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1795 How Richard Westall's Watercolours Charmed and Alarmed

The year 1795 was pivotal in the career of Richard Westall (1769–1836). It was the first year that he would be exhibiting as an Academician and, judging from his commercial success and the rapturous reviews his works had thus far received, he was destined for greatness.

Westall’s ascendency rested on innovative watercolours that paved the way for greater recognition of the medium’s creative and academic potential. Not only did his works display a technically advanced application of body colour (pigment thickened with opaque lead white also known by the French term “gouache”), they also plugged a gap in the market for smaller-scale, cheaper versions of academically ratified and commercially popular historical subjects. Such was his lead that in 1795 Westall was pronounced “the Founder of a particular School of Drawing in Water-Colours”.1 The likes of J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Girtin, ten years Westall’s junior, would have studied his work and taken tips, such as how to use white highlights to catch viewers’ attention. And yet, it is these younger landscapists’ genius that modern histories of watercolour cite as key to the medium’s advancement—we have forgotten Westall’s trailblazing contributions. This is partly because his influence, while great, was relatively short-lived. Changes to his work and exhibiting tactics in 1795 show that perhaps he also felt that it was a pivotal year, one in which he must adapt to survive.

Having acquired Academician status, and thereby having demonstrated his proficiency in oils—since drawings did not qualify an artist for consideration as a member—Westall was freed up to show more watercolours.2 These were not only more popular but cheaper to produce and in 1795 they numbered ten out of his twelve exhibits. The first sign of a shift in his tactics is the greater number of sentimental genre scenes and fancy subjects like Angling among them (Fig. 1). For the previous five years, Westall had concentrated on historical subjects, taking advantage of a market receptive to images with textual sources in an age of extra-illustration, or “grangerisation” as it was known. By 1795, however, this market was waning.3 In Angling, Westall was sounding a reminder to publishers and collectors of his varied pictorial skills, and the work was indeed later engraved.

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Angling is designed to catch the eye. Vivid colours and sharp contrasts of light and dark are arranged in target-like concentric bands: the shaded tree trunk at the centre is framed by the gleaming ivory of the women’s dresses—complete with flashes of brilliant lead white—and the man’s yellow suit is itself offset by the red cloak. The crowded hang of the Academy exhibitions, dominated by large oil paintings, was no doubt a stimulus to Westall’s propensity for eye-catching effects.

In 1795, however, a new space, the Council Room, was given over to the display of watercolours. Westall himself had lobbied for this.4 Ultimately, however, this new display context served to render disagreeable the very same qualities in his work that had catapulted him to celebrity: vivid colours, extreme chiaroscuro, and meticulous description of detail. Angling was decried as possessing “[a]s much affectation but less harmony” than the “pictures of Watteau”.5 Comparison to the French school placed Westall in the firing line of a later review that observed an epidemic in 1795 of “gaudy hues, glittering effects and mechanical fopperies” that threatened to contaminate society with “vices of French frippery and affectation”.6 Amplified by the deliberately florid language of art criticism, this was nevertheless a serious concern. There was an especial sensitivity to all things French in 1795—fearing that British radicals would stir up revolt here, too, the government was on high alert. For one’s work to be seen as unpatriotic or devoid of British values—defined by the concerned art critic as “Nature, Simplicity and Truth”—put the Westall we see in Angling on rocky ground.7

But in 1795 Westall showed a different side, too. Hunting the Uras, a sketch was one of three “sketches” by him displayed among the sculptures, oil paintings, and pastels in the Antique Academy (Fig. 2). This physical separation from Westall’s other watercolours in the Council Room reflected their stylistic distinction. Hunting the Uras, a Sketch is deliberately less refined than Angling, its line a feathery staccato that delivers a vigorousness befitting its subject. His commitment to the sketch’s freer style was perhaps a response to his being “roughly handled” in the notoriously caustic critique of the 1794 exhibition by Antony Pasquin, who had denounced Westall’s “nicety”, or attention to detail, as “alluring to the vulgar”.8 In any case, exhibiting sketches was a canny move. Hunting the Uras catered to the connoisseurial appetite for old master sketches (the Flemish painter Rubens is a clear reference) and to appreciation of the sketch aesthetic in general; the same critic, who had bemoaned Angling’s “affectation”, described Hunting the Uras as “masterly”.9 Its purchaser was the tastemaker, Richard Payne Knight, who would go on to write of the intellectual appeal of a sketch’s unrealized potential—its state of limbo.10

Westall enjoyed a few more years of celebrity but, by the turn of the nineteenth century, his career entered its own state of limbo, in marked contrast to the still-rising fortunes of his close friend Thomas Lawrence. For the four years prior to 1795, the two had shared a house and a studio, their early work—including their Diploma pieces—revealing a mutual influence and their names equally celebrated: while “Lawrence became a leading star in … [e]xhibitions, Westall was in possession of the town.”11 But the town was fickle and by the end of the 1790s, Westall was struggling to maintain his relevance. His novelty product, the historical watercolour, had lost its appeal. Even his technique, which James Northcote had exclaimed as “something new in art”, proved laborious and increasingly out of sync with the techniques being deployed by a younger generation of landscape watercolourists like Turner.12

Westall died in poverty in 1836. In retrospect, the changes he made to his subject matter and technique at the 1795 Exhibition were ultimately futile attempts to steady himself against the shifting sands of taste. 

  1. The St James’s Chronicle, 21–23 May 1795.↩︎

  2. A motion was passed in 1772 stipulating that: “Persons who only exhibit Drawings cannot be admitted as Candidates for Associates”. See Greg Smith, The Emergence of the Professional Watercolourist: Contentions and Alliances in the Artistic Domain, 1760–1824 (Ashgate: Aldershot, 2002), 23.↩︎

  3. A major patron of Westall’s was Josiah Boydell, who he supplied with watercolours for an illustrated edition of Milton’s works amongst other projects; Boydell cited disruption to the export market caused by the French Revolution as a factor in the eventual closure of his Shakespeare Gallery and print publishing empire. See Morris Eaves, The Counter-Arts Conspiracy: Art and Industry in the Age of Blake (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 56–58.↩︎

  4. Joseph Farington, The Diary of Farington, Kenneth Garlick, Angus Macintyre, and Kathryn Cave (eds) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978–1984), Vol. 1, 5 April 1794,176. Smith suggests that the impetus for this move came from Joseph Farington after pressure from Westall and William Marshall Craig to better the display of their drawings. See Smith, The Emergence of the Professional Watercolourist, 46, n.55.↩︎

  5. The St James’s Chronicle, 21–23 May 1795.↩︎

  6. The Morning Post, 4 June 1795.↩︎

  7. The Morning Post, 4 June 1795.↩︎

  8. Anthony Pasquin, A Liberal Critique on the Present Exhibition of the Royal Academy: Being an Attempt to Correct the National Taste; to Ascertain the State of the Polite Arts at this Period; and to Rescue Merit from Oppression (London: H.D. Symonds and J. McQueen, 1794), 36.↩︎

  9. The St James’s Chronicle, 21–23 May 1795.↩︎

  10. Richard Payne Knight, An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (London: T. Payne and J. White, 1805), 147 and 238.↩︎

  11. “Obituary—Richard Westall, Esq. R.A.”, The Gentleman’s Magazine, 2nd series, vol. vii (February 1837), 213.↩︎

  12. “Anecdotes of Northcote”, Library of the Fine Arts 2, no. 10 (London: M. Arnold, 1831), 235.↩︎

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