Pioneers of Local Thinking, 1740-1820

Arts of Place is excited to introduce our new project…

‘Pioneers of Local Thinking, 1740-1820’ is a two-year project supported by the British Academy. Over the course of the 2023-24 academic year, we will present a series of seminars to consider how a range of artists and writers – from William Cowper to William Green of Ambleside, and from the Smiths of Chichester to George Crabbe – departed from eighteenth-century conventions of literary and pictorial representation. Together, they reimagined how art and literature can shape, and be shaped by, local identity and the environment.

George Smith (1714–1776), A Winter Landscape, c.1770, Yale Center for British Art

The project aims to provide new insights into the growth of localism in poetry and painting in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. We will investigate some of the ways in which Dutch and Flemish aesthetics influenced those working in provincial areas of Great Britain. Asking how European culture permeated British towns and villages, we’ll look at the precedents set by Rubens, Rembrandt, van Ruisdael, and Hobbema (amongst others), and how these contributed to the development of new forms and artistic methods in culturally and geographically peripheral parts of Britain.

Taking an interdisciplinary, comparative, and collaborative approach, we will work between text, image, geography, natural history, and the social and philosophical changes of the Romantic period. We want to consider the importance of this cultural history of localism as we experience a resurgence of regionality today, through governmental policy, in environmental activism, through experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a burgeoning new school of nature writing. What do the place-writers and artists working today make of their Romantic roots?

We hope many of you will join us to think through this subject and share your insight and experience. 


John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), Ruined House, 1807-1810, Yale Center for British Art

“To the Lakes!”: Local artistic perspectives

with guest speaker Jeff Cowton MBE, Principal Curator & Head of Learning at the Wordsworth Trust

Monday 20 May with Jessica Fay in response and conversation.

On 20 May, Jeff Cowton joined us to discuss the Wordsworth Trust’s exhibition ‘To the Lakes!’, a study of how the Lake District attracted outside tourists and artists from around 1750 onwards, and how this tourism has shaped both the art it produced and the place at its centre. As Jeff makes clear, the work of visiting artists taking picturesque tours of the area was partly shaped by local writers and artists. Jeff focused on the work of two artists: William Green of Ambleside and Joseph Wilkinson. He explored their challenge to the pictorial conventions surrounding landscape in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and their engagement with the emergent tourism industry.

Watch the recording of this talk below and read on for some highlights.

Introducing his latest exhibition, Jeff invoked the finest poet of our age: yes, Taylor Swift of course, who sings ‘Take me to the lakes’, unfortunately this is followed by the line ‘where the poets went to die’. Jeff set out to chart more cheery and perhaps more lyrically nuanced territory. He turned our attention to tourists of the past and the present and how they have made the Lake District what it is today.

William and Dorothy Wordsworth’s lives at Dove Cottage were shaped by tourism, as William writes in ‘The Brothers’:

These Tourists, heaven preserve us! needs must live
A profitable life: some glance along,
Rapid and gay, as if the earth were air,
And they were butterflies to wheel about
Long as the summer lasted: some, as wise,
Perched on the forehead of a jutting crag,
Pencil in hand and book upon the knee,
Will look and scribble, scribble on and look,
Until a man might travel twelve stout miles,
Or reap an acre of his neighbour’s corn.

Jeff turned first to Joseph Wilkinson (b. 1763), a Carlisle-born deacon who lived in Ormathwaite Hall north of Keswick. He left the lakes in 1803 to live in Norfolk but not before creating a substantial volume of landscape prints of Northern Scenery, with a title page created by William Marshall Craig featuring labouring figures in the landscape (a rarity within the landscape conventions of the day). Wordsworth was enlisted to write an introduction to Wilkinson’s, and he later voiced his embarrassment that the landscape would not meet the exacting standards of his patron William Beaumont. Jeff expertly guided us through the ‘holy grail of Joseph Wilkinson studies’: a fascinating progression from preparatory drawing to watercolour and three prints with various levels of colour added.

Next Jeff turned to William Green (b. 1760) who trained in Manchester and later moved to Ambleside to create a prolific career as a landscape draughtsman and printmaker. Although Green was evidently conscious of the conventions of the picturesque, he also sought to depict a faithful record of landscape and architectural features in Ambleside and its area. Jeff highlights this tension between the pictorial and the practical by presenting us with an extract of an account of a tourist, Green, and his daughter discussing Stockghyll Force:

‘See now,’ observed Mr. G. ‘that tree shuts out the prettiest part of the cascade, while there wants one to hide the deformity of that other bank; be-side, that wood on the declivity of the other hill, which threw so fine a gloom over the whole glen, is now vanishing beneath the woodman’s axe; and a certain degree of poverty will be the natural consequence.’ ‘You will excuse,’ said Miss Green ‘my father’s enthusiasm for his darling art. He knows no world, but that in which a painter lives. Trees, with him, have no other use but that of giving softness and effect to a picture. The meadows were created for foregrounds and the hills were designed for distances. Rivers only roll along to brighten up the landscape; and cattle graze only to give life to his drawings. When any thing, therefore, is out of place, in a picturesque point of view, it excites his criticism, notwithstanding its utility in other respects.’

Jeff compared this to Thomas Gray’s notorious description of Grasmere life in 1763 where ‘all is rusticity and happy poverty’ and ended by sharing with those us in the room a small collection of prints produced by Green in the 1790s.


William Green (1760-1823), View of Windermere and Belle Isle, pencil and watercolour, Eton College

‘Seeds, to our eye invisible’:

The Botany Beneath George Crabbe’s Poetry 

with guest speaker Dr James Bainbridge (Liverpool)

Monday 22 January, with Jessica Fay in response and conversation.


Botany was a key interest of the poet George Crabbe. “Give me a wild, wide Fen, in a foggy day,” he wrote, “and every botanist [is] an Adam who explores and names the creatures he meets with.” Between the publication of The Newspaper in 1785 and the 1807 Poems, much of his writing focused on the production of new botanical works. But this was a period of great change for English botany, and whilst Crabbe made use of competing Systems to arrange the natural world as he observed it, he was also drawn to the disorderly fringes of the science – things that were difficult to classify.

In January 2024, James Bainbridge joined us to examine the ways botany shaped Crabbe’s poetry, from the minuteness of detail in his description, to the study of distinction between individual subjects. James is a Lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool. He teaches and researches in eighteenth and twentieth-century literature with a particular interest in the influence of theology and natural sciences on the literature of the long-eighteenth century. He is currently writing a biography of the poet A.S.J. Tessimond and publishes regularly on Crabbe.

Watch the recording of this talk below and read on for some highlights.



Why do so few people read Crabbe today? By way of introduction, James explained why this is not a new question. Though he counted Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Ivan Turgunev, Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell amongst his admirers, Crabb quickly fell out of favour in the 19th century:

“What the novel does in the nineteenth century takes its seeds in what Crabbe is doing in poetry, and partly because he was writing in poetry, he quickly went out of fashion”

Against, Virginia Woolf’s alignment of Crabbe with weeds, James suggested that

“On the whole, Crabbe tends to describe the mallow and the bugloss, not because he thinks of them as weeds, but rather because he thinks of them as native species. That word native is used extensively in his writing to think about place, to think about people, to think about plants. These plants aren’t described by their not belonging, but rather the reverse. Crabbe is drawn to them because they belong to the specific places he describes.”

Discussing  The Borough (1810), James presented an astonishing case for how Crabbe deployed a taxonomical arrangement to articulate similarities and differences, order and disorder, amongst his characters, places, and environments:

“The emphasis on locality in these works indicates an almost proto-ecological interest in nature which appears even more prominent in a work he proposed to write on trefoils. In this he declared an ambition to give ‘a narration of the progressive Vegetation of the spot it grows on, etc. etc. etc’; the emphasis clearly placed on the way that habitats change through successions of plant life.”

James ultimately argued that in The Borough

“Crabbe show the relationship between botany and place. There is offered a particular bed that fits the seed. He considers how over time a place may change due to the succession of plants which dwell there. And it is this level of narrative which he felt was lacking from simple taxonomic arrangement, and why in both his botany and poetry he moved towards a more ecological approach. Crabbe botanical interests, far from being mere adornments to the poetry, are integral to his narrative and thematic development. His descriptions of plants and landscapes are not just backdrop but they are interwoven with the human stories that he tells.”



Cotman, Aubrey, and the Neglected Places 

with guest speaker Prof. Peter Davidson (Oxford)

Monday 27 November

In November 2023, for the first research seminar of our new project ‘Pioneers of Local Thinking, 1740-1820’, we welcomed Prof. Peter Davidson to Birmingham for a discussion of John Sell Cotman and John Aubrey. Peter is Senior Research Fellow in Renaissance and Baroque Studies and Curator of the Campion Hall Collection in Oxford. He has authored monographs on the verse of Richard Fanshawe and Robert Southwell, as well a trio of acclaimed texts on landscape art: The Idea of North (2005), Distance and Memory (2013) and a cultural history of twilight The Last of the Light (2015).

Tracing a rich and rangy seam of placethinking, Peter discussed Aubrey’s drawings of his own house (made in 1670 prior to his permanent departure from the area), particularly his set of views of undramatic slopes and ends of fields. These are places which carry the same all-but-secret autobiographical meaning as the views of underbrush and shadowed streams which John Sell Cotman made in the course of his northern tour in 1805. Peter cast back through these English expressions of place to the wider context of Dutch paintings of ordinary time in ordinary corners, and forward to consider their qualities in relation to Wordsworthian romanticism. 

Watch the recording of this talk below and read on for a summary.

We were the lucky passengers on Peter’s breath-taking journey through the English countryside, to Aberdeen, then Leiden and the Low Countries, followed by a foray into the Claudian scenes of the Grand tour, and a return to Aubery’s locality in the home counties. Through these composite views Peter shared his account of

“how we see landscape starting through that curious bringing together of north and south”.

On Aubrey’s book of drawings created with the use of a perspective machine in around 1669, Peter noted that they are ‘Place-time-weather specific, mostly dated as late April evenings’. This form of landscape, intensely personal responses to his immediate surroundings, appears as if from nowhere: the sources from which Aubrey could have learned this mode of representing landscape are limited to a very limited number of Dutch prints:

“he’s looking for a way of talking about the place and what it meant to him […] aesthetically there is no precedent”

Peter went on to describe how Aubrey suffered a ‘grievously interrupted education’ due to the Civil War, and he reads these drawings in light of Aubrey’s wistful longing for continuity and his intellectual preoccupation with archaeology, deep time and comparative anthropology, then in vogue amongst his Oxford circle.

Turning next to the dialogue-in-landscape between the landscapists of the Dutch Golden Age and the Norwich School of watercolourists, Peter’s unique way of seeing offers a stream of revelations: we catch Cotman red handed borrowing from Vermeer’s textural attention of brick, pointing, and the flaking render of buildings; we see a visual rhyme between Cotman’s Crambe Beck Bridge (1804) and the rhymical sunlit expanses of Gerrit Berckheyde’s The Golden Bend in the Heerengracht (1671); and we find John Crome joining ‘his master’ Hobbema in newfound uses of water to articulate the local specificity of light and shadow.

Peter ends on the absence of a conclusion. But through these endlessly allusive and deeply felt connections he comes full circle to his thesis of picturing place as an autobiographical tool. Looking with Cotman at a forgotten, formally irresolvable slip of land, On the Greta. he guides us to a moving understanding of how landscape gave shape, colour, and form to lives in the long eighteenth century.