Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


73 Fields at Sunset ? c.1810-20

Watercolour on wove paper 8.7 x 15.3 (3 3/8 x 6)
Inscribed lower left in pen and brown ink 'J.C'


Cristall, like Barret (no.71), was a founder member of the Society of Painters in Watercolour, but was unusual in being primarily a figure painter. He had strong literary interests (the poet George Dyer and the writer Mary Wollstonecraft were early friends) and a great enthusiasm for the classics. This, and his training at the Royal Academy Schools in the 1790s under the history painter James Barry (no.40), may have influenced his decision to concentrate on subject paintings rather than landscape. His exhibits at the Society in its early years were large elaborate compositions on a pastoral or arcadian theme with monumental figures in a complex design. From 1808 he supplemented them with more modern pastoral subjects featuring figures observed from the life - Hastings fishermen or Scottish peasant girls - but still presented with a classical air. Cristall served as President of the Society in 1816 and 1819, and again from 1821 to 1831, though he ceased to take an active role in its affairs on moving to Herefordshire in 1822. He resigned as President in 1831 on discovering that fellow member G.F. Robson (1788-1833) had been cutting out the figures from two of his watercolours (both subjects from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream), pasting them onto new sheets of paper and persuading Barret (no.71) to paint in new backgrounds - and then exhibiting them at the Society under Cristall and Barret's joint names (Roget 1891, vol.1, p.440).

This is one of a series of vivid plein-air sketches by Cristall in the Opp? collection. Others in the immediate group include a view of Hastings dated 1807 [T09857] and of Hampstead dated 1816; there are in addition two coloured sketches made by Cristall near Paddington Fields in 1817 (close to where he lived, and still rural at this date) [T08761] and of Dolgelly in 1820 [T09460]. Such pure landscapes provide a refreshing contrast to the artist's more ambitious exhibition watercolours, but they are rare - to the extent, indeed, that one writer believed that other examples must exist masquerading under other artist's names (Davies 1927, p.2). In fact this watercolour was once attributed to John Constable, an error suggested partly by the inscription 'J.C.' lower left. Paul Opp? himself provided the correct attribution. Cristall may have learned to use washes with such confidence and freedom during the tour he made in Wales in 1803 with Cornelius Varley (no.84); certainly some of his most striking landscape sketches date from that trip.

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.180 no.73, reproduced in colour p.180