This large work is a fine and rare example of an English mid-eighteenth-century topographical scene and one of very few landscapes by Richard Wilson that can be dated to before his departure to Italy in 1749.
This large work is a fine and rare example of an English mid-eighteenth-century topographical scene and one of very few landscapes by Richard Wilson that can be dated to before his departure to Italy in 1749. Conservation by Philip Mould Ltd. has led to the picture being seen once more as one of Wilson’s highest-quality early works, with the removal of several layers of dirt and old varnish revealing previously obscured details and the subtle play of light across the canvas. Wilson, regarded as the pre-eminent landscapist of his generation, was most likely commissioned to paint the subject by Lionel Sackville, 1st Duke of Dorset (1688-1765). Dorset held the posts of constable of Dover Castle and lord warden of the Cinque Ports when the picture was painted in 1746/7, and the engraving, which is dated 8th April 1747, contains a dedication to the Duke. Wilson painted three Views of Dover. The present picture is almost certainly the first, as it relates most closely to the engraving, and has been extended by the artist to the right with an added strip of canvas, an indication that it is not a repetition. A smaller version is in the Yale Center for British Art, while a third, with variations, is in the National Museum of Wales.
Wilson was born in Wales into a relatively prosperous family. His father was a cleric and seems to have educated Richard privately to a high degree in classics. In 1729, with the support of a kinsman, Sir George Wynne, Wilson was sent to London as an apprentice to the portrait painter Thomas Wright. Consequently, most of his early works are accomplished, if unadventurous, portraits such as that of the Jacobite heroine Flora Macdonald in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Wilson must have had a reasonably successful practice, with his way in society no doubt eased by a classical education and a well-connected family, for in 1749 he could afford to undertake a tour to Italy, then essential for any aspiring artist. By comparison, George Romney, at a similar stage in his career, could only afford to go as far as Paris. Although Wilson professed to study Titian in Italy, perhaps with an eye to improving his portraiture, it was his skill for landscape that earned him most admiration. After seeing Wilson’s work, the artists Francesco Zuccarelli and Horace Vernet encouraged Wilson to take up landscapes in favour of portraits. Wilson also seems to have travelled with a series of rich aristocrats in Italy, and it was in part thanks to their support that he was, unusually, able to establish himself solely as a landscapist on his return to England in 1756.
At first Wilson was highly successful and received commissions from those many aristocrats fascinated with Rome and the classical age, to which his Italianate landscapes were perfectly suited. Between 1760 and 1768 he exhibited more than thirty works at the Society of British Artists, before withdrawing from the Society to become a founder member of the Royal Academy. By the mid-1770s, however, the fashion for his works began to decline, and Wilson tended increasingly towards alcoholism. He went from a comfortable studio in Covent Garden (neighbouring Samuel Scott) to a lodging in the Tottenham Court Road, unable to buy either paint or brushes. He managed to obtain the position of Librarian at the Royal Academy, which brought him £50 a year, but his inebriated state lost him friends and patronage. In Zoffany’s celebrated portrait of the early Academicians he was first painted with a bottle of port by his side, though this was later painted out. And at one Academy gathering he was reported to have taken great offence to Joshua Reynolds’ assertion that Thomas Gainsborough was ‘the best landscape-painter’, replying loudly, ‘and the best portrait painter too’. Wilson retired to Wales in 1781 and died in 1782. In that year Peter Pindar published his ‘Lyric Odes to the Royal Academicians’, in which he refers to Wilson’s tragic decline. Pindar foresees, however, that Wilson’s works will come back into taste, concluding ‘Wait till thou hast been dead a hundred year’. In the event, Wilson’s resuscitation came far sooner than that, and by the early nineteenth century his works fetched record prices.
The present painting gives a revealing insight into Wilson’s skill for landscape from an early age, and is arguably one of the first instances of a really successful topographical view by an English artist on such a large scale. At the time it was painted, the quality of landscape painting in England was not exceptional – indeed it is hard to see where the young artist drew his inspiration for such a modern composition. A few artists such as George Lambert and Samuel Scott did point to the beginning of a new approach to landscape painting, but generally the average eighteenth century patron’s request for a view of his house or estate was satisfied by the naive, pseudo-aerial views of questionable perspective so commonly found in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. As with the portraiture of the period, such works were designed primarily to display wealth and status, with the rendering of an expensive costume or architectural feature more important than likeness, character or overall effect. As a form of art topography was deeply unfashionable. If landscapes were intrinsically valued at all in the early eighteenth century, they were the invented creations of Poussin and Claude.
Other early eighteenth-century views of Dover Castle help demonstrate just how adventurous Wilson’s interpretation of the subject was. A good example is the anonymous View of Dover Castle now at Walmer Castle (English Heritage Collection). Like all seascapes of the period it emphasises the beflagged-ships in full sail – necessitating a rough sea – and the imposing heights of the meticulously crenelated castle. Wilson’s emphasis, on the other hand, is on the sense of space and drama provided by the natural amphitheatre of the cliffs, as if he has chosen to concentrate instead on the unusually rich opportunity Dover provides to study the juncture between sea, sky and land. In Wilson’s view only one ship is seen in any detail, and even that is stationary in the harbour. The sea is flat calm, and the castle, while prominent, is obliquely lit and almost incidental to the composition. Most of the town and port is in shadow. The only immediately notable human drama is provided by a single ship clearing its guns in the port, and the tiny gesturing figure silhouetted on the cliff top.
That such a competent landscape was painted at a time when Wilson was known only as a portrait painter, and had seemingly only studied under the little-known portraitist John Wright, is in many ways remarkable. The general view is that Wilson only flourished as a landscapist after he went to Italy in 1749. Inevitably, the question of Canaletto’s influence must be addressed – was the young Wilson inspired by the Italian master’s arrival in London in 1746? Quite possibly, as the strong illumination of the town in the middle distance and the intricate details such as the washing line (bottom right) would suggest. And yet, it is inconceivable that Canaletto would present a landscape so unconventionally lit as Wilson’s View of Dover, with its almost confrontational way of leading the viewer from dark foreground to sunny background. Since, instead, it seems that the young Wilson was successfully selling ‘Landscips’ from 1737 onwards (as recorded in a Cocks auction catalogue of that year), we can perhaps attribute his early skill for landscapes to that now unfashionable quality – innate genius. A self-taught independence would, after all, seem appropriate for a boy of no formal education. Certainly, for a commission from an aristocratic patron used to a more conventional style of painting, if the Duke of Dorset’s patronage of Sir Godfrey Kneller is anything to go by, Wilson’s approach to View of Dover was a bold one, especially for an unknown young artist in 1747.
However, if there ever was a time for a young English artist to be adventurous, it was in the 1740s. The stiff formality of the previous generation of painters, dominated as they were by the shadows of Lely and Kneller, suddenly gave way to a more varied outlook influenced, in part, by French Rococo taste and a new appreciation of seventeenth century Dutch art, particularly landscapes. The young Wilson would have found himself amongst, for the first time in English art, a circle of really talented native English painters such as Hayman, Hogarth, and even the young Thomas Gainsborough, all of whom had an unprecedented supply of varied source material and influences, ranging from teachers such as Hubert Gravelot, to the large quantities of high-quality continental pictures that began to be sold in the newly established London art market. Evidence of Wilson’s place at the heart of this creative circle can be seen in his donation of two works, both landscapes, to the Foundling Hospital in 1746. The two pictures were well received at the time, and formed part of what was effectively London’s first contemporary art gallery. The very modernity of Wilson’s View of Dover, therefore, can be easily explained when seen in the context of a new generation of self-confident artists, prepared to break into wholly new areas and styles of painting.