British Art and the Sublime
Christine Riding and Nigel Llewellyn
Debating the sublime
Analysing the sublime
Obscurity – which confuses judgement
Privation (or deprivation) – since pain is more powerful than pleasure
Vastness – which is beyond comprehension
Magnificence – in the face of which we are in awe
Loudness – which overwhelms us
Suddenness – which shocks our sensibilities to the point of disablement
The sublime before Edmund Burke
The sublime imagination
Contemporarily with Reynolds, the artist, poet and visionary, William Blake (1757–1827) was, by contrast, unhesitating in his praise for Michelangelo, hailing him for his selfless, spiritual dedication to art and for showing a level of commitment that paralleled his own. Blake produced hundreds of drawings, watercolours and paintings on biblical themes, some of which were indebted to Michelangelo, in particular the much admired Last Judgement 1537–41 in the Sistine Chapel. In Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils 1826 (fig.4, Tate N03340), an extraordinary scene of Burkean ‘privation’ or suffering, Blake explores his own idiosyncratic interpretation of what he called ‘the sublime of the Bible’.8 Through the nineteenth century, the emulation of Michelangelo’s sculptural and highly expressive figurative compositions, usually with the barest possible landscape setting, was a means for British artists to engage with the aesthetic of the sublime. A monumental painting by Frederic Leighton (1830–1896), And the Sea Gave Up the Dead which Were In It exhibited 1892(fig.5, Tate N01511), is just such a Michelangelesque work on a subject – the Last Judgement – that by very definition, has never been witnessed and which, therefore, defies the imagination.
A second level of grandeur could, as we have seen, be attained through the appropriate choice of subject matter, for example, epic scenes from history using orthodox biblical or classical sources and, increasingly as time passed, using modern subjects from national literature and history. This development took place in the wake not only of the publication of Burke’s treatise but also of the instigation in 1760 of art exhibitions at the Society of Artists designed to attract the public in large crowds. The series of paintings and prints by George Stubbs (1724–1806) depicting a violent encounter between a horse and a lion (Figs.8, 9 and 10; Tate T06869, T01192 and T02058), two examples of which were exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1763, was a direct response to Burke’s promotion of the theme of ‘Frightening Nature’ and offered a thrilling visual experience aimed at appealing to a broad, less ‘high-minded’ public, able to sympathise with the terror of the scene without having to know classical languages or any particular highbrow literary source.
T05846) portrays the power of elemental natural forces and Wilson’s Llyn-y-Cau, Cader Idris 1774 (fig.12, Tate T05596) is an exercise in daunting emptiness and the evocation of an alienating landscape to provoke a sense of sublime solitude, a central theme in the Romantic poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge and others. As Burke had put it, infinity – even infinite emptiness – could fill the mind with a ‘delightful horror’.10 Irrespective of scale, certain formal considerations are common to a number of these works. For example, in Wright’s Vesuvius, Martin’s Last Judgement trilogy (Tate N05613, T01928 and T01927), Turner’s The Shipwreck exhibited 1805 (fig.13, Tate N00476) and de Loutherbourg’s An Avalanche in the Alps (Tate T00772), a sense of the massive scale of the natural content is generated within the composition by means of a contrast between the diminutive figures and the vastness of their surroundings. Equally pervasive are dramatic fluctuations of light contrasting with Burkean ‘obscurity’ in various sources and combinations, such as the complex play of moonlight across sky and water in Turner’s Fishermen at Sea 1796 (fig.14, Tate T01585) and The Shipwreck, and the dramatic contrast of hot and cold light, of fire, lava and moonlight, in Wright’s Vesuvius in Eruption. Equally important is the inventiveness with which artists manipulated the relationship between the painting and the spectator. In The Shipwreck, for example, Turner has chosen a viewpoint that removed the shoreline from which the viewer could ‘safely’ contemplate the storm, to immerse them, as it were, in the raging sea immediately alongside those struggling for survival.
Sublime effect achieved a high point of theatricality in the work of John Martin: a blood-red sun contrasts with a single bolt of white lightning that rips across the scene of devastation in The Great Day of His Wrath 1851–3 (fig.15, Tate N05613). In The Last Judgement (fig.16, Tate T01927), the damned topple into a black abyss, above which Jesus Christ is enthroned, bathed in ‘celestial’ light. Infinity is the theme of the second part of the trilogy, The Plains of Heaven (fig.17, Tate T01928), with its extraordinary luminosity and its ethereal representation of the kingdom of God in the form of a classical city in the background. Martin had introduced this new and extremely popular form of apocalyptic sublime in the 1820s, achieving considerable acclaim in Britain, France and later the United States (the Last Judgement trilogy toured to New York in 1856). However, the ambition of Martin’s compositions could equally provoke derision and alarm: in the late 1820s, the American landscape painter Thomas Cole, an admirer of both Martin and Turner, was warned by an art critic against the pitfalls of being seen to imitate ‘Pandemonium Martin’.11 Pandemonium or not by the 1840s, in the hands of Martin and others, by the 1840s, the pictorial language of the sublime in British landscape painting was moving towards the formulaic and clichéd.
12 In this context, William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay ?1858–60 (fig.18, Tate N01407) can be understood as a profound meditation on time: geological, astronomical and human. Equally profound is John Brett’s meticulous study of the glacier of Rosenlaui in Switzerland (fig.19, Tate N05643), which is a visual essay in geological observation and on an enormous scale, which becomes apparent only when we notice the fir trees at the summit of the rock face on the left.
14 It is possible that when John Collier’s The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson (fig.22, Tate N01616) was exhibited in 1881, its symbolising of humankind in extremis, mind and body, was experienced in Burkean terms of pleasurable dread: the viewer staring into the abyss from a position of comfort and safety.
How to cite
Christine Riding and Nigel Llewellyn, ‘British Art and the Sublime’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, January 2013, https://www