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george morland; or, the banality of the sublime

 

“Light move the shoulders, strong the limbs behind,
At will to amble, or outstrip the wind.
Screen’d by the hedge, or cross the open lea,
He and his mate to lesser close flee.
By instinct brought on those sweet herbs to feed,
Which round the mole-hill lift their flow’ry head.”

The Hare, Kenrick Prescot (1757)

The images The Farmer’s visit to his married daughter in Town, with its companion piece The Visit returned, were painted by George Morland in 1793 and engraved by his one-time fellow Royal Academy student, John Thomas Smith.

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The first shows an elderly farmer entertained at the home of his Town-dwelling daughter, her husband and child. The young woman reads a letter hand-delivered from her mother while the father and husband sit at the table drinking wine. The kindly looking farmer still wears his overcoat and good strong boots. He holds a riding crop, having ridden up to Town on horseback. On the floor his grandson intently studies a lifeless hare, a gift from the countryside that will no doubt serve for supper.



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In the second picture, The Visit returned, the family are visiting the grandparents’ farm. Dressed in best travelling clothes they have journeyed down from London by coach. The men drink good country ale and the grandfather smokes a pipe while in amiable discussion with his son in law. The mother and her daughter are deep in conversation: they have much to tell each other.

The scene is set out-of-doors, around a table under a tree, a corner of a not insubstantial farmhouse with a leaded window and a glimpse of the fields visible in the background. At the adults’ feet the little boy plays with a clutch of chicks under the wary eye of the mother hen.

Such domestic scenes, drawn from suburban and rural lives and animated by transparent and uncomplicated narratives were a Morland specialty. Born in Drury Lane in 1763 he was a child prodigy, the most prolific and sought after painter of his day, with mezzo and stipple prints of his works issued in their thousands for eagerly awaited distribution and display on the walls of even the most humble abodes.

In just the last 8 years of his life he is reputed to have produced 800 paintings and more than a thousand fully executed drawings. But by then his talent had long since become as mechanical as the printing processes that reproduced his images, prefiguring the imminent arrival of lithography and soon afterwards photography's accelerating proficiency at portraying daily life.

populated landscapes

"It was Morland’s facility that constituted his evil genius. He never strove to do anything beyond what he had learnt to do, so easily, in early days. He combined the same figures, the same cottages, the same horses, the same trees, over and over again, even to the point of monotony, and allowed himself no chance of change, let alone improvement. His pictorial counters were combined in varying methods, but were always the same counters, and having learned to work with consummate ease, he was indifferent to the results as long as he could turn out pictures which would sell quickly and would supply him with the means to gratify his appetite”. George Morland his life and works, George C Williamson (1907)

His illustrious older contemporaries Reynolds (who was an admirer and collected his works) and Gainsborough painted realistic portraits to celebrate the status and/or fame of individual men, women and children, often times posed against equally individualistic English landscapes. His younger contemporaries Turner and Constable celebrated that changing scenery, its skies and light. But as well as some suburban domestic scenes Morland most usually celebrated ordinary people simply inhabiting or visiting the countryside.

His ‘low-life pastorals’ commemorate with an at times unrestrained sentimentality the world we have lost: the pre-steam, pre-electrical, pre-internal combustion engine, pre-nuclear let alone the world of analogue/digital/virtual technologies. He depicts the era that immediately preceded mass production and consumption, lived at the dawn of an industrial revolution and the commercialization of life that with its quotidian fashions, branding, multimedia advertising and an immanent market place is turning all human relationships into commodities.  

His depictions of the day to day lives of country folk, or London ‘cits’ and suburbanites with their loved ones, a few possessions and more often than not at least referencing their animals have largely been lost to the art establishment and public’s attention: the 200th anniversary of his death in 2005 passed without celebration.

Unlike another of his exact contemporaries, the full-blown Romantic and mystic William Blake (who held all landscape painting in contempt, populated or otherwise) Morland’s was an unheroic, naive Romanticism. Some of his rural images might portray a wild nature as the dominant element in their composition, but his paintings more usually focus on rural folk in their cottages or surrounded by their cattle; of stagecoaches, drovers and peddlers on country lanes and stable, farmyard, hedgerow and country alehouse scenes.

They are of the myriad aspects of the countryside at a time when a majority of the population still lived rustic lives, showing ordinary people in what to most will have appeared to be their ‘natural habitat’.

Many depict clearings in the unenclosed wild wood or heathland, but in reality by the beginning of the C19 the immediate countryside around London was a well-tamed territory: in most part cleared, drained, improved, ditched, copsed, hedged, grazed, ploughed, planted, harvested… and increasingly in development for housing and industry while occupied by people going about their daily business. Morland’s was ever yet a townsman’s vision of a bucolic ideal, but contemporaries saw in his rustic works their own lives and their own rural roots and prejudices.

Industrialization and commercialization has turned the iconography of such scenes into a quaint evocation of a passed rural idyll; a fully sentimentalized chocolate box/ jigsaw puzzle imagery. A public house interior décor souvenir from a long lost past. A heritage simulacra.

Only observable nowadays through the distortions of subsequent cultural re-inventions, Morland’s vision is, however, something that is very nearly the original: in his earlier pictures at  least, he depicts real mud and real rain.

The artist Richard Wilson (1714 – 1782) is considered by many as the father of British landscape painting, as well as co-founder with William Hogarth (born in the last decade of the C17) of the modern English school.

Wilson’s early London-based career as portrait artist to the Bon Ton had taken a rural turn when his pictures of ancient scenes executed on his Grand Tour of classical Italy began paying more attention to their settings than their legendary and mythical figures and ruins. On his return to London towards the end of the 1750s he applied his new-found interest to English and Welsh scenes, concentrating on grand classical views of sweeping valleys, ancient castles and country estates, and when opportunity arose sublime subjects such as Mt Snowdon and Cader Idris.

The status of landscape painting had been raised greatly by the Venetian artist Giovanni Antonio Canaletto who had been based in London over the previous decade. But although Wilson was a founding member in 1759 of what would become known as the Society of Artists of Great Britain, and nine years later of the Royal Academy of Arts, in the following decade his fortunes declined precipitously, a lack of patronage aggravated by ill health causing him to lose his fashionable studio in Covent Garden’s Great Piazza.

For many years he had lived at the northern end of Charlotte Street off Tottenham Court Rd W1, two large arched windows offering an open prospect of the fields. But after several further moves he was in a very few years living in abject poverty in nearby but much less salubrious Tottenham Street.  He was only saved from absolute penury by a small legacy that enabled him to return to a simple life in his native rural Wales. 

Nevertheless, Wilson had inaugurated a genre and a taste for ‘landscapes as landscape’ that would grow over the following decades to become one of the greatest glories of British art.

Morland’s work, meanwhile, displays that interest in human dealings more associated with Hogarth, likewise presenting vignettes from everyday life. His pair of pictures depicting the farmer’s visit to town opens a window into late-C18 affairs. The delivery of a hare to his daughter’s suburban family is both a simple gift and a potent symbol of the countryside and of the family’s status. 

The animal was game, to be taken and eaten only by those with the required property qualification, unauthorized possession severely punishable by law; eg, in December 1822 a Mr Luxton, the landlord of the Orange Tree Tavern, Red Lion Square Bloomsbury was fined the then punitive sum of £10 for being in unlawful possession (contrary to the Gaming Act) of three hares. One, he told the court “was intended for his own Christmas dinner”.

The hare is also one of our most magical native wild animals, its speed and independent lifestyle evocative of natural liberties.

Morland was a townsman born and bred, who when still little more than a boy began a hard drinking, gambling and generally profligate life style about Drury Lane, Covent Garden and Soho. Pursued by creditors he moved out into the fields, his studio-homes including at various times cottages in the rural villages of Kensal Green, Paddington and Marylebone; the very first field and roadside terraces of what would become Camden Town; a country lane near Islington and a remote spot in the Hackney Marshes.

He remained, with the exception of one brief period of blissful married stability a habitué of a proto-bohemian world of his own invention, hanging-out in low dives with fellow low-life characters.

He had moved with his wife Ann to one of the first cottages completed in Pleasant Passage, in the fields behind the Mother Black Cap public house on Camden High Street. Following the deeply mourned stillbirth of their only child, in 1787 he moved on his own round the corner to newly built Warren Place (the site on the High Street for many decades occupied by a Woolworth store) on what was then still called the Road to Hampstead.

Morland began heavy drinking again, at the Mother Black Cap and at the Britannia Tavern (on the corner of what is now Parkway) over the fields at the back of the houses, where he is reputed to have given wild parties for fellow painters, colourers, engravers and their apprentices, usually attending in his work clothes. He also drank up the road in the Castle Tavern and the Assembly House in Kentish Town, where he was known to flex his considerable talents as a singer in spontaneous bar room recitals.

It was at this period that he began to cadge lifts on the boxes of the Hampstead, Highgate or Barnet stage-coaches, hanging out at the coaching inns and befriending the coachmen and the postboys, “to whom he always behaved with liberality, and became at length so well known to them that he could have been conveyed to any part of the kingdom free of expense”. He still found time to paint and was estimated to be earning £1000pa from his prolific brushes, though he also managed to be almost permanently in debt.

This remained a rural district. But as villages such as Camden Town and Islington expanded, Battle Bridge (renamed King’s Cross in 1830), Pentonville and Somers Town also began an accelerating growth, with the fields by now in rapid retreat.

As early as November 1765, when Morland had been barely two years old and the development of the tiny rural hamlet of Battle Bridge only just first projected (a terrace of a few goodish houses extending from the bridge up the eastern side of Gray’s Inn Lane/ Rd towards London), The Daily Courant thought it noteworthy to report the local sighting of a wild hare:

“Friday afternoon, about two o’clock, a hare crossed the New Road [Pentonville Rd N1], near Dobney’s Bowling Green [on the corner of Penton St], ran to the New River Head [Rosebury Ave EC1], and from thence to Coldbath Fields [Mount Pleasant Postal sorting office WC1], where, in some turning among the different avenues, she was lost. She appeared to have been hard run, by her dirty and shabby coat”.

By the new century, in September 1801, at which time Morland’s field peregrinations had recently led him to rural Frog Lane in Islington and then after a few months to the still largely undeveloped Marylebone Road, a hare reaching only as far as Battle Bridge was thought newsworthy by the editor of the Morning Post.

The animal, first spotted in the fields near Kentish Town and pursued to old St Pancras church “swam across a pond and continued on its way to the turnpike on the New Road [the stretch now called Euston Rd] near Battle-bridge. Here a man was very near knocking it down with his hat; and a greyhound, who happened to be there, with too much eagerness to catch it leaped over its back and missed it…”

It afterwards fled across the fields to Maiden Lane [York Way N1; ie, crossing the fields now in development as King's Coss Central] “followed by a great number of people with bull-dogs, fox-dogs, terriers, pugs, and curs in abundance. Here poor puss had the fortune to conceal itself, and it remained somewhere about the brickfields”.

But by 1826, London had developed so far northwards that even though odd isolated remnants of fields might survive around Battle Bridge, encircled by new terraces of second and third rate housing, there would have been no routes for a shy though intrepid hare to progress thus far into the metropolis.

An un-sourced newspaper cutting in Camden Library’s Heal Collection dated to that year reports, however: “The halloo being given” a crowd with a sheep dog gave chase to one through Camden Town fields. It doubled back near the Veterinary College north-east of the old church, “but to no purpose, as she found the pursuers on all sides of her. In this dilemma puss attempted to spring through the ranks, but was caught by a fortunate chimney sweep”.

And not only was the hare now totally excluded from its long since surrendered haunts. The report continues that this last fleeting visitor from a rural past was in fact an artifact, “supposed to have escaped from the plantations in the Regent’s Park”.

The development of this remnant of the old Marylebone Royal Park (first enclosed from the wild wood for hunting by Henry VIII in the C16; cultivated for the provision of hay, meat and dairy products for the Stuart kings’ palaces; and then for a century let to commercial farmers to supply the ever growing capital) had been laid out by John Nash in 1813 as a gated rural theme park for the very rich, sprinkled with villas and surrounded by grand terraces; and named for the Prince Regent, the future George IV.

The grass on which cattle grazed was fenced off with ornamental iron railings, rabbits and hares ‘planted’ in the grounds and the public first permitted limited access a few decades later.

the artist as automaton

"When, in the middle of the C19, the Pindar of Wakefield and its fittings were sold by the landlord, Mr Bryson, he would not accept less than £50 for the inn sign, which had been  painted by Morland, but there were no takers so he took it with him back to Belfast. The sign showed the Pindar in a drab coat, cape and cocked hat, guiding sheep into his pinfold (pound)". handwritten note in LB Camden Local studies and archive centre's Heal Collection, CV112

As a child, Morland’s ambitious father (a successful painter who had lost a fortune gambling, his grandfather and mother also painters) had locked the boy away for long hours, hot-housing his precocious talent. Had his own son lived Morland might well have proved a responsible and loving parent, successfully maintaining the self-discipline acquired during his wife’s pregnancy.

As it was, though both continued in love he had abandoned Anne on learning that she could no longer bear children and returned to a restless nomadic existence in the fields and low suburbs, accompanied by a return to dissolute ways.

And no matter how popular his painting and how high the resulting income he remained ever in debt, living for some time as a bankrupt in the Rules of the King Bench. He did, however, always manage to maintain his deserted wife in some comfort, Anne having moved to the village of Paddington.

His sometime engraver, JT Smith (also an antiquarian collector and the author of the Book for a Rainy Day; Or, Recollections of the Events of the Years 1766-1833) describes a visit to Morland’s studio with a rich patron in December 1795, when the painter temporarily lodged in Charlotte Street although the rural views enjoyed by Wilson had by now been blocked by rows of new houses:

“He received us in the drawing-room, which was filled with easels, canvases, stretching-frames, gallipots of colour, and oilstones; a stool, chair, and a three-legged table were the only articles of furniture of which this once splendid apartment could then boast. Mr Wigston immediately bespoke a picture, for which he gave him a draft for forty pounds, that sum being exactly the money he then wanted; but this gentleman had, like most of that artist’s employers, to ply him close for his picture”.

Many tales survive of the strategies Morland adopted to avoid both his patrons and his creditors (The Pindar of Wakefield, now the Monto Water Rats on Gray’s Inn Road, was just one of several taverns graced with a sign by his hand, executed to pay his 'chalk', or bar bill) but, aged 42 years he was again arrested, in the street, and imprisoned for a few pounds in a sponging house in Air Place off Air Street Hill (now Eyre St Hill EC1), overlooking Hockley-in-the-Hole and the then still only partially developed Cold Bath Fields.

He refused the offers of friends to discharge the debt and set about sketching in the expectation of paying his own way. But soon afterwards he had a stroke, spending the next eight days partially paralyzed and speechless. He died, still a prisoner, on 29 September 1805.

On hearing of his death Anne was reported to have screamed, falling into a fit that disabled her for three days before she herself died. They were interred together in the same grave in St James’s Chapel graveyard, Hampstead Road NW1, “exactly in the middle of the small square plot, as you enter the gates, on the left”, according to an article in the Athaeneum (18 October 1884).

His obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine says “He is generally acknowledged to have spent all the time in which he did not paint in drinking, and in the meanest dissipation, with persons the most eminent he could select for ignorance or brutality; and a rabble of carters, hostlers, butchers-men, smugglers, poachers, and postillions were constantly in his company, and frequently in his pay”. 

A true-born democrat, a dandy who despised all snobbery and elitism, his penury was caused by a carefree extravagance and refusal to deal directly with his fashionable clients, turning away gentlemen and aristocrats and preferring to form ad hoc relationships with unscrupulous agents who he must have known would fleece him.

His approach is well illustrated in a story told of how as a young man, when lodging with among others his fellow artist Thomas Rowlandson at Mrs Lay’s establishment next door to Carlisle House in Soho Square, a well-known sportsman Col Thornton repeatedly called to collect a painting which he had commissioned with a £50 down payment.

Morland avoided his patron with any number of excuses, never in fact having once considered starting the painting. During one of these visits Rowlandson, espying the colonel in the street below, remarked to a visitor that if you want a drawing from Morland:

moreland








“you have only to go and drink gin, smoke, give him one of your slang songs, in the true blackguard style… and he’ll make you a drawing for nothing”. Henry Angelo’s Pic Nic (1830)






Morland by Rowlandson (mid-1780s)

Yet for all his dissolute ways the painter could remain true to a noble nature. His picture ‘Execrable Human Traffick; or the Affectionate Slaves’*, exhibited in the 1788 Royal Academy show, was one of the very first prominent attacks on slavery, giving considerable publicity to the abolitionist movement then gathering momentum.

But when hard pressed for fresh he would lock himself in his studio and set about a feverish production of images. Fuelled by booze (and opium), his current agent would organize a production line whereby his unfinished output was removed to another studio, the 'pictorial counters' so familiar that the pictures could be completed by inferior hands as he slept.

The next morning, Morland then commenced work on a new canvas. In a very short time prints would appear in the shops, his creditors would receive their dues and he himself would disappear on further adventures of thrill-seeking debauchery. This was a 'studio' system without master or pupil, artistic creation without struggle or doubt; the artist knew his subjects and he knew his techniques, and both sufficed.

The scenes of domestic contentment portrayed in The Farmer’s visit and The Visit returned reveal an altogether different sensibility. Yet they remain typical of much of his abundant output, showing Morland at his civil best.

The popular demand for such work continued for some time after his death: and in different ways his works would influence painters such as John Constable and Walter Sickert. But although the taste for sentimental and homely subjects will never die, in sophisticated and fashionable circles his memory soon faded.

His talents expressed that cultivation of sentiment that so defines the C18, his vision forged in reaction to the rationalist pretensions of the Age of Enlightenment, embracing the personal commitment of the dawning romantic ideal through a very deliberate palette of emotions.

He had lived to catch an idea of a brief few decades of the fields of London before their destruction and development as suburbs, following in Hogarth’s footsteps to break the supremacy of the aristocratic and rising bourgeoisie sensibilities to record the world lived in by the majority.

But the principle subject of a Morland view is not those ordinary people, nor is it the scenery and situations they occupy: and nor is it his, the artist’s response to the scene depicted. His canvases and prints prioritize the response of the viewer, presenting his contemporary audience with nostalgia for the almost still existing. He had learnt his skills as a young man, surrendering the elements of his own creative vision into the foundational stages of a mechanised production line of populist imagery.

Nostalgia, sentimentality, populism: these are not the sort of creative ambitions considered aspirational today. But while his spirit rejected the establishment privileging of politeness over real consideration: of form over sincerity, and of appearances and prejudices over that most allusive of aspirations, authenticity, his lifestyle remained both as transgressive and at the same time small-c conservative as any lived by a symbolist flaneur poet or a wastrel rock and roll star.

The images he produced empowered a sample of emotions, satisfying the tastes of the market while knowing the limits of their buyers’ sensibilities. Democratizing the long-C18’s opening of 'taste' to popular expression his paintings are part of the broader project to mass produce individuals, future generations participating in a popular culture generated by mass production and consumption not as highly educated connoisseurs but potentially as equals one with another, and with shared and quantifiable likes and dislikes.

The delirium of his late-career production line approach and his lifelong pursuit of personal gratification prefigure the Dominion of Things, the Age of Plenitude and of Identity as Consumption...

As such, polite society had never been able properly to accommodate him, or his pictures, just as he would never attempt to accommodate it. The new century, in which he survived for only half a decade, was accelerating the development of a regime of manners suitable to the building of an urban, industrial economy on the back of a worldwide empire.

There would be no place for Morland or his images in that order much beyond the parlours of the families of labourers and mechanics; and nor would a new place be found when that world was fractured by the world wars, abstraction and high modernity, genocide, mutual assured destruction and hyper realities of the following century.

And likewise, for a now receding turn-of-the-C21 art world so dedicated to novelty, money and celebrity his has not been a particularly marketable product. Unless mutilated or somehow refashioned in some conceptual or virtual installation, a lone Morland painting or print should appear entirely lost on the big white walls of a modern art gallery, presenting a peep hole into a long passed-away world but bearing little relevance to today’s obscure and overly sophisticated expectations.

But peep again. In a paradoxical inversion of the discourse of the sublime, does the aesthetic rejection of his work nowadays result from the everyday subjects of his compositions (their soft bucolic lines and neatly packaged homely emotions) having become a terror to a world now entirely accustomed to the “fearful and the irregular”?

As we career from seemingly never-ending wars against drugs and terror into a micro-controlled/ random non-place, peering into an unmapped future of economic uncertainty/ engineered booms and busts, and an increasingly heating up, fragile and resource limited planet, does the simplicity, the banality of Morland’s imagery repulse us because of its uncomplicated but for us forever unsalvageable beauty: a sentimental beauty long-since obscured by the imperatives of progress and the self-deprecations of kitsch, camp and postmodern irony?

That same uncomplicated beauty possessed by the wild hare that at the very dawn of the C19 could still escape unharmed from the Battle Bridge fields.

The pen of the Gentleman’s Magazine’s obituarist recalls an image that perhaps encapsulates Morland the man and Morland the painter, describing how before moving out of Pleasant Place he was found at home:

“His infant child, that had been dead nearly three weeks, lay in its coffin in the corner of the room; an ass and foal stood munching barley-straw out of the cradle, a sow and pigs were solacing in the recess of an old cupboard; and himself whistling over a beautiful picture that he was finishing at his easel, with a bottle of gin hung up on one side, and a live mouse sitting (as if you please, kicking) for his portrait, on the other”.

A pretty awful image; but is its prettiness full also of a grandiose, humbling awe?

*It too became a popular print: “Slave Trade. Lo! The poor Captive with distraction wild Views his dear Partner torn from his embrace! A different Captain buys his wife and Child. What time can from his Soul such ills erase?” Painted by G. Morland. Engrav’d by J.R. Smith. Published 1 February 1791 by Smith, King Street, Covent Garden. Colour mezzotint. 481 x 655mm.

For further examples of Morland’s work look at google images.


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