handprint : the topographical tradition
 
The topographical tradition is the principal line of English watercolor painting through the end of the 18th century. Although topographical paintings seem quaint and bland to modern tastes, they record the innovations in technique, materials and artistic aims that transformed watercolors from a type of drawing to a painting medium equal to oils. They also exemplify a humility and simplicity of artistic vision that can inspire any painter today weary of the cant and posturing of art commerce.

At the beginning of the 18th century, the topographical watercolor was primarily used as an objective record of an actual place in an era before photography. This documenting function is commonly traced to the "landskip" drawing (from the Dutch Landschap) practiced by 17th century Dutch and German artists. But early topographical drawings reject the Dutch appreciation of landscape light, and stick to the visual facts as they appear from a specific view or location — editing out or rearranging incidental features such as vegetation and weather. When human figures appear, they are used as decorative or stereotypical staffage, showing the activities typical of a place or providing a sense of architectural scale.

Ink, pen and watercolor tints were common mapmaking tools, portable and convenient to use outdoors and in remote locations. So early topographical drawings were often the work of surveyors and mapmakers in the service of roadbuilding crews or colonizing armies; the techniques of perspective and topographical drawing were regularly taught in military academies and used to record enemy defensive positions or the customs of conquered peoples.

At the same time, skill in drawing, like skill in converation, dancing and musical performance, was considered a cultural accomplishment among the male and female "young Nobilitie" of Europe. As we'll see in the artists described below, this entwined topographical drawing with the preoccupations of the cultural elite in three ways.

First, landed patrons in England often commissioned topographical portraits of their castles and estates, an expression of the complex and unique importance that English society attached to locale and property. The breadth of this practice is suggested by an enormous creamware table service made by Wedgewood and Bentley in 1774 for the Empress Catherine of Russia, decorated with almost 1300 different topological views of English landmarks, all copied from drawings done on site.

Second, topographers were often employed to record famous stopping points in the Grand Tour through France and Italy (and later Switzerland and the Rhine Valley). This was a fashionable pilgrimage in pursuit of cultural refinement and rustic adventure made by many of the English nobility and prosperous middle class during the 18th century. Thousands of these tinted drawings were accumulated by individual collectors, or were published as engravings or aquatints in the travel journals, prints and art magazines that flourished at century's end.

Finally, topographers recorded the discoveries of 18th century antiquarian, naturalist and archaeological expeditions, many of them funded by a new society of wealthy amateur natural scientists and art collectors, the Society of Dilettanti founded in 1733. Reports of these expeditions were published in limited editions that comprise the foundations of art history, archaeology, anthropology, botany and biology.

All these groups created an insatiable market for accurate yet tastefully designed tinted drawings that could be profitably published as copperplate or steel engravings. Entrepreneurial printers of books and engravings provided a crucial economic stimulus that led to the great flowering of English watercolors in the 19th century. And the obvious requirement that painters work outdoors created a body of paintings and a community of painters that were precursors to the great English landscape painters of the 19th century.

The topographical style was introduced to England by the Bohemian artist Wenceslaus Hollar of Prague (1607-1677), who came to London in 1636 to chronicle in etchings the vast art collection of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, the most distinguished connoisseur and art patron of the period. Hollar remained in England to make a wide range of portrait, architectural and topographical engravings, many issued from 1655 to 1670 by the publisher John Ogilby. His ink drawings resemble etchings (he shades forms with tight parallel lines), and many were tinted with washes of palest color — using only blue verditer, yellow ochre, terre verte, vandyke earth and rose madder. Several depict scenes from the English countryside. Though exceptionally talented and extraordinarily hardworking, Hollar was indigent for most of his later life, proving that in the 17th century there was little opportunity for an independent fine artist on paper (political satires and cartoons were a different matter).
 

watercolor
artists
If we jump ahead a few generations, watercolor painting is still closely allied with military or scientific surveys, but the involvement of affluent patrons and leisured amateur artists becomes more significant. Hollar's most distinguished English follower, Francis Place (1647-1728) lived in Northumbria and began a professional career in law, but by virtue of his family's wealth and property he gradually began to pursue the arts full time. Place enjoyed a wide circle of acquaintances including nobility, wealthy merchants and professionals; some of these formed a group called the "York Virtuosi" that gathered to discuss and investigate artistic and scientific questions of the day. Place's drawing and painting — along with his pottery, engravings and pursuit of fishing — reflect the eclectic artistic interests of an 18th century dilettante. His Scarborough Castle, From the Northwest (c.1720, 19x70cm, detail), in pen drawing with ink wash, is an example of the kind of wash drawing that many talented amateurs of the time were capable of producing — though the elegance of Place's drawings is unsurpassed. These drawings show a city in its geographical setting, with place names written in the sky or along a mountainside: obviously the kind of document that would be valuable as intelligence in a military campaign, as a record of an antiquarian expedition in Greece, or as a memento of the Grand Tour. Place was the first English artist to record hikes to old castles in Wales and Ireland, and the first to tint these drawings with watercolors in the manner of Hollar. However Place does not first block out the drawing in washes of ink, then apply local color over these areas in the manner of later painters: the paints are applied primarily to clarify and decorate the line drawing, just as colors are used to identify geology or political regions on a map. Place's works were little known outside his circle of acquaintances, but they reflect the general awareness among the English elite of the European topographical pen and ink style, and the important role that watercolor drawing played in the characteristic 18th century activities of inquiry and exploration.
 
It's a large leap from these rudimentary works to the refined art of Paul Sandby (1730-1809), described by Thomas Gainsborough as "the only man of genius who has painted real views from Nature in this country". Sandby is often called "the father of the English watercolor" because he made so many technical advances, taught so many talented students, and created so many splendid paintings that capture the uniquely English love of nature and work. Son of a Nottingham textile artisan, Sandby was taught to paint by his older brother, the architect Thomas Sandby (1723-1798), who also secured him a post as draftsman in the Military Drawing Office at London. Young Sandby started painting in watercolors as a diversion while on a surveying expedition to Scotland in 1747-52; from the first his talent for human interest makes his work distinctive. In 1753 Sandby lodged with his brother in Windsor Park and launched a career as a drawing master, engraver, and painter to the nobility. He soon earned the favor of the Royal family and of Sir Joseph Banks, who became one of Sandby's most important patrons. Many of his freshest early watercolors, infused with light and gentle color, show scenes around the Royal buildings of Windsor. His Windsor: The Curfew Tower from the Horseshoe Cloister (1765, 35x51cm) adds many new elements to the topographical style. The theme of the painting is more intimate than customary: the monument or ruin that usually takes center stage in topographical designs is placed by Sandby discretely in the background, as setting for the common chores that kept the Royal household humming. The figures are not the feebly gesturing and scarecrow stiff staffage of the common topographical style, but carefully observed individuals who interact in characteristic ways with their surroundings (a blacksmith forging horseshoes and, through the gate, a woman hanging wash). Color has been added as large areas of wash laid over a sepia underpainting; the palette of light red, burnt sienna, yellow ochre, indigo and ivory black is skillfully handled to produce a handsome color variation, with many textures or edges defined with pen and ink. Sandby's brush technique is conservative, too: washes are applied and left to dry before another layer is added, and there is no color mixing wet in wet. Other Sandby paintings show workers in the Royal kitchens or tourists on the stairs of the Windsor tower. These paintings display Sandby's enjoyment of dynamic human figures and his remarkable talent for suggesting the aural qualities of a place — the clatter of horses, the clang of a blacksmith's hammer, the squeak of a waterpump, the echoing of steps on a stairway. This essentially social quality of Sandby's work, which directs our attention less to the physical environment than to people who occupy it, is a precedent that would be passed on to Sandby's student Michael 'Angelo' Rooker and, through Rooker, to J.M.W. Turner, Joshua Cristall, John Varley and many other 19th century painters.
 
The leap in style from Place to Sandby is demonstrated most clearly in Sandby's enthusiastic use of bodycolor for "finished" or especially large pictures, often with little or no pen drawing. This reflected the influence of painters in the poetic landscape tradition, such as William Taverner or the gouache landscape artist Francesco Zuccarelli, who was active in London during 1752-73 and, like Sandby, was a founding member of the Royal Academy. In his bodycolor works Sandby's palette is typically larger and his color effects more dramatic, but his mastery of both the poetic and topographical styles allowed him to creatively combine the two styles in his late paintings. His Morning: View on the Road Near Bayswater Turnpike (1790, 65x89cm) again shows people actively engaged with their surroundings (in this case the Old Swan Inn, located not far from the London home that Sandby acquired in 1760), but many elements of the poetic landscape or genre painting have been introduced: the dramatic use of light, lyrical rendering of trees, the large format, and lack of architectural monument. Sandby exploits a limited range of warm colors to give the scene a sense of atmosphere not usually found in the topographical style. The transition in color temperature, from the warm pocket of dull orange against the lefthand back wall to the cool shadows along the road and in the distant trees, is perfectly judged in a way that few other watercolorists of the time could equal. The perspective created by street and buildings is also very effectively handled to give the picture an expansive space, but the vanishing point is blocked from view by a flat wall that acts to silhouette the workers mixing mortar in a pit and soldiers relaxing under the tree.

Sandby's mastery of gouache and his stylistic innovations were only part of his innovative artistic personality. He was also one of the founding members of the Royal Academy in 1768 (the year of his appointment as drawing master to the Royal Military Academy near London); he was an avid experimenter with watercolor media (in one letter he enthusiastically recommends black paint made from burned pastries or charred green peas); and his excursion through North Wales in 1771 with his patron Sir William Watkin was one of the first picturesque tours in that part of the country. A major aspect of Sandby's achievement was in etching: his artistic influence reached its peak with the publication of the collected etchings in his Virtuosi's Museum in 1778-81; his Twelve Views of South Wales (1775) launched the popularity of Wales as a picturesque sketching location and were the first aquatints published in England. Sandby refined and popularized the technique of aquatint etching, invented in France in the 1760's, by applying acid to a plate masked with a liquid spirit ground rather than the resin dust used in the French style. Through his innovations and published examples, hand colored aquatints became a frequently used English method for translating topographical watercolors into prints and book illustrations. Finally, Sandby was a diligent worker: a friend noted that he was "indefagitable in cultivating his powers as an artist. He commenced painting in water-colours very early in the morning; the pencil [brush], and frequently the pen, seldom quitted his hand until evening." Although he exhibited at the Royal Academy every year from 1769 to his death in 1809, his adherence to the fundamentally documentary aims of the topological style caused his works to fall from fashion in the 1790's, and his remarkable artistic achievements were prematurely eclipsed by the Romantic generation of painters. Yet Sandby's efforts to bring emotional warmth and human interest to watercolor drawing, and his boundless energy as a technical innovator, Academy founder and generously supportive colleague to fellow artists, were the important founding acts by which English painters made watercolors into a geniunely national art form.
 

Among Paul Sandby's many drawing students was the precocious Michael 'Angelo' Rooker (1746-1801), who "drew buildings as if he loved every brick and stone," according to Martin Hardie. Rooker learned engraving from his father (a popular comedic actor), and after lessons in the 1760's with Sandby (who nicknamed him after the Italian artist), Rooker entered the newly established Royal Academy Schools in 1769 and was one of the first artists to be elected Associate of the Royal Academy (ARA) in 1770. In the 1770's he painted in oils and worked as a draftsman and engraver, but by 1780 he had turned to drawing and watercolor while employed as a scene painter at George Colman's theater. He began regular walking tours across England in 1788, and his paintings often show an isolated lighthouse or home in a broad stretch of countryside. The Gatehouse at Battle Abbey, Sussex (1792, 42x57cm), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1792, testifies to Rooker's sensitive handling of architectural masonry. The stone facade is carefully delineated using a "color scaling" technique for making subtle variations across a range of values or hues, which J.M.W. Turner learned by making a watercolor copy of one of the towers in this painting. The subtle transitions in the darkness of the tree shadows and the weaving of broken light within the shadows on wall and lawn are masterfully done. Rooker innovated the use of gray wash (rather than india ink) to build his forms, apparently so that he could vary his shadows from warm to cool or suggest reflected colors within them, effects that give his pictures greater depth and realism. Thus, Rooker emphasized the modulation of local colors, rather than presenting all bricks as a single red, or all grass as a single green. This appears in the contrasting colors of the masonry facade, and in the contrasts of lawn between the dark foreground and the sunlit grass beyond the trees. All this testifies to his exceptionally accurate powers of observation and diligent craftsmanship. Rooker's work as a scene painter also seems to shape his painting vision: many of his architectural views are composed in the style of a theatrical backdrop, and his human figures always seem dramatically involved and interesting. We're drawn into the scene by sympathy with them — another point of similarity with Turner, who purchased more than a dozen of Rooker's drawings after his death in 1801.
 
In the majority of topographical drawings, the emphasis is on documenting specific buildings or places. Known for his elegantly precise topographical skills, William Pars (1742-1782) was the son of a metal engraver. He started his career as a successful portrait painter, but in 1764 was hired to accompany Richard Chandler and Nicholas Revett on a two year archaeological expedition to Asia Minor, funded by the Society of Dilettanti. Pars made the transition to topographer easily, recording the antiquities with masterful precision and subtle poetry, and apparently adding color to his paintings while still working on site (at the time an unusual practice). The drawings Pars made were engraved and published in Antiquities of Ionia (1769) and in Revett's ongoing series, Antiquities of Athens. In 1770 Pars was elected to the Royal Academy, the same year he joined his patron Henry Temple, Lord Palmerston in a scientific exploration of the Swiss Alps guided by the Swiss naturalist Horace-Bénedict de Saussure. The drawings from this tour, made with pen, ink and transparent watercolor, with frequent use of gouache for richer color and gum varnish to darken shadows, were the first Alpine drawings shown in London (in 1771), and they are impressive drawings even today for the way they combine an almost photographic realism with a lyrical feeling for the grandeur and sheer scale of the mountain peaks. (At the start of the 18th century, mountains were typically viewed in religious terms, as "horrible rubbish" remaining from the Deluge and God's wrath; scientific exploration paved the way for an artistic presentation of mountains as the most impressive visual evidence of immensely powerful and ancient natural forces.) Artist and patron made other tours of Ireland and the Lake District; then in 1775 Pars set out alone for Italy under sponsorship of Palmerston and the Dilettanti, and spent the rest of his life painting the views of Rome, Naples and the Italian campagna, living frugally on his modest stipend. English artists in Rome were known to advocate sketching from nature, and Pars was no exception: he died from an illness contracted after wading in cold water to get a better view of the Tivoli Falls. A View of Rome taken from the Pincio (1776, 39x54cm) shows Pars at the height of his powers. His crisp draftsmanship may have been inspired by the London works of the Italian artist Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768), who worked in England from 1746 to 1755 and was widely admired for his precise drawing, clear colors, and dramatic use of architectural settings. The page is simply divided into four sections: distant sky and foreground terrace in the Il Pincio park frame a contrast between the 16th century Trinità dei Monti at the left and the jumbled tile roofs on the right (which hide from view the famous Spanish Steps and the Caffè dei Ingleisi at the center of the English artists' colony). Pars's merging of the Italian sunlight with the lightening of aerial perspective anticipate effects that Turner would carry to an extreme several decades later. Pars influenced both John Robert Cozens and in particular his close friend Francis Towne through his interest in Alpine scenery, use of a limited palette and subdued color designs, appreciation of spaciousness and sky, and subtle control of wash tints to define the receding planes of a landscape.
 
One of the most poetic of the topographers and a favorite of Dr. Thomas Munro, Thomas Hearne (1744-1817) left Wiltshire in his teens to work as a pastry cook in London before an apprenticeship during 1765-71 with the engraver William Wollett. He spent the years 1771-75 in the Leeward Islands as official artist to the Governor-General, Sir Ralph Payne. His commission was to record the harbors, towns and scenery of the West Indies colonial territory. Upon his return to London in 1775, Hearne quickly established himself as the leading topographical artist of his generation. With Sir George Beaumont, he toured the Lake District (1777) and Scotland (1778); over fifty drawings from these tours appeared in the series Antiquities of Great Britain (published by William Byrne between 1786 and 1806), and these north country sketches provided Hearne with picturesque painting subjects for years after. Edinburgh Castle from Arthur's Seat (1778, 37x51cm) is an especially lovely example from the Scottish drawings. Hearne made a significant advance in the poetry of skies; the transition in color and contrast between the glare of the setting sun and the gently scalloped clouds on the right is very nicely done. The dark shadows on the foreground rocks are inserted to put the viewer on a different perspective, as if standing on a different rock, which makes the distant city seem even farther away and more immersed in atmosphere. Hearne more often used a soft pencil instead of a pen to outline his drawings, and (like Rooker) preferred a gray mixture of paints rather than india ink as his underpainting. His skies, which are often lively and accurately observed, add a new poetic dimension to the topographical style, and (like John Robert Cozens) he often preferred a subdued palette of grayed blues and greens, with touches of ochre or light red. It's often hard to adjust aerial perspective across interlocking patterns of urban detail, but Hearne pulls it off splendidly. Hearne also produced some lovely landscape paintings of overgrown parks and tree shaded streams, and hopefully these and other of his works will be more widely published in the future.
 
John 'Warwick' Smith (1749-1831) is among the last practitioners of the topographical tradition. Son of a Cumberland gardener, Smith studied under Sawrey Gilpin, who introduced him to the Earl of Warwick. This patron generously supported Smith on a long excursion through Italy (1775-81), where he met and worked with expatriate English artists, including Thomas Hearne. Smith travelled back to London through the Alps with Francis Towne, settled in Warwick (central England), and spent the next several years working his Italian sketches into exhibition paintings and touring Wales and the Lake District. His Italian drawings were engraved and published as Select Views in Italy (1792-99), and his drawings of Wales as aquatints in Tour Through Parts of Wales (1794). Smith joined the Old Water-Colour Society in 1805 and contributed many works to the Society exhibitions, though by then his style of carefully tinted drawing was out of fashion. Study of Stonework in the Coluseum (1776, 39x53cm) is one of the Italian drawings in pencil, pen and ink, and watercolor, first exhibited at London in 1783. This is a beautiful, strong design, with a superb use of layered wash colors to convey the textures across the scaling stones and the shadows within the deep recesses. The curve of shadow around the lower left corner mirrors the large arch at upper right, and the two large arches are balanced by the smaller but darker arches beneath them; the tattered border of plants echoes the roughness of decayed stone and rubble. Smith's lifelike tints were much admired in his time, and he is sometimes credited with inventing the technique of applying local color without a dark underpainting of gray or sepia, a procedure that may actually have been invented (and passed on to Smith) by Towne. However, Smith was one of the first to abandon completely the use of pen drawing (he often made the preliminary sketch in pencil only), and he forcefully uses variations in local color to model and contrast these Coluseum stones. This picturesque view of crumbling masonry, with its great feeling for mass and visual texture and its dramatic composition, lighting and color warmth, is an apotheosis of the classical topographical tradition. In the works of Towne, John Robert Cozens, Thomas Girtin and John Sell Cotman, topographical drawing would be transformed into the lyrical visions of the poetic landscape.
 
Watercolor painting remained a skill common to professional architects and draftsmen, military officers and surveyors, engravers and natural scientists. But during the period 1750 to 1850 the number of amateur artists significantly increased, and provided crucial momentum for the development of watercolor painting. The qualifications to be an amateur painter then, as described by Martin Hardie, might well apply to amateur painters of today: sufficient prosperity to afford leisure time; the cultural education to value art; a talent for drawing; the confidence and persistence to pursue painting without too much reliance on the judgments of others; and the supportive interest of a small circle of family, friends or fellow amateurs. These qualities are all associated with the economic prosperity, educated workforce and urban culture that transformed England from the kingdom of Tom Jones to the empire of Queen Victoria.

The social status of amateur painters ranged from the nobility or wealthy dilettanti such as Richard Payne Knight (1750-1824), Sir George Greville (1746-1816) and the brilliant but scandalous William Beckford (1760-1844), to talented clergy such as the Rev. William Gilpin or the Rev. Thomas Gisborne, to the thousands of professionals, businessmen, housewives and teenagers who painted for sheer pleasure and social refinement. Almost all of their works have been lost today, but their desire to learn provided the demand for drawing masters and, during the early 19th century, their enthusiasm for portfolio collections nurtured the market in moderately priced watercolor paintings. The topographical style was ideal for amateurs to learn, because the basic method (described in the page on Francis Towne) required little more than an aptitude for drawing with a pen, and the ability to tint the drawing with paint and brush.  

Simple as the style was, drawing masters adapted painting methods to help amateurs make more complex paintings. A few artists became famous for simplifying watercolor technique into mechanical compositional or brushwork tricks. William Payne (1760-1830), inventor of the "payne's gray" mixture used in underpainting, taught his students to block in a painting with broad washes, paint clusters of leaves using a brush tuft split into several points, and create rough, rocklike textures by "dragging" thick paint with the side of the brush tuft. Payne was frequently disparaged for the facility with which he turned out cookbook landscape paintings for students to copy, but this demand for instructional samples soon affected the publishing trade as well. Around 1800 printmakers such as Rudolph Ackermann (1764-1834) began to sell inexpensive topographical etchings that amateurs could use as models for drawing or as simple outlines they could tint on their own (like the coloring books we give to preschool children today). Etchings after Claude or contemporary topographers were also available for study and copying. Amateur tutorials began to appear toward the end of the 18th century, starting with William Craig's rudimentary An Essay on the Study of Nature in Drawing Landscape in 1793. In the following two decades painters such as James Roberts (in 1800), Edward Dayes (in 1805), John Hassell (1808), David Cox (1811 and 1814), Samuel Prout (1813) and John Varley (1816) published several widely circulated painting tutorials in landscape painting and figure drawing. These innovated the "step by step" method of painting instruction that is still used in instructional watercolor books published today.  

The popularity of watercolors was also fueled by the convenience, lower cost and greater availability of commercially made watercolor brushes and paints (described in the brief history of watercolors). However, it's surprising to learn how difficult it often was for painters throughout this era to get their hands on a good watercolor paper: Thomas Gainsborough once offered to pay "a guinea a quire, for a dozen quires" for the paper used to publish a Bath tourist guide; Francis Towne made his Lake District watercolors on an especially heavy, textured paper "I brought myself from Rome"; David Cox used by preference a thick Scottish paper made for wrapping packages. Although James Whatman first marketed in 1780 a handmade watercolor paper with a wove finish (which did not have the obtrusive surface pattern of a laid paper) many artists, including Thomas Girtin, continued to paint on laid or other printer's stock. A relatively inexpensive machinemade paper (known in those days as cartridge paper) was made by Whatman in 1805 at the world's first steam powered paper mill. In hindsight, high quality watercolor paper turned out to be the first uniquely modern development in the history of the medium — just as a complete range of genuinely lightfast pigments has been one of the most recent.

See also The poetic landscape.

The topographical tradition is explored from different points of view in several studies of early watercolor painting. Most are currently out of print, but available from any good art library or online used bookstore. As always, the most comprehensive and informative resource is Martin Hardie's Water-Colour Painting in Britain: I. The Eighteenth Century (Batsford, 1966). For a very basic orientation, there is a skimming survey of 18th century painting in English Watercolors by Graham Reynolds (New Amsterdam, 1988), one of England's foremost scholars of watercolor art who seems to say little with authority. A brief overview of the topographical tradition opens the first chapter of Nineteenth-Century Watercolors by Christopher Finch (Abbeville Press, 1991). A more in depth art historical discussion, with many fine reproductions, is in The Great Age of British Watercolours: 1750-1880 by Andrew Wilton and Anne Lyles (Prestel, 1993). A superb and compact visual survey of English landscape painting from 1600-1880 is provided by Nature Into Art: English Landscape Watercolors from the British Museum (British Museum Press, 1991), with introductory essay and notes by Lindsay Stainton. Michael Clarke's The Tempting Prospect: A Social History of English Watercolors (British Museum Publications, 1981) describes the major artists, patronage system, art markets, "drawing masters" and amateur painters involved with topographical and landscape watercolors through the middle of the 19th century. For an excellent study of Paul Sandby, see Paul and Thomas Sandby by Luke Herrmann (Batsford, 1986). In the same series is Patrick Conner's Michael Angelo Rooker (Batsford, 1984). Finally, an unusual selection of works is reproduced with a very insightful introduction and notes in British Landscape Watercolors: 1750-1850 by Jane Munro (New Amsterdam, 1994). All these books have references to additional sources.

 

Last revised 11.12.2007 • © 2007 Bruce MacEvoy