Space, status and gender in English topographical paintings c.1660-c.1740

Laurence, Anne (2003). Space, status and gender in English topographical paintings c.1660-c.1740. Architectural History, 46 pp. 81–94.



The topographical paintings of English country houses which appeared in considerable numbers in the second half of the seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth centuries have provided architectural historians with valuable evidence of architectural schemes and gardens. John Harris's catalogues and commentaries on these paintings have been of great importance for both architectural and social historians. Rarely, however, is much attention paid to the human figues who people the paintings and who provide an insight into the ways in which the spaces delineated were used and, in particular, the occupation of the space in and around the country house by people of different classes and sexes. They show how access to the house was organized and the kinds of activity that took place in the vicinity of the house as an extension of the life of the house, rather than as part of the agricultural enterprise that supported the house and its occupants. Like Dutch genre scenes, the paintings celebrate domestic peace and prosperity; but, like human portraiture, these portraits of houses depict the subject in its best light and hint at the patrons' aspirations, the figures contributing as much to the image of the patron's possessions as the building itself. These painting perform the essentially practical function of showing the house for the patron's descendants, possibly asserting ownership, but at the same time representing the an ideally harmonious life and the peaceful prosperity of the owners. The myth created is a modest one, of homely pursuits and submissive servants, a myth which could not be represented without the figures.

This combination of realism and idealism has confused critics, allowing such contradictory views as those of Stephen Daniels, who sees the agricultural backgrounds as representations of "prudent estate management". In contrast, John Barrell argues that, in the decades after the Restoration, paintings of houses and landscape in England are characterized by their disregard for agricultural productivity. Both critics, however, read the paintings as accurate representations of the rural life beyond the house.

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