The Romantic North: picturesque landscape before photography
Peter Regan’s talk encompassed works 1750–1840, and he addressed the questions ‘What is Beauty? How has landscape painting developed? How has this related to Northumberland? and Was there such a thing as Landscape Painting?’
Peter, who at one time worked for the trustees of Dovecote Cottage, considered paintings of Cumbria and the North as well as in Northumberland. He began by showing us a slide of an Elizabethan ‘chart’ of Newcastle, now in the British Museum, by Giovanni Viscala, and addressed the question ’Is this a painting? or a map?’ It represents Newcastle and the artist, a military engineer, emphasised the well-defined walls, castle, and half-moon battery. The map was used to give information, despite being decorative.
He went on to consider drawings and painting which were often topographical, starting with Thomas Miles Richardson, showing Newcastle from Windmill Hill in Gateshead (1816), a rustic scene, less topographical and more influenced by the growing popularity of Claude Lorraine.
Matthias Reade, 1720, was a signwriter who produced a bird’s eye view of Whitehaven to emphasise the wealth of his patron, Lord Lowther. Similarly, the Buck Brothers made an engraving of Warkworth Castle for the Duke of Northumberland. It was Cannelletto who painted Alnwick Castle in a pleasing rural scene for him.
The main influences on painting in Georgian times were the 16th century painters Nicholas Poussin, Jacob van Ruisdael, Claude Lorraine, and Salvadore Rosa. Peter displayed examples of their works and explained how these men had developed styles of depiction which we could see in subsequent slides of later, Northern artists. Lorraine, for example, painted the most sought-after landscapes including water, trees, a ruin or folly – and a romantic couple in the foreground. He set the tone, showing that a painting should be inspiring and calm, with these typical elements. Von Ruisdael’s works were darker but contained the same elements. Despite Poussin’s similar formula, in his Ovid’s Metamorphosis the calm is somewhat contradicted by the snake attack in the foreground. Rosa, the Spanish artist, was a portraitist, but he shares the same formula in in his Travellers asking the Way.
In the days of The Grand Tour the aristocracy liked to record their journeys with pictures as mementoes, either using their own skills to paint or draw memorable scenes, or, if they were rich enough, to take an artist with them. Richard Wilson thus painted scenes such as The Temple of Sibyl in Tivoli in 1765, before carrying out similar commissions in Wales, but the formula remained the same as in his Italian paintings.
One of the best-known slides was of Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews in which the eponymous couple show off the extent of their (vast) estates in a painting of themselves, squeezed into the edge of a landscape typical of the time – a vista stretching into the distance.
Samuel H. Grimm, a Swiss clergyman-traveller who did over 2000 drawings for Sir Richard Kaye throughout the 18th century, also drew Warkworth Castle, an ink-and-wash of Morpeth Castle and one of Alnwick’s Lion Gate.
William Gilpin was one of the first artists to produce a book on landscape painting where he emphasised the ‘wild beauty off the North’. Once again he used water, trees and a ruin as his subject matter. He used the ‘Claude Glass’, a device using mirrors to aid composition, which produced an oval shape.
Books on landscape painting followed: by Thomas West, a clergyman in Cumbria; Peter Costhwaite, and for the Lake District, books by Joseph Farrington, William Green and even Wordsworth.
Closer to home, Bewick did an engraving of Chillingham Castle. Carmichael and Ward both completed pictures of the new railways, illustrating new features of the landscape – as did Turner.
Turner’s paintings of the North, with his dramatic skies, include many of our own castles of which Warkworth was perhaps the most exciting, with a thunderstorm approaching at sunset (1799). To complete the talk, we were shown a Constable, Seascape with Rain Clouds.
Peter Regan displayed a remarkable insight into this fascinating subject, which he delivered in an accessible and engaging way, and he was thanked with warm applause.