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A history of nature as an actant in the health-related practices of Queen Square 1786-1900


Edward Dayes’ ‘Queen Square, London’, appearing, stretching and dissolving on my 13-inch display in a darkened room. Author’s own photograph, 2020.

Dayes’ watercolour is stored within the Paul Mellon Collection in the Yale Center for British Art and accessible by request in the study room. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic from which I write in the summer of 2020, the collection is impossible to visit. I access the painting through an online interface. The conditions of the current pandemic and of this summer’s various shades of lockdown have shaped how I engage with the digital beyond recognition. Over the past few months I have experienced everything here. Individual museums, galleries and archives collapse into my thirteen-inch display, appearing, stretching and dissolving at my will within moments. In a way these changes to my research practice constitute a taming: the movements of my eye flatten, the periphery is dulled, my embodied experience of my surroundings is not activated. However at the same time there is something about this way of engaging that excites me: it draws my attention to the necessary activation of the imagination, of memory, of what is not physically there.


The interface has a reframe and zoom feature. I pull the painting close and move slowly around its surface, assembling my impressions. Navigating in this way creates smaller images, cutting through and revealing Dayes’ manipulations of the scene. The foreground is sharp, but the ground of the farthest end smudges as I pinch it larger on my screen. Dayes’ brush strokes become more prominent, his outlines looser, figures blur into impression, trees fade into bluish landscape. The progression into this smeared blue is carried out in stages. It begins with the watery lawn at the far end of the square. I pace its left hand railing with my eye, which has concertinaed with Dayes’ fierce perspective. With every movement of my eye the lampposts that rise up from the railing grow fainter. The final lamppost can’t be distinguished from the hill behind, the pale ground somehow metamorphosing into the blue pool of a watercolour hill. Beside it, the manicured lawn too has progressed into something less formal, a cluster of pale trees. As I pull in closer, the dappled paint slips into the haze of speckled hills in the distance.


Thoreau writes that ‘[e]very tree sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild’, and so it feels in this far end of Dayes’ painting.[1] I feel magnetised to this far landscape, and it is as if the paint has arranged itself towards its force. I zoom myself back out. Again, my eye is drawn to this hazy scene at the far end of the square. Indeed it is towards this view that Dayes’ strictly perspectival architectural border directs my eye. It is also for this view that his image has propagated, evidencing over and over the ‘beautiful prospect’ of the ‘unobstructed view’ of square’s open north.[2] That infamous view, the ‘delightful [pr]ospect of Hamstead & Hygate’,[3] ‘the hills, ever verdant and smiling, of Hampstead and Highgate’,[4] ‘the hills of Hampstead and Highgate’,[5] proliferated in contemporary descriptions of the square into a sing-song catchphrase of ‘Hampstead and Highgate’. There is a sense of elusiveness: there is an implication of an intrinsic value to this landscape, yet it is never precisely explained. As Jane Bennett writes, the wild, the vibrancy of matter, ‘though real and powerful, is intrinsically resistant to representation.’[6]


It is clear however that the vibrant chime of that ‘Hampstead and Highgate’ was understood to be therapeutic to the square. Simon Shorvon and Alastair Compston write that the eighteenth-century square developed a ‘reputation for promoting good health’. For Shovon and Compston, this was due to an ‘uninterrupted draught of the north wind across what was then open countryside up to the rising land of the hamlets of Hampstead and Highgate.’[7] Certainly there is a sense of airiness in the pale washes of Dayes’ watercolour. Despite the sharpness of the outlined figures in the foreground, the imprecise wild of the background landscape spills over the scene. ‘Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him.’[8] The atmosphere of that prospect rises out in a pale mist that envelops the square, blue-white sideways strokes drawing this open countryside air from the hills to the square.


Painted in 1786, this blue-white wind has a very particular hue. The eighteenth and nineteenth century veneration for the therapeutic power of countryside wind is felt within the context of miasma. In miasma theory, bad air was seen as the root of disease, and therefore ventilation and the dispelling of that noxious air was paramount. In practice, this meant that open and hilly landscapes were seen to have health sustaining properties. As Linda Nash has suggested, miasma, for all its misapprehensions, tied health to its environmental factors. Its veneration of fresh air has found new resonance within the context of coronavirus. According to Nash, the germ theory that superseded miasma obscured this notion of an environmental health because it ‘insisted that disease-causing pathogens were situated in human bodies, not environments… exonerating the landscape from any independent role in disease.’[9]

[1] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walking’, The Atlantic, 9:56 (1862) <> [accessed 06 August 2020].

[2] Fanny Burney, Memoirs of Doctor Burney: Arranged from His Own Manuscripts, from Family Papers, and from Personal Recollections by His Daughter, Madame D'Arblay, vol. 3 (London: Edward Moxon, 1832), 290.

[3] Frances Burney, "Journal Entry 1770 Nov 16," in The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, ed. Lars E. Troide, vol. 1, 141.

[4] Burney, Memoirs of Doctor Burney, 290.

[5] John Noorthouck, ‘The out-parishes of Westminster', in A New History of London Including Westminster and Southwark (London: R Baldwin, 1773), pp. 739-747 <> [accessed 14 July 2020].

[6] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), xvi.

[7] Simon Shorvon and Alistair Compston, Queen Square: A History of the National Hospital and its Institute of Neurology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 52.

[8] Thoreau, ‘Walking’.

[9] Linda Lorraine Nash, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 6.






Copyright of image: © Honor Vincent

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