Landscapes that come alive

Christmas guide to the best in walks 21-27 December Richard D North rambles in artistic landscapes - and lists country walks for the energetic

In the next few days, many of us will do more walking in the countryside than in the rest of the year combined. It's the idleness and the gluttony, and the sheer expanse of empty days, that encourage it. We want to stretch our limbs and refresh the eye, and the Ramblers' Association is there to help us, wherever we live. For Londoners, though, the aching feet might just as well be had from walking round the Tate, the Royal Academy, the Wallace Collection or the National Gallery: all have shows which brilliantly delight, and show us how we came to love the countryside beyond the city's walls.

It's a curiosity that until recently the British were too modest to notice or declare that their landscape is the loveliest in the world. They knew, of course, that the nation was an aesthetic and artistic periphery. The civilised British person has always known well enough that we were the best governed, the most inventive, the most thoughtful and perhaps the only honest people in Europe (itself the only place which could possibly matter). We might even be capable of quite decent religious feeling. But for matters of the heart, for romance, sensibility, and for things to delight the eye, we went abroad. For centuries, our footsteps have taken us to Venice, Florence or Paris. The artistic and intellectual fall-out from the Grand Tour is the subject of a show at the Tate, and is cleverly charted in a new book whose title says it all: Transports: Travel, Pleasure and Imaginative Geography, 1600-1830. (At pounds 35, it will burn up a couple of book tokens; at 61/2 lb, don't put it in your knapsack.)

It was the work of Claude Lorrain (one included at the Royal Academy's heavenly show of drawings) which made the leaders of taste in 17th- and 18th-century England suddenly see that their own estates and environs might quite easily be envisaged as suitable subjects even for such a genius. Men such as Alexander Cozens and his son John (patronised by the Herefordshire landowner and proto-conservationist Richard Payne Knight) parlayed Claude into Englishness, as the Royal Academy examples of all three help explain. During the National Gallery's brilliant Claude show a couple of years ago, it was Paul Johnson who pointed out that no tree has ever grown the way Claude painted it. None the less, in his slightly absurd way Claude put man and mythology into a natural scene in a way which made connoisseurs look at landscape with fresh eyes. By the end of the 18th century people were walking in the Valley of the Wye (or amongst the industrialised streams anywhere from Wales to Shropshire and beyond), knowing the scenes of mills, woods, and furnaces were "picturesque". With a little tinkering, the English landscape could be made worthy of Claude himself. No one used the words, but habitat management was also born.

Following the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (included at the RA) and other northern Continentals, an altogether more rugged aesthetic emerged and infused the Picturesque: crags, waterfalls, violent rivers became cynosures and the obviously grand and dangerous uplands of the Lake District, Yorkshire or Cumbria thrilled as well delighted the person of sensibility. There was talk of the sublime. In the Continentals, there was also a sort of visionary quality of which I'm suspicious, though it comes out well in Samuel Palmer's works (a lovely one illuminates the RA's show). Thank God, we were seldom neurotic in our love of nature.

A lovely show at the National Gallery helps us see something else about the growth in landscape feeling. Whilst his contemporaries and most of his customers would not have understood quite why, Rubens was drawn to paint landscape, mostly for his own delight. He was, as the Making and Meaning: Rubens's Landscape catalogue explains, building on a Flemish tradition dating from the early 16th century: one that painted landscape with delight and accuracy. Rubens's Landscape in Flanders helps us see how we came to admire really ordinary farmland (it is normally at the Barber Institute at the University of Birmingham; there is another example in the Wallace Collection, near the Fragonard painting that was worked up from a lovely drawing in the RA show).

Now it is the almost furtively wild - the feral - surroundings of any town, whether Newbury (sense the canalside quiet while you may), the water meadows of Sudbury, in Suffolk, or Cricklade in Wiltshire, which many of us walk in most and love most. True, Rubens's scenes are on a larger scale (I see the duller bits of Herefordshire in them), but they are of flat and featureless countryside. It was this work which inspired Constable, so it was through Flanders that we saw Suffolk as lovely. That ultimate English icon, The Haywain, was directly inspired by Rubens. I'd rather see the connection between the genius of Flanders and Constable's fine (he called it "rugged") drawing of a humdrum river near Petworth. In any case, the English love-affair with great painting, and our preparedness to learn from it, gave us our understanding that nowhere on earth was granted such a compact variety of landscape, from the grand to the familiar. And both the art and the land remain astonishingly available to us.

The Tate Gallery. `The Grand Tour: the Lure of Italy in the 18th Century'. Until 5 Jan. Mon-Sat, 10am-5.50pm, Sun 2-5.50pm. Closed 24-26 Dec, open all over New Year. Adults pounds 6, concessions pounds 3.50

The Royal Academy, Piccadilly. `From Mantegna to Picasso, Drawings from the Thaw Collection'. Until 23 Jan. Open 10am-6pm daily, closed 24-26 Dec, open all over New Year. To avoid queuing, book tickets in advance (0171 494 5676). Adults pounds 5, concessions pounds 3.50

The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, W1. A vast jumble of stunning art. Open 10am-5pm, Mon-Sat, 2-5pm Sun. Closed 24-26 Dec, closed January 1. Free.

The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square. `Making and Meaning: Rubens's Landscapes'. Opening as for the rest of the gallery. Mon-Sat 10am-6pm Mon-Sat (10am-8pm Wednesday) and 12pm-6pm Sun. Closed 24-26 Dec, 1 Jan. Free.

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