Seven years after John Keats coughed his heart to a standstill, tuberculosis did for Richard Parkes Bonington, too. Poet and painter succumbed at the same age, 25, and when Percy Shelley wrote that Keats “died on the promise of the fruit” he could also have been speaking of Bonington. The great portraitist Thomas Lawrence certainly felt so: at Bonington’s death, he said, the young artist’s mind was “expanding every way, and ripening into full maturity of taste and elevated judgement”; a century later Roger Fry still lamented Bonington’s precipitate end: “It seems as though there were nothing he might not have accomplished.” Poetry had Keats, Shelley and Lord Byron but, alongside the watercolourist Thomas Girtin, Bonington was the lost boy of English romantic art.
Looking now at his pellucid scenes of northern France and Venice, Bonington (1802-28) can seem too limited a figure to carry such regrets. If happiness writes white, sometimes painting does too. Bonington’s later critics, confronted with the example of the turbulent personalities and pictures of some of his peers, could find his work too gentle, too effortlessly beautiful even, to satisfy fully. They wanted more grit in the oyster.
Bonington was gone before he was fully fledged and left no single work on which his reputation hangs. He was, however, a very productive artist – so productive that overwork may have exacerbated his tuberculosis and hurried his death. What he did leave, alongside numerous oils, watercolours and drawings, was an example. It was largely through him that the British watercolour tradition – with its translucence, atmospheric effects and lack of pretension – infiltrated France, a country which then had little interest in either watercolour or modern landscape painting. Bonington’s influence was felt through the 19th century from the Barbizon school and Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot to the impressionists and beyond.
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It was a quirk of fate that put Bonington in France at this febrile and artistically receptive moment. He was born just outside Nottingham, where his father was governor of the town jail and his mother ran a school for young ladies. When his father was dismissed from his position for reading the works of the political radical Tom Paine to the prisoners, he became a drawing master instead. He failed to prosper, however, as did Eleanor’s school: in 1817 the family left for Calais, where Bonington senior set up a lace factory intending Richard, who had learnt painting from his father and had exhibited publicly by the age of 11, to become his designer.
Bonington’s formal art training was with a local painter, Louis Francia, who had just made the opposite artistic journey, returning to France after 16 years working in London, where he had been heavily influenced by the watercolours of Girtin. It was, therefore, an anglicised Frenchman in France who taught the displaced English boy about his native birthright. When the Bonington family moved to Paris in 1818 to open a lace shop there, it was Francia who gave his student a letter of introduction to the tyro-romantic Eugène Delacroix.
The pair became both friends and mutually influencing admirers, and would go on to share a studio. Delacroix affectionately referred to Bonington as a “rascal” and claimed that “no one in this modern school, and perhaps even before, has possessed that lightness of touch which, especially in watercolours, makes his works a type of diamond which flatters and ravishes the eye, independently of any subject and any imitation”. If Bonington impressed the older painter with his spontaneity and colour, it was Delacroix who would push him towards the troubadour style that was coming into vogue – small historical paintings of episodes from 16th and 17th-century French history and the hugely influential and popular novels of Walter Scott.
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Bonington’s works in their manner had something of the vibrancy and panache he learned in the studio of Antoine-Jean Gros, the leading painter of the Napoleonic adventure. Nevertheless, it was landscapes that best suited Bonington’s gifts, and in 1824 he won a gold medal at the Paris Salon for one of his coastal scenes. John Constable was also honoured, and that year’s exhibition, the nation’s artistic showcase, became known as “the English Salon” for its introduction of paintings from across the Channel. The effect on Bonington’s renown was instantaneous; he “created a mania”, wrote the critic Auguste Jal; “now he has proselytes and imitators”.
This celebrity also helped win him the patronage of a wealthy collector called Charles Rivet, whom Bonington accompanied on a trip to Venice in 1826. The city, perfectly suited to his aqueous and atmospheric effects, was to become one of his staple themes. If he was seduced by its sights it also brought out his English roots: he made no effort to learn any Italian and demanded regular cups of tea and beefsteaks.
Bonington was nonetheless true to his adopted country too, each summer undertaking a sketching trip along the Seine to Rouen, Normandy or Flanders. His immaculate drawings of the regions’ buildings and coasts furnished him with material from which to make modern versions of the Dutch Golden Age scenes he had copied in the Louvre. Some were topographical, others composed of discrete parts sketched in the open air and fused together by melting light, poetic stillness and evanescence.
This painting, On the Seine – Morning, circa 1825 and now in the National Gallery, is one of several such pictures, painted after a trip to London with Delacroix, in which he rearranged the elements of trees, boats and river to give variations on his theme. It is not so much a view as a mood. The barge and the red waistcoat of the waterman are nods to the still-fresh influence of Constable, while Turner can be felt in the feathery trees. These, though, he has made his own, incorporating them harmoniously into a picture that is neither quite sketch nor polished, finished work. Perhaps the most striking thing about it is that although it is painted in oil it has all the fluidity and diaphanous glow of watercolour. No wonder Delacroix marvelled at Bonington’s “easy brush and coquettish touch”. It is as if he had painted it on a pearl.
It was one similar picture that Corot saw by chance in a Paris gallery window. He recalled how “the artist had captured for the first time the effects that had always touched me when I discovered them in nature and that were rarely painted. I was astonished.” He became a landscapist as a result of the encounter.
When Thomas Girtin died young, his friend William Turner famously paid tribute to his gifts: “Had poor Tom lived, I would have starved.” And although Bonington was artistically mature, productive and feted, his death leaves him a what-might-have-been figure too. After all, Turner lived to 76 and Constable to nearly 61. Bonington’s final illness came on in England but the country’s painters were too well stocked with landscapists to need his example. It was in France, with Corot and his descendants, that his coquettish touch lived on.
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This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth