- Science and the Perception of Nature: British Landscape Art in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries
The links between natural philosophy and naturalistic British landscape painting of the early nineteenth century are the subject of Charlotte Klonk’s book on British landscape painting. In this sense the book is a return to an earlier art historical tradition that attempted to account for the emergence of a new naturalistic style of landscape painting around 1800 by searching out its formative intellectual antecedents. The gesture it made to empiricism and the science of perception was sweeping but vague. For the most part, this work depicted the fit between science and landscape painting as a seamless one, and developments in natural science and the science of perception were used to explain how it was that artists like Constable saw their work as an extension of natural philosophy. What makes Klonk different is that she acknowledges that the moment when science and art shared a common empirical vision of nature was necessarily brief because it entailed considerable effort on the part of artists to maintain the objective perspective of the natural scientist.
The interest of her argument lies in her willingness to explore this moment in some detail and to specify, through a series of case studies, the nature of the connections between scientific ideas and actual works of art. Beginning with a brief history of eighteenth-century theories of perception, she traces a genealogy of what she calls “phenomenalism”—i.e., an inductive system of reasoning in which general ideas are derived from a slow and systematic accumulation and sifting of sense data. This first chapter ends with the debate that emerged within the phenomenalist school of thought as to the role of individualism (in the form of the observer’s personal memories, associations, and experiences) in the mind’s processing of external visual stimuli. In short, did the perception of external objects follow a pattern of response that was largely and universally the same for all or was it uniquely personal? It was, of course, this debate that destabilized phenomenalism and, as Klonk argues, split artists off from natural scientists. Like other art historians of this period, Klonk acknowledges that the mode of perception she is discussing was not value free; the phenomenalist moment with its inductive reasoning shared common intellectual ground with the politics of the British anti-Jacobins who favored a gradualist approach to government and feared “unnatural” political abstractions such as those that led to the French Revolution.
The three cases Klonk explores are Robert Thornton’s botanical volume, The Temple of Flora (1797–1807), the intersection of geology and landscape art in the context of tourism, and the landscape paintings of John Linnell and John and Cornelius Varley. Much of the visual material she investigates in these chapters has been all but ignored by art historians and Klonk’s discussion of it is often stimulating and insightful. Thornton’s Temple of Flora was a lavishly and eccentrically illustrated book of botanical illustrations, which in several plates depicted plants in what might pass for their natural habitat. Yet, as Klonk shows, the backgrounds, in fact, follow the conventions of portraiture in that they are intended to allude to the plants’ traditional associations and “virtues” and in each case to the aesthetic category (the beautiful, the sublime, the picturesque) appropriate to them. Similarly, the disjunctions between geological descriptions of extraordinary rock formations such as Fingal’s cave on the isle of Staffa and their more conventional artistic renderings by William Daniell and others are taken as evidence of the difficulty artists had adjusting familiar pictorial schemata to the demands of empirical vision. The conclusions drawn in these chapters are not entirely unpredictable for readers of Gombrich and others who have explored the limits of perceptualism.
Perhaps the book’s most important contribution is the extensive discussion of the early landscape work of Linnell and the Varleys. Here there is real evidence of artists [End Page 408...