Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Review: Paul Sandby - Picturing Britain Exhibition at the RA

The Sackler Wing of Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts. 13 March – 13 June 2010

View in Luton Park c.1765
Paul Sandby
535 x 740mm, pen, bodycolour and watercolour over graphite
Private collection

An exhibition to celebrate the man known as "the father of English watercolour painting" opens at the Royal Academy of Arts in London on Saturday 13th March.

Yesterday I went to see Paul Sandby RA: Picturing Britain, A Bicentenary Exhibition which features over 80 works of art by Paul Sandby (1731 - 1809), celebrates the work of one of the founding members of the Royal Academy and also marks the bicentenary of his death.

Paul Sandby is a man who is known to be important by many who posses an in-depth knowledge of British watercolour painting and landscape art. However he has never enjoyed a solo exhibition in this country. In the words of the curators he has never been given his due and this exhibition attempts to remedy that. I think the exhibition succeeds in this aim while at the same time arouding an interest in English watercolours and landscapes of the eighteenth century.

The curators in front of a portrait of Paul Sandby sketching out of a window

Sandby had a career making pictures of Britain which spanned some 60 years. In many ways his virtuosity and accomplishment as an artist has been greatly under-rated. He was able to work in different roles, different media and tackle different genres of art. He was primarily a watercolourist sbut also painted in oils and created prints. Within the UK, he pioneered the use of different techniques for making art and was the first artist in the UK to use the aquatint process invented in France.

His artistic activities were very diverse from cartography and topographical drawings, to satirical prints, very fine figure drawings, more conventional landscape works of art, landscape commissions and teaching art to those who could afford to pay. The curators have done a fine job of making this diversity coherent in terms of the main themes of the exhibition:
  • Map-making
  • The London art world
  • Street Life
  • Views of London
  • Antiquities
  • Estate portraiture

Importantly he created pictures of Britain at a time when it wasn't always fashionable to do so and from that we can learn a great deal about what Britain looked like in the eighteenth century at a time when its infrastructure and visual appearance was changing a great deal. He documented both the landscape and the details of everyday life
The artist lived through one of the most exciting periods in British history, and the rapid social, economic and cultural changes of the time are consistent themes in his work.
Map-Making: As this exhibition demonstrates, age 16 he was employed by the Royal Ordnance in Scotland and was engaged as a military draughtsman, post the end of the Jacobite Rebellion, in the major exercise to map the north of Scotland. The exhibition includes the sheet relating to Culloden Moor, which Sandby handcoloured to demonstrate the relief. One cannot help but think that his familiarity with the challenges of both cartgraphy and topography helped him a great deal as a landscape painter in later life.

The London Art World: Sandby came to London at a time when British Art was really getting off the ground - and consequently all sorts of factions were vying for position and influence over what form 'Britart' in the eighteenth century should take. The exhibition includes examples from a set of satirical drawings which challenged Hogarth's sets of London life. He parodies Hogarth's work and some of the work tends towards the vitriolic and vicious - it was described by the curators as an early form of Private Eye! At this point I began to wonder about his character and basic disposition of the man who can produce work as incredibly diverse as Sandby does.

Street Life: One of the revelations for me about this exhibition concerned just how good Sandy was at drawing figures - particularly tiny figures! He's an artist who is capable of working across a range of sizes and his skills as a miniaturist are revealed in the skill he uses at portraying tiny people as staffage to provide scale in various paintings.

He obviously delighted in capturing posture and the different ways people dressed and the people of the street in particular. Sandby produced a set of etchings called Twelve London Cries done from the Life for the print market - with the aim of generating a steady income (Was it ever thus?). There are also a large set of related studies he did as preparation for his etchings and the print market. Below are a couple of examples included in the exhibition of these studies in pen, ink and watercolour over graphite

(left) Any tripe or neats feet?
(right) "Rare mackerel, Three a Groat or Four for sixpence"
Drawings of street traders by Paul Sandby
photos Katherine Tyrrell

When manipulating my photos for the blog I noticed that although they are apparently sepia toned they were originally painted with coloured washes which become more evident when 'levels' are manipulated in Photoshop. The woman on the right selling mackerel has a red cloak over a blue garment.

He also acquired a habit of recording people in sketchbooks who were then used as staffage in paintings for years to come. Some of his studies of people on the streets of Edinburgh and London subsequently turn up in paintings decades later! While he was in Edinburgh, he drew the military on the streets. Interestingly he seems to have struggled with scale to begin with when producing compositions using studies from his sketchbooks. There's evidence of getting relative scale wrong. However there are other paintings where he seems to have resolved these issues - although one wonders whether elder brother Thomas (an expert on perspectuve and the first Professor of Architecture at the RA) may have helped with his 'perspective on people'.

Views from the terrace of Somerset House before 1776
Thomas and Paul Sandby
(each) 467 1924mm, Pen and ink, wash and watercolour over graphite
photo copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Views of London: The exhibition includes a couple of panoramas of the views - looking east and west - from the terrace of Somerset House in London which he painted in a collaboration with this brother. Other scenes are of military encampments in the park and on Blackheath. A lot of his drawings portray just how much the military and ex-soldiers are part of everyday life.

Antiquities: Sandby is painting in the second half of the eighteenth century when landscape art was beginning to become more popular and the notion of the picturesque started to influence both actual views and the paintings recorded them.

A number of the views are associated with favourite tourist places and tourist views - one of which was Windsor Castle - of which there are a number of paintings in the exhibition.

Views of Windsor Castle
Paul Sandby - Picturing Britain

New art materials and techniques: The exhibition includes drawings produced using the camera obscura and also a painting of one of Sandby's students using a camera obscura. I found them fascinating. It's also very interesting to compare watercolours which have been kept in portfolios - which look as fresh as the day they were painted - with works which have enjoyed rather less protection. One can clearly appreciate the impact of the fugitive pigment in a watercolour wash in an era when attention to lightfastness was much less prevalent. I was most impressed with his ability to convey depth through absolute control over tonalities and his understanding of when to use bodycolour and when to use more transparent colours.

Estate Portraiture: Sandby was astute enough to realise that those with money liked to have their estates portrayed for posterity and he derived significant income from estate portraiture. What's fascinating about his paintings is that he's recording the countryside and estates at a time when there was a lot of change from the enclosure of common land to the creation of pastoral landscapes by Capability Brown. As you can see from the painting at the top of this post, a lot of trees were cleared to create "views".

View in Luton Park 1765
510 x 740mm;
pen, bodycolour and watercolour over graphite

Private Collection

Interestingly, Sandby was one of the first artists to focus on painting trees as individual species and some of his paintings of trees are excellent.

The education guide and catalogue both explain some of the motifs and meanings to be found in his landscape paintings.

More information

When you look at the art on the wall, the more you look the more you see....there's an astonishing range of detail
Professor Stephen Daniels
This exhibition is dense with subject matter of interest to tthose interested in the history of watercolour and landscape painting and printing. I'm planning some blog posts on The Art of the Landscape featuring specific aspects highlighted by this exhibition including:
  • Sandby: Portrait of the Whatman Factory
  • Sandby: Views from Somerset House terrace
  • Sandby: Use of the camera obscura
  • Sandby: Landscapes in Aquatint
  • Sandby: Picturesque and romantic motifs
  • Sandby: Estate Portraiture

The exhibition: This exhibition was organised by Nottingham City Museums and Galleries in association with Royal Academy of Arts, London The two catalogue editors and curators of the exhibition are Dr John Bonehill who teaches History of Art at the University of Leicester, specializing in eighteenth-century British landscape art and Stephen Daniels who is Professor of Cultural Geography at the University of Nottingham and Director of the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Programme in Landscape and Environment.

Exhibition Tour:

  • Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery 25 July 2009 – 18 October 2009
  • National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh 7 November 2009 – 7 February 2010
  • Royal Academy of Arts, London 13 March 2010 – 13 June 2010

Exhibition dates: Open to public Saturday 13 March 2010 – Saturday 13 June 2010; 10am – 6pm daily (last admission 5.30pm). Late night opening: Fridays until 10pm (last admission 9.30pm)

More information: Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J OBD; Tel. 020 7300 8000 and

Events: There are a number of events taking oplace during the exhibition - you can find more details on the website.


  1. Love love love "View in Luton Park 1765"

  2. Great postKatherine, thank you. I look forward to the coming posts on Paul Sandby. Would you recommend to buy the catalogue ?

  3. I think you'd find it interesting Martin given your interest in trees and the romantic tradition of the picturesque. He's a classic painter of the genre and that particular period


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