Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


12 Classical Landscape 1740/1743

Watercolour over pencil, varnished, on laid paper 21.9 x 23.6 (8 5/8 x 9 1/4) on laid paper support 36 x 38.2 (14 1/8 x 15) with artist's wash-line mount
Inscribed in pencil on back of mount 'drawn by Jas Deacon 1740' and 'James Deacon fecit 1743'


Little is known about James Deacon and works by him are rare. He was the son of James Deacon, who was the Collector of the Coal Duty for the Port of London from 1716 until his death in June 1742. Just before Deacon senior died it was discovered that over many years he had defrauded the Revenue; the papers concerning this fraud, to which Deacon junior seems to have been privy, and a few notes made by the engraver-antiquarian George Vertue in his Journal in 1746, 1749 and 1750 are our main source of information about the artist (Vertue, vol.3, pp.132, 151, 153). In a sworn statement of April 1743, which gives us an approximate date for his birth, Deacon stated that he worked as a unpaid clerk in his father's office between about 1726 until about February 1741 (PRO Treasury Board Papers T1/312, f.15). The possibility of a charge being pressed against him led him in December 1744 to petition for it to be lifted on the grounds that 'he suffers very much by reason of [it] ... and is not only deprived, by means thereof, of the good Offices of his Friends, but is reduced to great difficulties' (PRO Treasury Reference Book vol.10, T4/11, f.265). Vertue appears to have known nothing of the scandal surrounding Deacon, for when he first mentions him in 1746 he dwells chiefly on his natural genius, including his scholarship and musicianship, and singles out the 'curious Eye & ... fine hand' which characterises his drawings, particularly some of his portrait heads, and he sees him as very much an amateur. J.T. Smith (Smith 1828, vol.2, p.204) notes that Deacon studied painting as an amateur under the artist Marcellus Laroon (1679-1772). In early 1746 or around March 1748 Deacon moved to the house in Covent Garden once occupied by the miniaturist C.F. Zincke, 'expecting to thrive' in what was then the artists' quarter of London: he probably shared the house with the medallist Richard Yeo (d.1779) and he was a few doors away from Samuel Scott (no.9): Deacon's portraits of Scott and his wife are in the British Museum (repr. Kerslake 1977). It seems that on a technicality Deacon avoided prosecution but, ironically perhaps, he died on 21 May 1750 having caught gaol fever after attending a trial at the Old Bailey.

Another larger, undated classical landscape in watercolour by Deacon which belonged to the collector Charles Rogers is in the Cottonian Collection in Plymouth (Sotheby's 1979, no.61), and a small watercolour using elements found in T08256 is at the Yale Center for British Art (repr. Wilton and Lyles 1993, no.15). Both works owe a clear debt to the classical landscapes painted by Nicolas Poussin and Gaspard Dughet and very much reflect the taste of the circle of connoisseurs, among them Rogers, and artists, among them George Lambert (fig.5) and his collaborator Scott, in which Deacon probably moved. With its tight handling, its prominently placed temple and tiny figures in the middle distance dipping in the mirror-like water this work owes a greater debt to Nicolas Poussin. The second date inscribed by Deacon on this drawing may refer to the time he mounted it. Distinguished by a striking border of strips of paper painted with red lead and with the image itself varnished, it suggests that during his 'great difficulties' the artist had to find a cheap way of 'framing' his picture; small holes at each corner of the mount indicate that the picture was just pinned to a wall.

Robin Hamlyn

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.60 no.12, reproduced in colour p.61