Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

20 May 2017

Constable’s English Landscape

On 20 May 1832 John Constable was at home in Hampstead drafting an introduction to English Landscape, a set of mezzotints after his own views.  Constable was writing at a time when ‘topographical’ art had become seen as a lesser form of landscape. The draft shows Constable struggling with how to express his aim of lauding “the Genuine Scenes of England” as “the vehicle of General Landscape”, “part of the legitimate art of the country”.

English Landscape C12694-01

British Library Walter Thornbury’s Life of Turner Tab. 438.a.1, Vol. X p.38


English Landscape

Rura mihi, et rigui placeant in vallibus amnes,
Flumina amen, sylvasque, inglorious.

This little work being at length compleated it is not without great anxiety that it is offered to the notice of the world - perhaps the very flattering manner in which it has been received by the profession and other intelligent persons cannot have failed both to promote and influence its publication.

The leading object in the production of these Landscape specimins subjects of Landscape - is to help and promote the love of English Scenery and to mark in nature the powerfull influence and endless changes of the “Chiaro scuro” to promote moreover that endeavour.

Another object of this work is to promote that happy union of the study of nature in the fields with the contemplation of works of art at home.

Respiciens rura – laremque suum Ovid

Neither can be effective alone – there can be no reason why the Genuine Scenes of England – repleat with all powerful associations and endearments –  with per this perhaps – their amenity – should not be made the Vehicle of General Landscape – be embodied with its principals – and become part of the legitimate art of the country – the art so pursued could not fail of becoming original & characteristic and what it is the endeavour of this work to promote notwithstanding the hazard of its present disadvantage.

In an age and country so abounding with great examplars – both of living and departed excellence genius. it will follow the imitator or at best and their consequent attendant conoursurship – it must follow that imitative merit or at best that excellence which is eclectic will be the least disputed – and more redily received than that with which the world is as yet unacquainted – but those species of merit would be neither congenial with the spirit, nor at all according the principals which it is the endeavour of this work to display.

Three other drafts of this introduction are held by the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. They were donated in 1953 by Constable scholar R.B.Beckett.
“The most interesting [of the papers I am offering], to my mind, are the draft introductions to English Landscape. In his first draft Constable was going beyond his immediate purpose of explaining the mezzotints and was seeking to put into words the battle, so to speak, which he had been fighting all his life – that of setting landscape, and particularly English Landscape, on its own feet. There is something pathetic in his painful & cumbrous efforts to express himself: an exact parallel with the difficulties he found in his early attempts at drawing, which did not come naturally to him: or you may draw another parallel between his rapid sketches and short satirical remarks on the one hand, his attempts at ‘finishing’ and elaborating in paint or in words, on the other.”

Felicity Myrone
Lead Curator, Western Prints & Drawings

See more about topography and Constable - Draft introduction to English Landscape

Further reading:
Various Subjects of Landscape, Characteristic of English Scenery, from Pictures Painted by John Constable, R.A., Engraved by David Lucas, a set of mezzotints known as English Landscape.  The British Library holds Constable’s draft in an extra-illustrated copy of Walter Thornbury’s Life of Turner, Tab. 438.a.1. English Landscape was issued in parts from June 1830 to July 1832, with an introduction dated 28 May 1832 included in the July instalment.

Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, draft introductions - MS 38-1953, which is not dated or addressed; MS 39-1953, dated May 1832; and MS 40-1953, dated 28 May 1832.

Felicity Myrone, ‘Introductions to Constable's English Landscape’, Print Quarterly, 24 (September 2007), 273-77.


18 May 2017

Loveable Oak Trees

Oak trees provided essential material for warships in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – the ‘wooden walls’ that defended the British Isles from invasion. But they inspired an affection that went far beyond an appreciation of their usefulness. Ancient oaks were treasured and preserved into extreme old age. Landowners were reluctant to cut them down, poets addressed verses to them, artists relished the chance to delineate their swelling trunks and shattered branches. Some went further and treated them as objects of worship.

Writers from this period state that their forefathers, the Druids, worshipped the true God in oak groves before churches were built – hence it was reasonable to see old trees as ‘natural temples’.

Oak trees were also credited with being the sites of the first parliaments, and  symbols of resistance to overweening authority. One famous tree, the Swilcar Oak, is given a speaking part in a poem by Francis Mundy about Needwood Forest in Staffordshire (1776). He shakes his tresses, spreads his bare arms to the skies, and begs the axeman to spare the young oaks growing around him. Horace Walpole claimed that an ancient tree was an image of liberty, since in a country ruled by a despot it would be appropriated for timber.

  Talking Oak

'The Talking-Oak' by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale from Poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1905) 556*.a.3/6 Noc

Another vocal tree was the ‘Talking Oak’ of Alfred Tennyson’s poem of that name (1837-8).  Its narrator confides so much in the old oak tree that the tree replies, and tells him that the woman he loves is superior to all the other young women he has seen in his five hundred years of life. What is more, because she also talks (and sings) to the tree, he can testify that his love for her is returned.

 Payne 2

Robert Pollard after James Andrews, An East View of Yardley Oak (1805). British Library K.Top XXXII Online Gallery Noc


There are many portraits of famous old oak trees.  The Yardley Oak was the subject of a poem by William Cowper (1791-2), who wrote that his idolatry of the tree had some excuse, because of the precedent set by the Druids.

Cowper writes lovingly of the giant bulk of the tree, its sides embossed with excrescences that have developed over many years. Such features also appealed to the artist Samuel Palmer, whose 1828 drawings of the oaks of Lullingstone, near Shoreham in Kent emphasized the human-like belly, shoulders and sinews of the ancient trees.

Payne 3
Samuel Palmer, Ancient Trees, Lullingstone Park (1828). Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut.

For Jacob George Strutt, who produced 40 portraits of trees for his Sylva Britannica (1822), 21 of them oaks, old trees were ‘silent witnesses of the successive generations of men, to whose destiny they bear so touching a resemblance, alike in their budding, their prime, and their decay’.

Do we still feel the same way about oak trees today?

Christiana Payne
Professor of History of Art, Oxford Brookes University

Further reading:
Christiana Payne, Remarkable trees via the British Library's new digital resource Picturing Places
Jacob George Strutt, Sylva Britannica; or, Portraits of Forest Trees, distinguished for their Antiquity, Magnitude, or Beauty. Drawn from nature and etched by Jacob George Strutt (London: J. G. Strutt and Colnaghi and Co, 1822)
Christiana Payne, Silent Witnesses: Trees in British Art, 1760-1870 (Sansom and Company, 2017)
Fiona Stafford, The Long, Long Life of Trees (Yale University Press, 2016)


16 May 2017

Henry Nicholetts’ voyage to Calcutta

India Office Private Papers recently acquired the journal of Henry Nicholetts written during a voyage to Calcutta in 1855. Henry was aged 15 and on his way to start a career in Borneo.  We are delighted that the journal is going to feature in an event at the British Library in June - A Passage to India: Shipboard Life

Nicholetts WD4560 compressed

Miniature portrait of Henry Nicholetts - British Library WD4560

Henry Nicholetts was born in South Petherton Somerset on 31 July 1840, the tenth child of solicitor John and his wife Mary.  Henry’s mother died shortly before his eighth birthday.  He was educated at Merchant Taylors’ School in London and for a short time at Rugby.  In 1855 his father asked Henry if he would like to go to Borneo as a ‘governor’ of a district.  There was a family connection: Henry’s elder brother Gilbert was married to Mary Anna Johnson, a niece of Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak.  Henry tells us that he ’accepted the appointment without any hesitation’ and set off on his journey in July 1855 on board the Monarch bound for Calcutta.

  Monarch launch Blackwall 1844
Launch of the Monarch at Green’s Yard Blackwall -  Illustrated London News 15 June 1844

Henry kept a journal of the entire voyage, overcoming sea sickness in the early days to take pleasure in life on board ship:  ‘I think it is worth coming to sea if only to see the beautiful mornings’. 

Nicholetts diary 1

 British Library MSS Eur F706 Noc

The teenager complains at times of the monotony of the voyage, having nothing to record some days except the position of the ship. But he and his fellow passengers passed the time with whist, quoits, play-acting, singing, dancing, and shooting birds. There were fights and accidents to report – a chain fell from the rigging, rattling to the deck close to a young passenger, and a dog fell overboard. Henry enjoyed two traditional maritime celebrations: the ceremony of the dead horse when the sailors’ advance of one month’s pay ran out, and ‘crossing the line’ with Neptune. 

Nicholetts diary 2

British Library MSS Eur F706 Noc

Henry had tea with the midshipmen who were ‘very free and easy’, and he ‘began to know the ladies a little better’, chatting with ‘a young lady of very prepossessing appearance & of a very romantic turn of mind’. Small incidents are turned into amusing stories: the bad haircut given to one young man; the mixing of gin instead of water into port wine; the effect of the waves - ‘The ship rolling a good deal we had scenes in the cuddy - tea cups tumbling over; legs of mutton bounding down the table; ladies falling into gentlemen’s arms’.

Unfortunately our story of this engaging teenager does not have a happy ending.

On arrival in Sarawak, Henry was posted by Sir James Brooke to Lundu. In February 1857 he went on a short visit to stay with Brooke at Kuching.  


Sir James Brooke by Sir Francis Grant 1847 NPG 1559 © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG CC

On the night of 18/19 February Brooke’s house was attacked by armed Chinese. Henry went out from the bungalow where he was sleeping.  Brooke wrote:  ‘Poor Harry Nicholetts! I mourn for his fate.  I was fond of him, for he was a gentle and amiable lad, promising well for the future. Suddenly awakened, he tried to make his way to the large house, and was killed in the attempt.  His sword lay beside him next morning when he was found. Poor, poor fellow!’

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Join us on 19 June to hear more about Henry’s shipboard experiences and those of other voyagers to India as revealed in their private papers.

19June_ApassagetoindiaLanding at Madras - British Library P1551 Noc


Further reading:
Henry Nicholetts’ journal MSS Eur F706
Gertrude L Jacob, The Raja of Sarawak (London, 1876)
Basil Lubbock, The Blackwall Frigates (Glasgow, 1962)