Cotman, Bloomfield and The Ploughed Field

This article proposes a source for John Sell Cotman’s famous watercolour of ‘The Ploughed Field’ at Leeds Art Gallery.

John Sell Cotman
The Ploughed Field, c.1805-6
Graphite and watercolour on off-white, wove paper with reticulated grain, 9 x 13 3/4 ins, 228 x 350 mm
Leeds Art Gallery, 1923.508
Photograph by David Hill, courtesy of Leeds Art Gallery
To see full catalogue details visit
https://cotmania.org/works-of-art/41889
then use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page.]

In the online catalogue of the Cotman collection at Leeds http://www.cotmania.org, I describe the watercolour as ‘the exemplar of his turn towards reticence and understatement… the supreme exercise in undemonstrative refinement and subtlety of its time’. It is one of the most travelled and exhibited of all British watercolours of its period and definitive of Cotman’s antithetical position in relation to Turner.

The originality of the subject has struck most commentators, but is best expressed by Corinne Miller in the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Cotmania and Mr Kitson’ held at Leeds Art Gallery in 1992: ‘In terms of subject matter and composition it is both revolutionary and in advance of its time. While the juxtaposition of the cultivated and the natural landscape was familiar to an audience whose countryside had been carved up and tamed by agrarian enclosures, the devotion of one third of the composition to the steeply receding furrows of the plough are without precedent and firmly establish this watercolour as one of the earliest examples of a romantic naturalism which was to take over from a ‘picturesque’ sentiment where there was no place for ‘worked’ land’.

No-one, however, seems ever to have commented on the detail at the very front of the composition, of a dead crow tied to a stick. There are several more receding into the distance. The implication is that the farmer has just set them out in the field. This is a long-used and quite widespread crop protection measure. Not long again I almost became one of the deterrents. Blundering across a newly seeded field near Jervaulx Abbey, I began to wonder about the dead crows scattered about the field. It was only when an aggrieved shout came from a nearby hedge that I understood I was wondering across the field of fire of a hidden rifleman. The signpost missed at the entrance to the field pointed away from it, not across.

No-one but Cotman seems to have led the polite viewer onto such cloying ground. Equally no Romantic painter can have confronted their audience with such a macabre detail as a crow tied to a stick. It is clear enough that Cotman was proposing a somewhat alternative aesthetic, but the Cotman literature has never managed to develop an aesthetic context in which this might be situated. My thinking about Constable’s mezzotint of ‘A Summerland’ for Sublimesites.co, however, led me to the poem ‘The Farmer’s Boy’ by Robert Bloomfield, first published in 1800 and the realisation that Bloomfield exactly mirrors the two key elements of furrow plodding and dead crows. Cotman must surely have had the poem in mind when composing ‘The Ploughed Field’.

Robert Bloomfield (1766 – 1823) was an impecunious London shoemaker when his poem was published in 1800. It became the publishing sensation of the first decade of the nineteenth century, and sold tens of thousands of copies. Given the popularity of the poem – it was already in its ninth edition by the time that Cotman painted this – it seems certain that Cotman would have read it.

It tells the life of a simple farm boy, Giles, through the four seasons. The first part, Spring, describes the ploughing, harrowing and sowing of the fields. We can highlight the lines that most obviously relate to Cotman’s ‘The Ploughed Field’:

With smiling brow the ploughman cleaves his way, Draws his fresh parallels, and wid’ning still,
Treads slow the heavy dale, or climbs the hill…
Till all is chang’d, and hill and level down
Assume a livery of sober brown:
Again disturb’d, when Giles with wearying strides
From ridge to ridge the ponderous harrow guides;

His heels deep sinking every step he goes,
Till dirt usurp the empire of his shoes.’

This seems exactly to suggest the ground and the situation depicted by Cotman.

Following that comes Giles’s efforts to keeps the birds off:

‘…the big swoln grain below,
A favourite morsel with the rook and crow;
From field to field the flock increasing goes;
To level crops most formidable foes:..
Yet oft the sculking gunner by surprise
Will scatter death amongst them as they rise.
These, hung in triumph round the spacious field,
At best will but a short-lived terror yield:..

Let then your birds lie prostrate on the earth,
In dying posture, and with wings stretch’d forth;
Shift them at eve or morn from place to place,
And death shall terrify the pilfering race;
In the mid air, while circling round and round,
They’ll call their lifeless comrades from the ground;
With quick’ning wing, and notes of loud alarm,
Warn the whole flock to shun the’ impending harm.’

The conjunction of such specific and unusual details in the poem and painting seems to link them incontrovertibly. I have not yet found any specific reference to Bloomfield in the Cotman literature, but it would certainly be worth looking out for some, and nor have I made any more general search for other potential connections, although if this instance is as clear as I believe it to be, then there might certainly be others.

Bloomfield’s poem certainly caught the public’s imagination. It was directly modelled on one of the most popular rural idylls of the eighteenth century, ‘The Seasons’ by James Thomson. In all of its earlier editions it was prefaced by a biography of the poet that made clear his humble origins. One of the principal attractions of Bloomfield’s poem was that it was the authentic voice of the simple working man.

On the other hand one of the enduring scholarly issues with the poem is that in its earlier editions it was hardy Bloomfield’s authentic expression at all. The editor had very carefully smoothed out all of his colloquialisms, and most instances of unsophisticated grammar, expression and vocabulary. It was only in later editions that Bloomfield began to restore some of his original burr, but not until modern times that an edition has appeared that scrupulously adheres to the original manuscripts. See for example Peter Cochrane’s essay and edition at::

Click to access robert-bloomfield-the-farmers-boy.pdf


From a 1778 edition of James Thomson’s ‘The Seasons’

Cotman presumably, rather hoped that he might plough the same aesthetic furrow as Bloomfield. As it turned out, however, Cotman misjudged the market. It appears that the literary rural and the pictorial rural were received rather differently. If truth be told, the contemporary public simply saw Bloomfield’s poem as a new Thomson’s Seasons. Modern Bloomfield scholarship has sought to try and demonstrate more radical tendencies in ‘The Farmer’s Boy’, elements that disrupt the genteel Tory sentiment in which Thomson’s poem is steeped. See for example Ian Haywood’s article at:
https://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/bloomfield/HTML/praxis.2011.haywood.html

No dead crows here!

Furthermore, the whole orthography and design of the book seems to have been intended to deceive the reader into thinking that ‘The Farmer’s Boy’ was the exact successor to Thomson’s Seasons. The woodcuts are twee to the point of being positively kitsch. They seem the calculated attempt to smuggle the idea of rural life out of the country and into the drawing room, and to neutralise any but the sweetest perfumes that might drift in from outside.

The trouble is that Cotman’s attempts in the same genre were all too visibly antithetical. Pictures were supposed to be big, rich, finely wrought, valuable and covetable objects. ‘The Ploughed Field’ fails on virtually every level. It is small, fragile, muted, artisanal in is handling, and depicts dirt and dead crows. Cotman made the notion of a simplified language and anti-heroic aesthetic far too concrete. He made something resembling arte povera about one hundred and fifty years too soon. One might say in fact, is that ‘The Ploughed Field’ is the kind of illustration that ‘The Farmer’s Boy’ properly deserved and certainly one might suspect that Cotman intended the association to be recognised, besides his realisation of the true nature of Bloomfield’s poem. As I observe in the commentary on the watercolour in http://www.cotmania.org: ‘It represents the complete antithesis to the strident, clamouring competition that for the most part was art in exhibition in the early nineteenth century: So antithetical, in fact as to exceed all context for its age, and it continues to challenge expectations in a visual environment that has taken a taste for the histrionic to hyperbolic levels.’

Postscript
I was led to Bloomfield’s ‘Farmer’s Boy’ via my interest in Constable’s ‘A Summerland’. Constable quoted a couple of lines from the poem as an epigraph to the painting in the catalogue when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1814:
‘But, unassisted through each toilsome day,
With smiling brow the Plowman cleaves his way’
It is a remarkable coincidence that these lines stand at the beginning of the passage which appears to have caught Cotman’s eye – about half-way down page 7 of ‘The Farmer’s Boy’ reproduced above. Constable drew on Bloomfield on several occasions. I hope to give some thought to his relevance to ‘A Summerland’ in due course.

John Constable, David Lucas and ‘A Summerland’: Part #5 – The subject and its development

This is the fifth in a series of articles in which I discuss a recently-discovered progress proof of the mezzotint of ‘A Summerland’ made by David Lucas for John Constable in 1829. Here I begin consideration of the landscape, not far from Constable’s birthplace in the Suffolk village of East Bergholt, together with Constable’s two paintings of the subject, culminating in the engraving of ‘A Summerland’.

Summerland DH whole
David Lucas after John Constable The Summerland, 1829 Mezzotint, printed in black ink on soft, thick, off-white laid rag paper Image, 150 x 224 mm, on plate 177 x 251, on sheet 296 x 436 Inscribed in plate, lower right, ‘1829 D Lucas’, and inscribed in lower margin in graphite, ‘The Summerland’. Private Collection Photograph by David Hill

I had intended this week to make a trip to East Bergholt to revisit the site. I was last there in 1984 when writing ‘John Constable’s English Landscape Scenery’ published in 1985. Frustratingly, the light levels for the next couple of weeks are forecast to range from gloomy to grim. For now, then, Google Earth will have to suffice.

But first, some brief background. John Constable was born in 1776 in a fine Georgian house near the church. The house is long gone, but a plaque is fixed to its railings to mark the spot.

Site of Constable’s Home at East Bergholt
Google Streetview image
The plaque is on the railings to the right

His father was a wealthy merchant and miller, with trading interests in almost the entire economy of the valley. John Constable was supposed to have a proper career in the church or in the business, but instead elected to become an artist. He went off to London to seek his fortune, but adopted the plan of painting scenes of his hopelessly obscure native landscape. The pictures are of course wonderful, but their beauties were lost on the public until after his death. He remained throughout dependent on the family business, latterly managed by his brother.

Best viewed full size, click on image to enlarge and then use ‘back’ button to return to main page:

Stour valley near East Bergholt
Google Earth, marking ‘Summerland’ viewpoint and main features

The view depicted in ‘The Summerland’ is that looking west up the Stour valley from Flatford Lane which leads from East Bergholt Church to Flatford Mill. The exact viewpoint can be found looking right a couple of hundred yards beyond the junction with Fen Lane. The lie of the land and general forms of field, hedgerow and distant view are all remarkably recognisable to this day. In the distance left is the tower of Langham Church, on the skyline right that of Stoke by Nayland, and just below that to the right is Stratford St Mary Church. I have not yet been able to verify whether all or any of these can still be made out. That is one reason for my wanting to visit at this time of year, so that the trees will now be bare.

The Stour Valley from Flatford Lane
Google Streetview image
1813 sketch SS
John Constable The Stour Valley from Flatford Lane near East Bergholt, 25 July 1813 Graphite on paper, 4 ¾ x 3 ½ ins, 120 x 89 mm Page 12 of a sketchbook used in Suffolk and Essex in 1813 London, Victoria and Albert Museum, (317-1888) Image scanned from G Reynolds, The Early Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, 1996, pl.1013 ]

Constable made a pencil sketch of this view in 1813 in a sketchbook now at the V&A (317-1888; Reynolds 1996, no.13.17, p.12. The sketch is inscribed ’25 July – noon – / Suffolk’.

John Constable
Landscape: Ploughing scene in Suffolk (A Summerland), 1814
Oil on canvas, 19 7/8 x 30 1/8 in, 505 x 765 mm
Private Collection
Pre-restoration
Image scanned from D Hill, ‘Constable’s English Landscape Scenery’, 1984, pl.15]

That sketch served as the basis of a painting exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1814 (28) as ‘Landscape: Ploughing Scene in Suffolk’. This is now in a private collection (Reynolds, 1996, 14.1). He reshowed it at the Liverpool Academy in 1814, no.9 as ‘A Landscape – Ploughman’, and then the following year at the British Institution in London, no.115 as ‘Landscape’ where it was bought by John Allnutt.

Thereafter the story of the painting becomes rather peculiar. Allnutt became dissatisfied with the sky and had a new one painted over it by John Linnell. This seems to demand much greater explanation, but around 1825 he asked Constable to return the painting to its original condition and reduce the height so that it would match with a painting he had subsequently acquired by A W Callcott.

John Constable
Ploughing Scene in Suffolk (A Summerland), 1824 to 1825
Oil on canvas, 16 3/4 x 30 inches (42.5 x 76.2 cm) Frame: 25 × 37 3/4 inches (63.5 × 95.9 cm)
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, USA, Paul Mellon Collection, B1977.14.41
Image courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

Constable seems to have taken all this with remarkable equanimity – one can only conjecture what Turner’s response might have been to such treatment– and painted an entirely new version, which is now at the Yale Center for British Art at New Haven (B1977.14.41; Reynolds 1984, no.24.81). Constable might well exacted some compensation, however, for it is certainly worth considering whether the quality of the replacement is anything like that of the original.

David Lucas after John Constable
The Summerland, 1829
Mezzotint, printed in black ink on soft, thick, off-white laid rag paper
Image, 150 x 224 mm, on plate 177 x 251, on sheet 296 x 436
Inscribed in plate, lower right, ‘1829 D Lucas’, and inscribed in lower margin in graphite, ‘The Summerland’.
Private Collection
Photograph by David Hill
John Constable
Landscape: Ploughing scene in Suffolk (A Summerland), 1814
Oil on canvas, 19 7/8 x 30 1/8 in, 505 x 765 mm
Private Collection
Pre-restoration
Image scanned from D Hill, ‘Constable’s English Landscape Scenery’, 1984, pl.15]

Constable retained the original painting, though in quite what state is unclear. In any case it was that painting that Constable put before David Lucas as the basis of the mezzotint.

John Constable
Landscape: Ploughing scene in Suffolk (A Summerland), 1814
Oil on canvas, 19 7/8 x 30 1/8 in, 505 x 765 mm
Private Collection
Post-restoration
Image scanned from G Reynolds, The Early Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, 1996, pl.1095

Not long before the Tate Constable exhibition of 1991 the sky was restored by John Bull. Its pre-restoration condition is recorded in colour reproductions in D Hill, ‘Constable’s English Landscape Scenery’, 1984, pl.15, and by Michael Rosenthal in ‘Constable and his Landscape’, 1987, ill 63. An account of the restoration is given in the catalogue of the Tate exhibition of 1991, where the painting was exhibit no.71. It is interesting to compare the restoration with the mezzotints. Certainly the sky as it now appears is closer to the earlier states up to state (c), rather than to the later states which are full of crepuscular rays and curtains of rain.

Constable treated the same locality remarkably frequently. It seem that on almost every visit to East Bergolt he sketched it, whether in pencil, watercolour or oils, and there are several finished paintings. Its popularity with him can be easily explained: It is simply the nearest and most open prospect of the Stour valley to his home in the village. Alastair Smart and Attfield Brooks in their great book, ‘Constable and his Country’ published in 1976 for the bicentenary of Constable’s birth, give a map (p.30) marking numerous viewpoints of Constable subjects in the East Bergholt area.

Map of Constable’s sites in the Stour Valley around East Bergholt
From Alastair Smart and Attfield Brooks, ‘Constable and his Country’ 1976, p.30

They do not mention ‘The Summerland’ specifically but do (p.29) reproduce a painting of ‘Dedham Vale Morning’, together with a comparative photograph of the site. I ought to say that I was an undergraduate when this book was published. It taught me that there was a kind of art history that I might be able to do. I have been trying to emulate their example ever since! This page especially:

The viewpoint of Constable’s Dedham Vale: Morning, with comparative photograph.
From Alastair Smart and Attfield Brooks, ‘Constable and his Country’ 1976, p.28
The very same tree! How good is that?!

Constable’s geographic consciousness invites us to plot on today’s ground the exact vantage points of sketches and paintings. Along Flatford Lane, the general character of the landscape today is remarkably like that of Constable’s time. The fall of the slope for example, from viewpoints on below Fen Bridge Lane is exactly like that shown in the Summerland. We are fortunate that there is a very detailed map of parish of East Bergholt drawn up in 1817.

East Bergholt Enclosure Award Map, 1817
Detail of East Bergholt village and Flatford Lane
Showing Constable’s viewpoint in ‘The Summerland’
Suffolk Record Office, County Hall, Ipswich, 150/1/4 (2)

This shows every building, road, path steam, pond and field boundary and makes it clear that the present field boundaries are somewhat changed. That is especially true in the area around the specific viewpoint of The Summerland, and I will have to take some care in plotting Constable’s exact position on the ground. Still, I’m pretty sure that I have all that I require to be certain, and with a bit of luck, and some brighter winter light, in the next I will report on what I discover.

TO BE CONTINUED.