Ruralism and Englishness : meaning in paintings of English rural life and labour, c. 1870-1905
This thesis examines visual representations of English country life and labour in the
period 1870 to 1905 in relation to contemporary beliets in the centrality of the rural
world to conceptions of national identity and'Englishness'. Centering upon an
analysis of oil and watercolour paintings, but also interrogating prints, posters and
photographs, the thesis examines the ways in which the production and consumption
of images of rural lite in the period addressed and articulated widespread elite
cultural concerns over a complex range of social issues, including purported racial
degeneration, growing class conflict, and the checking of British imperial ambitions.
Divided thematically into five distinct yet interlinked chapters, the thesis investigates
firstly the stylistic evolutions in the painting of rural life across the period, and the
connections made between particular visual languages and notions of a'national'
school of art. The second chapter focuses upon an assessment of pictorial
representations of the farmworker, looking in particular at the ways in which visual
descriptions of rural labourer's bodies explored ideas of racial identity and national
character. Chapters Three and Four look in turn at the representation of the country
village and of field sports, the chapters both individually and cumulatively charting
the relationship between visual culture and the generation of ideas around
community,d eferencea nd social cohesion. The final section addressesth e portrayal
of agricultural work, looking specifically at the themes of ploughing and
mechanisationa, nd the cultural negotiationo f signso f modernity in the countryside.
Treating visual images not as historically-transcendant objects, but as significant
elements within a particular and specific material culture, the thesis compares visual
images to other contemporary accounts of rural life, including those offered in novels,
poetry and agricultural journalism. It views paintings of rural life and labour as
critical spaces in which contemporary elite ideologies were actively articulated and
contested, describing paintings of the rural world not as sites of settled meaning, but
rather as formative elements of a dynamic process that continually re-worked and reevaluated
evolving conceptions of rurality and'Englishness'.