Reviews -- Landscape Imagery and Urban Culture in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain by Andrew Hemingway

Article excerpt

Andrew Hemingway, Landscape Imagery and Urban Culture in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992. Pp. 355; 120 black-and-white ills. $95.00.

During the first decades of the 19th century, some of the most remarkable landscape painting of the century was done in Britain. Depending on your cultural politics, this can either be a cause for celebration or a source of irritation. Celebration, if like the organizers of the recent Constable retrospective at the Tate (1991) you feel that this is after all the "glory" of British art, or irritation, if you see these landscapes as the debased vehicles of a rancid nostalgia for "little England." In Britain, at least, landscape painting is not a neutral object. Not that it ever was. Recent studies like Stephen Daniels, Fields of Vision: Landscape Imagery and National Identity in England and the United States (Cambridge, 1993) have suggested how images of landscape and the cultural discourses surrounding them have been central to a developing sense of national history, heritage, race, and community since the 18th century. In addition to landscape imagery, practices such as gardening, touring, and preservation, which involve particular spectatorial and economic relationships to nature, have been revealed in recent years as crucial sites for the production of class and cultural personas. Much of this work has involved dismantling the neutrality of landscape, in particular, its very "naturalness," which would seem to preclude any meanings other than nature's own leafy-green facts. These discussions do not rehearse which styles of landscape painting are more or less "naturalistic" (assuming in the process that nature is simply there to be imitated), but rather they proceed from the assumption that nature itself is already shaped by a complex aggregation of cultural expectations and interpretations grounded in social experience.

As this suggests, the focus of much recent discussion of landscape has been on the social construction of nature more than on the oeuvres of individual artists and the formal analyses of their works. This cultural studies approach has widened the spectrum of visual and textual material to include both artistic and extra-artistic representations of nature, landscape, and rural life. There is good reason for this. To ground readings of nature primarily in works of art to the neglect of more popular and commercial productions is to privilege art as the primary medium--or meta-language--through which a period's ideal of nature is to be comprehended. For those examining a cultural history of nature during a particular period, this focus on works of art limits not only what is to be understood about the social construction of nature but also what is to be understood by the word "culture," for it obliquely reinforces modernist distinctions beween high and low, art and kitsch. Needless to say, the practice of "cultural history"--with all the implied inclusivity that attends this use of the word "cultural"--places art historians in an unfamiliar position, for we have been accustomed to think of culture in more exclusive terms as applied only to those objects designated as "art" and thus worthy of our scholarly attention. In limiting ourselves to only the "best that mankind [and I use this term purposely] has produced," we have missed a lot. The works of women and marginalized social and racial groups are only the most obvious examples, but so too are the host of commercial, folk, and mass forms of cultural production and consumption. The point is not to integrate these neglected histories into the history of art in a misguided attempt to bestow on them the mantle of aesthetic significance, but to reconceive our discipline--art history--to include the study of the whole of visual culture. This is not a simple project, and some of its most challenging aspects can be found in art-historical studies of landscape.

For example, in The spectaele of Nature: Landscape and Bourgeois Culture in Nineteenth-Century France (Manchester and New York, 1990) Nicholas Green examines the consumption of nature by the urban population of Paris through popular entertainments like dioramas and practices like excursions to the countryside. …