Harriet Gouldsmith, A View of Hampstead Heath Looking Towards Cannon Place, 1818
I recently came across a curious publication in which a landscape painting is the narrator of its own story. A Voice from a Picture, privately printed in 1837, was by 'A Female Artist'; a review three years later, revealed that the author was Harriet Gouldsmith Arnold (1787–1863), an English landscape painter. This review can be read online, as can the full text of A Voice from a Picture. According to the reviewer, 'the idea of making a picture tell its history is not new; but it will bear a new treatment'. This is interesting initself - are there actually earlier examples of landscape paintings relating their autobiographies? In her introduction, Gouldsmith (she used the name Arnold after her marriage in 1839) says that she hopes her little book will help spread the knowledge of art 'as the fittest guide to the instructive love of nature in her better forms.'
The painting begins its autobiography with an account of 'the sorrows, hopes, and fears' of its 'parent': an artist (male) who possessed 'an unfeigned delight for the sublimities and beauties of nature.'
Often have I witnessed the feelings of my fond parent, whilst gazing upon the last gleams of the setting sun, - the deep mellow shades breaking upon the view, 'ere night shed silence and repose upon all earthly things; and often has grey morning, the sweet harbinger of another day, brought vigour and renewed exertion to his enthusiastic and unwearied mind. At length, after many solitary wanderings, and anxious efforts, I became a Picture. Then, again, new fears and anxieties arose. - What was to be thought of me, amongst the thousands of connoisseurs, amateurs, artists, and critics, whom I should be compelled to face?The painting was right to be anxious. It imagines being neglected like the 'unobtrusive works' of Richard Wilson, put into the shade by the flash and fire of Loutherbourg. For a long time it hangs unregarded on a London wall, while the painter accumulates a body of work, and is then taken to be exhibited in Manchester, but remains unsold. People praise it but, because the artist is not a big name, nobody will buy it. More exhibitions and an auction follow, without success, and eventually the painter becomes so poor that he sells all his possessions, including the landscape painting. Then, at the low point of the story, the painting gets 'carried into a back garret, to answer all the purpose of a chimney board.' However, after the poor artist dies in a debtors prison, his work starts to become sought after. Found and restored, the painting becomes highly praised and ends up decorating 'the mansion of nobility.'
Richard Wilson, Lake Avernus, c. 1765
Before leaving A Voice from a Picture I can't resist a digression, to quote an anecdote Gouldsmith includes as an illustration of the straits to which poverty reduces artists. Here a landscape painting is actually worn.
'A party of English artists meeting together in Italy, for the purpose of making studies from nature. The weather proving very sultry, the members proposed that all should take off their coats, which was strongly objected to by one of the party, but at last submitting to the others, a Waterfall was discovered on his back, his waistcoat having been made out of a picture of that subject.'Harriet Gouldsmith was painting during the Golden Age of British landscape painting. She first exhibited at the RA in 1807 and was elected to the Water Colour Society in 1813. The painting below is a late work and can be found in the Egham Museum, which purchased it in 1985. I wonder how its 'life' played out over the preceding 140 years... Its subject, Magna Carta Island, was itself put up for sale four years ago, with an asking price of £3,950,000 (see the BBC's report). This island includes a Grade II-listed house, built a few years before Gouldsmith's painting, that features a specially-built Charter Room to house the stone on which the charter is supposed to have been signed. Perhaps someone should write A Voice from an Island, to relate the history of its owners since that day in 1215 when Runnymede took its place in the story of England. The Times reported that as a result of the sale, Magna Carta Island has been acquired by a Chinese family.
Harriet Gouldsmith Arnold, Magna Carta Island, 1845