Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


98 A Field near Margate 1850

Watercolour and gouache on cream wove paper 18 x 26.4 (7 1/8 x 10 3/8)


Although Richmond became an important and successful portraitist, he continued to draw and paint landscape throughout his career. These works remained private, and Opp? records on the back of this watercolour that it was bought from the artist's granddaughter, Mrs Davey. As the name 'The Ancients' (see no.97) implies, their art involved looking back to an earlier Golden Age as a way of both informing their own work and also reviving the art of their time. Their debt to Blake for this was enormous, specifically his wood engravings illustrating Robert Thornton's 'Imitation' of Virgil's Pastorals which Samuel Palmer described as 'visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise; models of the exquisitest pitch of intense poetry' (quoted in Butlin 1990, p.177). The memorable lines near the beginning of Blake's poem Milton (dated 1804) suggest how sought after was a return to this Ancient mode by the poet himself, but they also suggest something of the intense spirituality of the mood of 'The Ancients' - Samuel Palmer certainly but also his colleagues - which led to the importance they attached to landscape: 'And did those feet in ancient time. | Walk upon England's mountains Green: | And was the Holy Lamb of God. | On England's pleasant pastures seen!' In 1838 Richmond described these early years as 'a dream of sentiment' (quoted in Lister 1981, p.46).

This much later work is undated, but stylistically and in its subject-matter is so close to a watercolour which is inscribed and dated 'Margate Septr 1850' (Colnaghi 1976, no.69, repr.) that it can be definitely associated with it. Richmond travelled down to Margate in Kent at the end of August 1850 where he joined his wife, Julia, and their children who were staying along with the painter C.W. Cope and his family (Lister 1981, p.76). Cope was an old friend with whom Richmond had made a sketching tour of the north of England in 1849 (Lister 1981, p.72). Cope recorded that 'Richmond and I usually sketched from Nature out-of-doors in the morning, and played bowls in the afternoon...'. (Cope 1891, p.190). During this holiday, but after Cope had left, the Richmonds' three-month-old daughter died from whooping cough. In sending his condolences Cope also attempted to persuade Richmond to join him and draw some landscapes: 'You must come, and I really believe that you ought, as a duty. Nothing is so wholesome, after over-anxiety and suspense, as the quiet induced by the beauty of Nature' (Cope 1891, p.191).

The style of Richmond's later landscape art is very much his own, painted, as Cope implies, for the opportunity which it gave for contemplation. So while this picture was painted when Pre-Raphaelitism, with its strict adherence to nature, was new (and which Richmond approved of as having 'hit a mark' (Stirling 1926, p.136)), it acknowledges no debt to it; but it does possess the directness of vision, arrived at on his own, which conforms to what John Ruskin had set out in the first volume of Modern Painters in 1843, and which had influenced the Pre-Raphaelites as 'rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing'. However, if Richmond's 1838 comment suggests an abandonment of youthful fervency, it is still possible to detect in this work a spiritual intensity, albeit sombre, which might be attributable to his child's illness or death: the bare earth and the corn stooks which are in the foreground show that the harvest has been gathered in and the trees are bent by a strengthening wind. The corn stooks, placed as they are as a framing device, take on a symbolic importance which harks back to the ecstatic vision of The Ancients' years in Shoreham, though now tempered by a bleakness which comes with age.

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.230 no.98, reproduced in colour p.231