- Science and the Perception of Nature: British Landscape Art in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries, and: Linnaeus: Nature and Nation (review)
- Eighteenth-Century Studies
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 34, Number 2, Winter 2001
- pp. 327-329
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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.2 (2001) 327-329
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Science and the Perception of Nature: British Landscape Art in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries
Linnaeus: Nature and Nation
Charlotte Klonk. Science and the Perception of Nature: British Landscape Art in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996). Pp. 198. $60.00 cloth.
Lisbet Koerner. Linnaeus: Nature and Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999). Pp. 320. $39.95 cloth.
What can we learn from the past? Charlotte Klonk and Lisbet Koerner approach this problem from opposite directions. In the conclusion of Science and the Perception of Nature, Klonk tells the reader that she sought to answer a question inspired by the rhetoric of today's environmental movement in Germany: Can we escape "the culture-nature opposition which dominates contemporary thinking?" (152). She looks for an answer among the theorists and practitioners of British landscape painting in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century and concludes that, for a moment, an instructive rapprochement between nature and culture may possibly have opened. Contrarily, Koerner looks backward to ask how the past conceived of itself. Her book issues a corrective to the received idea of Linnaeus as primarily a taxonomist. She sees him as a patriot governed by cameralist ambitions.
Both Klonk and Koerner conscript illustrations to the support of their arguments, Klonk far more as befits her art-historical argument. Toward the end of her book Klonk reproduces a graphite and watercolor sketch by Cornelius Varley entitled Near Ross (1803). With laudable boldness, she claims that this depiction of a woodland path conveys "a tension whose force cannot be expressed in words. It is here that phenomenalism has a utopian dimension" (153). In her usage, "phenomenalism" denotes a way of looking at nature that restricts itself, as best it can, to observable effects. Klonk's invocation of "utopia" may therefore seem odd. The Greek meaning of the word is, after all, not-place, the negation of locality. Yet perhaps the integration of culture and nature after which she longs means the end of the "scenic" as conceived of by conventional painters. The distance between the bland cartographic title Near Ross and the vivid sketch only emphasizes the distance between words and what words cannot articulate. (Unless words, too, are considered natural, as some might assert.) For Klonk, Near Ross occupies a precious, unstable middle station between the picturesque and a more thoroughly subjective phenomenalism.
Klonk explores the origins of this extraordinary middle station. She argues that Uvedale Price's idea of the picturesque favors chiaroscuro, the visual token of "a common ordering principle" capable of integrating "marks of decay and disruption . . . through the unifying effects of light and shade" (35). Price manifests an eighteenth-century faith in objective natural meaning accessible to human beings. Another evidence for an "ontological continuum" between naturalia and human beings comes in Robert John Thornton's Temple of Flora (1797-1807), which portrays plants accurately yet anthropomorphically, according to the conventions of eighteenth-century portraiture (58). The specimens appear not in their native habitats, but in landscapes whose cultural connotations are apt. Hence the sublime desert species, the African Maggot-bearing Stapelia, occupies a correlatively sublime Alpine setting. [End Page 327]
For Klonk, Richard Payne Knight's concept of the picturesque marks the emergence of nineteenth-century phenomenalism. Phenomenalism, strictly conceived, places the center of meaning in the viewer rather than in the scene. Klonk uses varied depictions of the Island of Staffa to trace the change from picturesque to scientific etiquette. Scrutinizing the circle congregated around the painters John and Cornelius Varley, which pioneered open-air painting and unusually valued the sketch, she intimates the possibility, exemplified by Near Ross, of communicating a moment in which subject and non-subject critically meet. Though awkwardly phrased at times, Klonk's book is intriguing and exciting, and its formulations are never less careful than they are daring.
Koerner reproduces a map by Gustav Brusewitz that traces the...