Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


93 Verona, Piazza dell'Erbe c.1826-7

Watercolour over pencil with touches of gouache on wove paper 20.6 x 26.5 (8 1/8 x 10 3/8)


Born near Nottingham in 1802, Bonington spent most of his short life in France. His father - a gaoler turned drawing master and painter - moved the family to Calais in 1817 where he set up a lace-manufacturing business using private looms smuggled into France following the mechanisation of Nottingham's own lace industry. His young son, Richard Parkes, decided to become an artist rather than follow his father in the lace business, but after a dazzling and highly productive career lasting little more than a decade, died of tuberculosis in London a month before his twenty-sixth birthday. He was one of the most influential painters of his generation.

Although Bonington was an accomplished painter in oils, it was chiefly for his astonishing skill in the use of watercolour - a medium rarely employed by French painters at this date - that he earned his contemporary reputation and the admiration of his colleagues. He had initially been taught watercolour in Calais by Louis Francia (1772-1839), a French artist who had spent many years in England (see under no.83), and, indeed, Bonington's early work in the medium resembles that of Francia and Girtin in its breadth and use of low tones. It was Bonington's mature watercolours, however, like this one, with their stronger colour and sparkling luminosity, which so impressed his fellow artists. The celebrated romantic painter Eug?ne Delacroix, with whom Bonington shared a studio in the mid-1820s, wrote tellingly of the latter's 'lightness of touch which, particularly in watercolour, makes his pictures like diamonds that flatter and seduce the eye, quite independently of their subjects' (letter to T. Thor?, 30 November 1861).

Some of Bonington's finest watercolours are those which relate to his tour to northern Italy in 1826 with his patron Baron Charles Rivet. This one is closely modelled on an elaborate pencil drawing made on the tour (fig.25), and was presumably worked up on his return to Paris soon afterwards. It shows Verona's famous Piazza dell'Erbe (the site of a Roman forum) with its lively market stalls and, in the far distance, the baroque fa?ade of the Palazzo Maffei and the adjacent medieval Gardello tower. There is evidence of substantial scraping away of colour in the area of the tower, but this may represent an attempt by Bonington to suggest the tower's rough surface rather than - as one author believes - a correction with which he was then dissatisfied, apparently leaving the rest of the watercolour unfinished (Noon 1991, p.251). It is true that this watercolour, especially areas of the foreground, is not worked out in detail (rather less so, indeed, than the original sketch). Nevertheless, as Paul Opp? himself pointed out, the range of technical devices which Bonington employed in his watercolours - vivacious pencil underdrawing, rich contrasts of colour, fine strokes made with the point of the brush for structure and accent sometimes known as his touche coquette, and occasional broken, granular wash layers of dry colour - all these are contrived by Bonington 'to give to the finished drawing the life and brilliance of a spontaneous sketch' (1937, p.13). This watercolour, then, may well be 'complete' in the sense that the artist was content to take it no further.

In 1824 Bonington won a gold medal at the Paris Salon when he sent four oils (three of them marines), a watercolour and a lithograph - John Constable being awarded the same prize that year on exhibiting his famous canvas The Hay Wain (National Gallery, London). In later life Bonington added so-called 'troubadour' subjects to his range of work, that is small-scale figure subjects set in rich, historic interiors or on balconies, inspired by the example of Venetian painting (see fig.26).

Anne Lyles

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.220 no.93, reproduced in colour p.221