16 MARCH 2002, Page 37

A visit to the golden Borrowdale of Wordsworth and Coleridge


Ihave just acquired an enormous landscape by John Glover (1767-1849). It is in watercolour and body colour, but is so majestic, and the colouring so deep and luminous, that it might almost be in oil paint. It has the original frame and superb but heavy glass, and weighs a ton. Buying this work was in flagrant violation of my solemn covenant never to buy another picture. I have too many as it is

There were two particular reasons why this picture appealed to me. I like a landscape that issues an invitation: 'Come into me and walk in my pleasant places.' A perfect example of the invitation picture is The Chateau de Steen' by Rubens, in the National Gallery. which was one of the foundation pictures of the collection. It belonged to the early 19thcentury collector and amateur artist Sir George Beaumont, and cost a pretty penny even then. He bought it 'through the generosity of his wife', a fanatical admirer of Wordsworth and Coleridge. She had just come into a legacy and used it to finance the purchase of the Rubens. It hung at their house in Coleorton. Leicestershire, and was so much admired by Constable when he stayed there that he was allowed to lug it into his bedroom, so that it was the first thing he saw when he woke up in the morning. It had a perceptible influence on his work.

In 'The Chateau de Steen' you are invited not just to travel up the path to the house, but also to join a shooting party in the foreground, where Rubens and his boy are after some wildfowl. His wife is bringing out his elevenses, and you are welcome to chat to her and survey the magnificence of the prospect which her husband's endless exertions in his studio, and his attendance danced at the courts of Europe combining painting and diplomacy, had at last enabled him to possess. Now he could relax and enjoy the rich woods and pastures, retreating in sunny gradations to the far-distant horizon. One thinks of Rubens resting his tired painting arm — capable of delivering an accurate and brilliant stroke seven feet long — and musing gently over past encounters with Charles I and Marie de Medicis, Henri IV and the Emperor. But in fact, of course, he was not lazing at all but frantically working on this magnificent landscape, adding a bird here, a startled rabbit there. And, as he paints, he says to you, 'All that you can see here is mine, but I invite you to share it and love it as I do.' There will be people hundreds of years hence glad to accept this warm invitation from a

great man who was generosity personified.

In my John Glover painting, the setting is the Lake District. By my calculation we are at the entrance to 'the Jaws of Borrowdale', as they were called in those days, in about 1820. By the configuration of the hills, it is morning in midsummer. The sun is just appearing over the eastern side of the dale, pouring already ardent beams of light into the valley floor, dispersing the banks of mist that have gathered over the waters of the Dement river, and penetrating the oak and beech woods. The painting is framed by two huge trees on either side, still in shadow, only their topmost leaves lit by the rising sun. Between them is a colossal gold and silver sky, in full glitter and blaze, driving the stricken clouds before it by the force of its explosive light. I can imagine Keats, who had visited these parts only a few years before, putting the magical sunrise into words, as he did for the National Gallery's great Claude, with its 'perilous seas in faery lands forlorn'. The vision here, however, is not palatial and classical, but rustic and romantic. A shepherd youth has just met a milkmaid, whose cows, on their way to the pasture, are on the right. They are chatting. We are invited to join them. But they are in the shadows, and the temptation is to follow the banks of the beck, which is on its way to tumble into Denventwater, now lit by the

warm sun. There who knows? — we might find Southey, who lived nearby, out for his morning walk, or for a planned rendezvous with Wordsworth and attendant Dorothy, who were quite capable of rising in the small hours and walking from Grasmere up Langdale and over the pass into Borrowdale, in time for breakfast with the Poet Laureate. Wordsworth might muse on the story of the shepherd and the maid, but it would be Dorothy who noticed the ferns and wildflowers at their feet, which Glover has put in with characteristic precision. Such are some of the thoughts that this fine painting encourages me to entertain, as I enter its premises and make free with its wild yet comforting visions. By accepting Glover's invitation, in short, I have walked in the Cumberland that Coleridge knew and Wordsworth immortalised. What greater thrill can a painting give you than that?

My second special reason for buying this masterwork is that I have always found Glover a fascinating man, not at all typical of the Varleys and de Wints and Townes of the day. He painted a lot in oils as well as watercolour, and his roots were in the 18th century, or even in the 17th. He worshipped at the great golden altar of Claude, and the English painter he most admired was Richard Wilson, whose classical landscapes and golden, tranquil skies were in the Claude tradition. Glover made copies of both these masters whenever he got the opportunity. A painstaking and ingenious man, he evolved by endless experiment a method of producing a Claude sky in watercolour, something I would have believed impossible had I not the evidence of his success before my eyes as I write this. There is a full description of this method by Martin Harvie in the second volume of his great work on English watercolour painters.

Glover was a brilliant showman and a hard man of business. Many put him on the same level as Turner, and in 1807 he was elected president of the Society of Painters in Watercolour, to put its affairs on an efficient basis and raise its prestige. He devised the daring idea of exhibiting his own works juxtaposed with Claude's and Wilson's, so that customers could see for themselves the extent to which he had equalled, even in watercolour, the superb effects of the two giants of the craft. His success was considerable, to the mortification of Constable, who saw in Glover's composition and colouring all the vices of the 18th century. But is there not room for two — or indeed hundreds — of differing visions of nature?

At all events Glover flourished and by 1829 he had amassed a fortune of £60,000. With this he emigrated, bought a farm and estate in Tasmania, and for the last 20 years of his life lived in patriarchal splendour there, painting the local scenery, raising sheep and hunting, rather like Rubens at the Chateau de Steen. I like to think of him there, near the town of Launceston (pronounced with the stress on the second syllable), on the northern tip of the island. He chose Tasmania because parts of it look like the Scottish Highlands or even, at a pinch, like Cumberland. But having been all over it, I can testify that other parts have among the wildest and grimmest scenery on earth, with impenetrable bush, meadows where flames shoot forth after a week of dry weather, and (in those days) home to an amazing variety of creatures unique to the island, including the ferocious 'tiger'. Glover's Tasmanian scenes are scarce and fetch princely prices, but I am content with his placid and sunny Borrowdale, which I will visit every day for the rest of my life.