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Paul Sandby at the RA - A British view of the land

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Paul Sandby’s watercolours helped shape the 18th-century vision of Britain. As a show of his life’s work opens at the Royal Academy, Colin Amery introduces the artist

It was Thomas Gainsborough who referred to Paul Sandby (1731-1809) as, ‘the only man of genius’ who had painted ‘real views from Nature in this country’. But if you look up Paul Sandby in most dictionaries of artists he and his older brother Thomas (1721-98) are described as topographical draughtsmen employed by the Crown.

The current exhibition at the Royal Academy (RA), which opened last year in Nottingham (Paul Sandby’s birthplace) to mark the bicentenary of his death, is a serious and successful attempt to re-examine his output and secure his place as a major British painter in watercolour. His most familiar works are probably his views of Windsor, and the Royal Library at Windsor Castle is a key lender to this exhibition from its major holding of some 550 works by the Sandby brothers. The assessment of Paul’s reputation is complicated by the fact that so many of the Windsor paintings are examples of his collaborative working practice with his architect brother Thomas. It is difficult, indeed impossible, to be absolutely certain who was responsible for a particular work. 

Accurate attributions may worry scholars and art historians, but most visitors to the RA will be delighted by the detailed and inspired view of 18th-century Britain that Paul presents. It was a time when the nation was unifying and there was a need for a British view of the land, rather than one contrived by the inspiration of the Grand Tour and the imposition of the classical world.

It is worth noting that while little is known of the early years and training of the Sandby brothers, Thomas rose from a humble position in the Board of Ordnance to being draughtsman to the Captain General of British land forces, the Duke of Cumberland, in 1746. He later became deputy ranger of Windsor Forest and lived in the Great Park. Paul, with his brother’s help, secured a post as a senior draughtsman carrying out the Survey of the Highlands of Scotland after the decisive Battle of Culloden when the Jacobites were defeated in 1746. Both brothers were founder members of the Royal Academy and Thomas became professor of architecture at the RA.

It was Paul’s views of Scotland that established his independent name both as an artist and as a military topographer. His great maps of north Britain – one of them over 3m long – showed an unfamiliar country to a new audience. The timing of his tours of Scotland was fortunate because his paintings played a part in the creation of a new culture that helped to consolidate a vision of the newly unified Great Britain following the Act of Union of 1707.

The exhibition reveals his development in its first section, called ‘Picture Making’, with early views of Edinburgh Castle and the Tower of London clearly derived from published prints and engravings. Suddenly, in the magnificent view of Fort Augustus, Sandby is his own man, depicting the staggering Highland scenery with a foreground of uniformed figures encountering locals and all the paraphernalia of a military camp. The clues are all there to what distinguishes Paul’s work from his contemporaries, such as the elegiac Richard Wilson or the dramatic Wright of Derby. He is more down to earth in his appreciation of the changing British scene, always incorporating local people engaged in everyday activities. These are especially prominent in his later views
of Windsor, in which his brother possibly drew the architecture and he added the well-observed local characters.

The second section of the show, ‘Roads and Street Life’, not only shows Sandby as a shrewd observer in an almost Hogarthian way, but also reveals the cities as historical backgrounds to contemporary activities. The army and militia camps in London in St James’s Park, Hyde Park and on Blackheath were there to control civil disorder and political protest, but Sandby shows their human side, as soldiers mix with local girls and children. His ‘Cries of London’ of street traders contrast with the almost Canaletto-like views of the Thames from Somerset House. While the Sandby brothers almost certainly would have known Canaletto’s work, it isn’t known if they met him.

Section three is called ‘Antiquities’ and it shows the way that Sandby followed the fashion for seeing ancient buildings not only as atmospheric in themselves but also in some way improving to the spirit. Views of Whitehall with Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House are fascinating for architects, along-side the ancient and still-undemolished gates of Whitehall Palaces and the views of Windsor Castle that predate its 19th-century ordering and transformation. Windsor takes its place here with ancient ruined abbeys and castles as part of the romanticisation of the British past.

It is the final section, ‘Estates’, that brings Sandby’s career full circle to the mapping of peaceful landscapes, rather than the battlefields of his earlier northern surveys. But at both ends of his career, you are aware of an artist and observer who uses and develops the medium of watercolour in a way that makes it uniquely suitable to record both the subtleties and vigour of the British scene.

Paul Sandby RA: Picturing Britain, A Bicentenary Exhibition, Sackler Wing of Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts, until 13 June, £10.50. www.royalacademy.org.uk

Colin Amery is an architectural consultant, writer and historian

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