Westall’s peasants : British identity and the crisis of nation in 1799

Westall’s peasants : British identity and the crisis of nation in 1799

Cuthbert, Nancy Marie

Master of Arts,Fine Arts, The University of British Columbia (1997)


For much of the population of Great Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, the upheavals and anxieties associated with the 1790s were not limited to recurrent threats of invasion brought about by the ongoing war with revolutionary Republican France or to the realities of the 1798 Irish Rebellion. They also stemmed from the continuing transformation of Britain into the first modern industrial nation. Such changes, which produced widespread fears of popular uprisings against the existing social order, were particularly unsettling for the privileged sectors of society who were the purchasers of quality reproductive art prints. This thesis examines a set of stipple engravings representing groups of peasants and the rural countryside in four regions of the British Isles. The prints – English Peasants. Welch [sic] Peasants. Scotch Peasants and Irish Peasants – were published in 1799 and reproduced paintings by Richard Westall, R.A., a popular English artist known for his idealized depictions of rustic genre subjects. In the course of the thesis I argue that contemporary interest in the impending union of Britain and Ireland, following the Irish Rebellion of 1798, would have been a major factor in the decision to publish these images as an expensive set of four at a time when the market for English engravings had been devastated by the war with France. Appearing at a moment when both British unity and social stability were matters of urgent public concern, the prints worked to mediate a range of potentially divisive cultural, religious and class differences to create a sense of shared identity. This study explores how Westall’s reassuring representations of an ostensibly contented peasantry enabled an English audience to “see” and consume the so-called “Celtic Isles, which were recognized and distinguished as separate from the English centre, had recently become a focus of picturesque tourism, at its height in the 1790s, and the prints situate the rural poor of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland according to a new conception of national identity. While effacing current challenges to existing hierarchies and accommodating regional differences, the prints, through subtle aspects of imagery, reassert the political and cultural dominance of England within a new and expanded union.

Click here to read this thesis from The University of British Columbia


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