Richard Wilson and the Transformation of European Landscape Painting, National Museum, Cardiff – review

Landscape art is never neutral: it exudes ideology. In mid-18th-century Britain, with its extremes of wealth and poverty, land was mostly held by a wealthy aristocratic elite, who also guarded the tenets of taste. For them, the landscape art that really mattered was that of Claude, Poussin and Salvator Rosa, as seen in the painted mythologies that the aristocracy loved to collect – idealised, classical, and located somewhere between the Alps and the Mediterranean. This is why all ambitious British artists travelled hopefully to Italy to study classical remains and the local scenery. One of them was the Welsh-born Richard Wilson, whose 300th birthday is being celebrated with this sumptuous exhibition in Cardiff.

By his mid-thirties, Wilson had established himself as a medium-weight portrait painter and occasional exponent of landscape, more-or-less in the realistic Dutch tradition. Then, in 1751, he went to Rome to join an assorted group of Britons huddling together around the Piazza di Spagna. Here he might have continued to earn his bread by painting portraits for English milords on the Grand Tour, but it was Italian landscape that captured him and, by the time he returned to his London practice in 1757, he had evolved into a highly accomplished Italianate landscape painter in the tradition of his ultimate hero Claude.

Wilson painted a number of mythologies, including one smash hit, “The Destruction of the Children of Niobe”, but he made many more “pure” landscapes in something like the style of Claude. These typically convey a preternatural tranquillity of mood, in which the eye is directed between a frame of trees and rising ground to a view of an untroubled lake or wide river and, beyond, to a low horizon, broken by a distant city or mountain under a pale, lightly clouded sky. The viewpoint is elevated enough to reduce any rather sketchy country folk in the lower foreground to diminutive size, turning them into, in the technical term, “staffage” – individually insignificant accessories to the design as a whole.

Whether the panorama is a “real” or a concocted view – the curators gently push the idea of Wilson as one of the first “plein-air” painters of actual landscape in oils – is not quite the point of these paintings. Their purpose was to idealise the country, to imbue it with a sense of serenity and permanence, and they do this pretty well.

The last big Wilson show, at the Tate in 1982, was subtitled “the Landscape of Reaction”. It represented Wilson’s aesthetic from 1750 until his death in 1782 as mostly backward-looking, and concerned with pandering to the taste of landed families – it being noted that this was the class (in a junior branch) to which he himself belonged. It is an idea that the present Cardiff curators seek to contradict. Wilson, they say, was actually a progressive artist who, by his teaching and example, paved the way for the phenomenal change in the status of landscape painting in Britain towards, and beyond, the end of the century.

I find it hard to agree with them. True, Wilson was a real innovator when he brought the Grand Style home by painting Snowdonia, and other remote parts of the country, with the same touch that he had applied to Tivoli, Lake Nemi or the Bay of Naples. The results he achieved are intensely beautiful, but they are nothing like Constable’s unpremeditated enquiries into the effects of nature, or Gainsborough’s ability to take us down a rutted cart track and into the dappled gloom of ancient woodland. Wilson was content in his time to broaden the scope of the classical: he did not want to overturn it.

Was it his followers, then, who mounted the barricades of artistic revolution? Wilson at his height commanded considerable authority and influence, running a studio in both Rome and London with assistants and selected pupils – not all of them British – through whom he channelled his style. A number of these pupil/assistants are shown in the exhibition. The best of them were William Hodges, who became James Cook’s expeditionary artist in his second voyage to the South Seas, and the significant Welsh painter Thomas Jones. Each went on to make a distinctive contribution to landscape art, but their impact cannot be compared to those who really shook landscape awake in the late 18th century. Gainsborough and Constable may have admired Wilson, but their ideas developed from the example of the likes of Hobbema and Rubens, not from Poussin and Claude via Wilson.

In only a handful of paintings after his return from Rome did Wilson revert to a less classical, more Dutch, idea of painting. One of these is “On Hounslow Heath”, which he probably painted for his friend William Chambers, a landowner in the area. It shows a flat, ungainly view that is singularly lacking in the charm Wilson had found at the baths of Ischia or the Alban Hills.

A far more striking example, though, would be “Lydford Waterfall, Tavistock”, whose subject appears without any arboreal framing or sense of immutable classical order, but with only the power of its own singular character – the water gushing down in a stark diagonal across the picture plane, the palette dark and the spirit turbulent. This work really might be described as pointing forward to the aesthetic ideas of Romanticism, and so lend a little support to the curators’ thesis – in which case it is very strange not to find the painting in the show. Luckily, it is not far away, as it hangs in the National Museum’s next room among the paintings of the permanent collection, but its exclusion looks suspiciously like a loss of nerve; a failure, perhaps, to allow the exception to put the rule itself to the test.

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