David Hockney’s English landscape paintings have heroically revived this deeply unfashionable genreby Charles Saumarez-Smith / December 14, 2011 / Leave a comment
A Closer Winter Tunnel, February-March (2006) by David Hockney
David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture Royal Academy, 21st January to 9th April, Tel: 020 7300 8000
Once, the English landscape was a prime subject for British art. From the time of the pioneering watercolour artist Paul Sandby in the mid-18th century right into the early 20th century, British painters responded keenly to particular features of the nation’s countryside, beginning with fields and hills, and soon enough, as travel writer and painter John Brown put it in 1753, to “the beauty, horror and immensity” of the Lake District, Scotland and Wales.
The kingdom then was recently united and charting its topography in paint was a sign of a new, visual excitement about the union. Travellers to Britain’s closest neighbours, France and the Netherlands, could also marvel at the strides the landscape painters of those thoroughly confident cultures had made the century before. The greatest 17th-century “English” painter, Anthony van Dyck—principally a portraitist of course—deeply influenced the English style, bringing with him from Antwerp to the court of Charles I innovations in depicting the world, meaning trees and hills along with courtly ruffs and curly cavalier locks.
For two centuries, to go out into the countryside and capture the land on canvas was an indisputably legitimate form of British art. Now, however, the painting of landscape is effectively taboo. It is regarded as too cosy, too much a part of an old, stolid tradition: it is what Sunday painters do, surely, hoping to flog their garish wares on park railings. So why has David Hockney, the most celebrated British painter of the last 40 years, most of them spent in his adoptive California, concentrated recently on painting his native Yorkshire? His focus on the British landscape, as a new Royal Academy exhibition dedicated to his pastoral paintings demonstrates, is bold and eye-grabbing—and at the same time traditional. Hockney the magician-colourist is also, we see, a master of perspective and mood, of trees and fields in their natural place. On his own Hockney seems to have reinvented a genre that practically died after the second world war.
Well into the 1930s many artists continued to paint the landscape. Despite the upheavals of European modernism, a deep-seated belief in Britain that art should be a response to the natural world—going back to perhaps the best-loved master of them all, John Constable, or even further,…