British flags flying from Admiral Anson’s fleet off Cape Finisterre but could nowhere locate the French ships against which the action had been directed. We could only conclude that the Scott had captured the engagement’s end, and so the French ships had to be sought amongst the spars and timber, flotsam and foam about the painting’s lower sections, in which case the painting’s precondition proved mostly absent from its dabs and strokes.
John Constable’s 1829 work, Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’, similarly fixed its sights on ruin at sea, though of a different sort. For Constable’s ruin was not to be found on the sea but beside it. Ruin had moved inland and laid waste to what little remained of the castle of the title. About its base there bobbed cowherds and dogs rather than wood and canvas.
Higher above the strand, William Holman Hunt’s 1852 Our English Coasts dazzled us with its color array. Ruddy sheep reclined, their shadows melding with the red-purple earth beneath. Mossy rocks, heath and brambles separated them from the green Channel waters where the shadows of a few clouds could be glimpsed. There, the greens and browns introduced by Siberechts emerged in new form, refined as it were, by advances in optics.
The accompanying sign drew our attention to Hunt’s membership in a secret art society, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which sought, per the sign, to fuse romantic intensity, religious symbolism and scientific accuracy into a new genre, “symbolic realism”. Although I might admire the strength of their realism, on the basis of colored shadows and optical effects, I deemed the symbolism lacking. In the milling sheep and crumbling cliffs I could find, with time, signs of civil and religious unrest as suggested by the documentation.
Yet I felt that a similar effect might better have been obtained through refining their color palette still further, even to saturation, such that the hues strained the eyes to the point that unease communicated itself not through meaning but through perception itself.