The Topographical Draughtsmen – English Water Colour Painters

State of patronage of English artists in the eighteenth century—Preference of the English for foreign scenes —The pioneer work of the topographical draughtsmen —Samuel Scott—Thomas Gainsborough—PaulSandby’s career—Character and works—Defects—of distemper painting—The boldness and originality of his aquatints —The beauty of his ” pure ” water colours—Methods derived from Bakhuizen and the Dutch—Turner’s first model—” A topographical draughtsman of genius”—Thomas Hearne and other draughtsmen.

THE fact that no great works of art in water colour were produced in England till towards the end of the eighteenth century, must not lead us to the conclusion that the late development of British art was due merely to the absence of the colour and paper manufacturer. The materials required by these painters are of such a simple nature, and they are so easily and readily procurable, that artistic talent has seldom been hampered by such difficulties. A much more serious obstacle is the absence of patronage—of any provision in the social economy of modern times for the support of the artist.

During the seventeenth and the larger part of the eighteenth century there was little encouragement given in England to native artists. The picture buyers of the time preferred to spend their money on the more accomplished productions of the Italian, Dutch, and French painters, rather than in encouraging the tentative efforts of British genius. The only branch of art in which a native artist might find some employment was that of portraiture ; and even here the Englishman could only find his opportunity when the supply of foreign artists ran short. Some of Hogarth’s pungent remarks on this subject are no doubt too well known to bear repetition, and the record of Gainsborough’s unsold landscapes stacked away in Schomberg House proves that we could produce a great landscape painter long before any considerable body of patrons could be taught to appreciate his work.

Curiously enough there seems to have been a fairly large demand for landscapes, provided they were not of English scenery. We hear of the wily English consul at Venice who got Canaletto to work for him at wholesale prices, and who retailed the pictures to travelling Englishmen at a considerable profit. In this way multitudes of Canaletto’s views of Venice are said to have been sold or sent over to the English. The number of Claudes, Poussins, and Salvator Rosas which streamed into this country probably owed more to the attraction of their subject-matter than to their artistic merits. Hence the few English landscape painters who received any encouragement were those who painted such scenes as the tourist could boast familiarity with ; and these had to be painted in ” the Italian style.” So that we find Walpole, writing in 1761, draws attention to the ” extraordinary” fact that a country “so profusely beautified with the amenities of nature ” as England had produced so few good painters of landscape. “As our poets,” he says, “warm their imaginations with sunny hills, or sigh after grottos and cooling breezes, our painters draw rocks and precipices and castellated mountains, because Virgil gasped for breath at Naples, and Salvator wandered amidst Alps and Apennines. Our ever verdant lawns, rich vales, fields of haycocks, and hop-grounds are neglected as homely and familiar subjects.”

The task, then, of the eighteenth century was to educate a section of the British public to take an interest in the appearance of their own country ; this was the indispensable preliminary before a national school of landscape painters could be called into existence. And as we look back now we can see that this task was performed by the topographical draughtsman and engravers who carried on the work so superbly inaugurated by Hollar in the time of Charles I. From that time we see a constant succession of engravers and draughtsmen riding or tramping into all parts of the kingdom, recording and ” minuting “—to use Walpole’s expression—the antiquities and places of interest, sketching the castles, cathedrals, and seats of the nobility and gentry, and thus, without a thought of doing anything of the kind, creating an intellectual atmosphere in which the genius of Turner and Constable could live and thrive.

One of the ablest of these pioneers was SAMUEL SCOTT (1710-1772), a marine and landscape painter who worked both in oils and in water colour. Walpole says of him, ” If he was but second to Vandevelde in sea pieces, he excelled him in variety, and often introduced buildings in his pictures with consummate skill. His views of London Bridge, of the Quay at the Custom House, and others, were equal to his marines . . . nor were his washed drawings inferior to his finished pictures.” Three of his oil paintings are now in the National Gallery two views of Old Westminster Bridge and one of Old London Bridge painted in 1745. Several of his water colours are to be studied in the Print Room. One of these—the beautiful and interesting drawing of Westminster Abbey and Hall from the River, which must have been drawn in 1737 or 1738, and which has been chosen as the frontispiece to the present volume—proves that Walpole’s admiration for the artist’s ” washed drawings ” was by no means misplaced.

Though it would be absurd to call Scott a merely topographical artist—his work is too dignified and impressive in style for that—yet the main interest of his pictures and drawings certainly is centred round the buildings and places he depicts.

But some of the greatest triumphs of the English water colour painters have been won with subjects which depended for their interest rather upon the sentiments immediately suggested than upon their topographical interest. The two first English artists to treat such purely poetic or sentimental subjects with success were Richard Wilson (1713-1782 and Thomas Gains-borough (1727-1788). But though Wilson’s art undoubtedly exercised a powerful formative influence over both Turner and Girtin, yet he does not seem to have worked in water colour himself. The beautifully crisp and fresh water colour by Gainsborough which forms our second illustration was probably painted about 1770. While the younger men turned to Wilson, attracted no doubt by his powerful and gloomy imagination, the older men seem to have been more influenced by the grace and prettiness of Gainsborough’s pastoral fancies.

Gainsborough’s influence is very marked in much of the work of PAUL SANDBY, a prolific water colour painter and engraver, who was born at Nottingham in 1725 and died at London in 1809. Sandby has often been spoken of as the ” Father of the English school of water colour,” but such a title would be more appropriately applied to Samuel Scott. Sandby’s best work is based on Scott’s methods. His work, indeed, is obviously derived from Scott and Gainsborough, and it might not unfairly be described as an attempt to combine the distinctive qualities of these two models.

In 1741, Paul Sandby and his elder brother Thomas came to London and obtained appointments in the Military Drawing Department at the Tower, then the headquarters of the old Map and Survey Office of the Master-General of the Ordnance. After the suppression of the rebellion in 1745-6, he was employed in the service of the Military Survey of the Highlands. While engaged in this work he made a large number of sketches of well-known persons and of the scenery and antiquities of Scotland. Leaving the service of the Survey in 1751, he came to Windsor, where his brother was installed as deputy-ranger of the great Park. Here he published several etchings of Edinburgh and other places in Scotland. In 1760 he issued twelve etchings of The Cries of London, and he seems to have been engaged upon the illustration of books, engraving a large number of plates from the designs of other artists. He exhibited water colour drawings at the first public exhibition of pictures by living artists held in London, and when the informal Society of Artists was incorporated in 1765 he was chosen as one of the first set of directors. In 1768 he was appointed chief drawing-master at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, and when the Royal Academy of Arts was formed in the following year he formed one of the foundation members.

His well-balanced mind, his industry, genial manners, and lively conversation gave him an honourable position in his profession and in society. He was a favourite with George III. and Queen Charlotte. The young princes, the Queen herself, the Princess Dashkofl, and Sir J. F. Leicester (afterwards Lord de Tabley) were among his pupils. He bought Richard Wilson’s pictures when he was in distress, and helped Beechey and other young artists.

Sandby was an indefatigable traveller, visiting not only a great part of England and Scotland, but Ireland also, and he seems to have been almost the artistic discoverer of Wales. It was not till 1773 that he exhibited his first Welsh drawing, but after that it be-came his favourite sketching ground, and he published no less than four sets (of twelve plates each) after his Welsh drawings. The first of these (published in September 1775) introduced the new process of aquatinting to public notice. So that we must think of Paul Sandby not only as leading the way where the next generations of artists like Rooker, Hearne, Girtin, and Turner were to follow, going before them on the Clyde and in the Highlands, in Yorkshire, Shropshire, Warwick, and Wales, but also as doing what he could to make an enterprise like Turner’s “Liber Studiorum ” possible. The breadth and variety of his talent is astonishing ; and his influence must have been wholesome and beneficial. As a stout-hearted, serviceable craftsman of the ” League of Wanderers,” briskly venturing and briskly roaming, one may feel sure that the author of ” Meister’s Travels ” would have looked on Paul Sandby with no unfriendly eye.

Sandby’s pictures at South Kensington are distinctly disappointing. They are worried and depressing show-work, done simply for exhibition at the Royal Academy. They have a perfunctory air, as though the artist was not working with love, or a feeble and pretentious look, as though he was aiming at something beyond his powers. These works are generally in distemper and belong mostly to the closing years of the artist’s life.

To get some idea of the vigour and originality of Sandby’s work at its best, one must examine his earlier drawings, etchings, and aquatints in the Print Room of the British Museum. His early sketches of figures and street scenes, made in and about Edinburgh before 1750, remind one of the keen and pitiless observation of Dutchmen like Peter Breughel and Van Ostade, with something of the robustious energy of Hogarth. In his etchings of figure subjects one traces the evidence of his study of Wenzel Ho Liar ; but the large plates of Dumbarton, Bothwell, and Edinburgh Castles, engraved in 1751, approximate more to the work of Hollar’s master, Matthias Merian.

In the Welsh and Windsor sets of aquatints (published between 1775 and 1780) the artist’s genius has fully declared itself. The two elements in his art—his accurate and pains-taking architectural work and his skill in catching the character and movement of the life around him—are no longer held apart, as in the work of his apprenticeship. The two elements have become fused ; the painter’s ready sympathy with the life around him has enabled him to transform his art of topo-graphical draughtsmanship into something new and living, instinct with life and emotion. Our reproduction of one of these plates, Windsor Castle from the North-West, though of necessity much reduced in size, may yet serve to convey some slight idea of the boldness and animation of the design. In the fine setting of the Castle and the buildings along the ridge of the hill there is perhaps a suggestion of the composition of Turner’s Warkworth Castle; while the range and daring of the effects of light in the Welsh series remind one irresistibly of many of Turner’s plates in the “Liber Studiorum.” Sandby’s range is as wide as Turner’s own. Indeed in wealth and variety of materials, in untiring observation, in ready, genial, spontaneous sympathy with men and nature, Sandby rivals Turner. But he had not Turner’s subtlety of eye and hand, his exquisite sense of artistic form. Sandby is ” too empirical.” He is not fastidious in selection ; but his work is always vivid, living, and intensely real.

We see these same qualities and defects in his pure, i.e. transparent, water colours. The Windsor: East View from Crown Corner, which we reproduce, is a delightfully luminous drawing, careful, accurate, lucid, full of a vivid human interest. The Encampment on Black-heath, 1780, in the same collection, is not less admirable.

The technical interest of these beautiful transparent drawings is very great. A careful comparison of either of these two drawings with the same artist’s work in distemper, or gouache, furnishes an extremely valuable object lesson on a fundamental question of artistic “rightness.” In the transparent drawings the whiteness of the paper plays an important part in producing the general luminous effect. The washes of pure colour with which it is covered merely temper or colour its lightness ; they never destroy it. But the gouache or distemper, though still strictly speaking water colour, is essentially an opaque medium. It is simply ordinary water colour material mixed with gum and water and with a certain quantity of white pigment to give it body ” or opacity. So that in a distemper drawing the surface of the paper counts for nothing ; all that is seen is the “mat ” or dead surface of the paint.

Now if we compare the transparent Windsor drawing with the distemper Carrick Ferry–both drawings are in the Print Room–we find that the Windsor produces a quite remarkable illusion of light and air, while the Carrick Ferry seems mere dead, opaque paint. The poverty of the distemper medium is most conspicuous in the darker parts, the rocks, trees, and castle standing dark against the sunset. There is no illusion of reality.

It may perhaps be urged that, after all, distemper painting has only the defects and qualities of oil paint. But this is not so ; it has peculiar defects which oil painting has not. For in oils one can always get rid. of this effect of dead colouring by glazing, while glazing is impossible in distemper.

Now for some reason or other, Sandby nearly always worked in the opaque medium when he was painting for the exhibitions. There was evidently a feeling among his patrons that distemper was more respectable, more serious, more difficult, more Parnassian or what not than pure water colour. But when he is working for the engraver he invariably uses trans-parent colours. And it was these drawings that a young man like Turner took for his first models.

The “Copper Plate Magazine” was begun in 1774, and the two drawings on one mount in the Print Room, South View of Shrensbury, and The Princes’ House al Kew, were both published in early numbers of this magazine. The drawings therefore were made about the time when Turner was born. And when, some sixteen or seventeen years. later, he began to make drawings for similar magazines, he very evidently did his best to imitate Sandby’s methods of work. So well did he succeed that either of these drawings by Sandby might pass for early Turners, except that the figures are drawn with too much knowledge.

That Sandby’s method of working in trans-parent colour, derived immediately from Samuel Scott and Taverner, was the traditional Dutch method for landscape subjects is proved by the fine drawing of Amsterdam, done in 1703, by Ludolf Bakhuizen, which hangs in the room of the chief of the Department of Prints in the British Museum. So that Sandby’s work forms an important connecting link between the Dutch tradition of transparent water colour and the early work of Turner and Girtin.

The historical importance of Sandby’s work is therefore considerable. His work also deserves more attention on purely artistic grounds than it usually receives, for though not actually a great artist, he is yet in much of his work naïve and original a genial and in-spiriting personality. If we may not call him a great artist, we may at least say that he was a topographical draughtsman of genius.

The aims and character of the work of THOMAS HEARNE (1744-1817) are very similar to those of Sandby. That he was even more accomplished than Sandby as a draughtsman and water colour painter is shown by his fine drawings of Durham Cathedral (painted 1783), and Isle of Wight, from Lymington, Hampshire, both at South Kensington. His drawing of St. Mary’s Abbey, York, an engraving from which was published when Turner was an infant of three, shows how well he knew how to give pictorial quality and interest to work which was essentially topographical and antiquarian. His charming water colour of Near Witham, Essex, now in the Print Room, evidently owes much to Gainsborough’s inspiration.

The Print Room also possesses a fine collection of the original drawings made by WILLIAM PARS (1742-1782) in Greece and Asia Minor, several of which were engraved by Sandby, as well as a number of richly coloured drawings made in Rome by Pars’s pupil, FRANCIS TOWNE (1740-1816). Interesting works by WILLIAM MARLOW (1740-1813), MICHAEL ANGELO ROOKER (1743-1801), THOMAS MALTON, junr. (1748-1804), EDWARD DAYES (1763-1804), and HENRY EDRIDGE (1769-1821) can all be studied at South Kensington. The accomplished and delightful work of these men—especially of Edward Dayes —would amply repay careful study, but with the limited space at our command we must be content to focus attention only on a few of the most conspicuous figures.