Watercolourist of the month

I thought I’d share with you some of the artists whom I have found inspiring, and perhaps alternate between great artists from the past and living masters. The initial idea was a watercolourist of the week but then I asked myself how long I was going to keep that up, so I’ll try and change the artist monthly.

Richard Parkes Bonington 1802-28

Bonington is one of those artists who you feel would have become a household name like Turner if he had lived longer. Sadly he died of tuberculosis at the age of 25 just when his career was taking off and his art was reaching full maturity. He was English by birth. His father (a bit of an artist himself) was in the Nottingham lacemaking industry which was relocating to Calais at the end of the eighteenth century so the Boningtons went with it. Richard was fourteen when he arrived in France and seems to have acquired the language and culture pretty rapidly. His artistic credentials are pretty impeccable: studying in the salon of Baron Gros, who was famous for painting Napoleon visiting the lepers of Jaffa, by then a crusty old gent with whom young Bonington seems to have crossed swords on more than one occasion, and making a friend of Delacroix whom he met by chance, who was keen to learn the new freshness of British landscape artists (he came over to visit Constable in his studio, and shared an atelier with Bonington). The tension between young artists wanting to expand the horizons of painting by introducing new subject matter, notably landscape, and the old salon dinosaurs who liked their art to be about classical or biblical stories, which was to erupt again at the end of the century with the Impressionists, was already apparent, and young Bonington was an early adopter of the new style. He travelled Northern France with his sketchbook, producing plein air studies and watercolours, taking everyday scenes and ordinary people as his subjects, and gaining renown for his marine studies, particular of the Pays de Caux.

The year before he died he was on tour in Italy and produced a wonderful series of watercolours and finished oils. Above is a watercolour from 1827 of the Castelbarco tomb, Verona, which I find wonderfully skilful. I love his delicate, accurate drawing, together with his bold tones, lots of strong shadow which makes the stonework pop.

The second watercolour is called The Undercliff. When I first saw it I was bowled over by the facility of it: the confident handling of the paint on the cliff, with the strong sunlight above and the deep shadow at the base, and the easy suggestion of the weathering of the strata in the chalk by scuffing a dry brush over the tooth of the paper to give texture. It all seemed the result of a very practised hand working rapidly and deftly. When I found out it was the last thing he ever produced, and that it had in fact taken a dying man two days of effort to produce it, I found the result yet more moving.

Further information
Richard Parkes Bonington, The Complete Paintings, Patrick Noon, Yale 2008.

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