The Viewer and the Viewed
2 July to 19 September 2021
The Barber Institute of Fine Arts
One of the most powerful aspects of art is that it allows us to reflect on our past while critically engaging with our present.
Giulia Schirripa, Collections Intern and curator of The Viewer and the Viewed
Between the mid 18th and mid 19th centuries, the British landscape became an increasingly popular subject for artists – partly for reasons that may sound familiar in 2021. In this summer display, selected from the Barber’s world-class collection of works on paper, Collections Intern Giulia Schirripa explores how country views can often be political…
Practical reasons were at play: the French Revolution (1789-99) and Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) prevented artists from travelling to continental Europe, causing them to rely on the British landscape for inspiration. Almost simultaneously, new concepts like the “picturesque” – visually pleasing landscapes, perhaps containing a ruin or similar element of interest – became increasingly popular in both art and garden design – and in the new phenomenon of leisure tourism for the monied middle and upper classes.
Birmingham-born David Cox was one of the most significant English landscape artists of his time, characteristically painting in watercolours more often than oils, and five of the former are now in the Barber’s collection. Of the several in this display, this peaceful landscape dominated by a windmill is inhabited by a number of people – a farmer on horseback, two figures carrying a wooden beam, another leading a horse, and others walking away down the hill. These characters are depicted as solely focused on their work, which seems to be the main attribute of their portrayed identity – there is no engagement between them.
Image: David Cox, ‘Farmer on Horseback Passing a Windmill’, early 19th century. The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 2021.
JMW Turner, however, used his earlier travels as the basis for this print from the Barber’s collection: The Chain of the Alps from Grenoble to Chambéri. Turner had travelled specially to see the Alps, and Grenoble was the first point he reached in 1802. That year, Turner was able to travel to the continent thanks to the Peace of Amiens, which gave rise to a 14-month break in the war between France and England before the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars in 1803. It was the first time in nine years that British people could safely cross the channel. Though made a decade later in 1812, towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars, this print captures the Turner’s excitement on his first glimpse of the mountains.
Image: JMW Turner, ‘The Chain of the Alps from Grenoble to Chambéri’, London, 1812. The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 2021.
The middle and upper classes drove the development of Britain’s domestic tourism industry during this period and onwards, assisted by advancements in rail travel, which made sightseeing more accessible than it had ever been before. In the 18th century, it became possible to partake in a ‘Picturesque Tour’; visitors could access a carefully selected array of locations. Some private properties were even opened exclusively for guests on these excursions.
John Brett, associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, made this watercolour sketch in 1860 during a visit to the West Midlands. He pictures three young girls picking white waterlilies on the River Avon, with Warwick Castle dominating the sunny, yet cloudy, sky. We view the scene from low down, looking up at the castle as though we could step into the picture. Thought to reproduce the experience of the tourist, this low viewpoint was widely used in pictures bought and commissioned by the middle and upper classes for their private collection – and this delightful small watercolour sketch is thought to be a study for a now-lost oil painting.
Image: John Brett, ‘Study of Warwick Castle’, Warwick, 1860. The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 2021.
The political significance of having access to land is particularly relevant during the pandemic, where 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.
Visit The Viewer and the Viewed at the Barber until 19 September.
Listen to a podcast by Giulia Schirripa – or read the transcript – and find out more about the show on the Barber’s website here.
Guilia Schirripa, Collections Intern at the Barber