Holt Bridge on the River Dee by Richard Wilson

Holt Bridge on the River Dee by Richard Wilson (c.1762)

My Daily Art Display today features the 18th century Welsh landscape painter Richard Wilson.  He was born in 1714 in Penegoes, a small village in what is now the county of Powys.  His father was a rector at the local church and the family background could be considered as being well respected and of quite high social standing. It was through his father that his young son received a classical education.  The family was connected with some of the elite characters in the local society.  Wilson’s early artistic aspirations were encouraged by his mother’s nephew, Sir George Wynne, who had made his fortune out of lead mining and who supported Richard Wilson financially in London for many years from 1729.  Wilson was sent to London when he was sixteen years of age to take up a six year apprenticeship with a little known artist, Thomas Wright.  Wynne, besides arranging the apprenticeship, gave the young Wilson money to set up a studio in London and bankrolled the aspiring artist until he started selling some of his works.

In the 1740’s Wilson began to have success in selling his paintings and gained several wealthy patrons including the prominent Lyttleton Family who commissioned many family portraits.  This entry into “high society” led him to become a Society portrait painter and his many commissions brought him financial security, so much so he moved into a larger studio in the fashionable Convent Garden area of London.  In 1750 with financial help from a member of the Lyttleton family he set off on the Grand Tour.  This so-called Grand Tour, which was so popular in the 17th and 18th century, was the traditional trip of Europe undertaken by mainly upper-class young men from Europe, especially the British nobility and landed gentry.   Its aim was to be an educational rite of passage.

Wilson visited Venice in 1750 and stayed there for several months where he had the chance to study the works of the Old Masters such as Titian.  During hs soujorn in Venice, he met and became friends with the Venetian landscape artist and rococo painter, Francesco Zuccarelli.  It was Zuccarelli who persuaded Richard Wilson to move away from portraiture and concentrate more on landscape painting.  Wilson was also befriended by an English art collector, William Lock.   Lock and Wilson left Venice in 1751 and travelled through Italy eventually ending up in Rome where Wilson remained for six years.  His base was the Piazza di Spagna. This was a favourite meeting place for artists, both foreign and local and was also a popular haunt for the English Grand Tourists.  These tourists were extremely wealthy and were always looking to take home souvenirs from their great journey and as this was at a time before the invention of photography, what could be better than a painting of the Italian countryside and Richard Wilson was therefore in the ideal spot to sell his classical styled landscape works.  The artists, who most inspired Wilson, were the great French landscape painters Claude Lorrain and Gaspar (Dughet) Poussin.

Wilson returned to England in 1757 and, now quite wealthy, set himself up in a large studio in London.  He was the leading light, along with Sir Joshua Reynolds and Francis Hayman in establishing the Society of Artists in 1760 and later became one of the founding members of the Royal Academy of Art in 1768.  He staged many exhibitions of his work at the Academy and his reputation as a landscape artist grew and his works commanded very high prices.

Sadly, as in lots of cases of a rise to fame, there comes the inevitable fall and Richard Wilson and his reputation tumbled dramatically.  Sucked in by his increasing wealth and fame, Wilson became arrogant and rude.  He insulted a number of his wealthy patrons including George III and soon they deserted him.  His spectacular fall from grace made him turn to drink and soon he became an alcoholic, despite the help he received from the few friends who stayed loyal.  His career was over and he had no choice but to leave London and return to his family home in Wales, penniless.  Wilson spent the last years of his life at Colomendy Hall, the residence situated a few miles from Mold, which was owned by his aunt, Catherine Jones.  He died there in 1782 , a few months short of his 68th birthday, and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s  in Mold.

St Mary's Church, Mold

His grave, on the north side of the church, has the following Welsh inscription: (below is the English translation): 

From life’s first dawn his genius shed its rays,

And nature owned him in his earliest days

A willing suitor; skilled his lines to impart

With all the love and graces of his art;

His noble works are still admired and claim

The first reward of an enduring fame.

Richard Wilson's gravestone

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is Holt Bridge on the River Dee by Richard Wilson which he completed around 1762 and now hangs in the National Gallery in London.   This is an idealised landscape as it is not topographically accurate but notwithstanding that, it is a wonderful landscape painting.    Holt Bridge joins the village of Holt in Denbighshire to the village of Farndon in Cheshire. The tower of St Chad’s in Farndon is on the right and the outskirts of Holt on the extreme left.  It is strongly influenced by the works of Claude Lorrain as we know the artist was a great admirer of the French landscape artist.  However, for him there were two other landscape artists of note.  According to W.T.Whitley’s book Artists and their Friends in England 1700-1799, Wilson told a fellow artist William Beechey:

“…Why, sir, Claude for air and Gaspar for composition and sentiment; you may walk in Claude’s pictures and count the miles. But there are two painters whose merit the world does not yet know, who will not fail hereafter to be highly valued, Cuyp and Mompers…”

I have featured Albert Cuyp in a number of my blogs and you will know that he is one of my favourites painters and in the near future I will feature the beautiful work of Joos de Momper, the great Flemish landscape painter.