Common Land in English Painting, 1700-1850

Ian Waites (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2012)

Recommended by Catriona Paton

Common Land in English Painting 1700-1850Examining how artists such as Peter DeWint and John Constable depicted common land during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Waites sketches a picture of a little-known, unenclosed landscape from England’s past. While enclosures had been impacting the countryside since the fifteenth century, this book charts a period of fast-paced parliamentary enclosure activity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which transformed many remaining common field systems. Waites examines cultural artistic developments, such as the Picturesque, Naturalism and rural nostalgia, alongside socioeconomic debates surrounding parliamentary enclosures, including ideologies of improvement and the independence of the commoner. Studying the landscape art, literature and contemporary commentary of the period c.1700-1850, this book makes a strong case for the importance of common land in English landscape painting, wider culture and history.

David Cox, The Cross Roads, 1850, oil on panel, Birmingham Museums Trust

Image: public domain.

David Cox, The Cross Roads, oil on panel, 1850, Birmingham Museums and Art Galleries.

David Cox, The Cross Roads, oil on panel, 1850, Birmingham Museums and Art Galleries.

David Cox’s (1783-1859) atmospheric painting of an unspecified location is one of a number of artworks analysed by Waites in his chapter on English Naturalism. In a scene dominated by tempestuous sky and an unbounded expanse of apparently common land, figures and their animals trudge onwards into the wind guided by a time-worn signpost. As Waites highlights, Cox memorialised an open, common field landscape becoming increasingly rare with parliamentary enclosures during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Our Common Land and Other Short Essays (1877)

Octavia Hill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Recommended by Catriona Paton

Our Common Land and Other Short Essays (1877)Octavia Hill was a housing reformer, active campaigner for open space preservation, and co-founder of the National Trust. This collection of Hill’s public-facing lectures and articles covers topics ranging from her principles on charity to commons preservation, largely stemming from her housing work in London’s poor neighbourhoods. In her papers on open spaces, Hill described how paths and commons were being closed to the public, just as people increasingly depended on open space in the context of a rising urban population. The collection captures a crucial period in the history of public access to green spaces, and can be read in the context of a broader open space preservation movement which led to the establishment of the National Trust in 1895.

Hill’s papers combined legal, political acumen and practicality with a humanity and appreciation for the value of beauty, leisure and rest in people’s lives. While some of Hill’s approach was of its time, a spirit of commonality nonetheless permeates her work; green, open spaces were for Hill a common possession of rich and poor alike. She urgently called on public and parliamentary opinion to protect commons from enclosure and provide accessible green space in cities, for the health and soul of present and future generations.