‘Eden to Empire’ at the National Gallery follows Thomas Cole and his contemporaries’ responses to the industrial revolution. For only £12 a ticket, the exhibition is a window into this murky and transitory period in the Western world.
Before Cole’s career as an artist took off, the pressure coming from the industrial revolution were already beginning to take shape in paintings. In Joseph Mallord William Turner’s painting, ‘Leeds’, thick smoke covers the majority of the lush hills of the background. On the left of the painting is a tenter frame, used to dry and stretch textiles. As early as 1816, Turner was already hinting at a connection between labour and art, something Thomas Cole would be familiar with in his work as an engraver at this time.
The iron grip of the industrial revolution caused thousands of job losses, Luddite-lead riots in which machinery was broken, and eventually, the failure of his father’s business. This prompted Cole to move to New York in 1818, where he would take a steamboat up the Hudson River to sketch beautiful mountainous areas – an ironic juxtaposition between man-made vehicles and nature. Here he sketched and painted the American wilderness free of settlers but bountiful in religious themes. His time in New York most likely inspired ‘The Garden of Eden’, in which you can see banana and palm trees that were specimens in hothouses in the city. The painting highlights the plentiful beauty of nature, with Adam and Eve as the only human life in sight. Cole was so fond of nature that he truly grieved for his favourite tree when it was cut down, which you can read in terrific yet haunting poem, ‘The Lament of the Forest’.
At age 28, Cole’s travels landed him in London, where he saw John Constable’s painting, ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’. What is striking about this piece is that, although it was intended to be a celebration of industrialism and technical innovation, Constable’s doubts ooze into the painting in the form of black smoke and chimneys along the South Bank. The menacing – and almost unnoticeable – parts of the backdrop, as well as the fact that Constable took years to finish the painting, are telling in terms of the ambivalent response to industrialism.
Finally, the exhibition comes to a close at what I would call Cole’s magnum opus: the culmination of everything he has seen up until this point. From 1833 to 1836, he created a series of 6 paintings called ‘The Course of Empire’ in which he journeys in a full circle from his Garden of Eden, to a fully realised representation of his views surrounding man’s destruction of nature.
- The first is ‘The Savage State’ in which the subject is a lush valley with the only human intervention being people from very early civilisation.
- Continuing through Cole’s story, the next painting is ‘The Arcadian or Pastoral State’. The area has not changed, the same mountain is in the background, but there are buildings, and the people are wearing properly woven clothes. While this painting echoes the serenity of ‘The Garden of Eden’, considering the next paintings, it is an eerie foreshadowing of what is to come.
- Next comes ‘The Consummation of Empire’, arguably the most beautiful of the series, in which the city has boomed in population and the sole building has become a skyline of coliseums, bridges and statues. There are traders, sailors, kings, guards, servants; it is truly a society in its absolute prime.
- The penultimate painting is ‘Destruction’, framed almost exactly as the one before it. Except this time, rather than sunny utopia, a storm is raging, and the sea is tumultuous. The city is being invaded, the statues and bridges have collapsed, and its population can be seen running for their lives. At each glance a new calamity can be seen: a severed head, a child falling into the sea, an enemy soldier running after a woman.
- Finally, ‘Desolation’. The columns and statues can be seen wearing away as time goes by. The waters are still. Vines and plants slowly climb the last remains of civilisation. Mother Nature takes back the Earth.
Cole’s paintings are beautiful, yet frightening prophetic. A similar anxiety exists today, except the looming new technology is automation. In only March of this year, Jamie Barlett published a Guardian article asking if 2018 will be the year of the off-the-grid ‘Neo-Luddites’, the play on the name of the very group that destroyed factory machinery in Cole’s hometown back in 1811. Studying age old paintings and their contexts can help us understand this unease that seems almost inherent to human nature, as shown in its resurfacing.