Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


50 'Original Sketches Worcester 1' c.1789

Sketchbook formerly inscribed with title as above, containing fourteen pages and bound with blue paper covers
Sketchbook size 28.4 x38.4 (11 1/8 x 15 1/8)

Open at p.3, North-East View of Worcester Cathedral, watercolour over pencil on wove paper 27.9 x 38.1 (11 x 15)


It is for his Diaries, spanning the years 1793 to 1821, that the painter and Royal Academician Joseph Farington is generally remembered today. The diaries present an unrivalled account of artistic life in London at the turn of the century, as well as chronicling the day-to-day affairs, politics and rivalries at the Royal Academy itself - Farington serving on many of its influential committees as well as being on its Council at various stages of his career (Newby 1996, p.807). So powerful was his influence, indeed, that he earned the nickname 'Dictator at the Royal Academy', and the portrait painter James Northcote (1746-1831) even went so far as to claim that Farington cared infinitely more for 'the love of power' than he did for pictures themselves, at the same time dismissing Farington as being 'no painter' (quoted Hardie 1966, vol.1, p.185).

Whilst Northcote probably exaggerated Farington's appetite for power, it is true that the latter was not in fact an artist of any great imaginative powers. Although a pupil of the classical landscape painter Richard Wilson (no.13), Farington himself chose to specialise in topography. He exhibited many landscapes in oil, but few are known today - those that do survive are rather modest works which tend to reveal Wilson's influence (an example, The Oak Tree, is in the Tate Gallery, T00786). Farington's drawings, by contrast, are very plentiful. They range in type from carefully controlled, often rather literal topographical views generally executed in pen and ink with monochrome washes to small, bold and very spirited sketches (sometimes imaginary subjects) made either in the same media or in black and white chalks on coloured (usually blue) paper.

This example, a page from a sketchbook almost certainly used by Farington on his tour of the West Midlands in 1789, is closer in spirit to his more formal, finished views of actual places. Although the use of colour is relatively rare in Farington's work, underneath the delicate washes of pink, purple, ochre and blue he has employed the drawing style he almost always favoured for works of urban topography. This manner of draughtsmanship derives from the Venetian artist Canaletto (1697-1768), some of whose drawings Farington owned, and which became something of a 'house style' for artists working in the circle of Dr Thomas Monro in the 1790s, such as Girtin and Turner (nos.77 and 78). This drawing style is characterised by the use of short, cursive strokes (sometimes resembling dots or dashes) and of lines which vary in thickness depending on the pressure exerted by the drawing instrument (usually pencil, as here, or ink). It was particularly well suited to the description of variations in surface texture and thus ideal for recording the intricate details of architectural fa?ades, especially highly decorated cathedral fa?ades. This sketch is also particularly interesting in showing Farington's use of ruled pencil perspective lines, which meet at a point on the right-hand pinnacle of the cathedral's east end.

There are other views of Worcester in this sketchbook as well as studies of Malvern Abbey, Gloucester, the churches and castles at Berkeley and Thornbury, and St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. The last image in the book is a remarkably fresh and painterly watercolour sketch made on the banks of a river (presumably the Severn), and surely coloured from nature [T08460]. Another sketchbook used by Farington on this 1789 tour is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, as is a finished drawing by him in blue and grey washes of Worcester Cathedral from the river, also dated to the same year. Further drawings from the tour are in the Royal Library, Windsor, and in the City Museum and Art Gallery, Gloucester. In 1792 Farington exhibited a View of Part of Worcester Cathedral at the Royal Academy.

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.136 no.50, reproduced in colour p.137