Ron Broglio, Technologies of the Picturesque: British Art, Poetry, and Instruments, 1750-1830

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Ron Broglio, Technologies of the Picturesque: British Art, Poetry, and Instruments, 1750-1830. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2008. 236pp. ISBN-10: 0-8387-5700-0 (Hdbk.), $50.00.

Reviewed by
Julia Sandstrom Carlson
University of Cincinnati

Water, earth, sky, and animals? At first glance, one of the four sections into which Technologies of the Picturesque is divided seems unlike the others. We come quickly to recognize, however, that the likeness of “animals” to the other categories lies in its also being an object of picturesque vision: one of the basic “elements of nature” (15) encountered, perceived, and composed in visual art according to the rules of picturesque aesthetics. Water, earth, sky, and animals are the basic vocabulary of the picturesque. Yet, as Ron Broglio shows, Romantic artists were not alone in representing these objects and fitting them to human use; eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientists and surveyors encountered and inscribed the same elements according to their particular technological, cartographic, agricultural, and immunological agendas. In six tightly focused chapters, the author compares artistic and scientific encounters with nature, their tools and epistemologies, and their respective effects on human subjectivity and sense of space. Crossing disciplinary divides consolidated only after the Romantic period, Broglio brings to light the reliance of poets and artists on the technologies of scientific endeavor and, conversely, the employment by scientists of picturesque principles and tools. Both sorts of optical projects and systems made chaotic nature “legible” to humanity but in doing so enforced a Cartesian divide between human perceiver (eye, mind) and nature (body, matter) that materially distanced human beings and the environment.

Drawing on recent cultural-studies research and contemporary science studies, the book examines inscriptional technologies associated with nationally significant events of measuring the four featured elements of nature. Chapters consider the development of an accurate method for determining longitude at sea, the Ordnance Survey of Britain, the scientific classification of cloud types for weather prediction, and the selective breeding of cattle along with the principal tools these projects employed, including lunar charts, William Harrison’s H4 clock, the triangulation survey and map, the theodolite and measuring chain, cloud nomenclature, and the bodies of cattle and grazier guides. Broglio strikingly pairs these technologies of measurement and representation with the tools and aesthetics of picturesque tourism, prospect poetry, cloud paintings, and cattle portraiture, exposing thereby the analogous and sometimes mutually reinforcing effects of art and technology: both transform nature into culture, render the opaque thing an intelligible object with an economic or aesthetic use value, cultivate a possessional subject position, and abstract the perceiver from the visible scene. But Broglio does not stop here. In movingly persuasive sections throughout the book, he considers Romantic counter-currents to optical hegemony: instances of phenomenological encounters with nature that refigure relations between the human and the environment. Haptic engagements with nature in Wordsworth’s poetry, encounters governed by the sense of touch rather than sight, and durational depictions of nature in Constable’s painting, which prioritize time over figural space, offer radical constructions of subjectivity and space overlooked in other studies of the picturesque. In Wordsworth’s and Constable’s “bending” (20) of the picturesque aesthetic, Broglio locates an alternative syntax that distributes thought and agency across human and environmental entities. With increasing force as the book proceeds from “Water” and “Earth” to “Sky” and “Animals,” Broglio challenges ecocriticism’s assumption of a stable Romantic subject that pre-exists encounters with nature.

“Part I: Water” recounts the mid-eighteenth-century government-sponsored competition over the most accurate means of determining longitude at sea, comparing Nevil Maskelyne’s astronomical to George Harrison’s mechanical methods. Broglio argues that the determining of longitude by means of Harrison’s mechanical clock produces a worldview parallel to that of the picturesque tourist. The late-eighteenth-century navigator who looks to the face of the H4 clock performs an “inward turn” (29) away from the sea and the night sky to human-made instruments; this epistemological orientation toward the face of the mechanical object is reflected by the representation of abstract geometric lines upon globes and charts. Similarly, the picturesque tourist navigates by means of a cluster of inscriptions and tools (Claude mirror, picturesque poems, paintings, and guidebooks) that collectively produces a “syntax”: a set of compositional rules that render the land intelligible (43). While the grammar of picturesque landscape produces a worldview that values human representations of nature more highly than actual surroundings, tool use distributes cognition across “bodies, minds, and machines” (39).

Broglio exposes the epistemological implications of navigation by clock and picturesque tourism by way of Thomas Rowlandson’s The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque. Rowlandson humorously exposes the ironies of the aesthetic and the problems raised by its “cognitive ecology” (in Edwin Hutchins’ term, The Call of the Wild) of guidebooks and Claude mirrors. Like the tool-encumbered Dr. Syntax, the user of Harrison’s clock values human representations of nature over unmediated perceptions. Broglio intriguingly links the new prestige of “flat inscriptions” to a diminished ontology: Dr. Syntax’s frail body highlights that “our being in the world and our sense of what it means to be changes with our sense of the environment” (47).

“Part II: Earth” opens with the assertion that the rendering of a particular place—on a map as in a picturesque watercolor—employs a mode of vision and epistemology that produces a subject and a sense of space. Building on the ideas of cultural geographer Stephen Daniels, who shows that maps “‘helped to coordinate Britain, in people’s mind as well as on the ground, as a national network of localities and regions’” (53), Broglio contrasts two Romantic period senses of space: the sensible and the sensate. Picturesque tourism and national cartography construct a disembodied viewing subject that knows itself in rationalized space—in geometric relation to abstractly perceived objects. Wordsworth’s poetry, on the other hand, occasionally challenges the dominance of cartographic and picturesque vision by taking a phenomenological approach to the environment. Wordsworth’s poetic re-mappings of Penrith Beacon and Black Combe shape not a citizen of the nation but an embodied, feeling self immersed in place.

Broglio gives a succinct history of the Ordnance Survey, reaching back to William Roy’s influence in its formation following the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Broglio highlights Roy’s survey of Scotland and the later Ordnance Survey of Ireland to show the political uses of the Survey, which as political tool “controls peoples and borders” (56). Drawing on the work of John Barrell and visual theorists Erwin Panofsky, Jonathan Crary, and Martin Jay, Broglio shows how the “metaphysics of vision deployed in cartography and the picturesque serves a politics of nationalism,” producing land as an abstract object and a “tourist-subject” that knows itself as a citizen if a good tourist of the nation (51). Like the surveyor, the “tourist-subject” oversees but has no significant tactile relationship to the geometrically ordered landscape.

Broglio’s interesting discussion of the “Cartesian perspectivalism” (the term is Jay’s) underlying both picturesque painting and the triangulation survey comes at the expense of sharp distinction among the related sign systems of the Ordnance Survey, its topographical maps, and contemporary tourist maps and guides (63). Yet his brief consideration of the manifest overlay between the optics of the survey and James Clarke’s tourist diagrams of views from Penrith Beacon sets up a persuasive reading of the Penrith Beacon spot of time from The Prelude. Disjoined from the tools of cartographic and picturesque vision, figured by the composite tool of the hand-on-horse-rein, the boy Wordsworth leaves the masterful vantage of the beacon (historically both a triangulation station and tourist site), wanders into a “bottom,” and thereby “explores a mapping through his body and a phenomenological encounter with the land” (52). The boy is immersed in a space the surveyor and tourist would have overseen—a thickly textured, Heideggerian encompassment of the flesh of the body and “thingly” matter.

The next chapter develops these concerns by arguing that Wordsworth’s “alternative mapping” (81) of place challenges the suppositions of national cartography and the subject-object division it enforces. Influential humanist readings of the episode (by Geoffrey Hartman, Alan Liu, and Frederick Garber) have obscured the subjective and ecological implications of the encounter with nature in Gondo Gorge. Drawing on Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, which understands the components of the world to be resonating “entities” in a “plane of relation,” and on Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s notion of the “assemblage,” which defines things by their connections, Broglio traces in the Gorge passage a radical dissolution of subject and object and a sublime figuring of the interrelatedness of “entities” (91). According to Broglio, the slippage of reference in the poetry maps a “trafficking of forms” (Hartman) or “vector relations” (forces of connectivity immanent in a landscape and set loose by event) (93); in so doing, Wordsworth remakes the poet “as that which connects with various elements in the landscape” (85). The final sections of the chapter read “Resolution and Independence,” “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” “The Discharged Soldier” and “A narrow girdle of rough stones and crags” as more politically potent re-mappings of human-environment relations. In showing connections between human figures and entities in the landscapes of the poems, Wordsworth re-envisions space as non-exclusionary and opens the possibility of an alternative social reality that doesn’t reject “the wandering poor” (107). By redistributing agency and thought among objects, Wordsworth questions “what it means to be human,” and by linking the human and the object world, the poetry “bears witness to identity as a semi-stable state that may undergo radical change” (117).

Representations of clouds also refigure identity. In “Part III: Sky,” Broglio considers John Constable’s surpassing of the picturesque formula for representing clouds, deftly arguing that Constable’s more dynamic cloud forms were not determined by early-nineteenth-century meteorology. Correcting arguments that Constable figured clouds according to the morphological classifications of meteorologists Luke Howard and Thomas Forster, Broglio holds that Constable depicts clouds in greater specificity than any sign system of clouds could accommodate. The book’s emphasis on inscriptional systems here takes an interesting temporal turn. The scientists and Constable differently record their observations of “changeling clouds” in static media. Howard’s taxonomy privileges distinction of form over inscription of time while permitting cloud forms to index future weather. The sign system’s accommodation of temporality marks a “similarity in thought” between Howard and Constable, who also strives to give his inscriptions a feel of narrative (129); however, the painter’s use of a synchronous medium tells a fuller story about the weather’s unfolding in time: “Unlike meteorological nomenclature, Constable’s patterns are singular rhythms of clouds filling space over time, creating within each painting a particular rendering of spatiotemporal duration” (149). The spatiotemporal specificity of Constable’s clouds exceeds the taxonomies of the scientists while suggesting a form of time “outside of human control” (151) and a human subjectivity constituted by its relatedness to the environment. Invoking Michel Serres’ notion of temps (time and weather) and Merleau-Ponty’s flesh of the world (“the spatial relation between objects”), Broglio reflects on the capacity of Constable’s clouds to figure ecological agency and to reveal “the possibility and latency of the felt space of interrelation” (152). In a final insightful turn, Broglio liberates Constable’s cloud forms from conventional readings of the picturesque by asserting the non-nationalism of their agentive temporality.

In “Part IV: Animals,” Broglio significantly revises our view of cattle and of the humans who breed, paint, eat, and absorb their fluids. Through the agricultural innovations of Robert Bakewell, Broglio introduces the communicative function of picturesque aesthetics in the agricultural revolution. In selective breeding, “cattle are both the technological tool for changing the breed and the object that is worked upon” (162). Still, Broglio explains, the “improvement” and marketing of a breed required a further “ecology of tools” that included grazier guides, cattle portraits, and engravings (176). Broglio impressively evidences these historical practices and inscriptional technologies—making us familiar with the form and fame of Bakewell’s longhorn Shakespeare (“the ideal of British beef” [169]), Robert and Charles Colling’s shorthorn Lincolnshire Ox (painted by George Stubbs), and their hefty Durham Ox, who provided the most famous cattle image of the nineteenth century (174). Portraits, prints, and verbal descriptions in the grazier guides acted as publicity that increased studding fees and the value of beef. Broglio’s consideration of the suitability of picturesque composition to the “points”-system for assessing individual cattle demonstrates the resonant richness of this book. Picturesque landscape convention induces a straying of the eye over lines and surfaces so as to enable the portrait’s visual argument about the worth of the cattle body. Essentially, the side of the animal “substitutes for the whole of the landscape” while “the viewer occupies the position of the graziers, judges, and agricultural writers who with great detail and enthusiasm describe the scoops, curves, lines, and bulges of cattle” (179).

But we are not to marvel at this intersection of aesthetics and agricultural technology. A fact the author brings forth—that the average weight of a cattle carcass almost doubled between 1710 and 1795—gives heft to his polemic (180): cattle breeding and its “ecology of tools” control the animal in profound and self-serving ways. Broglio convincingly argues that picturesque portraiture was effective not only in fashioning the animal for human use but also in connecting beef to Britishness. That eighteenth-century British painting had linked cattle to rural England helped prepare for the Romantic-era verbal and visual encoding of beef-eating as patriotic.

The final chapter of the book rehearses Edward Jenner’s discovery of the smallpox vaccination in order to re-interpret human-bovine relations within the picturesque. Here Broglio relies on the research of Tim Fulford, Debbie Lee, and Peter Kitson, who relate the history of Jenner’s experimental injection of human patients with cowpox in order to immunize them to smallpox. Developing the implications of the anxiety raised by Jenner’s “cross-species cure” (188), Broglio argues that the injection of the human body with animal fluid constitutes a point of contact between the animal and human that makes palpable to the human its animality within. Broglio theorizes the cultural meanings of the breach of the human interior by invoking the writings of Anthony Berger, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze, and by examining the visual and verbal rhetoric of popular caricatures that fanned anti-vaccination sentiments. Most interestingly, Broglio explores the limits to human consciousness posed by animal corporeality and the subversive potential of the cattle portrait. In the picturesque painting or print, the “large abstract square mass interrupts linear perspective and offers an area for contact with the real” (195) so as to upset the rational, optical dominance of the human. Broglio teaches us to read the rough swath of cow surface (favored by William Gilpin over the smooth coat of the horse) as that which the human perceiver cannot cognitively master. If the space figured by Constable’s clouds resists national coding, the painted bovine in profile view disrupts the optics of national forms of inscription (the Ordnance Survey and the picturesque landscape painting) and disperses agency throughout the environment.

One of the many virtues of Broglio’s enjoyable book is its systematic demonstration, case by case, of the interrelationship between picturesque aesthetics and technological developments in scientific mensuration. The emphasis, across these cases, on inscriptional technology and epistemology ultimately produces a coherent argument about Romantic subjectivity and space that poses a significant philosophical challenge to Green Romanticism’s assumption of the independence and priority of human identity. While the book may not revolutionize our reading of the central texts of canonical literary Romanticism, that is not its goal; working at the intersections of Romantic poetry, art, and science, Broglio offers impressive readings of Wordsworth’s phenomenological mapping of place, Constable’s temporalization of the sky, and the projection of animal corporeality within the picturesque while also revealing the conceptual and theoretical relations of these seemingly disparate topics. The book makes a significant contribution to existing scholarship in visual culture, the technologization of vision, Romantic cartography, and ecocriticism. While the work is highly informative throughout, Broglio is most poetically fluent and persuasive when opening our eyes to the picturesque surfaces impenetrable to human thought, and when sensitizing us to Romanticism’s points of palpable connection between human and ecological agents.

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