A brush with phenomenalism

Science and the Perception of Nature
June 27, 1997

In this elegant, stylishly written and copiously illustrated book, Charlotte Klonk seeks to demonstrate that between about 1790 and 1830 British landscape artists were influenced by contemporary aesthetic debates, by physiological views on the relationship between mind and matter, and by changes in attitude towards scientific research. To unify these complex relationships, Klonk introduces the concept of phenomenalism, in which artists and scientists are perceived to have confined themselves rather strictly to what was observed, without prior suppositions of the underlying mechanisms by which what was observed was connected.

To introduce phenomenalism, Klonk contrasts two well-known paintings, Gainsborough's "Wooded Landscape with a Seated Figure" (c. 1747), and Constable's "Flatford Mill" (1817). The first depicts a generalised, forested, idyllic landscape, while the second is a specific view of a locality, in which the topography and its busy contents are accurately, albeit artistically, delineated in a subject-centred approach. The earlier, more generalised style ultimately derives from the so-called sublime or beautiful styles of Salvator Rosa (1615-73) and Claude Lorrain (1600-82) respectively. However, it is not mentioned that Constable (especially) and Gainsborough were much influenced by the more objective landscape paintings of Rubens (1577-1640), as was amply demonstrated in a recent exhibition of these great works at the National Gallery in London. It is questionable whether the bulk of Gainsborough's and Constable's landscape paintings are quite as different in style and content as the two pictures chosen to introduce the book. For hundreds of years, artists had been able to depict landscapes in a variety of styles, ranging from the idyllic to the illustrative, within the framework of their own culture. Thus Turner (1775-1851), who plays only a minor role in this book, ranged for much of his career from classical landscapes (a la Lorrain), through accurate topographical representations, to the furthest reaches of Impressionism - long before the French masters - with even an occasional nod to the latest in high technology, such as locomotives or steamships. Turner always was phenomenal, but only sporadically and unpredictably a phenomenalist.

After a masterly summary of late 18th-century aesthetic debates partly based on assumptions drawn from physiology, Klonk develops her main theme in three massive chapters. The first deals with The Temple of Flora: Or, Garden of Nature by Robert John Thornton, published between 1797 and 1807, which contains exquisite hand-coloured prints of plants in close-up, set against highly fanciful scenic backgrounds, often inappropriate to the depicted plant. These engravings were accompanied by botanical and mythological explanations with appropriate poetry. It appears that the overall style of this work already attracted much criticism soon after publication, though today these beautiful prints are much sought after.

The second chapter discusses the somewhat indirect and variable interactions between geologists and artists during the early period of scientific exploration, and their mutual influence on the style of pictorial representations of selected Scottish landscapes, for example, the Isles of Staffa and Skye.

The third chapter deals in depth with the wide influence of the talented artist and scientist Cornelius Varley (1781-1873), who advocated a greater role for open-air sketching in attaining representational objectivity. He also invented and applied the graphic telescope, a successor to the camera obscura, the oldest of the more elaborate drawing aids.

Despite reservations, I am persuaded by this deeply researched and thoughtful book that phenomenalism is a convincing rationalisation for a partly shared cultural approach between the arts and sciences around the turn of the 19th century, before they once again went their rather separate ways. Both historians of the arts and sciences will enjoy this book.

Stephen Moorbath is emeritus professor, department of earth sciences, University of Oxford.

Science and the Perception of Nature: British Landscape Art in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries

Author - Charlotte Klonk
ISBN - 0 300 06950 2
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 198

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