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Richard Wilson, the artist who inspired Turner and Constable

— July 2014

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

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Richard Wilson, Windsor Park

Richard Wilson and the Transformation of European Landscape Painting edited by Martin Postle and Robin Simon

Richard Wilson single-handedly made landscape painting Britain's national art. It all started here, says Robert Radford

Richard Wilson was the artist who, single handedly, transformed landscape painting in Britain from its former lowly status, below that of portraiture and history painting (the depiction of mythical or historical events), into the most characteristic national genre.  It is significant that both Constable and Turner – generally so different in their approaches  to the landscape – agreed about the importance of Wilson’s pioneering example, to which they responded in their own work.

But Wilson began his career as a portrait painter and it was not until a seven-year stay in Rome that he turned definitively to landscape subjects. This was the time of The Grand Tour, when young men (only very rarely women) from the gentry and nobility, from Britain and elsewhere in Europe travelled to Italy to expand their knowledge and experience, principally by visiting Italy and especially Rome. They would typically have received a classical education and now they had the chance to visit the sites associated with the history and poetry that they had encountered in their studies. In Britain this was also a time of building new country houses, and the visit to Italy gave them the opportunity to acquire antique sculpture and Renaissance painting to furnish their new properties.  They also wanted mementos of this occasion in the form of portraits and views of the city and the hills, waterfalls and classical ruins around it. 

This book, which accompanied an exhibition held at the Yale Centre for British Art earlier this year and due at the National Gallery of Wales Cardiff, 25 July  to 26 October 2014,  focuses particularly on Wilson’s time in Rome. It brings home the scale of the ‘industry’ of artists, agents and dealers established there to serve the tourists’ needs. It shows the significance of the  international interaction amongst fellow artists in shaping Wilson’s approach to the landscape.

It was the French painter, Claude-Joseph Vernet. who apparently persuaded Wilson that this was the path he should follow; he also befriended the German artist who was to become a leading figure in establishing Neoclassicism in Europe, Anton Raphael Mengs. Mengs painted an  affectionate portrait of Wilson, at work on a landscape painting – perhaps the work he gave to Mengs in return.  Wilson’s approach was to start with the example of the classical landscape developed by Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Dughet in the 17th century but to add to it an accurate representation of the scene before him, achieved through his practice of sketching and painting on site.

On his return to Britain, Wilson was initially highly acclaimed and recognized as the leading landscape painter of his day. To today’s eyes, his most original and memorable contribution would be seen in his picturing of Snowdonia. Up to this point, Wales was dismissed as a harsh, even barbaric environment but gradually the Romantic feeling for ‘the sublime’, the thrill of wild and untamed nature was gaining sway. Wilson was a native of North Wales and drawn to express that sentiment in such scenes as  Llyn Cau, Cader Idris and Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle , in which the barren and dramatic natural contours are dramatically restaged in compositions of classical grandeur.

Towards the end of his life, Wilson’s career slipped into decline.  Whilst undoubtedly his approach to landscape was no longer fashionable, his situation was not helped by  a change in his personal disposition. Once known as a witty and sociable companion, his appearance in Zoffany’s group portrait of the Royal Academicians is that of a morose individual skulking in the background, resolutely separate from the animated company around him; he was difficult with patrons and insulting to fellow artists – there was especial ill-feeling between him and Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The book is copiously illustrated and the full-page details are particularly welcome in highlighting features that are otherwise only revealed by close examination of the paintings. It includes a set of 11 essays demonstrating current research, particularly looking at the community of artists and their clients in Rome.     

Richard Wilson and the Transformation of European Landscape Painting edited by Martin Postle and Robin Simon is published by Yale University Press 2014. 348pp., 280 colour illus. ISBN 978-0-300-20385-1


Robert Radford
University of East Anglia

Editor's notes

'Richard Wilson and the Transformation of European Landscape Painting will be at the National Gallery of Wales, Cardiff, 25 July  to 26 October 2014.

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