Bonington, Francis and Wyld; and Samuel Prout (V&A till 15
The past and the picturesque
It is one of the commonplaces of current art-history that English artists taught their French counterparts to see the beauty of their native countryside. With one or two notable exceptions in the 18th century, French painters, conditioned by their clas- sical Italianate upbringing, tended to view natural scenery in terms of volume and mass, symmetry and proportion. In the early 19th century a gradual change of vision took place, largely due to the im- petus of the precocious and extremely gifted young artist Richard Parkes Boning- ton. Born in Nottingham in 1802, Boning- ton moved in 1817 with his family to Calais. There he became familiar with the fine sands and chalky cliffs stretching down the Normandy coast to Le Havre, which he painted with such remarkable freshness and spontaneity. To denote the patches of sky which break through deep banks of
clouds he used brilliant ultramarine blue, while the sea, shallow over the pale golden sands, is conveyed with extraordinary transparency.
Today Calais is a place to be hurried through as quickly as possible, as travellers are herded off the Sealink ferry on to trains waiting in the Gare Maritime to convey them to Paris or more exotic destinations in Italy. But in the early 19th century the town still retained much of its Northern French-Flemish character, with old houses and the great Gothic church (sadly bat- tered in two wars) which Ruskin so much admired. Calais was, moreover, a hive of artistic activity — as this interesting exhibi- tion and its admirable catalogue make clear — and the focal point of Anglo- French artistic relations which were re- sumed after the Napoleonic wars. Not only artists but also travellers and writers were engaged in this type of 'cultural exchange', among them Charles Nodier, the short- story writer, who published a delightful account of his travels in England and Scotland in his Voyage de Dieppe aux Montagnes d'Ecosse. Travel in the reverse direction is illustrated by the little-known artist Francois-Louis Francia, born in Calais in 1772, who worked in London between 1790 and 1817 and whose water- colours were visibly influenced by Cotman and Cozens. English manners and fashions were also sedulously aped by Frenchmen with any pretensions to elegance. A little later, at the famous Paris Salon of 1824,
Constable's landscapes were first revealed to the French public and were said to have persuaded the young Delacroix to alter his technique dramatically in favour of the looser style preferred by the English. All this and a great deal more historical back- ground information is supplied by the catalogue of the exhibition, the signifi- cance of which might not otherwise be immediately clear.
The 19th century in Europe was the period par excellence of travel and the discovery (or re-discovery) of ancient mediaeval cities. The most eloquent cham- pion of this trend was Ruskin, who from the 1830s onwards travelled every year from London to Calais, through France and the Swiss Alps to Venice, stopping to admire and sketch the towns on his route in the devout spirit of a pilgrim. It is against this backdrop, of mediaeval architecture, of Alpine lakes and mountains, that the magnificent pages of Modern Painters have to be read. Significantly, the watercolours of Samuel Prout (admirably represented in this exhibition) were warmly praised by Ruskin in the first volume of Modern Painters published in 1846. Ruskin de- scribed Prout as a master of the 'noble picturesque' and went on to praise the artist's treatment of the natural effects of age on old stonework, the stains and cracks created by time which add to the pleasure of looking at old buildings. Prout first went to Normandy in 1819, and published the visual record of his travels in a number of important folio volumes, including Illustra- tions of the Rhine (1822-26), Sketches made in Flanders and Germany (1833). Several typical Prout watercolours are exhibited, among them the cathedrals of Amiens, Strasbourg and Regensburg, which fully convey the might and grandeur of their Gothic portals, flanked by life-size statues and topped by a forest of gargoyles and crockets. Other works by Prout which preserve a precious visual record of the past are the superb studies of the Abbey of St Bertin at St Omer (also painted by Bonington) and the view of Mainz seen from the bridge, showing the city bristling with towers as it appeared before the destruction of two world wars.
The persistent thread running through all these artists is a love of the past and the picturesque, and a special preference for the ornate late Gothic and early Renaiss- ance styles. This, in retrospect, can be seen as a unique contribution of European Romanticism and a direct forerunner of the modern conservation movement. Its limitations, though, may not be equally clear from such transparently beautiful works as these. There can be something -oppressive in this 19th-century predilection for the picturesque and the quaint, in the steeply gabled half-timbered houses which so determinedly shut out the daylight from the streets and its inhabitants. This exclu- sive concern with the merely 'old' led to that abuse of the picturesque which can be found all too often in the chocolate-boxy English watercolourists of the later 19th century. Together with this went an almost total disregard for the clean simple lines of classical architecture — a persistent pre- judice in the writers of guides and travel books of that time, like Augustus Hare, who could dismiss a city like Rennes (the capital of Brittany with many fine 18th- century buildings) as 'the dullest town in Prance'. It may be unfair to blame such aberrations of judgment on such gifted artists as Bonington and Prout. The pre- sent exhibition does, however, usefully raise such questions and places them in the general context of the Romantic move- rpl.,lent in Europe, showing how English and French artists overcame the natural bar- riers of country, training and background opened themselves to mutual and oeneficial exchange. Romanticism was af- ter all, as Madame de Stael advocated, a cosmopolitan phenomenon and its legacy is still with us today.