During much of the eighteenth century, landscape painting in Britain had developed in parallel with that in continental Europe. Those aspiring to paint landscapes seriously went to Rome, where they learned to paint oil sketches in the Campagna. Among those who followed this course were Alexander Cozens, Richard Wilson and his pupil Thomas Jones. Then in 1793, Britain was at war, and travel to the Continent became difficult if not impossible until 1815. The training of landscape painters took place at home, in a climate where outdoor oil sketching was only possible during the warmer five or so months of the year.
James Ward (1769–1859) was born and brought up in London, and manifested his drawing skills while apprenticed as an engraver. He married George Morland’s sister, and Morland married Ward’s sister, enabling him to learn to paint in oils. By 1793, Ward had made several successful oil paintings, made engravings from them, and was selling those prints. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1793, and initially concentrated on painting farm animals. After 1800, he progressively moved to landscapes.
Though his early finished paintings may have lacked originality, and he never trained in Italy, Ward produced some superb oil sketches from early on, which bear comparison with those of Constable. A Harvest Scene with Workers Loading Hay on to a Farm Wagon (c 1800) was painted on a small panel, using high chroma colours, particularly in the foreground.
He continued to sketch landscape views in oils, among which one of his most outstanding is his panoramic Landscape near Swansea, South Wales (c 1805), squeezed onto a small panel. The extensive smoke rising from the distant valley was from the heavy industries based on coal and iron which had been spreading through the previously rural areas of South Wales.
Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) was born in London in the same year as JMW Turner, his friend and great rival. In 1789, he started his apprenticeship with a watercolour painter of topographic views, as Turner started his training at the Royal Academy Schools. From the early years of his training, it was clear that Girtin was destined to become a great painter, and Turner recognised that Girtin’s talent and skills were even greater than his.
Instead of travelling to Rome and learning how to sketch in oils in front of the motif, Girtin visited towns in the Midlands of England painting watercolour views. In 1794 he had his first painting accepted by the Royal Academy, which grew to ten in 1797. He finally travelled abroad, only to Paris, for the winter of 1801-02. On his return to London he completed a 5.5 x 32.9 metre panoramic painting for commercial exhibition. However, his health had begun to deteriorate, possibly because of pulmonary tuberculosis, and he died on 9 November 1802 at the age of just twenty-seven.
Only a year or two after he had started his apprenticeship, Girtin painted the fine sky and effective aerial perspective in Rochester, Kent: from the North (c 1790).
Holy Island and Lindisfarne are spectacular and evocative locations on the north-east coast of England, steeped in history, wild and mysterious. Connected to the mainland via a tidal causeway, Girtin would have had little time there to attempt painting en plein air even if he had wanted to, so painting this back in his studio he would have been reliant on the sketches, notes, and memories of the previous year when he had visited this location.
Among the paintings which he completed in 1800 was The White House at Chelsea, which is probably his most famous. Girtin chose to look upstream of the River Thames from a location close to the modern Chelsea Bridge. The landmarks shown include, from the left, Joseph Freeman’s windmill (or Red House Mill), a horizontal air mill, the white house close to where Battersea Park is now, Battersea Bridge, and Chelsea Old Church. For once, buildings are the least significant elements in the painting, which is dominated by the sky, water surface, and the momentary light on the white house.
Among the artists creating the new landscapes of the Industrial Revolution was Philip James de Loutherbourg (1740-1812), who was born into an expatriate Polish family living in Strasbourg, France. He trained in Paris, and made a name for himself painting dramatic landscapes and marines, particularly those showing storms and naval battles. After travelling throughout Europe, he settled in London in 1771, where he worked in theatrical design and the invention of mechanical entertainments. Around 1800, he became interested in the sights of the Industrial Revolution, and painted the most famous industrial landscape.
Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) shows the round-the-clock labour of the furnaces sweating out iron for industry and construction. Its clouds are lit by the furnaces, with white-hot spoil and smut rising into the night. A team of horses draws finished castings away from the site, towards the viewer, as boys watch from amid the debris. Here is a new sub-genre, the industrial landscape, and a glimpse into the fires not of some spiritual hell, but the hell of humans, toiling on earth, in a small, previously rural and wooded, valley in Shropshire, England.
Other paintings of his were just as dramatic. In An Avalanche in the Alps (1803) a huge torrent of ice and rock boulders is still passing diagonally across the painting at the instant shown. This has swept away a wooden bridge, fragments of which are seen engulfed in ice. Three people are seen on the undamaged section of road; each is posed to add to the dramatic effect, one clearly praying to the heavens; animals are also trying to flee to safety.
It was during these early years of the nineteenth century that John Crome, who spent almost his entire life in and around the Norfolk city of Norwich, started to paint landscape oil sketches. As I’m currently giving an account of his life and work in another series, for the sake of comparison I show two of his earlier landscapes.
Slate Quarries (c 1802-05) is among Crome’s earliest surviving oil landscapes, and was most probably painted when he visited the Lake District in 1802. It’s incredibly sketchy, and has the air of a plein air oil sketch made in the Roman Campagna, except for the fact that the closest that Crome got to Rome was Paris, and that wasn’t until much later.
This view of the sea by Yarmouth Jetty from 1810-11 combines fine detail of the figures and vessels with marvellously painterly waves.
John Sell Cotman (1782–1842) was born in Norwich when Crome was aged eight. Unlike Crome, Cotman moved to London for training in 1798. He earned his living through commissions for topographic views from print-sellers, then found himself a patron who hosted meetings of aspiring young painters including both JMW Turner and Thomas Girtin. Cotman accompanied Girtin on painting trips to Surrey and Wales.
He exhibited six landscape paintings at the Royal Academy in 1800. In 1806, he moved back to Norwich where he became a dominant member of the Norwich Society of Artists, which had been co-founded by John Crome. But Cotman wasn’t content to spend the rest of his life painting the plains of Norfolk: he visited Normandy three times, and – on the recommendation of JMW Turner – was appointed master of landscape drawing at King’s College School in London in 1834.
Few of Cotman’s paintings are currently accessible, but this view of Aberystwyth Castle (1796-1806) gives an idea of his early work.
Cotman made this fine graphite drawing of The East End of Saint Jacques at Dieppe, Normandy during his visit in 1819. A few years later he published a set of a hundred etchings based on these drawings. He was also one of two painters – the other being Ford Madox Brown – who taught Dante Gabriel Rossetti to paint.
Finally, of course, is John Constable (1776–1837), whose magnificent ‘six-footers’ are among the finest landscape paintings of their day. Constable was born and brought up in Suffolk, well to the south of Norwich, and spent much of his career in London. Like the other British landscape painters covered in this second article, he never visited Italy to learn how to sketch in oils.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Constable’s painting was that he produced so many painterly studies for finished works in oil, but at the time these were kept private, and weren’t shown to the public. His Coastal Scene with Cliffs from about 1814 adopts the low horizon of the Dutch Golden Age, and fills the paper with clouds which are formed from coarse brushstrokes with a facture more typical of Impressionism.
The next time that someone tries to tell you that there was little or no landscape painting in Britain before Constable and Turner, you’ll know how wrong that popular fallacy is.