British artist George Vicat Cole produced some of the finest examples of landscape art during the 19th century. Cole was an artist with the ability to marry inspiration from the great landscape painters before him with contemporary innovations in art.
He was a reactive painter, absorbing nature’s spirit into his works whilst also imbibing them with a lyricism derived from the poets. His works serve as exemplary examples of the growing respect and interest for landscapes during the Victorian era.
Cole grew up on the south coast of England in Portsmouth, surrounded by artistic enterprise. His father, George Cole (1810-1884), was a self-taught animal painter, although he also executed a number of landscapes. He would become Cole’s primary teacher, and the young artist would receive no other formal education in art.
Alongside his father’s efforts, Cole regularly copied out the works of his predecessors in landscape art. David Cox (1783-1859), John Constable (1776-1837), and, most significantly, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), would prove inspiring maestros. Cole deeply appreciated their works’ strong emotional connection to nature, how each man was able to capture its spirit and reflect its beauty. He sympathised with their deference to nature as the shaping force for their work. She was mistress, and it was to her they looked above all else.
Cole took much the same stance, and this was something that would change little from his childhood days. His Portsmouth surroundings, according to Cole’s biographer Robert Chignell, whose sister Cole would marry, propagated this fascination and love for nature. So did the many painting trips that his father took the young Cole on around the country.
Cole would first exhibit his work at the young age of 19 at the Society of British Artists. He would continue to steadily exhibit at this and other institutions, including the Royal Academy, throughout the 1850s. He was struggling, however, to make himself well known. This was a matter not helped by the Royal Academy’s hesitancy towards accepting landscape paintings as being of great artistic value. This was despite the best efforts of Constable and Turner earlier in the 19th century to encourage a positive change in attitudes towards the genre.
In 1855, more hardship came when Cole got involved in a dispute with his father and was left to fend for himself. This was a time of struggle for Cole, who had to take up work as an art teacher to help support himself.
However, it was also a time of great artistic experimentation. Cole began to develop his own style, set free from his father’s bounds. Trips to Surrey each summer aided Cole’s creative zeal, and only encouraged his deference to nature.
Much like Constable before him, Cole began to make studies of the world around him to ensure he had a bank of knowledge to draw upon. Sky studies were his particular penchant. These would then feed into his overall understanding of the workings of the earth and how he might depict them in a truthful and spirited manner. As Chignell writes: ‘for every study he put on canvas, he would transfer a hundred to the recesses of his memory.’
Cole’s efforts are evident in his incredibly animated skies. Clouds are buoyant, crisp cumuli, or frittering spots of milky white. They loom ominous, harbingers of the oncoming storm. In one significant piece, the sky is a marbled vista of clouds set against gorgeous azure and billowing over vibrant fields of bustling corn.
‘A Surrey Cornfield’ (1859) was the work which would become Cole’s breakthrough, earning him both a silver medal from the Society of Arts as well as the respect of the art world. It conveys his spirited naturalism and celebrates the beauty of the British countryside.
Furthermore, the bright, saturated colour of ‘A Surrey Cornfield’ is indicative of the inspiration Cole took from his contemporaries, the Pre-Raphaelites. Known for their celebration of nature, it is unsurprising that Cole would catch the Pre-Raphaelite zeal for colour and infuse such vibrancy into his own works.
Indeed, in more ways than one did the Pre-Raphaelites aid Cole’s career. When a piece of his was being exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865, member of the hanging jury and Pre-Raphaelite Brother John Everett Millais (1829-1896) insisted Cole’s work be hung in pride of place. With this stalwart’s approval, Cole was ensured a prominent place in any further exhibitions and, indeed, in British art moving forward.
As the decades progressed, Cole would become the most successful landscape artist of his time. He continued to depict the rolling soul of the Surrey countryside, living for a time in Holmbury Hill. His signature became these abundant scenes of cornfields flowing down to meet the grassy mounds of hills.
Yet he did not allow himself to become limited to these views. Nature’s thrall from across Britain found translation at the tip of his brush. The highlands of Scotland craggily crest towards the sky, as if reluctant to enliven themselves, ancient giants. The mountains of Snowdonia stand sentinel above heathland and moors bursting with water-soaked ferns and crushed velvet heather.
River scenes, too, were a firm favourite. Cole returned to the River Arun on many occasions. The artist’s fourth source of inspiration, poetry, can be noted here. ‘The poet of Nature is the poet who reaches the heart of the landscape painter,’ Chignell wrote. Tennyson was such a poet for Cole. He frequently used the writer’s words in the descriptions of his works, as well as to determine their focus. Indeed, ‘Summer Showers’ (1869) depicts a rainstorm encroaching on a peaceful stretch of river, and the inspiration comes from this line of Tennyson: ‘And one, a full-fed river winding slowly by hers upon an endless plain, the ragged rims of thunder brooding low, with shadow streaks of rain.’
It is incredible how Cole marries Tennyson’s written image with his own visual to create a piece of work which pays homage to the poem and yet is enlivened with its own energy. This is owing in thanks to his studies of nature, his understanding of the skies, and his detailed, Pre-Raphaelite inspired colourism. This is a clear example of Cole weaving together his own style from various sources of inspiration, developing the work of his forefathers in landscape painting to make it even more dynamic.
Such efforts were not without reward. Cole would become a member of the Royal Academy in 1880, and his works were regularly translated into engravings to be disseminated widely. The days of working as a teacher were behind him, Cole was encouraging respect for landscape paintings, both in the public mind and in the hallowed halls of the Royal Academy.
In his later years, Cole developed a fascination with the River Thames. He turned his attention to a subject with a grittier, industrial edge which he had not yet explored. Nonetheless, he captures with his characteristic cleverness the soul of the scenes laid out in front of him. In a work titled ‘The Pool of London’ (1888), the water turgidly tips the boats which line its shores. Polluted clouds are coughed out and lay thick like cotton over a smog-tinted sky. St Paul’s Cathedral stands master in the middle of the canvas, a beacon in the background. So different from his other works, this piece was no less successful. Indeed, it was one of the most expensive paintings bought with the Chantrey Bequest, intended to instate a national collection of fine art.
Whilst the Thames was the subject of many artists before Cole, including J.M.W. Turner, as well as his contemporaries, such as friend and rival Benjamin Williams Leader (1831-1923), Cole brought his distinctive hand to offer it unique treatment.
It is something of a tragedy that Cole would die suddenly in 1893, 10 days shy of his 60th birthday. His funeral was attended by numerous other giants in the art world. Cole had been well-liked, an amiable figure amongst his peers. The art world had lost a pillar in landscape painting.
Despite the withering appreciation for Victorian art in the 20th century, Cole’s legacy is incredibly clear in this current time. Cole took the baton from those who came before him and ran with it, ensuring that, from thereon in, nature was the landscape artist’s guiding star, joined in constellation with a lyricism derived from the poets. There are many similarities in Cole’s artistic spirit to the impressionists who would continue to elevate landscape art.
George Vicat Cole was a stalwart of his time and is a lively example of the development of landscape art during the 19th century. His faithful yet poetic depictions of nature paid great homage to the beauties of the British countryside, so much so that contemporaries would conclude: ‘it is impossible to view the country under some aspects without being irresistibly reminded of this painter.’
Born in Portsmouth, Britain.
First exhibited at the Society of British Artists. Moved to Fulham, London, Britain.
Exhibited frequently at The British Institution.
Exhibited frequently at the Royal Academy.
Moved to Camden Town, London, Britain.
Worked as a drawing teacher at Queens’ College for Ladies.
Married Mary Anne Chignell.
Became a member of the Royal Society of British Artists.
Awarded a silver medal by the Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts.
Moved to Holmbury Hill, Sussex.
Revoked membership of the Royal Society of British Artists.
Exhibited at the Exposition Universelle, Paris, France.
Moved to Kensington, London.
Elected an Associate of the Royal Academy.
Elected a Member of the Royal Academy.
Died in Kensington, London, Britain.