Napoleonic Wars Views: 1803-1815

Napoleonic History

By 1803, the growing aggression of Napoleonic France brought Britain to war with the European continent, lasting until 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo and the defeat of Napoleonic forces. This period was tumultuous, not least in terms of physical security and the economy, but also for defining Britishness. The importance of Britain as a physical place contributed to the formation of a specific national identity, especially in contrast to the Continent. This connection (between land and national identity) elevated the profile of landscape artworks. Continuing the aesthetics of the Picturesque, a British genre, artists illustrated and heightened the idea of Britishness in its landscape art.

While artists were developing prints of both England and continental landscapes before the Napoleonic Wars began, the conflict closed off the Continent to British tourists.1 Turning inwards to their domestic landscapes, less out of choice than due to lack of an alternative, altered the implications of the Picturesque depictions of England. The Picturesque style developed partially out of a British reaction to French landscaping trends (developed in the 17th century).2 The Picturesque style favours a depiction of nature in its "natural" state: trees, shrubs, and grasses are allowed to grow without intervention, but also are in concord with man's dominion. French landscaping, on the other hand, tended to be highly geometric and cultivated, best seen in the gardens of Versailles. The Picturesque elevated a depiction of nature that highlighted geometric imperfections but was also perfect for the traveller. In other words, despite non-geometrically shaped bushes and shrubs, this nature was never in the way of man.

The Picturesque genre developed in contrast to French landscaping traditions. Jane Austen, in her 1815 novel Emma, describes the nationalistic sentiment of the Picturesque in her description of Mr Knightly's home: "it was a sweet view, sweet to the eye and the mind. It was English verdure, English culture, English comfort.”3 This description, a popular citation in discussions of the Picturesque tradition in Britain, shows the intersection between British land and Britishness.4 Developed before the rise of Napoleon, the Picturesque is based on its difference to French landscaping. The wars with France only aggrandized this nationalistic sentiment.

York Cathedral, G. Stonley, 1817 reprint, engraving.
For 'The Beauties of England and Wales', J.P. Neale, 1813, engraving.

Picturesque Views

During the Napoleonic Wars, there was a proliferation of Picturesque depictions of British cities and vistas. York gained greater importance in the British imagination and was a popular subject for landscape artworks. Unlike London, York did not have the foreign entanglements as it was not the political centre of the country, lending it a more specifically British sentiment. With its rich history through Roman, Norman, Medieval, and Royalist foundations, York embodied the breadth of British history. York is also home to the Minster, which is a monument to the city’s medieval past. These factors bolstered York as a nationalistic city during the Napoleonic Wars.

In James Basire's York from Screvus’s Hill, J.P. Neale’s For 'The Beauties of England and Wales' and G. Stonley’s York Cathedral, the elements of the Picturesque are clear. These prints position the imaginary viewer in a pastoral field or at a river’s edge with their gaze directed at the York Minster featured in the background. Grazing cattle and sheep feature in two of these works, which elevate the idea of the continuing rustic character of York. Stanfield’s addition of a shed and an Arcadian figure in the right side of the print furthers the discourse around this sort of charm and way of life. Interestingly, none of these works confront the Enclosures of the period in Yorkshire: there are no clear hedgerows or similar natural barriers that divide the land. When not viewing these works with a critical eye, we are led to believe in the unaffected, unindustrialized status of the pictured land. Similarly, viewers of these works in the early 19th century were offered a similar conception, particularly those viewers who were not local to York: the land was unaffected by Enclosure (and thus Enclosure could occur further here).

York from Screvus's Hill, engraved by James Basire, after Henry Cave, 1820-50 (original 1800-1820), engraving.

The inclusion of lush and productive fields overlooking York, however, is not the singular Picturesque aspect of these prints. The artistic decisions taken by these three artists – Cave, Neale and Stonley – represented the York landscape as moral. In Cave’s print, the clouds part and a light source illuminates the Minster featured in the background. Neale’s depiction of the Minster works similarly to Cave's work as he depicts the clouds in a lighter fashion around the cathedral, illuminating it. Stonley’s places clouds behind the Minster, providing an uninterrupted connection between the Minster and the heavens. In taking such artistic license in the composition of these prints, these artists communicated the moral righteousness of the Minster, a church of England. This religious difference would be significant for the Georgian British viewer, given the unique tie between church and state in Anglicanism and its historic contrast to the Catholic Church, Napoleon’s church.

Whether the clouds part or illuminate the Minster, or God's rays extend downward to the cathedral, such a commentary extends to the representation of nature in the sweeping fields of these prints. If God blessed the Minster, as these artists suggest, then the environment in which the Minster is placed corresponds to a similar approval. This nature is an untarnished, unmanipulated one: it is bountiful and represented as growing based on its natural course. The sweeping fields in Cave's and Stonley’s works are not landscapes experiencing the wrath of divine intervention but of approval.

This divinely connoted British landscape via the Picturesque is all the clearer when French landscaping preferences are understood. The cultivated, manipulated landscape style seen at Versailles is at odds with Picturesque nature. While Napoleon favoured landscapers, like Jean-Marie Morel (1728-1810), who was inspired by Anglophonic landscaping, the reputation of Versailles characterized understanding of French landscaping.5 To represent York in this Picturesque way, with nature growing 'naturally', was to connote it as quintessentially British and moral because it was not French.

Picturesque views of York during this period underscores the Britishness of the city and its importance in the British imagination. These views disseminate a perspective of York that highlights its historical past, via the Minster, but also its harmonious, morally inflected and quintessentially British present. These works, created by British artists who could not visit the continent, situate York as a symbol of Britishness and as dichotomous with French landscape. The subtle nationalism that led to the creation of the Picturesque achieved new heights in the context of the Napoleonic wars.

Topographical Views

The Picturesque genre reflected the ethos of Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, but it did not enjoy singular popularity. The works held in the Evelyn Collection represent the popularity of Topographical depictions of York during this period. This genre accentuates a positive vision for viewers, much like the Picturesque. However, it takes on a much more nuanced and detailed approach to representing a specific place or structure. This difference in representation also translates to a slightly different audience for Topographical views, veering towards local audiences for the setting depicted.6

Topographical views of York, like J. Carter's View of the West Front of York Cathedral or Charles Wild's North West aspect of York Cathedral, feature tight compositions in which the Minster dominates the print. Having the Minster as the focal point of the work allows for a more detailed rendition of the cathedral’s architecture. Unlike in the Picturesque, where the viewer is set back in space to see an expansive vista, these prints collapse this distance. We are placed near the Minster, viewing its skeletal structure, the interplay of windows and stone, and its turrets and towers alike. Buckler's print particularly collapses the distance between the viewer and the Minster along with his careful rendition of its architectural features.

Both these works, like other Topographical prints in the Evelyn Collection, also omit references to economic or social struggles in the period. Ironically, however, artists in this genre did not shy away from empirical observation. This blend of a keen-eyed approach to detail and avoidance of certain realities was a means to celebrate and dignify sites like the Minster. This approach encouraged close engagement with the Minster, but also widened the gulf between what was desired and what was real for York’s and the Minster’s appearance.

These prints also offer audiences a means to treasure the Minster, as they may have done with cathedrals on the Continent during a grand tour. These Topographical prints could serve as an escape, a comfort during the Napoleonic Wars. Rather than engaging with an overt nationalistic genre, like the Picturesque, Topographical prints of York were a subtler means of elevating Britain and its heritage.

Approaching Evelyn Collection Views

During the Napoleonic wars, the aesthetic treatment of York placed the Northern capital as central for representing Britishness. Through the Picturesque lens, York, with its open fields and historical charm, finds its parallel in Austen’s description of Mr Knightly’s home. Picturesque York visualizes Britishness.

These prints also offer audiences a means to treasure the Minster, as they may have done with cathedrals on the Continent during a grand tour. These Topographical prints could serve as an escape, a comfort during the Napoleonic Wars. Rather than engaging with an overt nationalistic genre, like the Picturesque, Topographical prints of York were a subtler means of elevating Britain and its heritage.

View of the West Front of York Cathedral, J. Carter, 1809, engraving.
North West aspect of York Cathedral, Charles Wild, 1809, engraving.
1James Buzard. "The Grand Tour and after (1660-1840)." In The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing edited by Peter Hulme and Tim Youngs. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 38. Buzard notes that the Continent was beginning to close to British travelers in the 1790s, but the level of closure certainly increased during the Napoleonic Wars. 2Chandra Mukerji. Territorial Ambitions and The Gardens of Versailles Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, 98. It is critical to note that the French did have a Picturesque landscape tradition, best seen in the work of Claude Lorrain. But there was this competing tradition of highly cultivate landscape design as well.3Jane Austen. Emma. Project Gutenberg, 1815. 4For further reading on the intersection between Jane Austen and the Picturesque tradition, see William H. Galperin. The Historical Austen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. 5Joseph Disponzio. "Jean-Marie Morel and the Invention of Landscape Architecture." In Tradition and Innovation in French Garden Art: Chapters of a New History edited by Michael Conan John Dixon Hunt, and Claire Goldstein. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002, 136. This book while discussing Morel in detail also pluralizes the understanding of French landscape tradition during this period. 6Sam Smiles. “Turner’s Topographical Watercolours.” In Picturing Places, edited by Felicity Myrone. British Library online publication, 2019. Many wealthy patrons, like Viscount Malden in his patronage of JMW Turner, commissioned Topographical works because their subject was a historical or important architectural site, often which they owned or appreciated. Topographical prints, like other printed works, could also be reproduced quickly unlike oil paintings, for instance, which gave them a broad audience despite original patronage. See also Bermingham, 85.