Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


39 Banditti Going Out in the Morning 1773

Pen and grey and black ink over some pencil 21.3 x 15.1 (8 3/4 x 6) with artist's ruled margin 23.2 x 17.3 (9 1/8 x 6 3/4) on laid paper 23.8 x 17.9 (9 3/4 x 7)


Mortimer's short career, from the time he worked in the studio of the portrait painter Thomas Hudson at the age of sixteen or seventeen until his death at the age of thirty-eight, was characterised by an originality and energetic restlessness which set him apart from his contemporaries to the point where he was almost seen as dangerous company. It saw him winning prizes from the Society of Arts in 1763 and 1764 for paintings of subjects from British history, the 1764 work being a large canvas St Paul Preaching to the Antient Druids in Britain, which is now in the Guildhall in High Wycombe (Sunderland 1986, no.1); he was a moving spirit in the various artists' societies in London which preceded the Royal Academy; and as a draughtsman or just as a free spirit he inspired a younger generation of artists, among them Rowlandson (no.67) and Stothard (nos.64-6). Edward Dayes wrote that 'as he was a bon vivant, it frequently carried him into company, of which he was always the life, and at which time nothing was too extravagant for him to undertake', adding that 'Mortimer was so fascinating a companion, that [James] Barry declared he was afraid to trust him- self in his company'. Blyth, Mortimer's engraver, lived so loose a life and 'so broke his constitution' that he committed suicide (Dayes 1805, pp.340-1).

An artist upon whom Mortimer certainly modelled himself was the Neopolitan Salvator Rosa (1615-1673). A painter of wild and savage landscapes, he was believed (wrongly) to have been brought up by brigands. Once Rosa had moved to Rome he dressed in great style, had a servant to carry his sword and displayed his skills as a poet and actor with great flamboyance. He was, of course, a proto-Romantic figure whose style matched the spirit of Mortimer's age. Mortimer's drawing technique was influenced by Rosa's - as Banditti Going Out shows - and as a sign of his admiration of him he drew, painted and etched a portrait of Rosa in 1776-8 (Sunderland 1986, nos.140.7, a and b). But it was with his exhibition of a banditti subject in 1772 that he first acquired the sobriquet 'the English Salvator'. His source for this and his other banditti, or robber, subjects such as this drawing was Rosa's Figurine, a series of sixty-two small etchings depicting such figures dating from about 1656 to 1657 (Sunderland 1986, pp.54-8; Wallace 1979, pp.12-36, 135-229).

Banditti subjects were popular with artists and public alike during the eighteenth century: they were picturesque figures, brave, lawless, capable of violence and affection, working outside the bounds of society and thus conformed to a romantic ideal. Rosa's prints, and then Mortimer's, provided travellers in search of the picturesque and sublime with a stock of images with which they might people the landscapes in which they found themselves. The end effect was very real. Thomas Jones (nos.43-5) lived, along with William Pars (nos.46-8), in Rosa's old house in Rome, and when later Jones was in Naples with Francis Towne (nos.34-7) they found a gloomy spot which was 'Salvator Rosa in perfection [only wanting] Banditti to compleat the Picture' (Jones, Memoirs, p.104).

This drawing was etched, in reverse, by Robert Blyth (1750-1784) as the first in a series of six etchings variously employed. All six drawings were exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1773 and they were published between July and November 1779 under the general title Six Prints Representing Banditti Variously Employed. Other subjects were Conversing with a Captive, Enjoying Domestic Happiness, Killing an Enemy, Retiring Wounded from Battle and Stripping the Slain (Sunderland 1986, no.71).

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.114 no.39, reproduced in colour p.115