcut or lithograph, by a major artist. These are not copies or cartoons, but are works of art integral to the canon of works by the important artist concerned. If you have ever had an opportunity to view the etching, engraving and drypoint by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669) entitled 'The Three Trees', you will know exactly what I mean by 'a master print'. This extraordinary work is probably the most famous printed depiction of landscape and weather in the whole story of art. The plate from which the print was taken was worked by Rembrandt with a stunning set of techniques that portray the atmospherics of climate, long slashing drypoint lines encapsulating to perfection the force of driving rain, while, in the background, clouds rise and lour over a low plain.

Perhaps the most celebrated series of atmospheric landscape prints by a British artist is that known as 'English Landscape Scenery' by John Constable (1776-1837), which was carried out in conjunction with the young professional mezzo-tinter, David Lucas (1802-1881). Mezzotints are produced by a tone process in which the metal plate is roughened or ground all over using a tool called a 'rocker'. This creates a burr that prints velvet black. Thus, working from dark to light, the artist then scrapes down the burr to create the required tones. The technique became especially popular in England, and the Constable-Lucas prints are unquestionably the most dramatic ever made in the medium. Particularly striking are the early trial proofs, which are deep, rich, and evocative. For example, proofs of 'A Seabeach – Brighton' (1830), 'Weymouth Bay, Dorset – Tempestuous Afternoon' (1830), and the gothic-romantic 'Castle Acre Priory (Glebe Farm)' (1830/32) on pale-cream paper present unmatched studies of the interplay of sunlight and shadow, form and feel, that so characterise what Constable termed the chiaroscuro of Nature. Luckily, you can still pick up prints quite easily from this remarkable series.

A second great series of mezzotints is that by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), entitled the Liber Studiorum, which was produced to emulate Claude Lorrain’s (1600-1682) renowned Liber Veritatis. For most of the plates, Turner created sepia drawings and etched the outlines himself, before handing the plate over for partial mezzo-tinting by professionals. Some plates, however, were completed entirely by Turner himself, and the early states of these are remarkable for their depth and delicacy. Through this ambitious series of prints, Turner aimed to demonstrate his mastery of all poetic landscape forms, such as the Historical, Mountainous, Pastoral, Marine and Architectural. The prints were issued in sets of 5 between 1807 and 1819. A classic example is the 'Junction of the Severn and the Wye' (1811), which represents the 'Elevated Pastoral', or 'Epic', landscape form.

In the same league as those by Constable and Turner are the dark-rich etchings of Samuel Palmer (1805-81). Few captured better the classical rural idyll than Palmer and, once seen, it is impossible to forget their exquisite play of light and shadow as sheep and cattle wend their weary way to stream or cot. For many, these remain the ultimate in the British poetic landscape form. Although small, they stand out on any wall through their sheer depth and intensity.

Other important early poetic landscape prints come from artists such as John Crome (1768-1821), the founder of the Norwich School, and Cornelius Varley (1781-1873). Crome is particularly known for his lovely softground etchings, notably of dense, but ever-so delicate, trees. These were probably drawn from life and they possess a delightful 'open-air' feel. Varley, who was also one of our finest water-colourists, produced a series of etchings entitled 'Scenery on the Thames' (1809). These tend to harbour a strong English feeling for the river and for boats. Further early print makers well-worth considering are Edward Calvert (1799-1883) and Thomas Lound (1802-1861), a member of the Norwich School. And no consideration of the C19th could fail to include one of its most pre-eminent printmakers, Sir Francis Seymour Haden (1818-1910), whose American brother-in-law was James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903).

When we move into the C20th , the range of rural master prints becomes wide and immensely attractive. Representative of the Neo-Romantic landscape movement are the most beautiful 'Hardyesque' etchings of Robin Tanner (1904-1988), including 'Christmas' (1929), 'Harvest Festival' (1930), and 'Wiltshire Rickyard' (1939). These are usually signed in pencil and are often inscribed. Equally attractive are the hardwood engravings of Gwen Raverat (1885-1957), grand-daughter of Charles Darwin and author of that little masterpiece, Period Piece. A Cambridge Childhood (1952). These are normally signed, titled, and numbered in pencil. But the list of beguiling artists is long, and includes such important names as Sir Muirhead Bone, Paul Drury, John Nash, Eric Ravillious, Sir Frank Short, Reynolds Stone, and Graham Sutherland. Sutherland’s (1903-1980) truly magical etching, 'Village', of 1925, is seminal.

The choice of British poetic landscape master prints available to examine and to deconstruct is thus broad. Of course, it is sensible to know what you are doing and it would be wise, in the first instance, to consult such well-known master-print dealers as Abbott & Holder, The William Weston Gallery, and Garton & Co.

Master prints of the British poetic landscape thus embrace and capture our deepest sense of ‘ruralness’, a sensitivity that remains a powerful force in the British psyche and in the politics of the 'rural'.

Philip, wallowing in Britten, Delius, and Elgar. An accessible introduction to the nuances of the master-print world is provided by Antony Griffiths in Prints and Printmaking. An introduction to the history and techniques (British Museum Press, 1996, 2nd Edition). Enjoy, deconstruct, and then you will understand much better British antagonisms to such 'modernisms' as GM crops, not to mention the middle-class espousal of the 'organic'. Tea among the buttercups? "Daa, da, daa, da, daa, da, daa/ Daa da d! d! d! daaa....."

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