• Art, Past & Present: Part 3 of 3 - 'Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire'

    By chance, three different art exhibitions in London currently all engage with the same subject – how particular artists considered the old and the new. Specifically, shows looking at Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet and Thomas Cole explore how they each viewed societal developments in their own times, wondered what their work should look like in the context of that and whether they followed, built on or reacted against those practitioners who came before. Fittingly all three finish on the same date, so you have about five weeks to experience all of them. My own encounters concluded with the National Gallery’s Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire.

    Though clearly the least-known artist of the three for many, I was aware of his work through the Tate’s revelatory American Sublime exhibition in 2002. Alongside Fredrick Church (Cole’s pupil at the Hudson River School) and others, Cole – an Englishman by birth – was responsible for framing forever the Old World’s view of the New as a place of immeasurable, untamed wildernesses of unparalleled beauty and awesome splendour. But, as this major exhibition is at pains to point out, Cole actually took a very different view of the great American landscape and what it could be than his compatriots. And even if his US-set works don’t always make this clear, his magnificent Course of Empire sequence sets out his stall with power and elegance.

    Born in Bolton in 1801, Cole was an admirer of Turner and his portrayals of nature, but was also aware of how the controversial artist confronted modernity – especially technology – in his works. Both Turner and his contemporary Philip de Loutherbourg were awed by what the curators call the ‘demonic spectacle’ of forges and factories of the Industrial Revolution, and both drew comparisons between tradition and contemporaneity when including such sights in their pictures. Thus Turner’s Fighting Temeraire showed a derelict sailing ship towed to its grave by a steam tug, whilst in his fieryCoalbrookdale by Night, included here, de Loutherbourg placed discarded sections of manufactured iron pipe as if they were the columns and capitals of some vanished classical culture. The seeds of Cole’s work are seen in these artists and in John Martin, another English artist whose apocalyptic scenes of catastrophe and Biblical ruination evidently appealed.

    After his family emigrated to America Cole began depicting the grand open spaces of his adopted country, with an evident love for its flora and fauna and the immensity of nature’s creations. Colossal valleys, winding rivers and bucolic scenes soon emerged from his easel, and did much to promote the early settlers’ belief in manifest destiny. Cole’s The Oxbow, recalling Constable in its thick clouds but showing a panorama of the Connecticut River Valleyrather than of the Thames and London, has become a touchstone of American art. And yet Cole was adamantly against the development of these places and their industrialisation, unlike Church who welcomed man’s impact on the natural world, and a hint of this is found in what was for me the most striking piece of the show. Utterly fantastical, Titan’s Goblet depicts a colossal stone drinking vessel hundreds of feet high standing on a rocky coast, “the imagined artefact of an extinct race of giants” as the caption puts it. Classical ruins surround the rim of this wonderful thing, complete with tiny aqueduct, and the spill from its lake-like bowl dissolves in the wind as it cascades over the side.

    Cole’s opinions found their greatest form, though, in Course of Empire, his five paintings of a fictional landscape showing its chronological discovery, exploitation and abandonment over the centuries. In the first, The Savage State, an unspoilt expanse of land at the mouth of a river is laden with greenery and inhabited only by natives. Human intervention begins with The Pastoral State – a stone circle, boat building, farming – but is in balance with nature. The weight of ‘culture’ has tipped the scales utterly by the time of The Consummation of Empire, in which a vast Romanesque city of marble, gilt and luxury sprawls across the valley; groaning with indulgence, its fate is sealed in Destruction when a brutal war ravages everything. I was struck by the bold imagery here; spattered blood, grey-faced corpses and attempted rape all feature. In the final instalment, Destruction, nature is reclaiming the ruins of what once was. Though retaining something of the imagination seen in the Goblet, this is a firmly human and thus relatable morality tale. Highly charged in its evening moodiness, that final picture is Cole’s Old World warning the citizens of the New.

    A welcome window into a less-well-known British talent who made his name abroad, this was an enjoyable show that rounded of a trio of fulfilling exhibtions.

    'Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire' continues at the National Gallery, London WC2 until 29 July 2018.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own full-colour, collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443

£14.99

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