A Moonlight Effect by Paul Sandby

Landscape painting became the most inventive form of art in Britain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  Traditionally, paintings of the British landscape had been a way of showing off magnificent country houses, and were often commissioned by wealthy landowners to show off their estates and wealth.  However in the late eighteenth century the landscape became the subject of a more poetic vision. There was a growth in the urban middle-class and for them landscape art provided a romantic ideal of the landscape as the source of timeless values which could be enjoyed by anyone.  Landscape paintings were now being viewed as portraying idyllic places of rest and solace.  Landscape art in the 18th century did however have its detractors.  The Swiss-born artist Henry Fuseli, when once lecturing his art students, identified landscape art as a low branch of painting.  He described it:

“…the tame delineation of a given spot;   what is commonly called Views is  little more than topography; ….a kind of map-work”……”

My featured artist today would not have agreed with Fuseli’s description, as he was one of England’s great landscape artists.  His name is Paul Sandby.  Sandby was born in Nottingham in 1731.  His father Thomas was a framework knitter and he had a brother, also named Thomas, who was ten years older than him.  The boys had a comfortable upbringing and it is thought that they both received drawing tuition from Thomas Peat, a Nottingham-based land surveyor.  Both boys showed great aptitude and in 1747 Paul, then aged sixteen, left Nottingham to take up employment as a military draughtsman.  After the Battle of Culloden the English felt the need to map the Scottish landscape with detailed records of forts and castles and Paul Sandby was involved in the survey and from his office at Edinburgh Castle, where he worked as a mapmaker, he developed his landscape drawing technique.

After his work in Scotland he went on to paint much of Britain. In 1752, he, along with his brother, took up a post producing landscapes of the royal estates at Windsor.   Importantly in 1770, he travelled through Wales and was one of the first artists to paint landscapes of that country.  He popularised the area by not just exhibiting paintings but widely circulating printed images and developing an innovative print method, aquatint, a variant of etching, which echoes the washes of watercolour rather than relying on pure lines.   He returned to Wales in 1773 and toured the south of the country along with Sir Joseph Banks, the naturalist and botanist.  This sketching trip resulted in the 1775 publication of XII Views in South Wales.  A further twelve views were added the following year.

In 1757, Sandby  married Anne Stogden.   In 1768, the same year as his election as a Royal Academician, he was appointed chief drawing master to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, a position he held for over thirty years,.  His son Thomas Paul was eventually to succeed him in that post.

 Unfortunately for Sandby the public fell out of love with his fresh and uncomplicated natural style of paintings, which he embraced, and he was ultimately forced to petition the Royal Academy for financial support to supplement his modest pension. He died in 1809, his obituary describing him as the ‘father of modern landscape-painting in watercolours’.  He is buried in St George’s Burial Ground London.

Gainsborough praised Sandby as one of the first artists to paint what he termed “real views”, ones which were topographically accurate as opposed to idealised compositions.  There was a large gap between the topography and the ideal landscapes.  The topographer accurately recorded what he saw whereas the ideal landscape artist manipulatesd his landscape for aesthetic ends.  Paul Sandby endeavoured to bridge that gap.  He kept faith with his topographical skills but managed to bring expression and sensitivity to his work.  He did this by carefully choosing the viewpoint for the composition.  He also liked to incorporate realistic human figures in his works.  Throughout his career Sandby only ever used the medium of watercolour.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled A Moonlight Effect which Paul Sandby completed around 1790 and which can be found in the Nottingham City Museums and Galleries.  This is one of a number of paintings Sandby completed which depicted a place or a building as seen by moonlight.  In the 1770’s the early romantic painters, such as Joseph Wright of Derby and William Hodges, had taken a special interest in the portrayal of moonlight effects; and the image of the moon and of moonlight became one of the great romantic images.  For the romantic artist, who saw himself as alienated from society, the moon was often seen as an image of constancy and hope in a changing world, and it adequately depicted that longing and yearning or an unattainable perfection which lies at the heart of romanticism.

I love this painting with its silvery moonlight. 

Maybe you will have noticed that My Daily Art Display has not quite been a “daily” offering recently.  The reason for that is not because I am losing interest or having difficulty to find yet another painting, albeit it is getting harder.  The reason is that I have been trying to build up a reserve stockpile of blogs for when I am away on holiday in case I don’t have the time to research and compose a blog.  Today we are setting off to Hong Kong and Australia for a three-week break.  I am hoping I will still have access to the internet when I am away so that I can send out one of my “reserve” blogs, at least every other day.  I am hoping to take in a couple of art galleries when I am away and I am looking forward to seeing the depth of art on offer.