A surprising ‘discovery’ in the Hamilton Art Gallery: a rare early drawing by Richard Parkes Bonington


In 1910, Mrs Edith Wharton, the American novelist, wrote in a letter to the journalist William Moreton Fullerton:

I wished for you yesterday when I stood before the divine little Bonington in the Salting Collection, which makes the magnificent Constables close by look like ‘literature’, it has a kind of ‘Grecian Urn’ completeness. Surely, he was the Keats of painting.1 Edith Wharton, cited in P. Noon, Richard Parkes Bonington: ‘On the Pleasure of Painting’ (exh. cat.), Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1991, cat. no. 26. Mrs Wharton was referring to A Distant View of St-Omer, c.1824, now at the Tate Gallery, London. A. Griffiths & R. Williams, The Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum: User’s Guide, London, 1987, p. 60, provide a brief biography of the collector George Salting (1835–1909): ‘Son of a Danish merchant who had made a fortune in Australia; educated in England where he settled in 1857. From 1865 till his death he devoted his entire life and fortune of about £30,000 a year to his collection which he bequeathed to the National Gallery, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum’.

Wharton’s appreciation of the early-nineteenth-century painter perfectly captures the literary tone of Bonington’s posthumous reputation. This coupling of Bonington and Keats was an inevitable legacy of the Romantic movement. Both writer and artist flourished when Romanticism was in its maturity; both early displayed their precocity of talent; and both had pathetically brief lives, the parallel even extending to their deaths at similar ages – Keats at twenty-five, Bonington at twenty-six – of consumption.2 For a study of the life of Keats, see R. Gittings, John Keats, Harmondsworth, 1968. Their untimely deaths became a telling fact in their posterior mythologies. Indeed, the epigraph on Keats’s tomb in the Protestant cemetery in Rome could also be applied to Bonington: ‘Here lies one whose name is writ in water’.

Keats, however, is the quintessential English poet, and his influence remains tethered within the English sphere, whereas Bonington’s visual genius easily moved across contemporary boundaries, both physical and cultural: he had a profound impact on the evolution of nineteenth-century French art, with admirers as various as Delacroix and Corot, while on the other side of the Channel he enjoyed the advocacy of Sir Thomas Lawrence and J. M. W. Turner, among others.3 For studies on Bonington, see Noon, Richard Parkes Bonington; M. Cormack, Bonington, Oxford, 1989.

The purpose of this article is to bring before the reader a rare drawing of Bonington’s juvenilia, a work rich in intrinsic charm. In addition, there is the pleasure of revealing its location in an Australian regional gallery.

Richard Parkes Bonington was born in 1802 near Nottingham, where his father attempted to prosper in a varied range of enterprises. At the time of his son’s birth, he, with his wife, was running a finishing school for young girls, where he utilised his skills as a drawing master. Bonington père seems to have been a provincial artist of discreet talent, and his son received his earliest artistic training at his father’s knee. In the 1810s, Nottingham, like the rest of England, was in the grip of economic recession, and the Boningtons decided to try their luck abroad in Calais, in the lacemaking business. This move was critical for the young Bonington’s future. His father’s talent was modest, and he needed exposure to, and instruction from, a much more accomplished artist to propel him on to discover his own unique visual language. This artist was Louis Francia (1772–1839), a native of Calais.4 For Francia, see M. Pointon, Bonington, Francia and Wyld, London, 1985, pp. 19–32.

Though Francia spent the latter half of his working life painting views of Calais, he was no unsophisticated provincial. From 1790 to 1817 he was active in London, where he mixed with such artists as John Varley (1788–1842), Samuel Prout (1783–1852) and Thomas Girtin (1775–1802). With these painters, and others, ‘he championed, against the prejudices of tradition and patronage, the cause of naturalistic landscape in watercolours … [this development was] the most progressive of any sphere of British pictorial art during the first two decades of the century’.5 Noon, p. 17.
Life in London was, however, difficult in financial terms, as the capital attracted a multitude of artists, and patronage was not easy to find, especially for those willing to challenge pictorial conventions.

In 1817, just a few months before the arrival of the Boningtons, Francia re-established himself in Calais. Given Francia’s reputation, it was inevitable that Bonington fils would be sent to him for instruction, to augment the rudiments learned from his father. The wash drawing by Bonington in the Hamilton Art Gallery has been identified by Patrick Noon as a view of Calais pier with a date of c.1817–18 (fig. I).6 Mr Patrick Noon, Curator of Prints, Drawings and Rare Books, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, letter to the author, 10 February 1992. Thus it is one of the earliest surviving drawings by the artist.7 On the verso of the drawing is the pencil inscription R. P. Bonnington [sic] M. De Belz –17 février 1834. On this date an auction that included some Bonington drawings was held in Paris (the auction is not recorded in F. Lugt, Répertoire des catalogues de ventes publiques intéressant l’art ou la curiosité, 4 vols to date, The Hague, 1938–). ‘De Belz’ probably refers to the seller. The drawing was sold with Sir Keith Murdoch’s collection in Melbourne on 9 September 1953 (lot 125 – ‘Wash drawing in brown, “French Coast, with Fishing Boats”’), whence it was purchased by Herbert Buchnan Shaw (1882–1957). Shaw’s bequest forms the basis of the collection of the Hamilton Art Gallery, which opened in 1961. The subject obviously reflects Francia’s influence as a marine specialist – the drawing was possibly done under his supervision – and through him (and aquatint prints after Prout and Girtin) Bonington has absorbed the monochromatic palette of the London watercolourists. But already he is working towards his own pictorial idiom, and the work is marked by that interest in the character of light which was to become so central to his art.

In the Hamilton drawing, Bonington subtly describes the complex tonal transitions from dark to light. He moves from the extensive use of dark brown ink in the foreground, on to the less saturated colour of the middle ground, and out to the transparent tones of the sea and sky, leaving the paper at the left, above the pier, untouched by any wash. The dimensions of the drawing are small, yet through a virtuoso use of perspective and tone Bonington has invested it with a compelling sense of vastness.

The artist has created brilliant fragments of light in the central narrative of the fishermen tending their boat by exposing the paper itself, a simple and traditional technique and here superbly effective. Bonington has also scratched through the wash – note the long parallel lines in the foreground, and in the sails at the right – to add a muted register of light. Once again, this is a traditional watercolourist’s device. This practice of scraping the surface with a pen or knife is traceable back to the latter half of the eighteenth century.8 M. Hardie, Water-colour Painting in Britain: 1. The Eighteenth Century, vol. II, London, 1975, p. 37, writes: ‘The credit for the first discovery of scratching-out high lights belongs to George Robertson [c.1748–1788]. C. F. Bell points out that scratched-out lights were used freely by Robertson in his views of Tivoli and Terni, and Journey to Emmaus, and that Robertson died years before the first adoption hitherto detected elsewhere by Girtin in the Duff House, 1794, and by Turner in Lincoln Cathedral, 1795. Turner, Cotman, De Wint and many other painters … made most skilful use of the point or blade of a pen-knife’.

The abstract and segmented application of the wash also reflects the influence of the London watercolourists but there is a calligraphy in the forms and a powerful evocation of atmosphere that signal the individual hand. The abstract, disembodied forms force the viewer to concentrate not so much on the minutiae of the scene but rather on the emotional tone of the setting, and it was this capacity for imaginative empathy with place (the critical mark of the Romantic sensibility) which Bonington was to carry to the highest pitch in his most brilliant works. The melting figures on the pier, imbued with the fleeting quality of life itself, embody the evocative nature of this drawing.

Bonington made his initial drawing in pencil, but the finished composition has been altered during the rapid application of the wash. The extensive exposure of the delicate underdrawing in the area of the pier shows this to be the most rethought part of the composition; as Noon observes: ‘Such in-process modifications are characteristic of Bonington’s technique’.9 Noon, under cat. no. 1.

The realism of the scene and the rapidity of its execution show that the drawing was done from life and, though Bonington has applied the formal lessons of the London watercolourists, the first-hand experience of life and nature has proved – as it always would – to be his ultimate artistic authority.

This transcription of personal experience is a masterly performance for a young boy of only fifteen or sixteen years, and proclaims the brilliant future that Bonington in his tragically short life marvellously fulfilled.

In 1818, the Boningtons left Calais for Paris; hence- forth, Bonington absorbed the lessons of contemporary art at first hand, soon discovering his place in the inter- national cultural circles of what is called the Romantic movement.

Paul Mclntyre, Hamilton Art Gallery (in 1994). 

Acknowledgements 

I am most grateful to Ms Cathy Leahy, Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria; Ms Kirsty Grant, formerly Curatorial Assistant, Prints, Drawings and Photographs, Queensland Art Gallery; Mrs Renee Free, Senior Curator of European Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales; and Ms Janda Gooding, Curator of Prints and Drawings, Art Gallery of Western Australia, for the information on their collections. 

Notes

1     Edith Wharton, cited in P. Noon, Richard Parkes Bonington: ‘On the Pleasure of Painting’ (exh. cat.), Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1991, cat. no. 26. Mrs Wharton was referring to A Distant View of St-Omer, c.1824, now at the Tate Gallery, London. A. Griffiths & R. Williams, The Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum: User’s Guide, London, 1987, p. 60, provide a brief biography of the collector George Salting (1835–1909): ‘Son of a Danish merchant who had made a fortune in Australia; educated in England where he settled in 1857. From 1865 till his death he devoted his entire life and fortune of about £30,000 a year to his collection which he bequeathed to the National Gallery, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum’.

2     For a study of the life of Keats, see R. Gittings, John Keats, Harmondsworth, 1968.

3     For studies on Bonington, see Noon, Richard Parkes Bonington; M. Cormack, Bonington, Oxford, 1989.

4     For Francia, see M. Pointon, Bonington, Francia and Wyld, London, 1985, pp. 19–32.

5     Noon, p. 17.

6     Mr Patrick Noon, Curator of Prints, Drawings and Rare Books, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, letter to the author, 10 February 1992.

7     On the verso of the drawing is the pencil inscription R. P. Bonnington [sic] M. De Belz –17 février 1834. On this date an auction that included some Bonington drawings was held in Paris (the auction is not recorded in F. Lugt, Répertoire des catalogues de ventes publiques intéressant l’art ou la curiosité, 4 vols to date, The Hague, 1938–). ‘De Belz’ probably refers to the seller. The drawing was sold with Sir Keith Murdoch’s collection in Melbourne on 9 September 1953 (lot 125 – ‘Wash drawing in brown, “French Coast, with Fishing Boats”’), whence it was purchased by Herbert Buchnan Shaw (1882–1957). Shaw’s bequest forms the basis of the collection of the Hamilton Art Gallery, which opened in 1961.

8     M. Hardie, Water-colour Painting in Britain: 1. The Eighteenth Century, vol. II, London, 1975, p. 37, writes: ‘The credit for the first discovery of scratching-out high lights belongs to George Robertson [c.1748–1788]. C. F. Bell points out that scratched-out lights were used freely by Robertson in his views of Tivoli and Terni, and Journey to Emmaus, and that Robertson died years before the first adoption hitherto detected elsewhere by Girtin in the Duff House, 1794, and by Turner in Lincoln Cathedral, 1795. Turner, Cotman, De Wint and many other painters … made most skilful use of the point or blade of a pen-knife’.

9     Noon, under cat. no. 1.