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Space into Time: English Canals and English Landscape Painting 1760-1835

Cole, Susanna D. L.

England's canal network, critical to the nation's predominance in the development of modern industry, goes largely unnoticed today except by some scholars of transportation. As I suggest in my introduction, one of the reasons may be that since the Second World War the canals have been cleaned up and turned into an attraction for boaters and tourists. With their brightly painted cabins occupied by families on vacation, the boats, now motorized, glide slowly and silently past the bucolic banks of the canals. These are, in appearance, as originally proposed by the development companies and drawn and engraved for the newspapers: beautiful country spaces to be admired and enjoyed by the public. Another reason may be the exertion of a willful nostalgia: because the comparatively slow-moving canals can appear pre-industrial we choose to think of them that way. These choices have made the English canal system part of a pre-modern England, imagined just as the canals were being built. That England would always stand as "a living emblem" of itself remained for the most part uncontested (putting Cromwell to one side) until the construction of the canals. No narrative was required to explain the meaning of the countryside of estates and villages: they were "taken as a given" and had "no apparent origins". The canals visibly introduced time into what was perceived as an unchanging landscape. Time entered not only in the speed of transport on the canals but also in the factories that ran by the clock and the canals that ran by timetable. The geological layers unearthed in the digging of the canals revealed the passage of eons of time and the instability of the earth itself. Time entered in the movement of people and goods in bustling new towns that were in the interior of the country, made prosperous in part by the access the canals gave them to the seas. There was enthusiasm for the progress of English industry and science, a sense of national pride, and great expectations for the wealth of the country. There was a sense that if the old landscape and the new could not be reconciled, the identity of the nation would be lost. The general ambivalence about the changes the canals would bring began at the top with the landed nobility who first financed and built them. Their desire to extract wealth from their own lands overcame their fear of a dynamic population. Gainsborough, in his Cottage Door paintings, appealed to his audience's sense of nostalgia for the passing of the timeless English landscape at the very moment that the canals were being built and many of them were investing in them. Ambivalence is also present in Constable's attempts to cope with landscapes expressive of both time and space. The desire to return to an almost mythic prior time is palpable and his attempt to leap into the future with The Leaping Horse avoids the issue in the other direction. The heyday of canals, from 1765 to 1835, is the interstice between the early days of modernity in England and modern England in its full-blown glory. It is also a curious period in which the development of one technology, the canal, as it was elaborated in the landscape, propelled two generations of artists to work on the same problem: the visual representation of time and space. If one sets a later date for modernity (which I believe would be incorrect), one has the additional liability of facing a closed system of a time-based society and visual culture. By setting the onset of modernity in the 1760's, the anxiety and the failure of artists to develop the presence of both time and space in their work. At the very cusp of the period, in a work such as Turner's Dudley, Worcestershire, time does not empty space of meaning, any more than the supremacy of space in pre-modern England truly nullified time.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Crary, Jonathan K.
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 30, 2013