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Edward Carter Preston: ‘Sensing’ a Modern Landscape by Guest Writer Ed Montana-Williams

Depictions of landscape are perhaps some of the most iconic works in British Art. According to Adrian Bury, ‘it is as national as the language itself, as much part of England as her contours and climate’.[1] This tradition is however also one of the most maligned and misunderstood genres. The over familiar reproductions of Constable’s work in such ghastly manifestations as Haywain jigsaws, tea towels and biscuit tins, conveys a twee image of nostalgic, bucolic charm. Whilst the ‘eternal brown cows in ditches’, which John Ruskin railed against, hang in countless collections in Britain’s provincial galleries.

This ‘charming’ approach to landscape was cemented in the popular consciousness by the lesser acolytes of rusticism, such as James Thomas Linnell, at the end of the 19th century. These scenes, of the ‘chocolate box’ variety, are in stark contrast to the works of Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, whose works reflected the new awakening spirit of modernism. The vibrancy and dynamism captured on canvases in France contrasted sharply with contemporary British works, Roger Fry concluding that, ‘No one ought to try to be an artist in England’,  though he appeared to blame the ‘ugly black weather’, rather than the prevailing artistic tradition. To Fry, such climatic extremes were particularly hostile to landscape painting and he bemoaned that in his own failed attempts, ‘all the trees have collected gloomy inky shadows round them and I want clear-cut shapes and colours’.[2]

Fry’s lamentations resonate with anyone who has witnessed those persistently leaden British skies which hang low and temper all light to monochrome shades of grey. However, Fry’s despondency did not accord with one of Liverpool’s contemporaneous leading artists, Edward Carter Preston (1885-1965), who is perhaps best remembered for the breadth and diversity of his artistic practice, as evidenced in Bluecoat’s In the Peaceful Dome exhibition.  His commemorative medals, sculpture, illuminated manuscripts and paintings evidence his range of skills and the sheer scale of his output.  The inclusion of his work from Liverpool Hope University’s collection is perhaps the most enlightening aspect of the whole exhibition. 

Carter Preston’s two small landscapes from 1911, Untitled (Abstract of geometric shapes) and Untitled (Abstract of rock and water), perhaps demonstrate best his capacity to adapt and absorb myriad influences and create an outstanding, wholly modern, interpretation of the British landscape.

Conventional art history considers that Fry introduced ‘modern’ art to Britain as a consequence of his two Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912, elements from both of which were displayed at Bluecoat in 1911 and 1913.  The result of this exposure to modern art was so profound that Virginia Wolff declared that something changed in the British character during 1910.  Such a narrative is of course compelling: British art at the period was dominated by the academic tradition, and British patronage was far more conservative. Yet ‘modern’ techniques and perspectives were evident in the works of Walter Sickert, P. Wyndham-Lewis and others prior to 1910. They had been independently influenced by early European Modernism, and whilst not widely appreciated, their work was not unknown. It is this aspect which perhaps arouses the greatest interest in the work of Edward Carter Preston - the debt, or otherwise, owed to progressive art from the Continent in his landscape work.  

Liberated by the increasing prevalence of photography, Carter Preston’s landscapes do not slavishly adhere to the conventional verisimilitude of naturalism; rather they echo Cézanne’s evocation of place. The French painter famously sought not to reproduce nature, but to recreate it. This he achieved through abstraction, colour and an overall economy, approaches which accord with Carter Preston’s, whose landscapes are also an evocation, not mere depiction. He provides us with a sense of mood and atmosphere, aspects which are often absent in the majority of the antecedent tradition of British landscape art. When we encounter Carter Preston’s works we are in essence ‘sensing’ his landscape and the associated environment. We experience a sensation beyond the ocular, as in the hostile bleak fell tops of Untitled (Abstract of geometric shapes) or in Untitled (Abstract of rock and water). Immersed in his vision, we sense the desolation, yet are captivated by its scale. These are the familiar uplands of North West England, the empty fell or moor upland above a gloomy industrial town assaulted by bands of rain, captured as dynamic, perhaps Futurist, blade-like lines across the valley sky.

To describe Carter Preston’s landscapes as ‘Cézanne-like’ though does not fully recognise his unique approach, which also appears to channel an older, tradition of evoking the sublime in British landscape. The Burkean sublime is to appreciate both the wonder and terror of nature, its majestic power to overwhelm man. European Romantic artists of the late 18th and 19th centuries sought to capture this sense of terrible wonder, Casper David Friedrich and Peder Balke’s landscapes for instance evoking that sense of potential doom in cliff faces, mountainsides and rock formations.  Given the pre-eminence of their work, it is perhaps easy to understand why British art’s contribution to Romantic landscape is often overlooked.

This oversight in conventional art historical approaches fails to consider the direct relation between the ‘forgotten’ British watercolourists of the period and the early modernists.  Separated by almost a century, it may at first appear inimical to draw such a correlation. However, in examining works like Francis Towne’s The Source of The Arveiron (1781) and The Grange at the Head of Keswick Lake (1786), we witness a perceptible shift from purely topographical renditions executed in watercolour, as utilised by the military during the period, towards evocations of the sublime qualities of landscape. Lawrence Binyon appreciated that ‘form and colour appeal (to Towne) for their own sake … almost as they might an artist of our own day’.[3]

The economy of depiction and emphasis on form, a hallmark of later Modernism, is perhaps best witnessed in the work of John Sell Cotman, whose Mountainous Landscape with Blasted Tree (c.1803) fuses elements of the sublime aesthetic with such sparse detail that the forms are simplified and merely suggestive.  Paul Nash declared that Cotman’s use of watercolour was ‘truly architectural’[4] in its approach to form, a technique which Nash famously utilised in Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935). The appreciation of the fearful and irregular forms of external nature, in conjunction with Cotman’s ‘emotional value in his colour line and massing,’[5] led Binyon to conclude that ‘there was no need to invoke Cézanne for Cotman was there to show the way.’[6]

Cotman’s works such as On the Gretna (c.1805) reveal an approach that clearly chimes with Cézanne’s and Carter Preston’s later works; the evocation of place resonates far beyond depiction. Thus we are truly ‘sensing’ the landscape.  Whether Carter Preston was influenced by Cézanne, Cotman or Towne is a matter of conjecture, but one which merits further research. Regardless of what such research may reveal, the fact remains that the work of this overlooked Liverpool artist represents some of the very earliest examples of modern British landscapes.

Ed Montana-Williams

[1] Adrian Bury, ‘Water-colour: The English Medium’, Apollo 19 (1934), 1985-89 (p.85).

[2] Roger Fry, letter to G.L. Dickson, 31st May 1913, in Fry, Letters I (p.370).

[3] Lawrence Binyon, English Water-Colours, 1933 (p.191).

[4] Paul Nash, ‘A Characteristic’, Architectural Record 7, 1937 (p.40).

[5] A.P. Oppe, The Water-Colour Drawings of John Sell Cotman, 1923.

[6] Lawrence Binyon, ‘The Art of John Sell Cotman’, Burleigh Magazine 81, 1942 (p.159).

Image credits:

Edward Carter Preston, Untitled (Abstract of rock and water), 1911, watercolour and pencil on paper. Collection of Liverpool Hope University Carter Preston Foundation.

Edward Carter Preston's work (on the left wall) in the exhibition In the Peaceful Dome at Bluecoat until 8 April.


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