University of Nottingham

The sublime object: nature, art and language

Project outline

To call something 'sublime' today is a perfectly normal means of praise. Yet the sublime is a complex idea that takes on different meanings in different times and places. A collaboration between Tate Britain, the Universities of Leicester and Cambridge, and the London Consortium, this project aimed to gain a greater understanding of the ways in which perceptions of the sublime in the landscape - rural and urban, historic and contemporary, real and imagined - are shaped by cultural experiences. The project focused particularly on the following four areas: the landscape sublime; the sublime in crisis; an Anglo-American sublime; and an ecological sublime.

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734‑1797), Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples, c.1776-80. Tate. Joseph Wright of Derby (1734‑1797), Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples, c.1776-80. Tate.


As well as landscape art, the project encompassed philosophy, literature, music, film, theology and science, and the complex interactions between these different spheres. Project achievements include a range of activities and outputs, including a display at Tate Britain, a number of films, contributions to a public programme of events and a series of conferences, symposia and seminars, all held at Tate.

Six symposia and conferences on sublime themes and designated periods have been held. These have included established scholars from a broad range of disciplines, and also included curators, artists, post-graduate students, and museum professionals. Project team members have also carried out investigations regarding the close links between sublime theory and the art and architecture of c.1650-1720 which has revealed unexpectedly rich and hitherto unconsidered areas. Seven films have been produced by the project team, each exploring the idea of art inspired by specific locations. On a number of occasions 'Late at Tate' and lunchtime lectures (a free public programme of events) have had sublime related themes.

The project funded two artists, Beth Derbyshire and Amy Balkin, on the September 2007 voyage to the Arctic organised by Cape Farewell - a team of artist consultants who lead expeditions into the Arctic that combine science, art and education to stimulate the production of art founded in scientific research.

Tate's 'sublime' collections have been catalogued and new pages on the Tate website launched. These pages include five themed articles written by members of the project team and the project films. Fourteen articles on a wide range of topics relating to the sublime have been published in Tate Papers (2010). Thirty-eight historic works from the Tate Collection were exhibited in Gallery 9, under the title 'Art and the Sublime: Terror, Torment and Transcendence' between May 2009 and November 2010, and the Turner winning artist Douglas Gordon was also commisioned to produce the text-based work 'Pretty much every word written, spoken, heard, overheard from 1989...' that was subsequently displayed in Gallery 9 and the adjoining Octagon space in 2010.

There has also been a major 'rediscovery' of Tate's huge sublime canvas 'The Raising of Lazarus' (1822) by B R Haydon. A short film about 'The Raising of Lazarus' is available on the Tate website. The project also funded the conservation of an important sublime work entitled 'Beyond Man's Footsteps' (1894) by Briton Riviere. This painting, showing a solitary polar bear in the Arctic region, was the subject of an in-focus display engaging with extreme environments, the animal sublime and issues of climate change, curated by Christine Riding and opened in May 2011.


Ongoing influence

From the outset it has been the intention to involve Tate's audience closely in the exploration of the sublime. This involvement continues through displays, the 'The Art of the Sublime' website (launched in January 2013 and still live as of January 2014), and a diverse range of educational activities, directed towards school children, students and the adult community. Tate Online experiences on average over 1.5 million unique visits per month and visitors will have the opportunity to encounter research outcomes from 'The Sublime Object' through the specific project webpages and through commentaries on works of art found on the collection pages.

A number of members of the project team are developing new research interests on areas of the sublime. Topics include the 'Baroque Sublime', 'Feminism and the Sublime' and 'Terrible Beauty'.

Award details

Duration: 2007-2010 (39 months)

Principal Investigator:
Christine Riding

Higher Education Institution:
Tate Britain, Tate Galleries

Project team:
  • Professor Philip Smith, University of Leicester (Co-I)
  • Dr Alison Smith, Tate (Co-I)
  • Peter de Bolla, University of Cambridge
  • Lydia Hamlett, Tate
  • Rikke Hansen, London Consortium (PhD)

Selected publications

Publications include an exhibition catalogue for a major exhibition at the Tate, as well as articles published in the Tate Papers series:
Morley, S. (2010). Staring into the contemporary abyss. Tate etc. 20. Available online

Riding, C. (2010). Art and the Sublime: Terror, Torment and Transcendence. Exhibition catalogue. (London: Tate Publishing).

Morley, S. (2010). Tate Papers. 13 (Spring 2010). Nine articles on 'The Sublime Object'. Available online.

Morley, S. (2010). Tate Papers. 14 (Autumn 2010). Five articles on 'The Sublime Object'. Available online.


Related links




Landscape and Environment Programme

School of Geography
University Park
University of Nottingham
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

telephone: +44 (0) 115 84 66071