As part of a talk on the Captain Swing rebellion I thought I would have a look at the art of the period. Or rather the art and design from 1780 – 1832. This is roughly the period that EP Thompson covers in The Making of the English Working Class and covers the French Revolution and the increasing tempo of the industrial revolution. Clocks begin to dominate the productive activity of people and there is a change from cyclical time to linear time. The process of enclosing the land intensifies and more and more people lose the right to the commons. Centuries old rights, customs and traditions which have been embedded in the life of village communities are destroyed. There is a great deal of hardship, there is in fact starvation and famine. The farm labourers (sometimes supported by small farmers) took part in the breaking of threshing machines, the burning of hay ricks, demonstrations outside farm houses and the sending of threatening letters signed by the mysterious Captain Swing. Across England more than 450 were transported, hundreds imprisoned and fined and dozens hanged in the most cruel and revengeful way. This will be covered in the talk itself. But what of the art and design of the period?
It must be said at the outset that I quickly realised I have no qualification to say anything about the art of this period at all. The more the period was explored, the more that was discovered, the greater my ignorance revealed itself. One is vaguely aware (unless a scholar or with interest) of Turner, Blake, Constable; Stubbs and Linnell and perhaps even Fuseli might be there. But what has been fascinating is to discover the breadth of those painters and artists and to be stunned by the beauty, power and voices of artists that were previously unknown. The internet can play at least two parts here.
One of these parts is to amplify the reproduction of particular images; the same paintings by Constable, Turner and Blake are endlessly reproduced. This is not to distract from those images in their own right. But they help to form particular ideas about both the artists and the period.
The second part that the internet can play is to provide access to art galleries and museums from around the world. These websites vary in functionality but many provide easy access to high quality digital images. My favourites are those which enable a date search from 1780 to 1832 to be created, to organise the images in chronological order and to download a high quality image. This has enabled me to create a personalised database and to curate a collection in a particular way. And this is excellent because surely one of the fascinating ways to approach art is on a chronological basis?
It is almost like having a slow motion film. The viewer can start in 1780 and move through the still-images in time-sequence. Fashions, ideas, the focus of attention, historical events, the change in fashions, changes in artistic style, changes in the questions artists are seeking to answer are partially revealed. It creates a fascinating base of material images from which to explore a great deal about the period itself. It is also a unique approach which the internet and computing enables. This would have been difficult if not impossible to have done thirty – perhaps even twenty years ago. Only those with money, resources and the luxury of time could travel to study the art which is held in cities and towns around the world. Only someone with a camera and the means to pay for the development of photographs could have created their own collections – perhaps supplemented by art books and magazines and journals. But this would have been partial. Not all art is on display and not all art books give comprehensive coverage of the artists work.
With the resources of a computer, broadband and a web browser it is now possible to build up a large collection of art (both on display and not on display) and collate it in ways which are impossible in hard copy format. Chronology is one means to do this and with the use of taxonomies and folksonomies and a database approach it’s possible to look at changes in the representation of landscape, portrait, of the technical development of ships and industries, of the changing topography of the countryside and the development of urban areas.
Does this enable the creation of new knowledge? New ‘ways of seeing’? It certainly provides a strong visual overview of a period as seen by the artists and creative people of the time. But that too is partial, incomplete, a representation by particular people of particular things. There are more expressions of one particular class than another – after all the rich were and are the general patrons of the arts. Painters often had to paint what they were told to paint and in ways in which their masters (and sometimes mistresses) instructed them. Some appear to escape the cages of their time – William Blake and Samuel Palmer for example. Others such as Turner managed to become of independent means, which meant he could pursue his revolutionary experiments in form and colour. Goya captured the misery and grimness which many people had to endure as the world began to spin at an accelerating rate, some ascending into the luxury of money riches, others dying of starvation in the hedgerows and the hovels.
And I am aware that the approach is largely euro-centric; Africa, Asia, the Americas are all there on the periphery and art from those vast land masses has been included but to a lesser extent. That gives yet another perspective because the art work is distinctive and different again. I am not sure how visible that art was to people in say London or Paris between 1780 – 1832 or what European attitudes towards it were. That raises a whole new set of questions as to how images were shared and disseminated at a global level during this period and the role of books and prints (particularly colour prints). This has provided even more to think about.
One cannot answer every question with a few weeks of building a personal art gallery. But this has provided a fascinating foundation on which to ask those questions and many more. And the bigger the database becomes and the more developed the classification scheme the more ideas and questions it will generate. Which makes me wonder whether it is better to ask or answer or whether the pleasure is in exploring the dialectic between the two.
Another pleasure of course is going to see the works of art in person. This enables all sorts of things to be learned which are not necessarily apparent in print or digital reproductions. Indeed, where possible, physical art should be seen.
Oh, and a footnote about the dates. The overall project is from 1780 – 1832. But that cannot be compressed that easily so today there are just a few images from the period 1800 – 1803. Or thereabouts. Not all the paintings can be accurately dated.