RA Magazine Spring 2010
Issue Number: 106
The scenic route
From map maker to father of English watercolour painting, Paul Sandby added a satirical edge to his seemingly benign vistas. Giles Waterfield explores the life and work of this pivotal painter and founding member of the Royal Academy
'The Seat Near the Terrace with a View of the Adjacent Country to the North-East', c.1765, by Paul and Thomas Sandby, shows a vast prospect from Windsor Castle
The sun shines from an almost unclouded sky onto a wooded landscape that stretches like a great park into the far distance: it is one of the much-admired views from the terrace at Windsor Castle. In a wooden pavilion sit an army officer and a lady engaged in intimate conversation. The lady holds up her hands and turns her head as though in shame at his eagerly exploring hands, and her skirt has been lifted above the ground. The atmosphere of the landscape is calm, balanced, unspectacular, belying the emotions roused within the pavilion. Here is Paul Sandby's The Seat Near the Terrace with a View of the Adjacent Country to the North-East, of c.1765 (above).
This painting with its peaceful ambience and intimate depiction of Windsor is typical of Sandby’s work. Such images have been seen as the major achievement of an artist who is often thought to have created a bridge between the topographical tradition of early English watercolours and their Romantic fulfilment in the early nineteenth century. What this exhibition at the Royal Academy makes clear, however, is the variety and individuality of Sandby’s work: his training as a cartographer, his fiercely satirical prints, the development of his landscapes, his feeling for personality (particularly low-life figures), his observation of a nation being transformed into a world power, and his humorous, even subversive, approach to his society.
Sandby seems to have been happiest working in watercolour, a medium which had been brought to England by Dutch artists in the early seventeenth century and which was much used by British artists responding to the demands of antiquaries and tourists, who wanted an immediate record of places they had seen. Sandby expanded his technique to include gouache (opaque watercolour that gives stronger effects) and produced watercolour works on a grand scale to be shown at the annual Royal Academy exhibition. Yet he was quite capable of working in oil and he developed print techniques, including aquatint.
Hailed as ‘the father of the English watercolour’ because of the way in which he expanded the potential of the medium and raised its status within the Royal Academy, Sandby actually worked in a topographical style that has tended to exclude him from what is seen as the inner circle of great Romantic watercolourists. He has often been regarded with respect rather than enthusiasm and as such has been relatively under-exhibited and under-published. This exhibition, the first ever comprehensive survey of his work, accompanied by an outstanding catalogue, offers the finest possible opportunity to reassess him.
Sandby was no struggling artist fighting to gain recognition. He was born into a respectable family in Nottingham, and by the time he was sixteen, in 1747, he had moved to Scotland to work for the British Army’s Board of Ordnance, where his elder brother Thomas held a position as a draughtsman. At that time Britain was just recovering from the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 and, as part of the campaign to gain control of Scotland, the British Army was mapping out the country and constructing roads and fortifications.
Paul worked at Edinburgh Castle in the Board’s Ordnance Drawing Room during the winter, and in summer travelled around Scotland working as a cartographer. The Great Map of the Highlands, produced around 1750, owed much to Sandby’s ‘highly painterly and decorative interpretation of contemporary military cartographic technique’, as exhibition curator John Bonehill attests. The entire map is on view at the Royal Academy.
This early training was to be fundamental to Sandby’s artistic development. Many of the early drawings that he and his brother made were similar to maps, being detailed dispassionate surveys of the landscape. Thomas Sandby’s Plan of the Battle of Culloden and his Sketch of the Field of Battle at Culloden (both 1746) recording the historic Jacobite rout, could not be less dramatic; nor could Paul’s vignettes of Edinburgh, made before his departure from the city in 1751.
The Sandbys’ style is rooted in the military tradition of the survey drawing, when young army officers were taught to draw landscape as part of their military training, since a close understanding of the terrain where they were fighting was considered essential. Paul was to spend almost 30 years as Chief Drawing Master at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, and this observational, scientific foundation to his art is always present in his work.
Paul appears to have been an equable and agreeable individual, as his relationship with his brother suggests. The two were close friends throughout their careers, and they lived close to one another at Windsor for many years. While Thomas became the first Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, where he taught John Soane, Paul developed complementary skills and the pair often collaborated on their paintings. Generally it seems that Thomas depicted the architecture, while Paul was responsible for the figures. Still, as Bonehill admits, in such works as the evocative pen-and-ink drawing Nottingham Castle of c.1774, it is often hard to tell which brother painted which element of a picture.
In 1751 Paul moved south to join his brother and became immersed in the artistic life of London. It was a time when British artists were beginning to demand recognition as serious practitioners (they were still often regarded by potential patrons as inferior to their foreign competitors who ruled the art world) and to set up teaching academies on the continental model. Both Thomas and Paul were closely involved in the struggles that beset the London art world, notably at the St Martin’s Lane Academy, the precursor to the Royal Academy of Arts.
As an ardent young man with an eye to publicity, Paul engaged in an attack on William Hogarth. A series of complex watercolours and prints from the early 1750s mark Sandby’s sortie into satire. Before the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768 there was much discussion about the development of artistic education in England. Sandby advocated a culture of artistic training that would imitate the academic traditions long established in France. This idea was attacked by William Hogarth (who was always sceptical about French culture) in his book Analysis of Beauty (1753) which proposed an ‘individualist approach’ directly opposed to the French ideal. In images such as The Magic Lantern of 1753 Sandby ridiculed Hogarth, suggesting that he had made himself into a magic lantern (an early form of slide projector), that he was refusing to be guided by tradition and was projecting ideas drawn only from his own imagination, like shadows cast by a lantern. Sandby illustrates, projected onto a sheet, the kind of absurdly chaotic ‘history paintings’ that might have proceeded from Hogarth’s imagination.
Once in London, Paul developed into the urbane, fashionably-dressed, mildly smiling young man seen in the portrait painted by his colleague Francis Cotes in 1761. Both he and his brother were founder members of the Royal Academy, which was to remain a fundamental element in their lives. When, as an old man, Paul found himself short of money, it was to the Academy that he applied, successfully, for help.
Paul exhibited at the RA regularly, adapting his style to the demands of the annual summer exhibition. He used the visually more forceful gouache in many of his watercolours in order to compete with noisier works. They were ‘close-framed’ (without mounts) to resemble the more dignified art of oil painting.
One of the most interesting aspects of this exhibition shows Sandby as a social observer. Already in Edinburgh Street Scenes he caricatured the rude and ignorant Jacobites, as he doubtless saw them, belonging as he did to what was an army of occupation. His low-life characters for his print series Twelve London Cries made around 1759, reveal a new individuality in his observation of physiognomy and dress.
In later work Sandby’s view of low-life is subsumed into his watercolours, which at first appear to be straightforward landscapes but which, on closer inspection, reveal an element of sharp social criticism. An example is the sketch of a cleric refusing to give alms to a beggar outside Windsor Castle in The Moat Bridge, the King’s Gate and the Entrance to the South Terrace of c.1765.
Almost all of Sandby’s figures remain types, acutely studied but at one remove from the observer. Although he lived in an age when the novel was emerging as a literary form, he allowed himself almost no characterisations of recognisable individuals (other than the grotesquely caricatured Hogarth) and showed no interest in the art of portraiture. In general, Sandby abandoned his early attempts at caricature and popular imagery in favour of a more good-humoured style.
Sandby has long been regarded as a peculiarly English artist, the chronicler of the British Isles, observer of cities, countryside, parks, untidy streets, castles. He celebrated the qualities of British landscape at a time when it was coming to be admired (as well as drawn or painted in watercolour) by growing numbers of British tourists. Cultivated people were increasingly intrigued by the visual qualities of wilder regions, such as the Lake District and Wales, as access became easier by road. A regular traveller, Sandby helped to shape these tastes and was highly responsive to changing interests. In the middle of the century he recorded Scotland under the expanding hegemony of England, while in the later years he reflected the taste for picturesque ruined abbeys and castles.
His approach can be varied: thus his views of Luton Park executed for the Earl of Bute around 1765 and never previously exhibited, reveal a feeling for the grand massing of trees, while at the same time recording their individual characteristics. Such documenting would have been appropriate for a contemporary of the founder of modern botany, Carl Linnaeus (1707-78). Sandby’s prints made after his work – he was aware of the artistic and commercial potential of printmaking – demonstrate his ability to appeal to the tastes of his time.
Sandby was famous in his day as a drawing master, not only at Woolwich but also as a private tutor to members of the royal family and such notable collectors as Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn. One of the most appealing works in the exhibition A Lady Drawing (c.1760s) shows an unidentified lady (presumably one of his pupils) seated at her work table by a window, with a distant view of a castle. Calm, efficient, in command of her materials, but aware of broader possibilities, she seems an apt pupil for an artist who avoids drama, who never shouts, who late in life complained that he would have to go on working for financial reasons rather than because he wanted to – but who, in his quiet way, helped to shape an enduring vision of British landscape and society.
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