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…
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.