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9 September 2021

How Paul Sandby painted Britain as he saw it

The 18th-century artist revealed the possibilities of both watercolour and the British landscape.

By Michael Prodger

Although Paul Sandby came to artistic maturity as the Romantic age began to stir, dreaminess in front of nature was not his thing; pragmatism was. Even as theories about the sublime, picturesque and beautiful in landscape began to be formulated – transforming the way it was perceived by both artists and tourists – Sandby (circa 1731-1808) remained the most practical of landscapists.

Long before he became an exhibiting artist, he was a military draughtsman and map-maker, and the habits he learned then – of close topographical observation and careful evaluation of space and distance – never left him. If his heirs such as JMW Turner and Thomas Girtin opened their contemporaries’ eyes to the emotive possibilities of the British countryside, it was Sandby more than any other artist who first showed just what it actually looked like. It was a point acknowledged in 1764, when Thomas Gainsborough turned down a commission to paint an aristocrat’s country seat, by stating: “With respect to real views from nature in this country… Paul Sandby is the only man of genius… who has employ’d his pencil that way.”

Sandby’s skill was carefully acquired. He was born from artisan stock, the son of a Nottingham framework knitter, but was fortunate that his elder brother Thomas was assiduous in promoting his sibling’s career. In the 1740s both brothers joined the military drawing department based at the Tower of London, from where Thomas was plucked by the Duke of Cumberland, the favourite son of George II, to serve as his “draughtsman and designer”. This connection with the royal family probably lay behind Paul’s own appointment in 1747 as chief draughtsman to the “compleat and accurate survey of Scotland”, compiled by the army’s board of ordnance after the crushing of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745-46. Sandby was employed in mapping terrain that had recently seen heavy fighting and in planning and drawing some of the new “king’s roads”, bridges and fortifications needed to keep the Highlands quiet.

His ease with military men is perhaps why soldiers often appear in his independent works, whether standing guard at Windsor Castle, drinking a pot of ale at the Swan Inn at Bayswater, or, with one missing leg, dancing a jig with country folk. For Sandby, the army was a necessary arm of state power and soldiers simply another part of the weft of British life. After leaving the Highlands survey in 1751, he would later renew his links with the military in 1768 when he was appointed chief drawing master at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, a position he held for nearly 30 years.

[See also: The myths of Michael Ayrton]

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While in Scotland, Sandby had started to paint watercolour views and street scenes independent of his job, including a drawing of the hanging in Edinburgh of a soldier-turned-forger named John Young. When he joined his brother at Windsor, where the Duke of Cumberland had just made Thomas deputy ranger of the Great Park, he turned some of them into engravings and started to make pictures of the town and its environs. He quickly became part of the London art world, exhibiting first with the Society of Artists and then at the Royal Academy following its establishment in 1768 (with 120 works shown over 40 years). Indeed, he was one of the 28 artists nominated by George III as founding members. Although Sandby’s main income came from painting the country domains of noble patrons he was also a fashionable drawing master who taught, among others, Queen Charlotte and her sons.

Nor did he ever lose his practical and scientific bent: he is credited with inventing a new form of aquatint printing and his pictures include workers busy driving piles into the banks of the Thames; the passage of a meteor as seen from Windsor Castle in 1783; and detailed drawings of river craft and of a special cart needed to carry off a huge tree. Although he frequently gave narrative interest to his views, this no-nonsense side to his art is one of the reasons Sandby is often overlooked among British landscape watercolourists. He was felt to be too one-note, even if the king himself understood his versatility. Sandby, he said, was “never idle” and could turn his “hand to anything, like a fox”.

One of those things was satirical prints. Some were harmless, such as poking fun at the balloon ascents that thrilled visitors to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens; some political, such as lampooning the tax on post-horses; and some personal. In 1753 he started a series of prints attacking William Hogarth for his temerity in publishing a book of art theory, for failing to master history painting and for his opposition to the RA. He can’t have thought Hogarth’s street scenes irredeemably “low” since he produced some himself, but the satires may have been both a release of pique and a way for the young artist to make his name (they were anonymous but leaks were inevitable – or intentional).  

Sandby was like Hogarth too in that he was a close observer of his contemporaries. The Royal Collection holds a large number of his watercolour portraits: while some show named figures such as the quick-tongued courtesan Kitty Fisher, most are of anonymous maids, grooms and servants, a pair of young bucks at Ascot, a gravedigger, his brother’s cook – the staffage of his pictures. While they don’t suggest he could have made a career as a portraitist, certainly not in the age of Reynolds and Gainsborough, at their best they are both elegant and un-self-conscious.  

The fruit of Sandby’s people-watching can be felt in innumerable pictures, such as this gouache, Roslin Castle, Midlothian (circa 1780), belonging to the Yale Center for British Art. The two women on the foreground bank of the North Esk river appear in a separate watercolour which gives their names, Lady Frances Scott and Lady Elliot. Lady Scott was an accomplished amateur artist and Sandby shows her using a camera obscura to make a drawing of the scene. Sandby sometimes used the aid himself but here there is a sort of in-joke going on. He, a professional artist, is showing an amateur drawing the kind of picturesque scene that Sandby’s work and criss-crossing of the British Isles had helped to make fashionable.

Sandby’s picture is a cultural moment in miniature. His depiction of the ruined castle, with the round arch of its gateway bridge like the rising moon, is accurate, but he brings to the scene a series of figures to enliven it – the ladies’ maid drying a pair of stockings; a boy, trousers rolled up fresh from wading; a young girl frightened of crossing the rickety bridge; a shepherd on the steep hillside. Here are people for whom this world is home and others for whom it is merely a diversion and a setting for their sensibility. This isn’t Arcadia but a realm where classes and motives mix.

Were all the characters there as Sandby drew? It seems unlikely, but they were all real people nevertheless, added from his extensive collection of figure sketches. Sandby’s realism, however, is more dominant than his artifice and this picture, as with all his work, doesn’t strain for grandeur or poetry but is an image, albeit composite, of Britain as he found it.

This was a flaw to some artists of a different mindset. The richly imaginative Henry Fuseli, for example, took issue with the “tame delineation of a given spot” as amounting to “little more than topography” or “map-work”. This seemed an ungracious dig at Sandby who may have been incapable of reaching the heights Turner managed, but whose example showed later artists what watercolour, allied with the British landscape, could do.

[See also: Livia Drusilla’s feast for the eyes]

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This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire