The Viewer and the Viewed

‘In 18th-century Britain, landscape – even the picturesque landscape – was a mode of political discourse.’

Ann Bermingham, 2002

The Viewer and the Viewed features eleven works on paper from the Barber’s collection by artists such as Gainsborough, Turner and David Cox, and explores these breathtaking landscapes from a socio-political perspective.

Between the mid-eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries, the British landscape was more than ever a subject of artistic production. This increased interest was both tied to the new importance of concepts like the picturesque within the British artistic and cultural discourse, and to more practical reasons like the French Revolution (1789-99) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15), which prevented English artists from travelling to continental Europe, and thus made them rely on their national landscape for inspiration.

These travel restrictions also favoured the development of domestic tourism among upper- and middle-class Britons. From the 18th century onward, picturesque tours were introduced, which allowed visitors to access a carefully selected array of locations within Britain, often private property that would, just on these occasions, open up to the public. An entire economy developed around the new phenomenon of national tourism, partially consisting of publication of tourist guidebooks, collections of prints depicting said picturesque views or the commissioning of smaller watercolours of the same subjects.

John Brett, ‘Study of Warwick Castle’, Warwick, 1860, watercolour on paper, 254 x 335 mm

The development of tourism and of a market for cheaper and more accessible reproductions of picturesque views metaphorically overshadowed the upcoming political challenges to the privileges of the landowning class: up until then, accessing national landscape was mostly limited to them, together with political agency. It is key to keep in mind that land, at the time, had an especially strong political significance: only landowners had voting rights. Around the end of the eighteenth century, this electoral and political structure began to be challenged, encouraged by the revolutionary rhetoric coming from America and France. This culminated in the first Reform Act of 1832, which began the slow process of opening up suffrage to a broader share of the British population.

David Cox, ‘Farmer on Horseback Passing a Windmill’, early 19th century, watercolour on paper, 283 x 400 mm

In the late-twentieth century, art historians began exploring how landscape art made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries became a way for artists to take part in the political debate. This display explores how compositional elements of these works, like perspectival viewpoints and the figures inhabiting the scenes, can either reinforce or at times question who was given access to the land and consequently to political power.

The political significance of having access to land is particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, where current travel restrictions have not only made us appreciate our local landscape, but have underscored how access to it can still be a privilege. One of the most powerful aspects of art is that it allows us to reflect on our past while critically engaging with our present. Exploring these works from a political perspective reminds us how crucial it is to continue understanding landscape, and our environment, as a politically charged space.

Gallery – explore the display online

JMW Turner, Ludlow Castle, from the North West, with the River Teme

London, 1800, pencil, watercolour, and scratching out (removing dry media with a sharp tool to create texture), on paper, 357 x 572 mm

This work is typical of Turner’s artistic production in his early career, which focused on smaller, picturesque depictions of British landscapes, often in watercolour. As is often the case in picturesque landscapes, the composition includes a depiction of ruins, in this case of the medieval Ludlow Castle. The scene also contains a depiction of Dinham Bridge over the River Teme; figures inhabit both the bridge and the river’s shores, together with animals drinking from it. Turner completed various watercolours of this scene, working directly from the site, as seen in a sketch of this view found in one of his sketchbooks now at Tate Britain.

John Brett, Study of Warwick Castle

Warwick, 1860, watercolour on paper, 254 x 335 mm

This watercolour depicts three children on a boat on the River Avon while picking waterlilies, with Warwick Castle dominating the background. This composition has multiple ties with the phenomenon of tourism. Firstly, the medieval Warwick Castle was turned into a country house in the 17th century and soon became one of England’s most famous tourist attractions. Secondly, the low perspective which Brett assigns to the viewer seems to suggest the possibility to step into the scene and partake in the action, a way of enjoying the scene like a tourist.

Thomas Gainsborough, A Hilly Landscape

London, about 1775–80, black chalk, stump, and white chalk on blue paper, 270 x 335 mm

This is one of the many imagined landscapes that Gainsborough would produce in his career. He assigned a commanding position to the viewer in this drawing through the perspectival selection of a prospect view. Metaphorically, this position confirms the inherent power of the viewer, since the elevated perspective provides a sense of great depth and allows the viewer to see across the whole scene. The use of blue paper and the quick chalk lines underscore that the scene is imagined, which in turn might reinforce the power of the viewer: their spontaneity seems to suggest that the audience could shape the composition themselves.

Samuel Palmer, The Rising Moon

London, 1855, published 1857, etching, seventh state, on paper, 269 x 366 mm

This print depicts a serene night scene, with a shepherd and his flock in the foreground and a small village within the mountains in the background. Through the selection of a low perspective, Palmer invites the audience to step into the opening in the foreground of the scene, which is high enough to offer a commanding view of the distant village. The viewer is further encouraged to explore the composition by the moonlight, which seems to guide their gaze.

David Cox, Farmer on Horseback Passing a Windmill

Early 19th century, watercolour on paper, 283 x 400 mm

This peaceful landscape is inhabited by rural labourers, who animate the scene through their work. The composition is dominated by a windmill, which emphasises how everything in the scene, from the figures to the landscape, functions in relation to labour. The figures are depicted as solely focused on their work, which seems to be the main attribute of their portrayed identity. An example of this is the depiction of the three figures at the back entrance of the windmill. As one of them looks down while leading a horse, the other two are busy carrying a wooden beam – all three concentrate on their work without even engaging with each other.

2 July - 24 October 2021

Free; booking essential.

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A podcast episode exploring the display was released on Tuesday 13 July 2021:

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Curated by...

Display curated by Giulia Schirripa, Arts Society Collections Intern.

Giulia is currently undertaking her PhD at the University of York, focusing on the intersection between art making and feminism in Italy from the 1970s onward.

She has previous curatorial experience through her internships at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

The inspiration for this Print Bay Display comes from her interest in socio-political approaches to art history and curatorial practices, and from a module on Turner taught by Dr. Richard Johns which she took during her MA at the University of York.