Topography v. Landscape

John Barrell

  • Paul Sandby: Picturing Britain
    Royal Academy

This exhibition is an attempt to represent the work of one of the most long lived of British artists, whose career began in the aftermath of Culloden in 1746, and ended only six years before the Battle of Waterloo. As a teenager, through the influence of his elder brother, Thomas, himself a gifted artist and architect, Paul Sandby was taken on as a military draftsman for the Board of Ordnance, producing reliable maps for use in the subjugation of the Highlands. By the time of his death, his astonishing industry had earned him many years of genteel prosperity, selling his original drawings and paintings, publishing collections of his prints, taking on private pupils, and teaching at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. But in the last years of his life he suffered from continual anxieties about money. His style had become unfashionable, and his efforts to change it – to become more picturesque, more European in manner, somehow more obviously a heavyweight – seem to have led nowhere. The last picture in this show, a woodland scene with a rainbow, part Hobbema, part Rubens, is certainly heavy, but it is a sad coda to a career that had been based on deftness, on lightness of touch.

A View of Vintners at Bexley, Kent, with Mr Whatman’s Turkey Papers Mills, 1794
A View of Vintners at Bexley, Kent, with Mr Whatman’s Turkey Papers Mills, 1794

Living so long, and exerting the influence he did over the development of watercolour, Sandby was described, when he died, as the ‘father of modern landscape painting in watercolours’. At a time when landscapes in watercolour, together with landscape gardening and mezzotint engraving, were probably the only areas of visual art in which Britons were generally persuaded that they could beat the competition from abroad, to be the father of landscape painting in watercolour was a kind of patriotic identity, even though it would come to be denied that painting in watercolour was what he did. And as the title of the exhibition suggests, Sandby’s art was thoroughly patriotic, in an understated way. ‘He has formed a style peculiarly his own, and peculiarly English,’ one contemporary wrote. His landscapes, superbly drawn, brightly but beautifully coloured, celebrated both Britain’s past and its present, the evocative ruins of abbeys and castles, the thriving towns and bustling turnpikes, trees so ancient that the Normans might have planted them, a race meeting at Ascot, landscape gardens in the latest style and still under construction. They are, as the exhibition repeatedly demonstrates, very much more than attractive images of Happy Britannia, but they are gorgeously, seductively attractive.

Sandby was extraordinarily prolific: nobody could begin to say how many thousands of his pictures have survived, and how John Bonehill, the curator of this exhibition, decided on his final selection I can’t imagine. Sandby was also enormously versatile: he worked in watercolour, bodycolour (gouache) and oil, he etched, he was the first professional artist in Britain to work in aquatint, in which he became as near perfect as can be imagined. As well as an artist of landscapes and townscapes, he was a caricaturist and the maker of many informal portraits, he issued a series of ‘Cries of London’ and he did much more.

Landscape, however, was his central preoccupation, and it is the landscapes that make the most exciting showing at the Academy. Though he worked in Scotland as a boy and a young man, and later pioneered the tours of Wales that became such a standby for artists in search of the picturesque and sublime, his real heartland was – at least on the showing of this exhibition – the Home Counties: Windsor, Virginia Water, Luton Hoo, the country round Basingstoke and round Maidstone, where he produced extensive, undulating panoramas and occluded views of ancient woodland. At Luton, he became fascinated by the beech trees, some of them with vast contorted trunks and giant limbs, one coppiced and then neglected, to grow up like an inverted banyan. At Windsor, he produced a series of beautiful images of the different tasks involved in woodland management that could be illustrations for an 18th-century georgic poem on the subject. At Englefield Green near Egham, where his son had a villa, he made landscapes of the family amusing themselves in their garden and entertaining their guests, in idealised images of Georgian middle-class domesticity and sociability. Many of these images are much more complex than at first they seem, but the first sight of Sandby’s England, where the sun always shone and winter never came, is simply and honestly delightful.

But the sunny brilliance of Sandby’s art was clouded well before his death by an account of his work which, while not necessarily denying his abilities, even his genius, consigned him to a lower rank among artists because the subjects he chose to represent were claimed to be unworthy. When, in the 1760s, the Earl of Hardwicke attempted to commission Gainsborough to paint a view for him, the artist replied:

Mr Gainsborough presents his Humble respects to Lord Hardwicke; and shall always think it an honor to be employ’d in any thing for his Lordship; but with regard to real Views from Nature in this Country, he has never seen any Place that affords a Subject equal to the poorest imitations of Gaspar or Claude. Paul Sanby is the only Man of Genius, he believes, who has employ’d his Pencil that Way – Mr G hopes Lord Hardwicke will not mistake his meaning, but if his Lordship wishes to have any thing tolerable of the name of G. the Subject altogether as well as the figures &c must be of his own Brain.

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[*] Paul Sandby: Picturing Britain edited by John Bonehill and Stephen Daniels (Royal Academy, 245 pp., £35, July 2009, 978 1 905711 49 9).