Richard Parkes Bonington

A Scene on the French Coast


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Richard Parkes Bonington 1802–1828
Watercolour and graphite on paper
Support: 213 × 342 mm
Purchased 1984


Bonington was English by birth but moved with his family to Calais in 1817. Although he trained in France he specialised in watercolour, which was then regarded as a specifically English medium, but he was also a gifted oil painter. He is important in the context of the French landscape tradition, and the many pictures that he produced of the north coast of France provided important precedents for such artists as Eugène Boudin (1824-98) and Claude Monet. (1840-1926), working on the Normandy coast in the second half of the nineteenth century.

In his seascapes Bonington often combines a sense of spontaneity and atmospheric spaciousness with close observation. The location for this particular watercolour has not been identified, but it could be either Dieppe or Boulogne. The foreground is occupied by a small group of children, young fisherfolk, sitting in the sun. An overturned basket has spilled its cargo of fish onto the sand and a large ray lies steeped in a bowl of water, waiting to be cleaned. The girls' red and yellow hoods provide strong colour notes that are picked up in the retreating figures and the roofs of the houses in the left background and repeated in the baskets, the sand and the opalescent flesh of the fish. The scene is bathed in a golden light, which perhaps points to the influence of Dutch art and especially the work of the seventeenth century artist Albert Cuyp (1620-91). Two-thirds of the picture space is devoted to sky. Bonington was fascinated by the changing light and atmospheric effects on the north coast of France.

Bonington achieved success and recognition at the Paris Salon of 1824, which greatly boosted his reputation, and the numerous versions of his work of this period give an indication of his increasing popularity. He created another version of this scene in oil, but with a stormier, pinkish sky, which was acquired by the Duke of Bedford after a visit to Bonington's studio in c.1825-6. A smaller oil version also exists and is now in a private collection.

Further reading:
Malcolm Cormack, Bonington, Oxford 1989, p.100, oil version reproduced pl.5, p.15, in colour.
Patrick Noon, Richard Parkes Bonington 'On the Pleasure of Painting', New Haven and London 1991, pp.241-2, oil version reproduced p.241, in colour.
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1984-86 including supplement to catalogue of acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, p.10, reproduced p.10.

Frances Fowle
December 2000

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Catalogue entry

Richard Parkes Bonington 1802-1828

T03857 A Scene on the French Coast c.1825

Watercolour over traces of pencil on wove paper 213 x 342 (8 3/8 x 13 7/16)
Inscribed 'R P Bonington' b.r.
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1984
Prov: ...; Colnaghi, from whom bt by J. Leslie Wright, Warwick, 1937; his daughter Mrs Cecil Keith (d.1983); her executors, on whose behalf sold Agnew, from whom bt by Tate Gallery
Exh: La Peinture anglaise, XVIIIe & XIXe siècles, Louvre, Paris 1938 (169); Masters of British Water-Colour: The J. Leslie Wright Collection, RA, Oct.-Nov. 1949 (248, pl.XV); Three Centuries of British Watercolours and Drawings, Arts Council Gallery 1951 (6); L'Aquarelle anglaise, Musée Rath, Geneva 1956 (8); Bonington, Guildhall of St George, King's Lynn, July-Aug. 1961 (24); Bonington, Agnew, Feb.-March 1962 (35, repr.); English Watercolour Drawings from the Collection of Mrs Cecil Keith, Worthing Art Gallery, March 1963; The Watercolour Collection Formed by Mrs Cecil Keith, Agnew, May 1984 (100, repr. on cover)
Lit: Adrian Bury, 'Old English Water-Colours and Drawings in the Collection of Mrs Cecil Keith', The Old Water-Colour Society's Club, vol. 62, 1967, p.23, pl.IX. Also repr: Tate Gallery Report 1984-6, 1986, p.49 (col.)

The background has not been identified, although Dieppe and Boulogne have both been suggested. A version of this subject in oil on canvas (648 x 965, 25 1/2 x 38) belongs to the Duke of Bedford and the Trustees of the Bedford Settled Estates, reputedly bought by the 6th Duke of Bedford after a visit to Bonington's studio c. 1825-6. It is not known whether the watercolour preceded the oil, though it is likely. In the Bedford picture, the sky is stormy. It was engraved twice, by J.D. Harding in 1830 and by C.G. Lewis in 1835. A small oil version (235 x 321, 9 1/4 x 12 5/8) was catalogued and reproduced by the Hon. Andrew Shirley, Bonington, 1940, p.91, p1.26, when in the collection of Andrew T. Reid (originally in the collection of H.A.J. Munro of Novar); when exhibited at Agnew's, Bonington, 1962 (23), it was in the collection of Walter Stoye. A small watercolour copy (152 x 229, 6 x 9) was sold at Sotheby's on 8 July 1982 (169, repr.), called 'Fisherfolk on the Shore' and attributed to E.W. Cooke. (The compiler is grateful for the help of Dr Marion Spencer, particularly over the likely date of T03857).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, p.10

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