Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


46 A Bridge on the River Ticino, near Polleggio c.1770

Watercolour over pencil with some gum arabic on laid paper 24.3 x 33.7 (9 1/2 x 13 1/4); artist's washline border 30.8 x 40.1 (12 1/8 x 15 3/4) Inscribed on mount with title 'ON THE TESIN NEAR POLEGGIO.' and in pencil 'marvellous'


'Though brought up to Portrait', commented Thomas Jones on hearing of the death of his old friend William Pars, his 'inward bias [was] in favour of Landscape ... He executed his tinted Drawings after nature, with a taste peculiar to himself' (Jones, Memoirs, 2 November 1782 p.116). Like many of the landscape draughtsmen of his day, Pars was chiefly dependent for his livelihood on aristocratic patronage and the demand for careful records of antiquarian and topographical subjects. Although, according to Jones, Pars would 'sometimes curse his fate, in being obliged to follow such trifling an Employment; as he called it', he was never the less one of the most sophisticated and accomplished topographers of his age. He was among the first of those watercolourists in the mid-eighteenth century to find a profound inspiration in travel, and the best of his work reveals a degree of expressiveness rarely encountered in the more literal topographical drawings of his contemporaries.

The son of a London metal chaser, Pars launched his career (as Jones indicated) painting portraits, and seems at this time also to have aspired to history painting. In 1764, however, he was selected as official draughtsman on an expedition to Greece and Asia Minor with the antiquary Richard Chandler (1738-1810) and architect Nicholas Revett (1720-1804). The expedition was funded by the Society of Dilettanti, established in 1732 by a group of noblemen and gentlemen keen to further an appreciation of the arts, especially the Antique; Pars's watercolours (many of which are now in the British Museum) were engraved in the Society's own two-volume publication, Ionian Antiquities, which appeared between 1769 and 1797. One of those who joined the Society in the mid-1760s was Henry Temple, second Viscount Palmerston (father of the famous nineteenth-century statesman), who in the summer of 1770 employed Pars to accompany him on a journey through Switzerland as far as Lake Maggiore, travelling back along the Rhine valley. Their travels lasted over three months, and were described in some detail in a journal kept by Palmerston.

On 15 August artist and patron crossed the St Gotthard Pass (the famous Devil's Bridge earning the briefest of mentions in Palmerston's journal), travelling as far as Airolo. When, however, they followed the river Ticino (or Tessin) down to Pollegio the next day, Palmerston was moved to comment: 'The Road lies along the Banks of the Tesin which is a beautiful River and affords a number of the most romantick scenes: particularly ... a Bridge a little above Pollegio with a noble Waterfall close to it amongst vast Fragments of the Rock that have fallen from the neighbouring Mountains' (quoted Wilton 1979A, p.16). Perhaps in response to his patron's enthusiasm for this site, Pars has produced a very daring composition in which - unlike his representations of the Bridge near Mont Grimsel and the Devil's Bridge itself, both in the British Museum - he has boldly raised the arch of the stone bridge against the sky (see Wilton 1979A, pp.16, 33 and 45). Furthermore, especially when compared with other Swiss subjects Pars worked up after the tour (for example no.47), this is a remarkably vivid piece of painting, with its strong greens and yellows and vigorously applied washes. Palmerston was evidently pleased with the result, inscribing the word 'marvellous' on the mount; on another of Pars's watercolours in the Opp? collection, The Salmon Leap on the Liffey near Leixlip (T08190), Palmerston has similarly inscribed the comment 'Cf Fall in the Tessin (Ticino) perfectly wonderful.'

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.128 no.46, reproduced in colour p.129 and front cover (detail)