Published  23/12/2009

Paul Sandby: Picturing Britain. National Gallery of Scotland, 2009

Paul Sandby: Picturing Britain

Paul Sandby (1731–1809) occupies a prominent position in British art of the 18th century in the practice of Landscape Art. This is nonetheless the first comprehensive exhibition of his work to cover the full range of the artist’s work over the actual length of his career. It also provides a considerable amount of biographical information

National Galleries of Scotland
7 November 2009–7 February 2010

Sackler Wing of Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts, London
13 March–13 June 2010


As the preface to the catalogue points out, Paul Sandby stood with such contemporaries as Richard Wilson, Joseph Wright of Derby or indeed William Hogarth, yet he has never been deemed by critics worthy of the same critical attention as the others.

All were active during a major transitional period in the economic and social history of the British Isles, as the Industrial Revolution gathered force. Even over the 200 years since Sandby’s death there has been little awareness of the role he played in the cultural life of England. While the context for landscape painting was already well defined by his contemporaries, well known landscape architects such as Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown seemed not to favour him, although for example Wilson painted a number of the country ‘seats’ which Brown had embellished. It seems that Sandby was graded as a professional draughtsman, a topographical artist of lower rank. Despite his preference for watercolours, indeed a degree of pre-eminence among his peers at the time is evident.  And even given his wide range of subject matter and geography that is how he has come down to us.

Sandby began his career effectively posted to Scotland in the Duke of Cumberland’s train, as ‘the Chief Draftsman of the Fair Plan’, a government employee. His brother Thomas was known to the Duke of Cumberland, the victor of Culloden against the Jacobite army, and probably secured this post for younger brother Paul (a degree of court patronage, was evident). Paul Sandby was essentially a documenter of post-rebellion Scotland, recording some of the misery but also, by 1747, some of the commercial growth already burgeoning in the central belt of Scotland. He thus has an important role in recording the culture and society of the country where he was posted. As the exhibition demonstrates, this was all executed at arms-length so to say, coolly and with something of a surveyor’s detachment. The exhibition also reveals how Sandby made ‘unofficial’ studies of Edinburgh street life, of the social pavement life of Edinburgh and Leith, in a different genre, with little sympathy for the down-and-out Jacobite former soldiers, who were by now beggars.

Sandby returned south in 1751, and stayed with his brother close to Windsor. Thomas Sandby became Steward of Windsor Great Park, in the gift of the Duke of Cumberland.  Cumberland was essentially in charge of the Estate on behalf of his brother, the King. The Sandby brothers worked in collaboration, Thomas Sandby then became Professor of Architecture at the newly founded Royal Academy, while Paul Sandby became Chief Drawing Master at the Woolwich Military Academy, Royal patronage again clearly played a significant role. Both brothers were founder members of the Royal Academy. Both brothers had salaried posts by this time and as a result were able to live in London, firstly in Soho. This enabled them to become involved in the politics of art as it was, around the Royal Academy. This also served to raise the ire and jealousy of the older William Hogarth, which led Paul Sandby by return openly to parody Hogarth’s work with an undisguised sardonic humour detrimental to the older artist The Hogarth parodies form a sub-text within Paul Sandby’s career and are well documented in this exhibition. This revealed a particularly sophisticated and pointed visual humour directed sharply at Hogarth, deploying many of Hogarth’s visual devices back at him. Clearly Sandby was influenced in this activity by a strain of hostile reaction to Hogarth, which emanated both from Parliament and indeed from the Court.

In the exhibition it is a relief to turn from this vehement artistic conflict to the peaceful, if somewhat bland works which Paul Sandby executed of court subjects at Windsor Castle and surrounds, and in Wales which he travelled to and depicted at length, publishing a series of Welsh views, in 1775. What emerges early from Sandby’s topographical works in this exhibition is Sandby’s remarkable skill in drawing and painting trees, whether individually or in landscape groups. What therefore is all the more puzzling is the extent to which, in the landscapes and views, the figures are wooden and curiously stylised, in contrast to the skill and bawdy figure of the Hogarth parodies. Perhaps Paul Sandby was tied to some military drafting convention over figures in a landscape, part of his instruction to Woolwich Academy students. The view was an important military skill, accompanying the survey map at that time, but not the configuration it seems. In looser, more populated scenes in which Sandby freely applies wash and ink, there is almost a touch of Edward Ardizzone’s technique of the 1940s, an unexpected lyricism. Paul Sandby brought a special skill in watercolour technique and his own innovative use of aquatint to fulfil the demand at the time for visual documentation and even enhancement of the English and Welsh landscape.

This exhibition is worth investigating. It is a well-curated show, presenting the skill in which Sandby documented British social life and landscapes of the 18th century. There is also a lesson here about art activism – how the Sandby brothers achieved success together at the Royal Academy. Paul exhibited 120 works there over 40 years. The Nottingham lads made the most of whatever luck brought them. Their professionalism stood out in the later 18th century as something of a rarity. They were cool operators to back their dedication. However Paul Sandby has remained an enigma, even now. As the exhibition shows, a master of water colour technique, and yet perhaps still at root a technician. Affable, socially presentable, non-controversial – one begins perhaps to sympathise with Hogarth in his outspokenness. Sometimes intellectual enquiry takes the artist further, at least from the critic’s standpoint.

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