IT'S difficult to avoid the feeling that Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg must have derived a considerable amount of sheer delight in the making of this dramatic painting of 1801. The ferocity of the fire - just, after all, oil paint on canvas - seems palpable. The viewer's instinct is to recoil from it like the horses dragging their cart vigorously away into the cool night air in the foreground. The contrast between night sky and the surging orange flames and sulphurous smoke - issuing relentlessly from a mysterious source of intense heat - must have been an irresistible effect to an artist long fascinated by light effects. The silver-white moonlight coldly touching the distant clouds - no more than a slight contrast to the fire - is virtually overwhelmed by it.
There is an exhilarated feeling of celebration about this picture, as there was to be later in the 19th century in the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, which depict cataclysmic, fiery sunsets, or conflagrations at sea, or ``The Burning of the Houses of Parliament.'' This exhilaration is paradoxical, if not fantastic. Partly, perhaps, it has to do with the painter's enjoyment of his skill - of his capacity to transmute paint into light and even into fire by some kind of artistic alchemy. But that's not the whole story.
The artists of such works were living out, and expanding on, the theories of Edmund Burke, which had been set out in 1756 in his essay ``Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.'' The great and the vast, as opposed to the merely felicitous and organized, constituted the feeling of ``the sublime.'' In ``the sublime'' there were elements of terror or horror, of danger, of natural forces which dwarf human beings, of a potency beyond control or at least out of the ordinary - mountainous heights, chasms and torrents, thunderstorms, impenetrable darkness, consuming fires. Sublimity, however, was not simply destructive; its expression in art - in painting, drama, poetry, music, or as touristic experience - could be seen as a positive, enhancing thing. Perhaps this was because it contains something of catharsis; perhaps because we have a relish for whatever provides a sense of awe.
In the case of De Loutherbourg's ``Coalbrookdale by Night,'' this positive attraction of the sublime was compounded by the ambiguously appealing character of the subject. This subject is a place - the cradle of the Industrial Revolution - situated in the gorge of the River Severn in Shropshire, England, where Abraham Darby first used coke for the smelting of iron. Here the world's first iron bridge was constructed, in 1779.
The gorge was a place of considerable natural beauty. The mixing of rapidly growing industry, evident in the proliferation of smoke-belching chimneys and blazing furnaces, with the picturesque valley scenery, soon proved to be an attraction for travelers. It still is today - though now the attraction is for the primitive beginnings of an era, seen with a nostalgic eye only possible when that era is essentially over. Our 1980s affection for industrial topography and archaeology flourishes in the security of this post-industrial period.
In the 18th century the fascination was for something new, and promising: for science as the herald of progress. In the 1750s it had even been possible for one sanguine poet to sing praises to the ``chimney-tops'' of ``busy Leeds'' (a burgeoning center of the wool industry). To this poet those tall brick smokestacks, instead of polluting the atmosphere (as we can only visualize today), were ``upwafting to the clouds/ The incense of thanksgiving ....''
Many of the tourists of the 18th century were artists. De Loutherbourg was one of a few painters to be drawn to Coalbrookdale. He is arguably the one to leave the strongest image of it in a finished painting. It is, of course, a contrived image, worked up from sketches made with spontaneous enthusiasm on the spot. Clearly what this painter aimed at was not precise accuracy, but a highly dramatic evocation.
``Dramatic'' is an apt word because for some 10 years after this Strasbourg-born artist came to England in 1771 he spent a fair part of his time working for the theater. This was the time when David Garrick was the prominent actor-manager in London, to be succeeded by Richard Sheridan. De Loutherbourg worked for them both, and his skill in inventing stage effects was a powerful audience puller: He was particularly renowned for pyrotechnic ingenuity.
He extended his theatrical experiences by making an enormously popular miniature theater-without-actors, which he called the ``Eidophusikon.'' An enthusiastic description of this invention, which displayed changing effects of light, sound, and movement in illusionistic landscapes, can be found in an amusing 1823 book by one Ephraim Hardcastle, ``citizen and dry-salter,'' called ``Wine and Walnuts.''
This worthy raconteur says that the most ``impressive scene'' of the Eidophusikon was the finale, which represented Milton's description of ``the region of the fallen angels, with Satan arraying his troops on the banks of the Fiery Lake, and the rising of the Palace of Pandemonium ....'' The various effects of ``unquenchable fire'' that the artist concocted with his scenery and lighting to convey the diabolical fantasy of this scene were apparently astonishing and impressive. Serious artists of the time, like Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, were fascinated by the Eidophusikon and by no means thought of De Loutherbourg's invention as a toy or gimmick.
His painting of Coalbrookdale is, in some ways, no less a matter of scene-painting. The silhouetted cottages, the dark mounds and recesses of the countryside, the gigantic iron pipes haphazardly fallen about the place, are organized like the overlapping wings and props of a stage set. The mystery and intensity of the furnace fire is increased - as it would be in the theater - by its streaming out from behind these dark forms and shapes. The flat ground of the roadway emerging from the fierce glow in the middle-distance into the shadows of the foreground, is exactly like the boards of a stage, with all its human (and animal) actors viewed from a darkened auditorium.
This painting is potent because it is convincing, rather than because it is strictly authentic. De Loutherbourg, by mingling his theatrical and topographical interests in this picture, brought a fresh sense of the dramatic to landscape painting. Art in such hands was much more than tame touristic notation.
By the time he painted this picture there were, in fact, beginning to be doubts about the rapid industrialization of the countryside - and exploitation of working men, women, and children. This move from initial optimism to doubt to disgust and horror is described revealingly in Margaret Drabble's 1979 book ``A Writer's Britain.'' She quotes Dickens describing in 1841 - ``like a vision of Hell'' - a desolate northern industrial landscape: ``... night-time in this dreadful spot! - night, when the smoke was changed to fire; when every chimney spurted up its flame; and places, that had been dark vaults all day, now shone red-hot, with figures moving to and fro within their blazing jaws, and calling to one another with hoarse cries....''
De Loutherbourg's vision is surely - in spite of his delight in Milton's underworld - ``awful'' in Burke's sense rather than Dickens': It is not yet ``hell.'' He could still, in 1801, look at the industry that was transforming the countryside as a kind of glorious or thrilling thing, as the fascinating evidence of invention and work. He did not equate it - as the fantastic painter John Martin was soon to do - with a kind of apocalyptic havoc-on-earth. He saw it as good theater, as a kind of gigantic fireworks display, as a marvellous subject for art.
At the same time it is true that when the eye looks away from the fire, and penetrates his foreground shadows, it sees that the seeds of the wasteland are there, already strewn, observed, depicted: The fertility and green of the land is already littered, already black and lifeless. Perhaps, for all De Loutherbourg's excitement, he did sniff the devastation in the air.
In a new book this year called ``British Landscape Painters: A History and Gazetteer,'' the author Charles Hemming praises De Loutherbourg for the ``versatility'' that ``led him to tackle industrial landscape when few of his peers would do so.'' He does however call ``Coalbrookdale by Night'' a work of ``pure theatre, the lighting evoking a volcano or flames fit for the sack of Rome.'' By this he suggests that the picture is somehow false, or at least exaggerated and fantastic.
The 18th-century De Loutherbourg would surely not have seen much contradiction between the art of theatrical scene artist and that of an easel painter, except scale and dimensionality. He seems to have found no great conflict working in both conventions. To call his painting ``pure theater'' might well have seemed to him quite a fine compliment.