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A change of view that shook the world

The Royal Academy's superb new exhibition brings together landscapes by Gainsborough, Turner and Constable, and reveals how they were inspired by Europe

What was it that made landscape painting such a British speciality and arguably their greatest contribution to European art? It wasn't as though they had a long tradition of it. Through most of the 16th and 17th centuries they were happy enough to have foreigners come in as painters to the court and hence to the aristocracy. Religious paintings, after the Reformation, were something you bought from Italy. If there was a market preference it was for portraiture. Family likenesses were what you commissioned from local artists or, if you were grand enough, the Dutch painter at court. It was not until the 18th century that the British took up landscape painting and made it their own.

The cynical interpretation is that the taste for rural views grew in direct relationship with the pace at which the traditional countryside was being destroyed, initially by enclosures and technological advances in farming, and then by rapid industrialisation. Landscape art was, and still is, a form of nostalgia for a world before it disappeared under factories and cities.

The less cynical interpretation is that, as the British began to feel part of a national identity and express themselves through wars and trade, so the rural landscape became the expression of the nation's superior prosperity. The Continent might have bigger monuments and a longer history, but Britain had stability and wealth. The lowing cows and chewing sheep were there to show it.

The great virtue of the Royal Academy's new show, Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape, is that it shows how these three great giants of landscape emerged from a tradition that looked both to Italy and France for its grander ideals and the topographical painters of place for its inspiration.British knowledge of art, and particularly the works of the great masters, was long limited to those who could see it in the halls and salons of the collecting aristocracy. It was not until 1805 that the first public exhibition of art was held by the British Institution. It was not until 1815 that a public gallery, the Dulwich Art Gallery, was opened.

Until then acquaintance with art was largely confined to prints of the masterpieces of foreign art. The early rooms of the RA exhibition stacked with black-and-white engravings don't make for the most colourful viewing but they do make the argument that, for artists at the time and publishers, prints were the means of bringing art to the wider public. Turner and his fellow practitioners paid enormous attention, and bent their own hands, to ensure their works got known through this medium.

Prints also had the effect of elevating mood and atmosphere. Coming face to face with the paintings, as Turner did when he saw Claude Lorrain's paintings in private collections, he was overwhelmed by the golden colours of the sun. To the ordinary 18th-century viewer, however, it was the contrast of light and shade that was most striking in the engraving or etching.

The exhibition consists of the Royal Academy's own holdings. When the Academy was formed by George III in 1768, landscape art was barely mentioned in its statements about the higher purposes of art. Paul Sandby was among its founding members and the exhibition has some fine engravings of his work as well as some piercingly precise watercolours by fellow member, Michael Angelo Rooker. But Thomas Gainsborough, who actually preferred painting landscapes to doing portraits, was never able to project it as an art form in its own right. It was left to the next generation, and the two great masters and Academicians, JMW Turner and John Constable, to make landscape painting into the national genre that it remains today. The RA has some superb examples of both, including the works they presented for their diplomas. Turner, who was less interested in landscape per se than the atmosphere and the elements, produced a particularly powerful imaginary landscape as his diploma work tied to an historical subject. Dolbadarn Castle, scene of the imprisonment of the Welsh prince Owain Goch ap Gruffydd, looms amidst the mountains, isolated and illumined, its empty window only increasing its solitariness. It is a painting of fiercesome melancholy in which Turner creates the mood through mass, cloud and light.

But it was Constable who really promoted landscape as a particularly British art, embarking on monumental canvases of his native Suffolk and carefully observed views of sky and city from Hampstead Heath, the sea at Brighton and the Cathedral at Salisbury. His diploma work, A Boat Passing a Lock of 1826, sets out perfectly his desire to recreate the place and the mood of the observer in paint that seems taken from the earth and water itself. Idyllic it may be, but sentimental it is not as the rain sweeps in from the left of the composition and the trees rise bent by the wind on the right. In a diagonal across the whole canvas a bright red is picked out in the caps and cloths of the people at work.

For anyone interested in Constable, and for anyone doubting how much more than a chocolate box scene painter he was, the show has half a dozen of his oil sketches of clouds made from Hampstead Heath and, most magnificently, one of the series of six-foot canvases he displayed in the Royal Academy shows. The Leaping Horse, donated to the Academy by his widow after his death, is justly famous. It is quite simply a marvel, however often you may have seen it in reproduction, of motion and meteorology.

The story goes that, travelling by coach through Denham Vale late in life, the painter peered out of the widow and remarked how beautiful the countryside was. "Of course," replied a fellow passenger unaware of the identity of the man beside him, "it's Constable's country." No greater compliment could be paid to a man who struggled so hard and so long to make landscape something to stand in the highest ranks of painting. Just to get up close and observe the brushwork of The Leaping Horse is worth the visit to this show, spread uneasily around its Fine Rooms while its main galleries are restored.

Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape, Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 (020 7300 8000) to 17 February