12: Stephen Daniels’ Fields of Vision

Fields of Vision is a book about the relationship between landscape imagery and national identity in England and the United States. This is not exactly a topic that excites me, though to his credit, Daniels does manage to make a bunch of 18th- and 19th-century landscape paintings a lot more interesting than I thought they were.  He also (thankfully) goes beyond painting to include a landscape architect, a printmaker, and a building.  And his theoretical argument, that over time, certain landscape imagery can become a repository for so many different people’s interpretations of national identity that it becomes a symbol for the nation – well, that sounds cultural studies-y enough for me.

Daniels’ first example, St. Paul’s Cathedral, made the most sense to me.  After the Great Fire in 1666 destroyed an older cathedral, London commissioned Christopher Wren to design and build a new one.  Legend has it that when Wren was to place the first stone for the new cathedral in 1675, the laborer they sent out to find a stone came back with a piece of gravestone that was inscribed with a single word: RESURGAM, “I rise again.”  This same word was written above the South transept of the rapidly-built new Cathedral along with a phoenix; in a mere 35 years, London, Christlike, had risen from the ashes in the form of St. Paul’s.

Over the centuries, St. Paul’s took on a variety of uses and meanings.  In 1789, the King went in State to St Paul’s for a Thanksgiving service – the first official royal visit in 75 years – and the Cathedral and its surroundings were a blaze of lights; St. Paul’s had been transformed into a symbol of monarchical power and English strength and solidarity in the wake of the French Revolution.  And throughout the 19th-century, as the British empire grew, panoramas from (and of) the Cathedral’s dome situated it at the center of London and at the center of empire; it became a symbol of both British power abroad and Little England at home.

By World War II, St. Paul’s was such a treasured symbolic landscape that Churchill ordered it to be saved at all costs; during the Blitz in 1940, while the rest of the Cathedral’s neighborhood went up in flames, an Allied Watch of firefighters did indeed save it – they minimized the damage, anyway.  And the most famous image of the Blitz is a photograph published in the Daily Mail, which shows St. Paul’s rising, phoenixlike, above the smoke.

Though he couldn’t have made the comparison (this book was published in 1993), this beautiful image reminds me of another incredibly powerful landscape image – the photograph of the twin towers right before they fell.  This photograph, like that one, makes a strong case for the relationship between landscape imagery and national identity, both in the heart of the viewer and in the political and cultural ferment that developed in response to it.

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