Thomas Sutcliffe: Why the idyll has had its day

Odd word, "idyll", and even odder when you've heard it repeated several times in rapid succession - as it was in the second episode of David Dimbleby's television series about British landscape, A Picture of Britain. We all know what idyll means these days, of course, particularly when it's paired with the word "rural". It means insulated from the modern, either because there's no evidence of civilisation visible at all, or because what evidence there is is at least a couple of centuries old. And this is exactly how it was being used in this particular programme, which began by visiting various sites in Suffolk and noting how they had barely changed since being painted by John Constable some 200 years ago. "Idyll" here, rather specifically, was being used as a way of saying "pretty as a picture".

Which is neat since that is literally what idyll means. It derives from the Greek eidullion, which is a diminutive of eidos, meaning a form or a picture. And the etymology should reinforce the sense of its essential artificiality. We're now inclined to think of "idyll" as simply a term of praise - a way of saying that a landscape has managed to preserve its bucolic purity despite everything that man can do to spoil it - but, in fact, it's better thought of as a term of craft. An idyll is always an artful creation - a human artefact rather than a natural form. A Picture of Britain offered a nice irony in this respect - a sequence in which conservation workers were seen carefully cutting back the foliage so that the current view of Flatford Mill would more closely match the scene as it is depicted in Constable's most famous painting, The Haywain. It is regarded as so precious that even bushes aren't allowed to put a foot wrong.

A Picture of Britain is an odd hybrid of a programme - a mix of tea-towel bromides about the timeless beauty of the British landscape, and rather interesting passages about how that landscape was conceptually reshaped by artists and writers. But rather frustratingly, it sailed past the really interesting thing, which was that Constable had little sense of painting an idyll at all in the modern sense. He felt a powerful affection for the scene, of course, and childhood nostalgia was a large component of that affection, but he didn't record it because he thought it was an epitome of rural tranquillity, detached from the world of commerce and industry. Just look at The Haywain. It is, in effect, a painting of a delivery wagon and a light industrial plant - though the passage of time has blurred the fact. Indeed, it can be hard to see Constable's radicalism as a landscape painter today, because we've been looking at the landscape through his eyes for so long.

We haven't associated landscape art with artistic radicalism for a long time anyway. That's one of its problems: it's a genre that has come to seem synonymous with evasion and escapism. And one of the reasons for that may be that so much of it was dominated by a narrow idea of its duty to produce idylls. Landscape artists have to cherish their subjects at some level - but it's easy for that solicitude to become stifling and reactionary and twee.

Occasionally, you can see an artist battling with that fact in public. Paul Nash was torn between an attraction to modernist developments in painting and an older tradition of British landscape art. Nash took a dim view of "developments" in the commercial sense, and wrote about how some of the landscapes he loved were being ruined by them. But when you look at his landscapes, it's striking how the best embrace modernity rather than shy away from it - whether it is the stark geometries of the coastal defences at Dymchurch or the grim Vorticism of his battlefield pictures.

Nash did have his Samuel Palmer moments, where things get all mystical, but they are much duller as pictures than those in which he acknowledges that the countryside is changing all the time. A painting of Silbury Hill, for instance, doesn't exclude the modern wire fence - it sticks it in the foreground so you can't ignore the interplay between practical day-to-day existence and the romantic implications of the great earthwork behind it.

By the end of A Picture of Britain - with its implicit assumption that old landscapes are better than new ones - I couldn't help wishing that more artists would follow Nash and Constable's example. We need new kinds of Haywain - paintings that don't pretend that the pylon isn't there, or edge it out of the composition. We need paintings of windmills in the landscape - and not the picturesque Grade I-listed kind but the controversial, not-in-my-backyard eyesore kind. Down with idylls.