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Gould Charlotte and Mesplède Sophie, eds. British Art and the Environment

Routledge, 2021
Hélène Ibata
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Charlotte Gould and Sophie Mesplède, eds. British Art and the Environment, Routledge, 2021.

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1While ecocriticism has now become a well-established branch of literary studies, art history has only recently begun to claim a place within the environmental humanities. The interest in such an approach has gathered pace in the last four years, with a series of publications including ‘Landscape now’, the November 2018 issue of British Art Studies, Mark Cheetham’s Landscape Into Eco-Art (2018), as well Andrew Patrizio’s The Ecological Eye (2020), which argues that it is time for the discipline to ‘[reclaim] the visual ecologically’ and to ‘widen the objects of its obsessions . . . outwards towards the human and other-than-human vectors that animate the planet and its ecosystems’ (3). In this context, British Art and the Environment, edited by Charlotte Gould and Sophie Mesplède, is a timely publication, and a compelling demonstration of how art history may develop this ‘ecological eye’, whether it is to shed new light on environmental awareness in past artworks and theories, to expose the socio-political implications of past aestheticizations of the natural world, or to reflect on the reconfigurations of the imaginary that are necessary for contemporary art to address the ecological concerns of our time. As Gould and Mesplède argue in their introduction, the focus on British art is made all the more relevant by Britain’s role as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, but also by the social and political history of its natural spaces, with tensions between the commons and the aristocratic landscape garden, as well as colonial appropriation, playing a significant part.

2The volume comprises a substantial introduction, a dozen contributions by specialists of British art and artists, two interviews with curators Adrian George and Tim Martin, and an afterword by cultural geographer Stephen Daniels. The scope of the contributions ranges from artistic responses to the first Industrial Revolution and nineteenth-century industrialization and urbanization, to the new modes of visual apprehension and practices of space that recent economic, political and technological developments have made possible or necessary (like the impact of North Sea oil extraction in Scotland, urban regeneration in London, or the development of computer vision).

3Several essays revisit the artistic tradition and former aesthetic theory from an ecocritical perspective, raising the question of the relevance of such an approach in the process. Sophie Mesplède foregrounds the metaphor of hunting and the lexical field of the chase in eighteenth-century British portrait paintings and aesthetic theory, arguing persuasively that this imagery was a prevailing locus of reflection about the sentient nature of man, and tracing connections between Locke’s sensualist empiricism, British artistic theory, and the Enlightenment’s growing awareness of the porosity of boundaries between the human and the animal. Frederic Ogée attempts to determine whether it is possible to consider British landscape paintings of the early nineteenth century as evidence of a growing awareness of the impact of human action on the natural world, at the time of the first Industrial Revolution. Focusing on works by Turner and Constable, he contends that their awareness of humanity’s footprint played a decisive role into their transformation of landscape into a major genre, endowed with unprecedented philosophical and epistemological force (172). Thomas Hughes examines the aesthetic, political and philosophical significance of Ruskin’s conception of drawing, arguing notably that the author of The Elements of Drawing and Modern Painters took a stand against the designing conventions of his time, which he saw as informed by the ideology of industrialization, while suggesting ways in which drawing landscapes could allow the human to reconnect, however unsatisfactorily, with the other-than-human world. Laura Valette focuses on Whistler’s influential transformation of the late nineteenth-century London fog into an object of aesthetic interest—its formal indeterminacy becoming the means to emancipate landscape painting from topographic accuracy while experimenting with colour, texture and the specificity of various pictorial techniques—, at a time when public awareness of the harmful effects of atmospheric pollution was growing.

4A recurring thread in the volume is the necessity—experienced in various historical contexts of economic, political and cultural change—to redefine or re-imagine both the natural world and the subject’s place within it. Several essays reflect about the role of artists in establishing new modes of apprehension today, as idealizations of the natural world are no longer possible, especially when their ideological implications are laid bare. In a thought-provoking chapter on Roseanne Watt and Alec Finlay, Camille Manfredi examines the re-imagining of Scotland by contemporary artists who challenge the Romantic vision of a wilderness of outstanding beauty as a construct of colonial times and aim to replace it with a multifaceted and fluctuating perception of Scottish landscapes—and petroscapes—, in which social, political, cultural, economic and ecological factors, technology and the natural are combined and reconciled. Similarly, Edwin Coomasaru argues that contemporary Irish artists Ursula Burke and Candida Powell-Williams draw on supernatural imagery to undermine the gendered representations of Ireland, established in colonial times, which idealized the natural world while reinforcing the narrative of British superiority. Adrian George reflects about the political and environmental dimension of contemporary Welsh art, arguing that it does contain a postcolonial dimension, but should mostly be viewed from a global point of view.

5Other essays explore the tensions between the remote, rational and mostly stable visual apprehension of the environment which, according to Jonathan Crary, characterized classical vision, and the immersive, embodied and temporal experiences of the modern subject. Amy C. Wallace discusses the portable studios devised by Victorian artists Philip Gilbert Hamerton and Hubert von Herkomer as a prism through which to examine nineteenth-century debates about vision and the subject’s relation to landscape, and explains how, inspired by Ruskin’s Modern Painters, the two artists sought truth through prolonged immersion within nature, while introducing new mediations in the process. Paul Cureton reflects about the various ways in which aerial imaginaries, which often conflate technological invention and artistic creation or representation, have helped shape landscape patterns and taken a part in struggles about the environment at significant moments in history. In ‘A Matter of Time’, Kasia Ozga discusses some ways in which contemporary British sculptors incorporate temporal processes—such as decay and decomposition, or state changes, from frozen to liquid for example—into their practices, not only to encourage audience participation, but also to undermine human temporalities and a human-centred conception of the environment.

6Of particular interest is the volume’s diachronic dimension, an approach whose relevance is persuasively demonstrated in the introduction, and illustrated by the comparative historical perspectives chosen by several authors. Thus, Aurore Caignet’s rich panorama of representations of the industrialized North of England, from the early nineteenth century to post-industrial times, encompasses the early aestheticization of industrial sites and cities by Victorian landscape artists, as well as the recent resurgence of ruin lust and sublime aesthetics in representations of derelict industrial sites. And in ‘Managing Arcadia’, Pat Naldi draws a meaningful parallel between commercially-driven contemporary urban regeneration projects, with a focus on the King’s Cross Estate, and eighteenth-century estate redevelopments, arguing that they reveal a similar desire to create socially exclusive spaces, often enrolling artists in the process of constructing rural or urban environments which appear to be public but are regulated by private interests. Tim Martin explains how Hestercombe Gallery in Somerset, of which he is curator, has encouraged contemporary artists to ‘engage with present global issues, such as the environment, as well as learning from concerns of the past’ (76), and reconciled restoration of an eighteenh-century estate design with awareness of contemporary environmental challenges.

7As a collection, the essays demonstrate the role that artists can play, and have played in the past, to address the environmental issues of the industrial age. They provide a welcome contribution to the current reassessment of British art in the context of the ‘environmental turn’ in the humanities, as Stephen Daniels underlines in his afterword to the volume. Avoiding the pitfalls of militancy or aesthetic denial, they focus on the renegotiations of nature/culture boundaries, and the new modes of apprehension and perceptual paradigms that the human impact on natural environments has entailed. They outline processes of co-construction, processes of resilience, and a complex spectrum of continuities—between socio-economic eras, between town and country, between the human and the other-than-human—in what is often presented in terms of rupture and separation. The dialogue between artists, curators and academics makes this volume a rich and thought-provoking contribution to the contemporary debate, which should appeal to all academic readers with an interest in British art.

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Bibliographie

Crary, Jonathan, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, MIT Press, 1992.

Cheetham, Mark, Landscape Into Eco-Art, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018.

Patrizio, Andrew, The Ecological Eye, Manchester University Press, 2020.

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Hélène Ibata, « Gould Charlotte and Mesplède Sophie, eds. British Art and the Environment »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 62 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 26 juin 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ebc/12203 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/ebc.12203

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Hélène Ibata

Université de Strasbourg

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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