Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ben Lomond, View near Dumbarton

Portrait of Paul Sandby, Francis Cotes, 1761 

Upstairs at the Royal Academy, away from the throngs enjoying the Van Gogh exhibition, the Sackler Rooms are a haven of quiet - there's not much danger of having to peer over a crowd of heads there to see Paul Sandby's watercolours.  I hope they get reasonable numbers of people going because it is a fascinating exhibition if you are interested in the history of landscape art.  Sandby lived from 1731 to 1809 and his career covered the whole of the second half of the eighteenth century: in the 1750s he was working in London and publishing etchings on The Analysis of Deformity, a satire on Hogarth's The Analysis of Beauty (1753), and he was still alive to see the new generation of watercolourists at the start of the nineteenth century, outliving poor Thomas Girtin by seven years.  He is also a gift to art historians writing about the politics of landscape, as he started out in 1747 working for the Board of Ordnance on the Military Survey of North Britain, depicted army encampments in London parks in the wake of the Gordon Riots, and spent much of his career working on estate portraits for patrons like the Duke of Cumberland, the 3rd Earl of Bute and James Watman, a paper mill owner, whose premises can be seen below, naturalised within an idyllic rural setting.

A View of Vintners at Boxley Kent, 
with Mr Whatman's Turkey Paper Mills (detail), Paul Sandby, 1794
Source: Austenonly

The exhibition begins with Sandby's map making and you can see how he used pen-and-ink to describe the mountains of Scotland.  He also painted the activity of the surveying party and made some panoramic views of the landscape, such as Ben Lomond, View near Dumbarton (c1747).  One of the pleasures of an exhibition is seeing the physical objects themselves - the full map spread out and the view of Ben Lomond, consisting of several sheets pasted together, attached to a copy Thomas Pennant's Tour of Scotland (1772).  The reason why Sandby's sketch is now inside this book is that it has been 'grangerised'.  Grangerising was the practice of illustrating a book by clipping out and adding pictures taken from other published sources - named after James Granger (1723-1776), whose two volume Biographical History of England (1769) included blank pages for readers to add their own illustrations.

Nowadays it is possible to grangerise electronically - just find your favourite old text on Project Gutenberg and use a Google image search.  One could for example, produce a nice new edition of William Mason's  influential The English Garden: A Poem in Four Parts (1772-82) - Mason lived in Yorkshire and may have introduced Paul Sandby to the ruins of Roche Abbey, the subject of a particularly serene watercolour from c.1780.  Another of Sandby's paintings of antiquities, showing the ruins of Roslin Castle, Midlothian, is interesting because it depicts the amateur artist Lady Frances Scott sketching from nature using a portable camera obscura.  Sandby's interested in technique extended from optical devices to the processes of reproduction and one of his innovations was the introduction of aquatint print-making, which is especially good for lighting effects, as can be seen for example in Chepstow Castle in Monmouthshire, one of his XII Views in South Wales (1775).

Of the estates pictured in the exhibition, Windsor Great Park features most often and the castle can be seen from various angles and at different times of day, including a dramatic storm scene with a streak of lightning and terrified horse.  This was of course the great age of landscape gardening and in his estate portraits Sandby was illustrating the work of famous contemporary designers and architects.  Among those involved in the design of Nuneham, where Sandby painted views of the garden, were a trio who sound like they would have made a great jazz combo: Stiff Leadbitter (house), 'Athenian' Stuart (interiors) and 'Capability' Brown (grounds).  In addition, poet-gardener William Mason created the flower garden there in 1771 (Thomas Love Peacock would later write: 'O'er Nuneham Courtnay's flowery glades / Soft breezes wave their fragrant wings, / And still, amid the haunted shades, / The tragic harp of Mason rings'.)

Sandby also painted the natural features of estates, including their old trees, which could symbolise a family's long ownership of the land.  He was thus one of the first British artists to paint individual species like oak and beech trees, but these too can be seen in wider political terms, as Linda Colley noted last year in an article about the exhibition when it was on show in Scotland. 'Morning, an extraordinary painting of a massive, venerable beech tree set firm in a Shropshire landscape, is, for instance, a powerfully loyalist testament. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1794, five years after the fall of the Bastille and in the midst of war, the painting would have been understood as an allusion to contemporary conservative celebrations of an ancient, organic British constitution as against the recent republican outgrowths of revolutionary France.'

Morning, Paul Sandby, 1794
(Is this the right image?  I think so but my memory is hazy and I'm writing this without access to the catalogue...)


Baby Indie said...

Love the portrait of him sketching from the window - first captured my interest with his landscapes of ruined abbeys and ancient castles

Anonymous said...

The Ben Lomond 'View near Dumbarton' from Thomas Pennant's own illustrated copy of 'Tour of Scotland 1769-72' was on loan for the exhibition from the National Library of Wales Aberystwyth. For more info on the Library and its collections go to: