Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

'The Prospect Far and Wide': An Eighteenth-Century Drawing of Langley Bush and Helpston's Unenclosed Countryside

Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

'The Prospect Far and Wide': An Eighteenth-Century Drawing of Langley Bush and Helpston's Unenclosed Countryside

Article excerpt

It has often been noted how visual John Clare's poems are. The twentieth-century critic John Middleton Murry, for instance, stated that 'Clare's faculty of vision is unique in English poetry'.1 The poet Edmund Gosse complained that Clare 'was a camera, not a mind'.2 More recently, Misty Beck has sensitively examined the nature of Clare's perceptual and visual world in some detail.3 A few lines from 'A Sunday with shepherds and herdboys' clearly demonstrate how Clare could succinctly visualise a scene:

the landscape spreading around

Swimming from the following eye

In greens and stems of every dye

O'er wood and vale and fen's smooth lap

Like a richly colourd map

Square platt s of clover red and white

Scented wi'summer's warm delight4

To paraphrase Cezanne's opinion of Monet, Clare might indeed have been only an eye, but what an eye! Clare uses but one word 'swimming' - to immediately set his vision of the landscape in motion, producing images as evocative and alive as any artistic representation of the English landscape. As such, it is rather surprising that no-one has looked for the real visual equivalents - any contemporary paintings, drawings or prints - to the unenclosed Helpston that Clare so vividly visualised and celebrated in his poems.

My research focuses on the representation of open fields and commons in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century English landscape art. Knowing of Clare's attachment to the unenclosed Helpston countryside, I naturally kept a weather eye open for any pictures of this landscape but nothing came to light until recently, when I came across a portfolio of various views of Northamptonshire, dating from the 1720s and largely made by the landscape painter, Peter Tillemans.5 This portfolio includes what I believe to be the only artistic representation of the unenclosed landscape of Helpston, a drawing entitled View of Langdyke Bush eu Country Adj acent taken upon Helpston Heath near the Hedge 29 Aug't 1721 (Figure 1). More remarkably still, the drawing provides us with a direct likeness of one of the most important landmarks in Clare's poetry, Langley Bush, so hauntingly described in his famous anti-enclosure elegy, 'Remembrances'. View of Langdyke Bush is one of over 200 drawings that were commissioned as illustrations for a projected history of Northamptonshire being prepared by John Bridges, of Barton Seagrave, near Kettering. Bridges did not live to see his project through the press and it was not until the 1790s that his manuscripts were finally edited for publication, at which time only a handful of the Tillemans illustrations were used. The complete portfolio of these drawings thus represents a great though underused resource for Northamptonshire historians. The views show not only the main towns, houses, their gardens, churches, monuments of the county, but also the landscapes around them. Together, they offer us some of the earliest representations of the unenclosed countryside of England.6

Peter Tillemans (1684-1734) was a Flemish artist who came to England in 1718. Subsequently, in 1719, John Bridges commissioned Tillemans to provide a set of topographical drawings for his proposed history of the county. Tillemans worked on these in the summer months of 1719 and 1721, and the results are delicate monochrome, pencil, pen and wash studies. As we can see with his View of Langdyke Bush, and others, such as the Western View of the Town of Northampton taken above Kingsthorpe July 1 721 (Figure 2), which shows the village of Kingsthorpe almost stranded in the middle of vast, empty, unenclosed fields, Tillemans had a remarkably fresh and intuitive eye for the Northamptonshire countryside, particularly across the county's unenclosed expanses. Bridges' commentary for Tillemans' view of Langdyke Bush refers to the medieval court of the Hundred of Nassaburgh that was:

formerly kept at Langdyke-bush: and within the memory of man hath been summoned there [. …

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