‘To Instruct our Wand’ring Thought’: Nature as Tutor in an Age of Revolution by Nancy Kummerlein
Abstract: How do artists detect, respond to, and cope with tectonic shifts, whether political or technological, in the societies in which they live—and go on to produce works of innovation, significance and lasting beauty? This article will consider two such creators, the poet Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, and the painter Thomas Gainsborough, living at either end of a 100-year period that would include the “Bloodless Revolution,” of James II’s court, the Revolutionary War in North America, and the upending effects of the Industrial Revolution, concluding one year before the French Revolution. Finch (1661-1720) wrote poetry praised for its sensitivity, technical excellence, and range of subject matter by such literary giants as Pope and Wordsworth. Gainsborough (1727–1788), besides his many commissioned portraits, was credited with co-originating the 18th century British school of landscape painting as well as co-founding the Royal Academy. Both Finch and Gainsborough relied on natural elements in their most personal work to express psychological realities and transcendent values. By considering specifically Finch’s ‘Nocturnal Reverie’(1713) and Gainsborough’s The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly (1756) one can better understand the power these artists found in the natural world to address ideas of peace, hope, and human freedom in an age of upheaval.