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Bruce Bucknell

Former British Deputy High Commissioner Kolkata

Part of UK in Minsk

15th May 2015

Landscape – A Touch of Britain

When I first arrived, I didn’t look very closely at them.  After we had settled in, I inspected each one and wondered whether I could change them.  Then I forget about them, until quite recently when one of my team had the idea that we should exhibit them.

I’m talking about the paintings that usually hang in my residence in Minsk.  They are currently on display at an exhibition entitled “A Touch of Britain” at the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus, in Minsk until 13 July.  They are six paintings of British landscapes of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as three prints, including two of views of central London.

exhibition 2

I’m delighted that they are being exhibited with other British works from Belarusian collections, of painting and some porcelain from the same period.  So I am seeing in a different context and place.  I now feel proud of them.

They are from a period of our history when landscape paintings were very much the vogue.  British painting had something of a golden age in the later 18th and early 19th centuries.  This was a period when young British aristocrats travelled to Europe and saw the great art of the Italian Renaissance.  On their return to Britain, they acted as patrons to a generation of British artists.

The artists had themselves secured the patronage of the British King to set up the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 to promote painting, sculpture and other arts in Britain.  The first president was a portrait artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was also an enthusiastic lecturer on many aesthetic subjects.  Through the Royal Academy’s schools, artists were able to learn their trade and seek patrons for their work.  The Royal Academy is still playing that role today.

While portraits were an important source of commissions for artists, there was also a great interest in landscape pictures.  Perhaps the most famous British artist from the 18th century was Thomas Gainsborough, who found a particularly lucrative way of earning from both.  He was expert at painting portraits of people sitting in landscapes.

His landscapes, and those of other artists of the period, weren’t obviously British, but idealised representations.  For some collectors and artists, the landscapes looked very much like those they may have recalled from their visits to Italy.  By the 19th century, the paintings tended to be more obviously realistic representations of British landscapes.  Two artists have come to be seen as masters of British painting from that period.

John Constable painted very realistic views of the English countryside.  His lush landscapes were often set off against wonderfully vivid skies, usually in sunshine but with wonderfully fluffy clouds of all colours.  I suspect that reproductions of his picture “The Hay Wain” adorn more houses in Britain than any other picture.

J M W Turner was simply a genius.  He began painting Italianate landscapes, but his style evolved over his long life.  He produced amazing representations of light and colours, including some fantastic seascapes.  One of his most evocative paintings is “The Fighting Temeraire” from 1838.  This shows one of the last sailing ships that had served in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the great sea victory over Napoleon Bonaparte, being towed by a motorised tug to its final berth to be broken up.

The emotion in that picture is very evident, and indeed romanticism was a central element of the art of Turner and Constable.  They were representative of their times, when landscape wasn’t just painted, but also designed.  As I wrote when trying to explain our interest in gardening, the love of our landscape was part of the reaction to the Industrial Revolution.  “The Fighting Temeraire” is an example of this reaction, as is “Near Malvern Hills”, one of the pictures on display, of a rural scene in the foreground with factory chimneys ominously in the background.

There is another element to this:  Britain is endowed with a great variety of landscape.  This is due to the underlying geology which is very mixed and, in turn, provides us with very different patterns of drainage and a variety of soils.  The land surface is also wrinkled, so that we have lots of little hills and “rolling countryside”.  The final element is our mild and damp maritime climate, which makes the landscape verdant.

I’m glad that the pictures show the variety of our landscapes.  They also reflect the variety in artistic representations so that we have examples of the Italian influence, and more romantic views in a more obviously “British” style.

The pictures aren’t mine.  They belong to the Government Art Collection, which has, for over 100 years, “… collected works of art to display in British Government buildings around the world, promoting British art and culture”.  They are present in many embassies and ambassadors’ residences around the world.

I’m delighted that we’ve been able to exhibit the pictures in a gallery.  They look more suited there than in my residence.  Even better, the paintings can be seen by many Belarusians, and not just by visitors to my residence.  I hope they enjoy the landscapes!

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About Bruce Bucknell

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016. Bruce grew up on a…

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016.

Bruce grew up on a farm in southern England and enjoys walking in the countryside and visiting wild places.

He studied modern history at Durham University, and takes a keen interest in the history of the places he visits.

Bruce used to play cricket when he could see the ball. Now he enjoys watching cricket and many other sports in his spare time.

He has had a varied career in the Foreign Office. Between his postings to Amman (1988-91), Milan (1995-9) and Madrid (2003-7), he has spent much of his career in London mostly dealing with Europe and Africa.

He is married with two grown up sons.