The genius of Paul Sandby

Yesterday I had the inestimable privilege of spending some time at the Royal Academy studying the watercolours of Paul Sandby (1731-1809), the late 18th century watercolourist. 

Now, I shouldn’t like it thought that I am some sort of incontinent culture-vulture.  Because that would be most untrue.  Nor do I mention this merely to draw attention to the image of Bennetts swanning about Picadilly in a drovers coat–it was chucking it down, I tell you. 

Yes, I do like watercolours.  Yes, I do love late 18th century and early 19th century British painting.  But beyond that, (all of which is largely irrelevant anyway) for the historian, Sandby is one of the most useful sources of information about a way of life we have lost. 

We have even, and one realises this as one goes through an exhibition of his painting or peruses a book of his work, lost the capacity to enquire into this life of 200 years ago.  We don’t even know where to start. 

Sandby worked for the military in his early years as a surveyor and draughtsman, he contributed to the topographical maps of the late 1750s of Scotland.  His was a trained and precise eye. 

He was among the first artists to stop painting generic trees and to paint specific species–oak, ash, beech.  So it’s through his remarkable work that we have these visions of what really was in the countryside–a Canaletto of watercolour in the countryside, if you will. 

All of which raises so many questions–and answers them–about the lives of those who lived 200 years ago.  Typical sights on the street-scenes he painted were chair-menders, carrying an example of their work over their shoulder, or travelling peep-shows, or soldiers. 

Equally, who today would ever think that when a regiment was encamped in Hyde Park or elsewhere, they brought their own travelling wooden windmill with them (a kind of malformed Trojan horse structure) to grind the grain for the wheat for the soldiers’ bread?  It seems obvious once one looks at the thing, calculates the number of soldiers living in those rows of tents and then works out just how much bread they would have consumed daily…

Encampment in St. James's Park 1780

Or timber?  Who would think today that what with Britain’s huge and ever-growing navy and merchant marine in the 18th century that large estates would all be engaged in supplying timber to the ship-builders.  It was many estates main source of income–not farming–and these estates all had wood yards, as well as the usual stable yards…and yes, English oak was particularly prized.  We think of big houses on landed estates as the idylls of the rich and useless, don’t we?  Not as an integral part of Britain’s naval might and empire…

This was all part of the fabric of their daily life though.  And there, in Sandby’s work, are all these beautiful watercolours of just these very things–the ordinary, the expected (to them) the normal, the quotidienne.

Pictures of roads generally feature a poorer couple gathering wood from the roadside–a thing we wouldn’t consider today.  But when you think about it–an essential to so many people.  A daily sight–hardly worth noting.  And this constitutes the rhythm of their lives. 

He also did something I haven’t seen before–he painted the English countryside in autumn.  There are the beech leaves, the birch, the bracken–all changed in colour.  It’s utterly breathtaking.  And because of this we can see what it looked like…

His is a tremendous resource for the historian and historical novelist.  Well, art in general is…

Equally fascinating were the details of his life as an artist–again, it’s all to do with things we take for granted.  Paint pigments, for example.  They weren’t fixed in the 18th century.  Artists were innovators…one morning when Sandby’s toast was particularly charred, he scraped off the black, mixed it with gum, and hey presto–a very soft black wash.  Genius! 

And studying those paintings yesterday, I have to admit, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that rather nauseating truism–a picture’s worth a thousand words.  But, well, in Sandby’s case, it’s more like 30,000 words.  At the very least.

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6 comments on “The genius of Paul Sandby

  1. M M Bennetts says:

    That is a beech tree. That’s why the painting is called The Beech Tree. Kind of gives it away, really.

    If one reads anything by Amanda Vickery, either A Gentleman’s Daughter or her later works, it becomes clear that being a Georgian gentlewoman and the wife of an estate owner was rather like being the manager of a large hotel. And then some.

    I fancy it’s only when the money seriously becomes founded in industry that there then develops this urgency to put some space between the hard graft and sweat of the income and those who enjoy the fruits of others’ labours. The parvenu are always the greatest snobs though. Beau Brummell, Lady Sally Jersey, Lord Alvanley…His father was the rather corrupt factotum of the Prime Minister, Lord North; her father was a banker…Oh, and she eloped to Gretna Green with Jersey…

    • M M Bennetts says:

      It’s the same today. The oldest families, the oldest titles…if you didn’t know who the chap is in that ancient Range-Rover, wearing the most disreputable wellies and scruffy Barbour, you’d swear he was a down-on-his-luck farmer who found his clothes in the Oxfam reject bin. Ha ha ha.

      It’s generally the exquisite courtesy and manners which mark them out.

  2. […] Yesterday I had the inestimable privilege of spending some time at the Royal Academy studying the watercolours of Paul Sandby (1731-1809), the late 18th century watercolourist.  Now, I shouldn't like it thought that I am some sort of incontinent culture-vulture.  Because that would be most untrue.  Nor do I mention this merely to draw attention to the image of Bennetts swanning about Picadilly in a drovers coat–it was chucking it down, I tell yo … Read More […]

  3. You’re so right about pre-judging dress, as I once found to my cost when trying to buy a laptop from PC World on the way back from the horses(!)

    Years ago, by better-half worked for a rather posh bathroom supplier. One day, a gentleman resembling an itinerant wandered in. Because she’s quite used to this standard of dress, the missus happily chatted to him, where others might not. Turned out he was building a large house locally with some of the millions he’d made from exercise machines, and he ended up spending around twenty grand!

    So just because you meet someone with binder twine holding up his trousers, don’t assume he’s skint.

    Unless he’s me.

  4. Laurel Ann says:

    I recently purchased a copy of Paul Sandby: Picturing Britain, edited by John Bonebill and Stephen Daniels (2009)Royal Acadamey of Arts, London. It is the catalog for the 2009 bicentenary exhibition. It was recommended by Julie at Austenonly http://austenonly.com/2010/01/09/book-review-and-exhibition-news-paul-sandby-painting-britain-by-john-bonehill-and-stephen-daniels/

    The book is stunning, so I can only envy your experience seeing some of his work in person. Thanks for sharing.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I purchased it too, after having seen the exhibition, because I can then use it as a reference when I’m working. It was a superb show–and not as well-attended as it might have been, though that makes it very pleasant for those who do go, because there’s no pushing or shoving or getting stepped on. You can just stand and study and stare for as long as it suits you.

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