Picture Perfect, Old Chap

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

THE RECOGNIZABLE tone of the "English picturesque," flourishing around 1800, celebrates local landscapes and the native eyes that would behold them. Paintings and drawings, of the sort that circulated as the prints in the elaborately illustrated books of the day, draw from Dutch and Italian models--going back to the light-stunned landscapes of Claude Lorraine and "Arcadian places" of Nicolas Poussin--but are free of the grand symbols and extreme drama of high Romantic painting, such as the "sublime" work of J.M.W. Turner.

John Constable, whom French artists regarded as an early exponent of Romantic painting, began as a 'topographical" painter of country houses about the time William Wordsworth was writing his poems on the countryside of the Lake District. Poems, prints, and parks, then, were of a piece celebrating nature, and the poetic sensitivity required to enjoy it. British country estates and park landscapes sought an informality cultivated and planned, as outdoor spots for a gentleman's contemplation--in opposition to the formal plots laid out on the continent. This came well before Europeans appreciated natural wilderness, but also was a far cry from the formal gardens on the mainland from the century before.

Prints and drawings sought to capture the experience of place or, in turn, to propagate a vision of what such a delightful spot on Earth could look like, with devotion to geographical and even botanical specificity. …