How many gardeners nowadays have any idea about contemporary landscape painting? What, indeed, is contemporary landscape painting, apart from a few attempts at reviving the art of watercolours? All I ever encounter are topographic pictures that elegantly map the gardens or properties of patrons. Gardening and landscape painting have grown apart.
Once upon a time they were close and fertile allies. In the long 18th century, between the poet Alexander Pope and the novels of Jane Austen, gardening was often discussed in painterly terms. The very words “landscape gardening” derive from the comparison of scenery with paintings. They were first combined in English in about 1750. Most of today’s landscape gardeners have no idea about their profession’s ancestry or the analogy that gave it its name. They should view the magnificent new exhibition, Claude Lorrain: the Enchanted Landscape, at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum until January 6. It is a superb show, split intelligently between Claude’s 17th-century drawings, a room of great paintings and another of his etchings.
For the first time in modern museum history, the Ashmolean’s own masterly late Claude of a Virgilian hunting scene can be viewed beside the paired scene of Queen Dido showing Aeneas her new city of Carthage. They were painted for a Roman nobleman but have since been parted between Oxford and Hamburg. Other paired pictures have emerged from a private collection in Britain, showing scenes at sunrise and evening.
Claude was a supremely skilful painter of light. Turner willed that two of his own paintings should be hung between two of Claude’s in a national collection. He wanted to stand by the master as an equal. Corot, the next great French master of Italian landscape, idolised Claude. I can only agree with Constable, who described Claude as “the most perfect landscape painter the world has ever seen.” He painted “serene beauty ... sweetness and amenity, uniting splendour and repose, warmth and freshness.”
Claude was born in about 1600 and spent almost all his subsequent life in and around Rome. He became known as the master of landscapes with golden lighting, blue horizons and three receding “distances”. His seascapes are remarkable but he is at his best with landscapes set with buildings, usually classical in style, and views lit by a sun obscured behind a tree on one or other side.
Claude was not formally trained to the level of many contemporaries. The Oxford show presents him to us as a close observer of the wonderful Italian landscapes and light in which he walked daily and sketched. Nonetheless, he did not compose straightforwardly from nature. He painted indoors in his studio and worked from the masses of sketches he had taken from nature.
It is in England that his impact has been most profound. About 70 years after his death, he began to be idolised as the master of natural scenery and the guide to recreating it as a “picturesque” garden. Painting and gardening were considered to be sister arts. On travels, in poems and in novels, English writers and property owners looked on their views and their estates in terms of Claude’s paintings. They had come to know him through the Grand Tour, that combination of sex tourism and a gap year for young English noblemen in Italy. Intelligent young blue-stockinged ladies were quick to pick up the Claude idiom from returning male travellers.
I have been surveying the new female student intake, who have just arrived at Oxford, and wondering if they have ever considered a garden or country scene in terms of a painter. They should read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Her Marianne Dashwood is agonised when young Edward Ferrars announces he has no taste for the picturesque in landscape. It is as much a turn-off to her as if he were wearing a baseball cap nowadays.
How ever did Claude’s blue and golden views to the far distance become related to England’s countryside? One reason was snobbery, so that noble Grand Tourists could put down uneducated upstarts such as the park-landscaper Capability Brown. Another was England’s wonderful variety. There is nothing Claude-ish about that English marvel, a prospect of hedges rolling away across green grass. Nor did Britain have any visible classical ruins. However, on the Welsh borders or the steep hills of Surrey or the Lake District, the views were grander and more open. Travel by road was becoming easier. “Views” began to be appreciated, whereas previously they had been dismissed because nothing could be seen clearly at a distance. I cannot recall any praises of long views across open country in Shakespeare.
The most intelligent gardeners and travellers did not look for exact Claude details. They understood the principles of his landscape, its “three distances” and its angled sunlight. They looked for them in nature and praised them in garden landscapes. To find them, they even travelled with specially made “Claude glasses”, either tinted convex mirrors or a series of coloured lenses like the clusters with which opticians test our eyes. They would hold these glasses up and view England through them, accentuating its Claude-like quality. These glasses have been fascinatingly studied by the French scholar Arnaud Maillet whose book, The Claude Glass, is invaluably on sale in the Ashmolean gift shop. He cleverly follows the use of such tinted glasses on to Manet and Matisse and even modern film directors.
In the mornings, I try not to look in my own bathroom mirror, which is flanked by some of the famous English reproductions of Claude drawings that were made in 1777. Instead, I look out on to my own un-Claudian garden landscape and wonder who would paint it nowadays. In the Oxford show, the high point is Claudian’s “Enchanted Castle”, which inspired the famous lines by Keats on “magic casements, opening on the foam of perilous seas”. As a schoolboy I used to look at the muscular figure in this painting’s foreground before going back to boarding school at Eton. The painting belonged to my family for more than a hundred years. It was not the landscape that fascinated me most but the figure wrapped in thought before the enchanted castle. If I think and persevere, I used to tell myself after my last pre-school dinner, I, too, will survive the great castle of a challenge that awaits me at my all-male school.
The picture is explained nowadays as a detailed scene from the story of Cupid and Psyche in the ancient novel, The Golden Ass. The scene is very rare and I am not convinced we have decoded it fully. We do, however, know that my boyhood reading was mistaken. The muscular figure in the foreground is a girl, not a boy, and probably shows Psyche herself. Viewing her again in Oxford, I realise the role model for my schooldays was female. The male wolves of Eton would have been even more delighted to receive her back for a term in their midst.
This article has been amended online since original publication to reflect the fact that the artist was known as Claude