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1771 Richard Wilson Takes a View

Richard Wilson showed only landscapes at the Royal Academy during his entire career as an exhibiter there over a period of twenty-one years.1 At the third Exhibition, in 1771, however, his submissions were particularly significant in size, subject, association, and timing. That year Wilson showed three major “views”: two monumental scenes of a Welsh aristocratic estate View near Winstay, the Seat of Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, Bart and View of Crow Castle, near Llangollen in Denbighshire; and a smaller picture of an English one, A View of Houghton, the Seat of the late Marquis of Tavistock, in Bedfordshire.2 His commitment to landscape as a genre seems all the more remarkable in the light of its understated presence in Richard Earlom’s well-known mezzotint, where the crowded exhibition room in Pall Mall is dominated by history paintings and portraits.3 In fact, Wilson was by no means isolated as numerous landscapes in both oil and watercolour were present in 1771, amounting to just over 30 per cent of the entries in all.4 Even so, prejudice against the genre was widespread at the Academy, where later that very year, the President, Sir Joshua Reynolds, included landscape in his fourth Discourse on Art among “the lower exercises of art” and “humbler walks of the profession”.5 Wilson, however, seems to have used the 1771 Exhibition to attempt an upgrade of this traditionally underprivileged type of painting and establish his own primacy as a practitioner of it through these three elaborate topographical scenes. Two of these measured six by eight feet—a scale usually associated with the favoured genre of history painting.

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In the Exhibition catalogue a clear distinction between topographical and other landscapes was already well established—the topographical, described as “views”, comprising about 19 per cent of the total.6 Wilson’s views, however, were by no means conventional topographical records. His Welsh scenes were executed for the very wealthy Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, Bart, paramount landlord of Denbighshire, who had come of age in 1769. View near Winstay, the Seat of Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, Bart depicts part of his estate, looking downstream along the River Dee, into the Vale of Llangollen with the hill and ancient fortress of Dinas Bran prominent against the horizon (Fig. 1). The artist’s compositional self-awareness is apparent in this and all three paintings. Here he pays tribute to the Old Masters he had admired since his Italian years—Claude Lorrain in the placing of the bridge and Gaspard Dughet in the framing devices and other conventions. At the same time, his figures seem deliberately to emulate the style of his contemporary, Thomas Gainsborough. His second Welsh scene, View of Crow Castle, near Llangollen in Denbighshire, shows the western side of Dinas Bran (“Crow Castle”) dominating the Dee and Llangollen. These lands also belonged to Sir Watkin, apart from the fortress itself, which ironically was the property of his neighbours, the Myddeltons. Wilson exaggerated the height of the hill but most of the features are faithfully rendered. The lighting indicates the time as early morning, complementing the evening setting of its pendant and reminding us of such paired times of day in the works of Wilson’s French contemporary, Claude-Joseph Vernet, whose advice in Rome had been a major factor in turning Wilson to landscape from portrait painting. Carefully placed trees in the right foreground act as a pictorial counterweight to the hill, suggesting a world of easy balance and harmony—again in the manner of Wilson’s admired predecessor, Claude Lorrain. In the foreground, contentedly employed rustics reflect aristocratic benevolence, while the location confirms a growing cultural perception of Wales as a place of timeless Arcadian simplicity and ancient British Liberty.

Wilson’s third submission was, on the face of it, a more conventional estate portrait, A View of Houghton, the Seat of the late Marquis of Tavistock, in Bedfordshire (Fig. 2). The mansion itself is shown dominating the entire countryside from a distance but the foreground is prominently occupied by members of the “lower orders”. The north front of the house is lit at an oblique angle by golden sunlight streaming from the west and indicating, along with the lengthy shadows, that the time is evening. In the distance to the right of the tree and just below its branches, Houghton Conquest Church and some village houses can be seen—all contributing to a general serenity. Wilson was here developing a format of distant off-centre house views established by George Lambert in the 1740s by overlaying this tradition with old master influence.7 In this case, it was seventeenth-century Dutch landscape, echoed in the relatively flat horizon, combined with the motif of the central tree.8 The park at Houghton had connections with the sixteenth-century poet and courtier Sir Philip Sidney, who was said to have written part of his romance, Arcadia, in a lodge there. John, fourth Duke of Bedford bought the estate in 1738 and in the 1760s it became the seat of his heir, Francis Russell, Marquis of Tavistock, who had purchased a view of Rome from Wilson in 1765.9 Tavistock probably commissioned View of Houghton soon afterwards but he died prematurely from a riding accident in 1767 and the house was abandoned and dismantled that year. Work on the picture may have been delayed by Wilson’s many preoccupations in the 1760s or it may have been finished several years earlier and deliberately held over until 1771, when on the death of his father, Tavistock would have inherited the dukedom.10 In any case, its inclusion in the Exhibition was significant, as both a poetic evocation on the boundary of topographical and imaginative landscape and as a tribute to European masters of the landscape tradition.

From the mid-1760s, Wilson’s critical reputation was at its peak.11 It was founded on A large Landskip with the Story of Niobe, shown at the Society of Artists in 1760, soon after his return from seven years in Italy, and combines landscape with the revered genre of history painting.12 Although his entries at the first Academy show in 1769 went under the non-committal titles of A landskip; Its companion; and A landskip, he appeared to hedge his bets in the following year with two historical works and two views—one Roman and one British.13

However, he faced stiff competition in 1771 as Gainsborough had entered two “large Landskips which will be in two handsome frames”, described by him as “the best I ever did”14 and William Pars, newly returned from a European tour with Lord Palmerston, showed no fewer than eight attention-grabbing Alpine watercolours.15 Other rivals for star status were two history paintings and four portraits entered by Reynolds16 and eight history paintings by Benjamin West including the much-admired Hannibal swears eternal enmity to the Romans and the mould-breaking Death of General Wolfe. However, Wilson’s three views must have dominated all the other landscapes in size—and presumably prominence, since he was a member of the Hanging Committee and it is impossible to believe that he did not take advantage of the fact.17 The celebration of his native North Wales was remarkable in itself, let alone on such a scale. Furthermore, the delayed display of Houghton Conquest was highly topical and his aristocratic patronage was evidence of success—all bait for further commissions.18 He thus seems to have been using the prestigious arena of the 1771 Exhibition to attempt a status upgrade of view painting and to enhance his pre-eminence in and through the genre.19 In the short term at least, his boldness was rewarded, when he was elected both to the Council of the Academy and as a Visitor in the Schools on 12 December 1771. Yet a persistent ambivalence in his critical rating is surely inherent in the faint praise of one commentator:

I find, in looking at my catalogue, that there are at the Academy three views by Wilson. ‘Tis most probable they are good: and I wonder I did not observe them; for he is undoubtedly one of the best landscape painters we have.20
  1. Wilson exhibited every year from the first Exhibition in 1769 until his final submission in 1780. In 1773, he submitted A Landscape described in the catalogue as “omitted”, meaning a late arrival and absent from the main list of exhibits sent to the printer.↩︎

  2. Unless otherwise stated, the titles of exhibited works are given throughout this essay in the format used in the exhibition catalogues as cited in Algernon Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and their Work from its Foundation in 1769 to 1904, 7 vols (London: Henry Graves and Co. & George Bell and Sons, 1905) and The Society of Artists of Great Britain (1907).↩︎

  3. Richard Earlom after Michel V. Brandoin, Royal Academy 1771, mezzotint. This prominently features James Barry’s Temptation of Adam (reported as “much admired” in The Gazetteer, 7 May 1771, 2) and Thomas Gainsborough’s full-length portraits, Mr Nuthall and Captain Wade.↩︎

  4. Of the total 276 works, eighty-five were landscapes, excluding architectural perspectives, marines, “snow and frost pieces”, copies of Old Masters and unidentified drawings—but including other works on paper.↩︎

  5. Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, R.R. Wark (ed.) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981), 70.↩︎

  6. In all, fifty-two, of which thirty-one featured British locations, four Italian, four Swiss, three Netherlandish, three French, two German, one Swedish, and one Luxemburgish.↩︎

  7. For example, see Lambert’s View of Copped Hall in Essex, from the Park (1746).↩︎

  8. This compositional device is reminiscent of Jacob van Ruisdael’s views of Bentheim, silhouetted against a cloudy sky beyond a forest, for example, Bentheim Castle (1653).↩︎

  9. Probably the version of Rome from the Villa Madama in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. The painting concerned was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1765 (A View from the villa Madama, three miles from Rome) and bought by Tavistock for 100 guineas (£105); K. Garlick and A. Macintyre (eds), The Diary of Joseph Farington, Vol. 2 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978), 559.↩︎

  10. The fourth duke died in January that year. The picture has traditionally been said to be signed and dated 1770 but inspection with the naked eye and under UV in December 2013 revealed neither signature nor date.↩︎

  11. See, for example, the letter by “A Lover of the Arts”, which forecast that: “in future time the works of a Barret, Gainsborough, Marlow, Richards, Sandby and Wilson [among others] will be equal in value to any of the ancient masters”; “A Lover of the Arts”, Lloyds Evening Post, 6–8 May 1765, 437. Two years later, “X.W.” reviewing the Society of Artists exhibition declared that:“Mr Wilson holds the first rank among the landskip Painters”; “X.W.”, The Public Advertiser, 1 May 1767, 2.↩︎

  12. This was one of four submissions by Wilson that year. The others were: [A small landscape], the Monument of the Horatii on the Appian Way; Ditto, the Banks of the River Dee; and a drawing, A View near Rome. His six submissions in the following year were likewise dominated by a Large landskip with historical figures. The others were: The bridge at Rimini, with the republic of San Marino; Temple of Clitumnus, it’s companion; The Lake of Nemi; It’s Companion; and View near Chester. In 1762, his six landscapes included four “views”: A View of a ruin, in her royal highness the princess dowager of Wales’s garden at Kew; It’s Companion; A View of the Thames, near Richmond; and A View of Holt Bridge, on the river Dee. In 1763, he showed one historical landscape and one view: A large landskip, with Phaeton’s petition to Apollo; A View from Tivoli towards Rome. This mixture was repeated in 1767: View from Moor Park, toward Cashiobury, Watford, and St. Albans; Landskip and figures; and in 1768: A storm at day-break, with the story of Ceux, Alcione, Ovid Metam; A View of the Lake of Nemi from Gensano.↩︎

  13. A landscape with historical figures; Cicero and his two friends, Atticus and Quintus, at his villa at Arpinum; A view three miles from Rome; and [A view] on Hounslow Heath.↩︎

  14. Letter to the Hon. Edward Stratford, 21 March 1771, in John Hayes (ed.), The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 83, no. 49. The landscapes, both catalogued as A landscape and figures, have not been identified with certainty but could be his stunning rustic pastorals, The Harvest Waggon and Rocky Wooded Landscape. They were described by Horace Walpole as “very good, but too little finished”; see his annotated copy of the 1771 catalogue cited in Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts, Vol. 3, 191.↩︎

  15. These were memorably described by the scholar-poet Laurence Binyon as “perhaps the earliest revelation of the high Alps to the untravelled British public”; Laurence Binyon, English Watercolours (London: A. & C. Black, 1933), 58.↩︎

  16. Including Venus chiding Cupid for learning to cast Accompts.↩︎

  17. It is likely that the Welsh views at least were placed in central positions at eye level, perhaps on facing walls.↩︎

  18. Wilson’s were the only Welsh scenes in the Exhibition, apart from A View of Holywell in North Wales by Captain Francis Grosse, an honorary exhibiter.↩︎

  19. A hint of the rising status of landscape may be gleaned from Edward Francis Burney’s watercolour, Royal Academy Exhibition of 1784: The Great Room, North Wall, where Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg’s large painting, Brather Bridge, dividing Westmorland from Cumberland hangs prominently in the centre, immediately under Reynolds’  eye-catching George, Prince of Wales (1782–1784).↩︎

  20. Anon [R. Baker], A Review of the Exhibition near Cumberland House, 1771 [Society of Artists associated for the Relief of their distressed Brethren, Monday 29 April–Monday 3 June, Mr Christie’s Great Room, next Cumberland House, Pall-Mall], 30. Wilson’s personal situation may also be indicated by his move in 1770 from grand and historic “chambers” in Covent Garden to the humbler Charlotte Street in Bloomsbury.↩︎

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