Friday, 8 June 2012

Richard Wilson - View of Syon House across the Thames

View of Syon House across the Thames near Kew Gardens (c. 1760) by Richard Wilson
Oil on canvas, 104 x 139 cm
Neue Pinakothek, Munich
Continuing the notion of a yellow sky and water (see View of the Thames by Childe Hassam), here's another view of the Thames - this time at Kew.

The painter of this scene is Richard Wilson - the man regarded as the father of British Landscape Painting and the finest painter Wales has ever produced.  He painted this scene shortly after his return from Italy where he developed his skills as a landscape painter.

The hazy warm yellow glow is very much redolent of the style of the artist who had profoundly influenced his landscape painting - Claude Lorrain.  It's almost as if the Roman campagna has arrived in southwest London!

That said the sun does set in the west behind Syon House and this indicates that this is an early evening painting in summer.

The important point about this painting is that has been painted the year after Kew Gardens became established as a botanical garden - in 1759.
In 1759, Princess Augusta and Lord Bute established the first botanic garden at Kew, employing William Aiton as the gardener. The Physic or Exotic Garden is the direct ancestor of today's establishment and this date is now accepted as the foundation of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.Kew, History and Heritage - Kew's first botanic garden
The place

The scene is one of my own personal "places to paint" (or rather sketch - see The Thames at Kew - in March sunshine).

Wilson's perspective is from a mound - which nowadays has a very convenient seat - at the end of the walk known as Syon Vista and next to the path at the far end of Kew Gardens.  This gives an excellent view of the River Thames and Syon House.

The Artist

Richard Wilson RA was a pioneer of landscape painting in the UK.  Both Turner and Constable admired his paintings.

He was born on 1 August 1713 in Penegoes, Montgomeryshire in Wales.  He died on 11 May 1782 age 68 at Colomendy Hall, near Llanferres, Denbighshire and is buried in St Mary's Churchyard in Mold.  He never married.

His family was well connected and a relative sent him to London to train to become a painter and he initially trained as a portrait painter.  It appears he was successful gaining commissions and setting up his own studio.

He begins to demonstrate an interest in landscape painting from the mid 40s onwards.  However it's unclear why he subsequently became more interested in landscape painting. However it is known that he went to study in Italy between 1750 - visiting Venice first and then Rome - and there became very much influenced by the paintings of Claude Lorrain. 

Wilson is sometimes called 'The English Claude'.

His approach to landscape painting

While in Italy, he earned a living and had modest success by selling picturesque paintings of Italian scenes to English aristocrats who were doing the "Grand Tour".  He devoted himself to painting idealised landscapes in the manner of Claud Lorrain.  The main contrast being that Richard Wilson was typically painting a real scene rather than an idealised picture.

As a landscape painter, Wilson was obsessed with light and the quality of light reflected from the sky - and he loved a good sunset!  His tendency to bathe a scene in golden light was well known.

However Richard Wilson was also very sensitive to colour and demonstrated in his paintings his appreciation of the very many hues found in nature.  John Ruskin wrote that Wilson "paints in a manly way, and occasionally reaches exquisite tones of colour".

Kew Gardens: The Pagoda and Bridge (1762) by Richard Wilson (1713-1782)
Oil on canvas,
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
When painting figures in a landscape, they play a minor role and do not intrude upon the overall impact of the landscape.

The website of records the following as being the way he approached the painting of landscapes
His landscape paintings were produced by first applying an underdrawing of brown paint, followed by ‘dead-colouring', a task which was given to the studio apprentices. Thin washes of colour were applied at this stage; Prussian blue and grey-brown for the sky, and a mixture of red and blue pigments for the landscape. The colour was applied to a thickness depending on the depth of tone required, allowing the light tone of the ground to show through more towards the horizon. Once the dead-colouring was dry it was oiled out before the second painting.

For the foreground Joseph Farington records that Wilson 'went over it a second time, heightening every part with colour and deepening the shadows, but still, brown, loose and flat, and left in a state for finishing: the half-tints laid in, without highlights.' In the third and final painting of the foreground Wilson altered the tints, adding the necessary sharpness to the different objects, before glazing them with rich warm tints, and finally adding further solid tints over this.

The sky and distant landscape, on the other hand, were worked wet-in wet after the initial dead-colouring, rather than in two separate stages. This allowed Wilson to achieve easier blending of the clouds with the blue of the sky, apparently using ultramarine rather than Prussian blue for this stage of painting. Last of all the horizon was adjusted and the distance softened with grey-brown again as necessary.
This is a complete catalogue of Richard Wilson's paintings - which has obviously been a labour of love for its creator.

The Yale Centre of British Art in America has an excellent collection of paintings by Richard Wilson.

Richard Wilson - art communities and art societies

On his return to England, Wilson took on a grand studio and was initially successful and held many exhibitions, gained a reputation and sold his landscapes to a number of different clients.

He was active in founding first the Society of Artists and then in 1768, age 55, he became a founder member of the Royal Academy of Art.  He became the Director of what became ‎(in 1765)‎ the Royal Society of Artists of Great Britain.

The prices for his paintings went up and up - along with Wilson's arrogance - until on one famous occasion he offered to let the King have a painting on an instalment plan!  After that the commissions began to dry up and at the end of his life he lived in poverty and had to rely on his family.

Wilson subsequently became an alcoholic and stared the slide into poverty and ill-health. At the end he was taken back to the family home in Wales. He died there on 11 May 1782.

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