Linton- Life in the Collections
Eliza Lynn Linton:
38) The Lake Country.
Six years after Harriet Martineau’s picturesque account, the Linton couple published its Lake Country book. In her preface, Eliza Lynn states that there had been two traditions of describing this area, the dramatized one by the Picturesque School and the dry factitious mode of the guide-books. “Now that theses have served their turn, it seemed to my husband and myself that a pleasant book could be made by treating the Lake Country with the love and knowledge – artistic and local – belonging of right to natives and old inhabitants.” William James not only contributed small one-block engravings, as had been the case in Martineau’s English Lakes, but also large full-page illustrations.
Although the motifs partially overlap, the two series differ significantly in regard to the graphic approach. While the engravings for the Martineau book focus entirely on the graphic power of an often extremely reduced lineament, in the equally sketchy depictions of the subsequent work, Linton plays out the painterly qualities of the tonal engravings in an orchestration rich in variations. With its great graphic diversity and the surprising freshness of impressions of nature, the large complex of Linton’s Lake engravings mark a peak in 19th-century landscape art, which has remained unsurpassed in the area of graphic reproductions. There are several reasons for the fact that Linton saw himself challenged to his most outstanding graphic achievements precisely in the field of travel guides. On the one hand, they had to do with his feeling politically and artistically obliged to establish a republican iconography. There is hardly another publication form that would have allowed the permanently indebted xylographer to finance such a time-consuming and elaborate landscape project in the middle of the century. On the other hand, this was a supreme discipline in regard to illustration, for the genre of the Lake guidebook had already become the exemplary case of picturesque art in the 1770s through the illustrated traveller’s tales of William Gilpin and been raised to the status of high literature decades later by William Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes (1810).
Already the exterior frame in which Linton had developed the Lake engravings made it clear that they did not refer to the industrialised standard of the time, but to the early days of xylography, to the still popular graphics of the early Bewick school. As Thomas Bewick’s famous animal encyclopaedia illustrations, many of Linton’s landscape depictions were single block engravings, which on the white of the paper preferably opened up in the form of an edgeless oval, comparable with the pinhole photographs of early cameras. Although the vignettes of the Bewick school, especially the highly imaginative tailpieces, usually depict lively sceneries full of action, they are characterised by the impression of a distance to time and of static that they convey. Tom Lubbock regards the Bewickian vignette depictions as “the opposite of a glimpse: a fixated vision.” (Tom Lubbock: Defining the Vignette, in: Jonathan Watkins ed.: Thomas Bewick. Tale-Pieces. Birmingham 2009) Linton’s landscape engravings, on the other hand, do not want to open up distant, frozen, miniature worlds of the sort of Bewick’s snow dome universe. Here, the oval shape of a scenery does not define a stabilising prospect but a moveable, ocular field of vision. As opposed to Bewick’s depictions, the impression of transitoriness plays a crucial role in Linton’s landscape art. His vignettes are ephemeral, atmospheric units, graphical spots that transport the freshness of the first impression.
In the direct dealing with the lexical illustrations of the Bewick school, the complex of Linton’s Lake Country engravings marks an artistic paradigm shift comparable to the one that took place when the Barbizon school and the Macchiaioli, this Florentine group of artistic followers of Mazzini, replaced the painting traditions of late classicism and the Biedermeier. As opposed to the retinal revolution of the Impressionists, which was still a decade in coming and represented an apotheosis of bourgeois escapism, these early sketch revolts were explicitly politically motivated and founded in a partisan way. As the American art historian Albert Boime stresses, these artists were “self-professed ‘outlaw-sketchers’ – a term the Impressionists, bent on achieving social legitimation, could never have accepted for themselves.” (Albert Boime: The Art of the Macchia and the Risorgimento, Chicago 1993)