Today hanging in Nottingham Castle, A View of Nottingham from the East was painted by the Flemish artist, Jan Siberechts, around 1695. It shows the view over Nottingham from a clearing in Colwick Woods. Although the landscape has changed dramatically since the painting was completed, this clearing can still be accessed today, and the painting features many familiar landmarks. To the right is the red-brick Pierrepont House – now known as Holme Pierrepont Hall. Next to it is the Parish church of St. Mary, with Nottingham Castle on its hill in the background, Wollaton Hall in the distance and the river Trent winding its way through the centre of the composition.
At first glance, the timeless landscape of lush green rolling hills with cattle peacefully grazing couldn’t be more different from the bustling city viewed from the same clearing today. Now, the rolling fields are gone, replaced by a mass of housing and industry. But look more closely. In many ways, Siberechts’ landscape is no less busy than the city we now know. Figures work the land, stacking hay, cattle graze, sheep are driven to market, barges ply the river and the ploughed field in the foreground is evidence of more hard work in the service of food production. By including all these details, the artist has created an image that is surprisingly modern, making reference to the improved farming techniques commercialization of agriculture in the late seventeenth century. As well as being beautiful, this is a prosperous landscape.
Despite all the detail, however, this painting is somewhat mysterious. Most of the paintings Siberechts completed while in England were views of country houses, commissioned by their proud owners. His depiction of Wollaton Hall, for example was one of several painted for Thomas Willoughby, 1st Baron Middleton and owner of Wollaton. Its formal gardens, aristocratic figures arriving in a carriage and detailed depiction of the grand house are a straight-forward celebration of Willoughby’s wealth.
But the View from the East is different. It was painted from land owned by the Musters family, but features Pierrepont house and the surrounding lands which were owned by the wealthy Pierrepont family. To the right of the castle are Clay Field and Sand Field, common arable land that was not under the ownership of any wealthy family, but was available for use by the community. The painting, then, doesn’t document any one land-owner’s wealth, but provides a record of land under a variety of ownerships. In contrast to the image of Wollaton hall, the sweeping view from its high vantage point does not imply ownership of all the land surveyed. This raises the question of who commissioned the painting, if indeed it was commissioned. At present, it is not clear why the painting was produced. If it was commissioned by the Pierrepont family, we might expect something more like a slightly later painting of Pierrepont house (below), which shows the wealthy family in their fashionably laid out garden with the house in the background next to St. Mary’s church. Perhaps Siberechts wasn’t commissioned at all but simply set out to record a beautiful view? In the course of our research we hope to shed new light on the production of this painting.
Comparing the Siberechts’ View from the East to today’s landscape raises other questions which will be explored as part of the project. Who owns the land today, who has the right to use it, and who decides how it is used? How have attitudes to rural and urban landscapes changed since Siberechts painted his view, and what physical impacts have these changing ideas had on the landscape itself? We hope you will join us, and have your say as we investigate these issues.