Tuesday, 9 March 2010

First Impressions: Paul Sandby: Picturing Britain

by Paul Lay

Paul Sandby, a contemporary of William Hogarth and Joseph Wright of Derby, is a neglected figure of 18th-century art. 'Paul Sandby: Picturing Britain', which opens this Saturday at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly having already been shown in Nottingham and Edinburgh, aims to restore his reputation. It succeeds brilliantly. The curators, Prof Stephen Daniels of the University of Nottingham and Dr John Bonehill of the University of Glasgow, place Sandby within the context of his very vital time, during which the modern concept of Britain was born.

Raised in Nottingham, the 16-year-old Sandby became chief Draughtsman for the Board of Ordnance in 1747 in the wake of the defeat of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion at Culloden Moor. Sandby’s skills as a cartographer were employed on the Military Survey of North Britain, whose aim was ‘a compleat [sic] and accurate Survey of Scotland’, a means of pacifying and integrating Scotland into the newly United Kingdom. One section of the enormous map produced by Sandby is on display at the exhibition, centred on Culloden itself. Those of us whose impressions of the brutally one-sided battle between the forces of ‘Butcher’ Cumberland and those of Bonnie Prince Charlie were moulded by the BBC drama-documentary of Peter Watkins will be surprised to note that the engagement took place within site of Culloden House. This was not wild moorland but relatively tame land. At the same time as he was mapping the region, Sandby produced exquisite pen and wash drawings including the delicate Surveying Party by Kinloch Rannoch of 1749.

Sandby documented a period of rapid change, at its most intense in London to where Sandby moved in 1751, becoming a key member of the St Martin’s Lane Academy. As a pioneer of the printed image, he became the great rival of William Hogarth, then regarded as the ‘leader’ of the English school. His series of splenetic satires, The Analysis of Deformity of 1753-54, an attack on Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty (1753), strike the modern viewer as deranged, distanced as we are from the petty politics of the 18th-century art world. More affecting are his Twelve London Cries done from the Life of the 1760s which preach none of the moral lessons we must endure from Hogarth. Instead, we see cold eyed observations, richly detailed, of London low life, desperate to make a meagre living, menacing in their manner: witness the young woman attempting to sell mackerel to a homeowner fearful behind his bolted door. This is 18th-century London.

But not the only one for, in collaboration with his elder brother Thomas, architect of buildings and landscapes, Sandby produced Canaletto-like panoramas of the social life along the Thames, produced with the aid of the camera obscura, as well as a terrific painting of a turnpike gate at Bayswater: Morning: View on the Road Near Bayswater Turnpike (1790). The turnpikes were the railway stations of their day, where an array of people converged before entering the burgeoning, now unwalled metropolis. The pub that features in this illustration is still standing: The Swan at Lancaster Gate. Interestingly, these works owe much to the techniques of map making. Thomas would construct the panorama, while Paul (and what an unusual name that is for the 18th century) would paint in the details, the whole made up of rectangular strips.

Thomas, unlike his younger brother, held a prestigious position – deputy warden of Windsor Great Park – that provided a secure income. Paul, the commercial artist in a precarious market, documented the changes his brother made at the behest of the Duke of Cumberland and celebrated the social harmony, productivity and prosperity the great estates were supposed to embody. But the satirist is never far away: an amply built fellow sleeps off a fine lunch in the shadow of the castle; a ludicrously attired couple are contrasted with a building’s classical restraint. These watercolours are beautifully preserved, their colours rich and resonant, beneficiaries of the neglect in which Sandby has been held, hidden away for decades in portfolios.

Sandby’s greatest achievement is the final work of the exhibition: A View of Vintners at Boxley, Kent, with Mr Whatman’s Turkey Paper Mills, 1794. A product of his impoverished old age, it looks at first like a traditional landscape complete with country house. But it is loaded with the symbols of an energised Britain: all is production, from the farmers in the foreground to the hi-tech, high-quality paper mill at the heart. And there is much symbolism, not least the prancing white horse, symbol of Kent, the Garden of England. But there is also a sense of paranoia, that this is what Britain is fighting for as the Napoleonic Wars gain speed. In that, it is reminiscent of the propaganda of the Second World War. Indeed, the image of Britain as a pastoral idyll held aloft in 1940 referred back to an image created in large part by Sandby. A great mythmaker and a very fine artist is on view again.

Paul Sandby RA: Picturing Britain
March 13th - June 13th
Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House, Piccadilly
London W1J 0BD
Telephone: 020 7300 8000

- Paul Sandby, Socking Vendor, c.1759 (Nottingham City Museums and Galleries)
- Paul Sandby, The North Terrace, Windsor Castle, Looking West, c.1765 (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Paul Mellon Collection)

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