Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


91 Romantic Woodland c.1824-5

Watercolour with touches of gum arabic and scratching-out on wove paper 19.4 x 26 (7 5/8 x 10 1/4)


The first half of the nineteenth century saw the establishment of a number of important regional artistic schools in Britain. The first of these, and perhaps the best known, was the Norwich School founded in 1803, which included such leading names as John Sell Cotman (see nos.85-6) and John Crome (1768-1821) and was the first provincial institution to maintain regular exhibitions. Another important local school of artists, albeit less cohesive than that at Norwich, was that set up in Bristol in the 1820s, of which the most important figure was Francis Danby.

Members recruited to these schools tended to have local connections, but Danby was a Bristolian purely by adoption. Born in Wexford, and brought up mainly in Dublin, he was passing though Bristol in 1813 en route from London to Ireland when he decided to take up residence there - either because he had insufficient money to continue his journey or because he saw pictorial possibilities in the local scenery (Greenacre 1973, p.34). He remained in the city for over ten years, practising as a drawing master and producing paintings for a local clientele - watercolours, especially views of the Avon Gorge and St Vincent's Rocks, and small, intense landscape oils of scenes in and around Bristol with remarkable natural detail and often including children playing with innocent concentration. On moving to London in 1824 he abandoned these for large, aspiring biblical canvases painted in a spirit of rivalry with his contemporary John Martin (1789-1854), and for 'poetic landscapes', as he termed them, intensely elegiac in mood and reminiscent of the paintings of Claude Lorraine. In 1829, having failed to become a Royal Academician (Constable won by a single vote), and by now embarrassed by financial and marital problems, he fled to the Continent. In 1837 he returned to London and ten years later settled in Exmouth where he died.

This watercolour was first published with a tentative attribution to Danby in 1942 by the twentieth-century British 'Neo-Romantic' painter John Piper (1903-1992). Four years later it was illustrated in a pioneering article on Danby by the eminent poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson. The attribution has since been questioned (by Greenacre 1973, p.84), but is retained here on the strength of the watercolour's compositional and stylistic similarities with other examples of Danby's work. The watercolour has been associated, probably incorrectly, with Danby's trip to Norway in 1825, but in date it does, nevertheless, seem to stand at the point of transition between Danby's Bristol and London periods: with its intimate mood, inclusion of young children and intensely observed natural details (in particular the small clusters of white flowers) it seems to hark back to the early Bristol oils, but with its air of fantasy it seems to look forward to the later, more elegiac works. One author has interpreted the children as looking both 'at home and vaguely lost', suggesting an element of folk-tale explicable to him only by reference to a literary source, and he cites as a possibility one of the illustrations to Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience (Adams 1973, p.59).

Before entering the Opp? collection, this watercolour was owned by the prominent Oldham industrialist and collector Charles E. Lees (1840-1894). In 1888 Lees gave eighty British watercolours to Oldham Art Gallery (Coombs 1993, p.4), and in 1894 thirteen more to the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, of which he was one of the original governors (Nugent 1993, p.5).

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.216 no.91, reproduced in colour p.217