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Rural Scenes and National Representation: Britain, 1815-1850

Rural Scenes and National Representation: Britain, 1815-1850

by Elizabeth K. Helsinger

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Elizabeth Helsinger's iconoclastic book explores the peculiar power of rural England to stand for conflicting ideas of Britain. Despite the nostalgic appeal of Constable's or Tennyson's rural scenes, they record the severe social and economic disturbances of the turbulent years after Waterloo. Artists and writers like Cobbett, Clare, Turner, Emily Bront‰, and George


Elizabeth Helsinger's iconoclastic book explores the peculiar power of rural England to stand for conflicting ideas of Britain. Despite the nostalgic appeal of Constable's or Tennyson's rural scenes, they record the severe social and economic disturbances of the turbulent years after Waterloo. Artists and writers like Cobbett, Clare, Turner, Emily Bront‰, and George Eliot competed to claim the English countryside as ideological ground. No image of rural life produced consensus over the great questions: who should constitute the nation, and how should they be represented? Helsinger ponders how some images of rural life and land come to serve as national metaphors while others challenge their constructions of Englishness at the heart of the British Empire.Drawing on recent work in social history, nationalism, and geography, as well as the visual and literary arts, Helsinger recovers other possible and alternative readings of social ties embedded in the imagery of land. She reflects on the power of rural images to transfer local loyalties to the national scene, first popularizing then institutionalizing them. By turning a critical gaze on these scenes, she comments on the difference between art and ideology, and the problems and dangers of asserting any kind of national identity through imagery of the land.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Helsinger's discussions of images and texts offer new and important insights into the political and cultural uses of the countryside, and they will essential reading for anyone interested in that history of this period. While it is impossible to do justice to the scope, interest, and nuance of her arguments, this review must suffice to say that this is the kind of book students of British landscape painting and literature will turn to again and again with pleasure and profit."Albion

Product Details

Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Literature in History Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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Rural Scenes and National Representation

Britain, 1815-1850

By Elizabeth K. Helsinger


Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-02146-1



By the end of the nineteenth century, Constable's paintings had become icons of Englishness, images "regarded as sacred, and honoured with a relative worship or adoration" (as the Oxford English Dictionary defines icons), which traveled well beyond Britain Here is one account of The Valley Farm (fig 1), originally published in Home Life of England (London, 1877) and republished in America six years later for The New Gallery of British Art

The Valley Farm It sounds like a familiar name in some wooded hilly country side, where every inhabitant knows every one else, and household ways are public we know them all, and love to saunter about their meadows and their hedgerows Here human life flows broadly and smoothly, though, it must be confessed, not profoundly, sunning itself in mild prosperity The Valley Farm has its representatives all over the world, east, west, north, and south, wherever the English tongue is spoken Thus has English blood fructified throughout the world And where in distant ages the triumphant spread of the English race becomes the subject of antiquarian inquiry, homes such as the Valley Farm will have a mystic interest, like that which belongs to the sturdy germ from which a forest springs

Constable's picture stands for home life in England fully as much as it does for British art, it is an enormously emotional image His pictures did not carry the same emotional weight for viewers in his lifetime, except perhaps for Constable himself Yet Constable's friend and biographer, C R Leslie, correctly predicted in 1843 that he would be acclaimed as "the most genuine painter of English landscape" As early as 1817 he was praised for his "close portraiture of our English scenery", by the high Victorian years his pictures were consistently labeled "genuinely," "essentially" English 4 His exclusive focus on "home" or "rural" English scenery and his success at rendering it with portraitlike "truth" ("transcripts of nature") placed him in the forefront of what was beginning to be recognized as an English empiricist style of painting Although these qualities were noticed, they neither gave his art the highest artistic status (for contemporary critics he lacked Turner's "poetry") nor made his pictures the popular, emotion-laden images they became by the end of the century. How did Constable's rural scenes become such beloved talismans of an English homeland?

One way to answer this question is to trace the fate of his pictures and their reproductions between his death in 1837 and the closing decades of the century (from relatively inaccessible they became immensely more available, as well as popular) or to describe the changed position of the countryside and the expansion of empire that fueled demands for texts and images to feed a growing national nostalgia. I want to go further back, however, to argue that Constable became a painter of national symbols long before his rural scenery acquired iconic status. Biography—the trajectory of Constable's life and the place of his painting in it—is important to my argument for two reasons. First, the hold that Constable's pictures acquired over late-Victorian minds and our own can be traced in part to his visual and verbal rhetoric in the 1820s and 1830s, the middle and later parts of his career. To an unusual extent he has been his own most influential interpreter. Increasingly in those years, he used both words and pictures to construct a sort of autobiography. Leslie's biography brought Constable's remarkably articulate writings and conversation to a wide audience; the biography persuaded the public of Constable's importance where Constable, as we will see, did not—but the terms of the presentation were set by Constable. Although his account of himself as the neglected hero of "natural" painting has become a commonplace, his story of how the painter of "native" scenes in Suffolk used pictures to establish a familial kingdom in the national capital is seldom noted or questioned for what it can tell us about the peculiar place of those pictures in popular affections.

My second reason for exploring biography, then, is that Constable is also a representative (and conveniently articulate) viewer of his own pictures as images that can create a national consciousness. Constable did not set out to create such symbols (Tennyson, to whom I will turn next, is much more deliberate about what he is doing) but they created that consciousness in him. We can trace the process both in the altered forms of his pictures and in what he says about them. My argument is that Constable's work of representation is constitutive, not simply reflective or expressive, of a sense of place that could be understood as a national cultural experience. He reads his own "rural scenery" (particularly in the series of mezzotints he published, English Landscape Scenery) as personal history: images not of places but of remembered places. These remembered places also bear the marks of local and national histories, as his text reminds us. His memory-images provide a way of using personal history to think oneself part of larger social entities. What made his pictures valuable to him is precisely what made them attractive for other newly isolated individuals of a mobile middle class. As memory images they could serve as vehicles for autobiography that staked claims to collective histories whose traces might be read in the same places Constable's memory images invited narratives of moving away from rural communities to assume the burdens of an isolating individualism, they offered images of distant origins marked with the act of remembering Al though his pictures of Suffolk may solicit autobiographies that have little in common with each other or with the artist's, they also offer participation in a new if attenuated collectivity created out of the heightened subjectivity of bourgeois culture For Constable the name of this virtual village—made possible by the reproduction of memory images that could be taken anywhere—was England

To understand how Constable came to present himself and his pictures as at once natural and national, to conceive of the local as the national, we must look more closely at his changing relation to the Stour Valley in Suffolk, and, more important, at the part that painting comes to play in this relationship I will look first at his early studies of local landscape, then at his difficulties, in the 1810s, in reconciling conflicting ideas of the relationship between work, local property, and family, and third, at changes in Constable's painting after his permanent move to London—when temporal and geographical distance altered his attitudes toward paintings of local places My concluding sections focus on Con stable's book of prints, English Landscape Scenery, and two of his most popular paintings, The Cornfield and The Valley Farm, to explore how these representations of place from the last decade of his life offer the move from local to national as a collective English experience


Constable first saw himself as a natural but not a national painter, whose art was inseparable from his attachments to a particular rural place In the earliest of a series of now well known self definitions, he wrote in 1802 of his intention to "return [from London] to Bergholt where I shall make some laborious studies from nature" in pursuit of "a natural painture" By 1812 he identifies himself specifically as a painter of the Stour Valley Writing to Maria Bicknell, his future wife, he announces his intention to spend another summer in Suffolk as part of a "distinctly marked out path" to professional achievement through the representation of "my native scenes"

You know I have succeeded most with my native scenes They have always charmed me and I hope they always will—I wish not to forget early impressions I have now very distinctly marked out a path for myself, and I am desirous of pursuing it uninterruptedly.

The "laborious studies" begun in 1802 and continued almost annually through 1817 converted the early impression to the distinctly marked path through the physical activities of walking, looking, sketching, and painting outdoors. Constable's summer work from these years shows him repeatedly reimpressing on page and memory the same scenes, crisscrossing the valley with a series of visual paths through a circumscribed area. "Views" is perhaps a misleading term for the studies he produced; their cumulative aim seems to have been a total visual knowledge of the area such that he might reconstruct its appearance from many different points. Thus a study from one side of Dedham Vale corresponds to one taken from the opposite side, so that the paths of the eye must meet. Similar exchanges of perspective study the towpath and river between Flatford Mill and Bridge Cottage. The pool, river, ford, ferry, and Willy Lot's cottage on the far side of the mill are perhaps the most closely studied of all; Constable's pictures of this small area form a network of intersecting visual paths. Instead of framing views of some focusing spot in the middle or far distance, these pictures pursue a three-dimensional knowledge of the physical structure of a locality.

Although looking is directed along more than one path, the center of interest is diffused across the area of any single composition. This is particularly evident in the disposition of figures in the large exhibition paintings made from studies of the Stour Valley, like Stratford Mill (1820) or The Haywain (1821). Relatively anonymous figures in the middle and far distance pursue a variety of activities. They are employed not as visual or narrative foci but as points of orientation in the temporal and social mapping of the area that these studies also undertake. Figures of reapers, fishing boys, ferrymen, barge polers, and washerwomen coordinate the physical structure of this highly cultivated landscape with particular hours and seasons. The figures function not unlike the church towers—Langham, Stratford, and above all Dedham—that punctuate his pictures. As those are fixed marks by which one can determine physical location with repect to the visual paths that cross Constable's country, so the figures serve as points of orientation within the temporal framework of this agricultural landscape.

These markers on a social or human map of the valley are an inseparable and yet a subordinate part of the knowledge of place that Constable's laborious studies construct. A contemporary observer noted this phenomenon: "His figures ... seem naturally called forth by, and form part of, the landscape: we never ask whether they are well placed, there they are, and unless they choose to move on, there they must remain." Constable's own comments support this reading. As early as 1814 he writes of Landscape: Ploughing Scene in Suffolk, A Summerland, which he is painting in London from the previous summer's sketches, that he has "added some ploughmen ... which is a great help"—but goes on to characterize the painting as "all of a peice [sic]—it is bleak and looks as if there would be a shower of sleet." The plowmen are a contribution but not an originating focus for the sense of place and time for which Constable is striving. Although he was actively engaged in studying the structures of place, its figures, like its hourly and seasonal human uses, appear in a simple present—as given, hence "natural." In this sense one can say that Constable's "laborious studies" after 1802 made the local and the natural coincide: to know the Stour Valley, by tracing first impressions into habitual visual paths, was to achieve a "natural painture."

The naturalizing of the human elements—and especially of human labor—in the landscape has an ideological function. Constable—the son of a successful rural merchant, miller, and farmer in an agriculturally advanced area—knew the period of his youth as a time of unparalleled prosperity; the different perspective of rural labor, for whom the war years had often been perceived as a time of drastic loss even in prosperous Suffolk, was not his. To Constable his figures may indeed have "seem[ed] naturally called forth by, and form[ed] part of, the landscape"; he did not "ask whether they are well placed" in the social geography of rural England. It is because their place within the social, temporal, and physical structures of the Stour Valley is assumed as fixed that they can serve as the points of orientation through which a sense of the local can be achieved.

Constable's depiction of place in these studies thus depends on his own position as both a part of and apart from these fixed local structures. This paradoxical position allows him to perceive and escape the naturalization to which his figures are subject. He enjoyed the advantages of a familiar landscape but was protected by his father's status and his own from unwelcome familiarities: he could not himself be used to punctuate a statement of local truth. He enjoyed a greater degree of mobility, geographic and social. The Constable business was inherited from an uncle who was a London-based corn factor. It encompassed not only mills and a farm in the Stour Valley but also shipping and sales in London; different members of the family traveled easily between the two locations. Constable's decision to be a painter meant for him both a permanent professional base in London and the further opportunity to travel geographically and socially in search of subjects and patrons. Though he too occupied a defined social place in East Bergholt, that place nonetheless permitted a certain freedom of movement beyond Suffolk as well as within the Stour Valley. This mobility has visible consequences in his work—in the addition of new subject matter (Hampstead, Salisbury, Brighton) and in those multiple paths of sight that he was able to construct through his studies and embody in his paintings of the valley itself. Although the Stour Valley had been long enclosed, the boundaries of private property, carefully delineated in his pictures, are not a barrier to his visual exploration. Unlike the peasant poet John Clare, whose different relations to place I discuss in chapter 4, Constable's immersion in the local is voluntary and episodic. It is enabled by his family's possessions and the social status they provide.


The relations of property that shape Constable's presentation of local scenery are more complex than this description might suggest, however. In Constable's progress from a painter of place—of the local as the natural—to a national painter, there is a crucial middle term. His strong ties to his parents and siblings and his later devotion to his own wife and children have long been noted. The links between the local, the familial, and the national in his work are tortuous but, I think, crucial to understanding his exemplary role in the cultural imaginations of later generations.

Constable's letters to Maria Bicknell between 1811 and their marriage in 1816 show that he shares attitudes pervasive in his family's correspondence about the ultimate use and value of rural property. The members of Constable's immediate family frequently articulate the priority of family ties. Especially interesting are the connections drawn by the Constables between family property—land, mills, and good name—and family unity. These links are succinctly described by Constable's mother, Ann, writing to him in 1810, after his father, Golding, had recovered from an illness: "We may still (I hope) continue some time united by the band of his respectability and undivided property in the family circle." The equation Ann makes between the unity of property and the unity of the family gives another meaning to the mapping of the Stour Valley that Constable pursued in his visual studies. The area encompassed by the crossing paths of these studies is that of his father's business, centered on the mills but drawing on the agriculture of the whole valley. Constable is, then, representing the family property—intensively mapping the territory of his father's business.

The relation to land implied in the family's comments and reflected in Constable's mode of visual study should be distinguished from those of eighteenth-century landowners which have sometimes been read into his pictures. The relation is that of a rural, mercantile middle class—not of a rural gentry, still less an aristocracy. First, the "undivided property" of the family business is not embodied in the extent of its land. Golding Constable owns a farm and small properties of land under his mills, but these are scattered and not particularly large holdings, the un divided property of his business consists in mills, ships, and mercantile relations and reputation that extend far beyond the limits of landownership This is a less tangible, more abstract conception of property, though it continues to be strongly tied to a particular locality Second, the idea of family that rural property is intended to support is not dynastic—there is no sense in the Constable family correspondence of a desire to connect family name with family property to secure a more significant social place in the distant future Property and respectability support the affectional ties of the immediate family The Constables see family as an enclosed circle of security supported by its local property, rather than as a link with larger social structures and with history Their relation to local property is both more private and more bourgeois than that embodied in the literature and art of landscape from the preceding century


Excerpted from Rural Scenes and National Representation by Elizabeth K. Helsinger. Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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