Monday, August 24, 2009

John Constable and the Enchantment of England

I'm a devoted reader of the English conservative philosopher and writer, Roger Scruton. England: An Elegy was his first book I encountered, and I've never stopped thinking about it. As a fervent Anglophile, I can't help but wonder at the systematic destruction of English culture by Englishmen, a problem that clearly perplexes Scruton and that prompted him to write his book.

Not unnaturally, Scruton the arch-conservative is an impassioned defender of the English countryside, its traditions, and its role in English society. In his book, he makes an interesting observation about 19th and 20th century English literature: its reliance on enchantment, a spiritualization of the English countryside. The English tradition, Scruton says, does not grieve "over a Merrie England that had never existed, but [re-enchants] the landscape, as Hardy and Hopkins did, as Lawrence did and as Eliot did in Four Quartets. Those writers turned to the landscape not in order to sentimentalise it, but in order to discover another order, a hidden order, which had been overlayed by history but which was, nevertheless, the true meaning of that history and the deep-down explanation of our being here." Scruton here reveals something very intriguing about the English soul: its attachment to English soil. He uses as evidence some of the greatest authors and poets of the last century and a half, T.S. Eliot, Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, D.H. Lawrence, and Thomas Hardy, but there are others he doesn't mention, Vita Sackville-West in The Land, J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings, Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited. All of these writers used the English countryside as a tapestry upon which they wove their own works. For Eliot, The Four Quartets was his love song to England and its Anglican belief. For Hopkins, England was a microcosm of the grandeur of God's creation, and Tolkien consciously created a mythology for his beloved England, a deliberately spiritual and enchanting act.

But poetry was not the only medium through which the English have re-enchanted their land; it should come as no surprise that England's greatest artists were painters of landscapes, namely J.M.W. Turner and of John Constable. The artwork of both men hangs prominently in our house, and while I find Turner's style stirring and work often numinous, my particular reverence is reserved for Constable. Constable's life and his work are nearer and dearer to my heart than Turner, who often perplexes me with his radicalism and his vulgarity.

But Constable, a man reared in the countryside, who never faltered in his love for his cherished Dedham Vale, his resolute Christian belief, his loyalty to his wife, his one true beloved. Here is a man I can sympathize with and respect. And his artwork is, of course, stunningly original. He is the artistic equivalent of Hopkins and Eliot; his artwork is an attempt to preserve the beauty of rural Suffolk. (This was the age of the Industrial Revolution.) . Unlike the continual migrations of Turner, Constable was a localist---he chose to concentrate his powers on Dedham, his birthplace and scene of his contented childhood and adolescence. That little spot of England is now known as "Constable country."

Constable has predictably been criticized by modern critics for his political conservatism and the reflection of that conservatism in his art. He was a frequent painter of both aristocratic patrons and of country estates, subjects unpalatable to the egalitarian. His paintings are really idealized portraits of the landscape; few, and these are generally late, are dark or morose. His landscapes are characterized by a lightness and colorfulness uncommon in his day, with greens and blues abounding. Constable's England is an Arcadian landscape, lovingly detailed and richly imagined. Like Willa Cather's vision of paradise, Constable's is also a well-tended garden, an Englishman's Eden.

One of my favorite Constable paintings is the lesser-known Wivenhoe Park, 1816 (below). In the background is the stately countryhouse, in the foreground the estate's pond . Fishermen haul in their catch, while a pair of swans swim close by and a herd of cattle graze. This is a scene brimming with life, human and animal. It is a place eminently suited to happiness and contentment, and it is at such an estate that one must imagine the fictional abodes of Jane Austen's characters, Mansfield Park, or Kellynch Hall, or Longbourn. (It is a striking characteristic of her protagonists that they all have a deep affection for their families' seats.)Few families can have been more content than the one residing at Wivenhoe.

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