Pushy Times

David Solkin

  • The Great Age of British Watercolours 1750-1880 by Andrew Wilton and Anne Lyles
    Prestel, 339 pp, £21.50, January 1993, ISBN 3 7913 1254 5

In a notebook entry written during the summer of 1743, the English engraver George Vertue paid tribute to his friend the ‘ingenious’ William Taverner, who ‘besides his practice of the Law ... has an extraordinary Genius in drawing and painting Landskips, equal if not superior in some degree to any painter in England’. Like other contemporary amateur producers of landscape watercolours, Taverner must have been aware that the favourite occupation of his leisure hours had long been associated with the demonstration of power and prestige; Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier (first English translation, 1561) was only the first of many treatises on aristocratic conduct to recommend drawing as an activity appropriate to men of the highest rank. Moreover, in a nation where political rights and social status depended first and foremost on the ownership of land, the drawing of landscapes in particular came to acquire a remarkably potent symbolic charge. It is hardly surprising therefore that a lawyer such as Taverner, in common with many other upwardly-mobile members of the 18th-century middle class, sought to dignify his position by appropriating the identity of the noble amateur.

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