THE ENGLISH SCHOOL of
Richard Wilson (1714-82)
Wilson has been called the father of English landscape painting, and it was he who bore the brunt of the struggle against conventional standards. Seventeen years younger than William Hogarth, he ranks with him in importance as a founder of the modern English school.
Little is known of his youth. The son of a country clergyman, he was born at Penegoes in Montgomeryshire, and in 1729 he was taken to London by Sir George Wynne, a relative of his mother, and placed with an obscure painter, Thomas Wright, of whom practically nothing is known. How long Wilson stayed with him, or if he worked with any other master, is uncertain. Wright was a portrait-painter, and certainly it was as a portrait-painter that Wilson began his professional career.
At this date the revival of portrait-art had scarcely begun, and Wilson's portraits are equal to the best work of the time, if we except Hogarth's, and very much better than most.
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It may be taken as a fact that the merit of his portraits was recognized, for in 1748 he was commissioned to paint a portrait-group of the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, and their tutor, Dr. Ayscough, and it is unlikely that so important a commission would have been given to an unknown man. This picture, of which there are two versions, shows Wilson as a very competent painter in the rather uninspired manner of the day. It is very smooth in texture, the flesh has the polished look of porcelain, and the whole picture has none of the force of handling or originality of conception which mark his later portraits and landscapes. Very shortly after painting this picture he went with the help of his relations to study in Italy, and this Italian visit altered the whole trend of his career.
Zuccarelli and Venice
Return to England
He returned to London in 1755, and his reputation stood high enough for him to be chosen as one of the original members of the Royal Academy in 1768.
But his genius was never fully appreciated in England during his lifetime, and after his return from Italy his life is a record of increasing struggles and difficulties. The independence of his character and the complete absence of toadyism in his make-up did not recommend him to picture buyers, while the freshness and originality of his work was misunderstood and despised. Zuccarelli, the Italian artist, who is said to have encouraged him, settled in England and became his successful rival.
The feeble conventionality of Zuccarelli's work flattered the artificial taste which Wilson's manly, straightforward art outraged, and a pack of nincompoops under the leadership of Edward Penny, (the painter of yet another death of Wolfe), actually had the unparalleled effrontery to pass and submit to Wilson a resolution: 'That the manner of Mr. Wilson is not suited to the English taste, and that if he hopes for any patronage he must change it to the lighter style of Zuccarelli'.
Wilson estimated the opinion of those gentlemen at its true worth, and let Mr. Penny know it. He could afford to disregard such busybodies, but he could not afford altogether to disregard the taste of the picture buyers. He was forced to produce a large number of oil paintings in a conventional style, which were more or less replicas of early works of his own, closely based on the approved compositions of Claude and Poussin. Yet, in spite of these efforts, he was reduced to penury by consistent neglect; it is even said that on one occasion he had not enough money to buy materials to carry out a commission he had received. In 1776, he secured the appointment of librarian to the Royal Academy, which carried with it a salary of fifty pounds per annum, and saved him from actual starvation. At the very end of his life a small legacy enabled him to retire to his native Wales, where he died at Llanberis in 1782.
Reputation As an Artist - Painting Style - Influences
After the neglect of his lifetime Wilson has gradually come to be recognized as one of the greatest English landscape-painters. On the Continent his reputation stands higher than that of the English portrait-painters, and he was the direct forerunner of the great school of English landscape in the early nineteenth century. John Crome, JMW Turner, and John Constable all learned from him, and in some ways he was as great an innovator as Turner himself. He has too often been regarded as no more than a very able follower of the tradition of Claude, but he was much more than that. The composition of his Italian pictures certainly owes much to Claude, as does the luminosity of his skies, though not more than to Aelbert Cuyp. But the wonder is not that he owed something to Claude, but that on the whole he owed him so little. In the handling of his materials he owed nothing to him. The rich strong impasto of his paint is his own, and it gives his pictures a feeling of sober masculine reserve compared to which Claude's pictures seem almost cheap.
Wilson's work has no superficial cleverness, and it is easily overlooked in the presence of more showy but inferior pictures, but the genuineness and depth of its feeling give it a lasting appeal which survives any amount of obvious brilliance. His great gifts were sympathy for the mood of nature, and a just grasp of the atmospheric and structural relations between the various parts of his picture. In the catch phrases of the present day his pictures have 'volume' and 'recession', but these qualities are not isolated and - reduced to a kind of geometrical diagram. The structural basis of his pictures is clothed with the flesh and blood of feeling, and they evoke, as they surely should, an emotional, not an intellectual response.
His Italian pictures, such as "The Villa of Maecenas", "Niobe and her Children", and others, are the ones which show most clearly the influence of the classical school, and these, though perhaps the best known of his work, are actually the least important. They show his originality far less than his later work painted in England. In "The Villa of Maecenas", for example, the picture is divided into a few simple planes, and the foreground and middle distance kept unduly dark in order to give luminosity to the sky. The consequence is that though the sky is full of light and air, the atmosphere is not brought into the foreground of the picture at all. In his later English pictures, and in some of his Italian ones, where he was depending more on his own observation than on the classical receipt, the sky is no longer treated as a beautiful back-cloth hung behind the landscape, but as an air which pervades the whole picture. In time the number of planes is greatly increased, and the tonal intervals reduced, so that one is able to look into his pictures through depth upon depth of air. Even in black-and-white reproductions this feeling of airy spaciousness survives, but in the pictures themselves there is something more than an accurate notation of tonal values and a logical organization of planes, for Wilson more than any one before him appreciated the effect of light and atmosphere upon colour.
To turn from "The Villa of Maecenas" (National Gallery London) to the landscape with figures (National Gallery), the "Italian Coast Scene" (National Gallery), or the "Rocky River Scene" (Tate Gallery) is to see how much Wilson added to the vision of Claude or Cuyp. In his later pictures, such as the "View of Oxford", "The Thames at Twickenham", or "On the Wye" (National Gallery), his independence is even more evident. In fact, the classical manner was merely something temporarily superimposed on his own vision, partly by the necessity of conforming with the taste of the times, and partly by his own desire to learn from the really fine qualities of Claude and Poussin. In two views of London painted for the Foundling Hospital before his journey to Italy, there are already present in embryo the personal qualities of his mature work.
Richard Wilson's contribution is of major importance in the history of English art, because he transformed landscape painting from a form that was largely topographical to one that was a vehicle for ideas and emotion - often by evoking nostalgia for the past. Of his pupils, Thomas Jones was the most notable, while his admirers included such famous painters as John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), John Crome (1768-1821) of the Norwich School, the great JMW Turner (1776-1837) and John Constable (1775-1851). Works by Richard Wilson can be seen in some of the best art museums in England.
For more about 18th century landscape painting in England, see: Art Encyclopedia.