Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Opp? Collection


4 Fantasy of Flight c.1713-33

Pen and brown ink and pale brown washes on laid paper 35.5 x 22.4 (14 x 8 7/8); artist's mount 41.9 x 28.8 (16 1/2 x 11 3/8)
Inscribed bottom left in pen and brown ink: 'Carwitham'


Thomas Carwitham is thought to have been related to the professional engraver John Carwitham (fl.c.1723- 1741) who worked mainly for booksellers, but who also acted independently, designing, for instance, the highly original set of plates for the 1739 publication Various kinds of Floor Decoration (Hammelmann 1975, p.24). Like John, Thomas Carwitham seems to have pursued a varied career. He is known primarily for sketches illustrating scenes from classical mythology (Wark 1969, p.22; Croft-Murray 1960, p.264), mainly from Ovid's Metamorphoses, one of which (Victoria and Albert Museum) is signed and dated 1713. Another (Huntington Library, California, formerly in the possession of William Gilpin) has an inscription that indicates he was the pupil of the baroque decorative painter Thornhill (see no.3), and although no further documentary evidence for this has come to light so far, his style of draughtsmanship is so close to Thornhill's as to lend this theory some weight. He is not known to have executed any decorative schemes of his own, but it is possible that he was employed by others as a specialist painter of illusionistic architecture and sculpture. In 1723 he published a treatise, The description and use of the Architectonick Sector, And also of the Architectonick Sliding Plates, in which he is described as a history and architectural painter; and in his preface he tells us that, through his experience as an architectural draughtsman, he has for some time 'observ'd the Tediousness of Making, and the Uncertainty of Working by Scales on Paper' (Croft-Murray MS, p.2).

In appearance this sketch is more akin to a decorative design than to a religious or mythological illustration, and the tumbling figures, falling from a height, are reminiscent of depictions of the Last Judgement. However, their facial expressions lack the terror associated with the fall of the damned to Hell, and an obvious narrative element is missing from the scene as a whole. The twisted, contorted bodies and the spatial relationships between them are strangely similar to the astonishing and slightly eccentric sixteenth-century School of Fontainebleau engravings of human gymnastic pyramids, attributed to Juste de Juste, with which Carwitham might well have been familiar (Zerner 1969, p.33): it seems more likely, however, that the sketch is simply an independent artistic exercise, done as a virtuoso performance in dramatic foreshortening, and to test his skills in depicting falling human figures seen from below.

Carwitham's loose, sketchy technique and only tentative acknowledgement of the rules of human anatomy strongly resembles Thornhill's own draughtsmanship style - for example, the falling figures in his sketch An Olympian Scene (Victoria and Albert Museum; see Mayhew 1967, p.18, no.27). As Thornhill's pupil Carwitham would obviously have been trained in his manner and could also have attended drawing classes at the Great Queen Street Academy of which Thornhill became Governor in 1715. Unlike John Carwitham who is recorded as a member in 1713 (Bignamini 1988, p.74), it is not known if Carwitham was a subscriber to the Academy, although he was certainly interested in drawing, demonstrated by his publication of a manual, Carwitham's Drawing-book for initiating youth ... (Croft-Murray MS, p.2). Founded in 1711, with Sir Godfrey Kneller as its first Governor, the Great Queen Street Academy concentrated mainly on the life class. In seeming sympathy with Thornhill's own approach, which was to concentrate on overall form rather than exact depiction of musculature, direct study of anatomy was not pursued (Bignamini 1988, pp.65-7). Thornhill's ability to depict the human figure was much derided by Kneller. On finding the artist Thomas Gibson (c.1680-1751) making sketches of a model posed in an extraordinary way, and on hearing the explanation that it was at Thornhill's request, who intended to make use of the sketches for his decorations then in progress at Greenwich Hospital, Kneller exclaimed: 'I see! I see! Mr Dornhill is a wise man. But if I was Mr Dornhill I should let Mr Gibson draw all my figures for me' (Whitley 1928, vol.1, p.13).

Tabitha Barber

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Opp_ Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.44 no.4, reproduced in colour p.45