On 28 August 1821, exactly two centuries ago today, one of the few dedicated Pre-Raphaelite landscape painters was born in London: Thomas Seddon (1821–1856). His father was a successful cabinetmaker, and the son was destined to develop the family trade, until he was sent to Paris in 1841 to study ornamental art. The young Thomas Seddon then decided on a different course, as a painter of fine art rather than wooden furniture.
Thomas Seddon took lessons at a drawing school, and life classes, then in the summer of 1849 he tried his hand at landscape painting in North Wales. The following year he went to France, and painted his first plein air oil sketches near the village of Barbizon, then a centre for modern landscape painting. In the same period, he met Ford Madox Brown and apparently painted part of a copy of one of his paintings in Brown’s studio.
Following a severe illness at the end of 1850, and while his father was moving business premises, Seddon set up his own studio in London, and was quickly successful in getting a figurative painting accepted by the Royal Academy. That was followed by a landscape he painted in Brittany in 1852, which was accepted by the Academy in 1853.
In 1853, he was busy preparing to travel to Egypt with another Pre-Raphaelite, William Holman Hunt.
In the summer of that year, he took a break from planning his preparations to visit Brittany again, where he painted his first masterpiece, one of the classic Pre-Raphaelite landscapes, of Léhon, from Mont Parnasse, Brittany (1853). This shows the ruins of the monastery there, and has a look which is distinctive of Pre-Raphaelite landscape paintings, which combine fine detail with an air of unreality.
This look is in part the result of the prolonged painting time to achieve the fine detail expected. Early plein air painters quickly learned that capturing a view so that it appeared natural required fast work for short periods – only an hour or two at most – in consistent lighting conditions over one or a very few sessions at the same time each day. To accomplish that, they sketched, and omitted detail. By setting themselves the requirement of capturing such great detail, true to nature, Pre-Raphaelite landscape painters made the painting process so protracted as to lose the coherent details of light, shadow, and surface effects which actually make a realist painting appear real.
Seddon arrived in Egypt in early December, and travelled on to Cairo to await Hunt’s arrival. Initially they established themselves at the Pyramids, but then decided to move on to Jerusalem, where they arrived by the start of June.
There, Seddon left Hunt ensconced in the city, and pitched his tent on a hill to the south of the city on 3 June 1854. He started work on this view from a point just a hundred metres up the slope from his tent, working uninterrupted until his departure from the city on 19 October. Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehoshaphat from the Hill of Evil Counsel (1854–5) is a major landscape painting of the nineteenth century, and one of few painted entirely in accordance with Pre-Raphaelite principles.
Once Seddon was back in Dinan and then London, he used photographs and sketches to complete the work, which he didn’t exhibit until the autumn of 1855, more than a year after he had started on it.
He returned to Cairo in October 1856.
This watercolour View on the Nile near Cairo is dated 1855, but I suspect it was painted prior to his journey to Jerusalem in May 1854; if not then, in the autumn of 1856 at the start of his second visit.
Seddon’s last painting, of The Pyramids at Gizeh, is believed to have been painted in the autumn of 1856. He also appears to have painted a second version of this view with even richer colours of sunset.
Shortly afterwards, Thomas Seddon contracted dysentery, and died of that in Cairo on 23 November 1856, aged only thirty-five. The following year his paintings were exhibited at a memorial exhibition, and even John Ruskin praised his “perfect artistical skill” and “topographical accuracy”.
Seddon’s friend Ford Madox Brown painted his own tribute: in The Coat of Many Colours, from 1864-66, the embedded landscape is based on Seddon’s Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehoshaphat from the Hill of Evil Counsel.