29 October 2020
In A Voyage round Great Britain (1814-1825), with its no fewer than 308 aquatints, William Daniell (1769-1837) created one of the most important of all colour-plate books on British topography and pioneered appreciation of coastal scenery more largely. Many copies have been broken up over the years by dealers in topographical prints, so that Emmanuel’s copy in the Graham Watson Collection is now a rare book, and in remarkably pristine condition.
Orphaned at an early age, William Daniell lived with his uncle, the landscape artist Thomas Daniell (1749-1840), and in 1784 went to India as his uncle’s assistant, travelling and sketching extensively throughout India. Not returning to England until 1794, Daniell then spent seven years working from 6.00 in the morning until midnight to perfect his aquatinting skills. The Daniells’ seminal work Indian Scenery, with 144 coloured aquatints, was published over the years 1795-1808. It was both very successful financially and also very influential in shaping a quintessentially romantic popular vison of India that perhaps still persists.
But Daniell’s greatest venture was his innovative project to record the coastal landscape of the whole island of Great Britain. After decades of the craze for picturesque uplands and rivers, his timing was opportune. As he remarked: ‘while the inland counties of England have been so hackneyed by travellers and quartos, the Coast has hitherto been most unaccountably neglected’. And while Daniell would include plates showing the prosperous coastal cities and calm havens of Britain – and includes the first known depiction of a steamboat, on the Clyde – he also set out ‘to illustrate the grander of its natural scenery … in its wildest parts’. In this, Daniell’s creation of atmospheric effects in the aquatint medium, through his signature cool greys and greens, were exceptionally skilful in promoting a vision of seascape and rugged coastal scenery inseparable from constantly changing weather and shifting light.
Before the advent of railway travel, even to reach the coast of the whole island entailed an immense investment of time and effort. Initial plans to view everything by a sea voyage were abandoned as impractical, and instead Daniell made six long trips each summer between 1813 and 1823, travelling round the coast clockwise and making many risky trips in small boats locally to view coastal scenery from the sea. So in the summer of 1813 Daniell covered the coast from Land’s End to Holyhead, making pencil sketches on the spot of promising views, with notes on colours and textures, and using a ‘camera obscura’ (a mirrored, cloth-shielded box that allowed him to trace the outline of a scene with correct proportions). Back in London each winter, he would create aquatint plates from his sketches.
The number of plates that Daniell devoted to certain parts of the coast reflects an appreciation of the picturesque aspects of coastal scenery that still governs our higher valuation of some sections of the coast rather than others. Thus, Daniell includes a good number of atmospheric views of the coasts of North Devon (Plate 1: Combe Martin) and Wales (Plate 2: Barmouth). The exceptionally fine summer of 1815 allowed him to complete an epic tour in Scotland, sketching the islands of Eigg, Rum, Skye, Raasay, Harris and Lewis, the northern mainland coast, the Orkneys, and then down the east coast as far as Dundee. Daniell’s haul of sketches from this trip led to 139 aquatints and the most visually stunning part of the entire book. By contrast, the whole east coast of Great Britain from Dundee to Southend was felt to merit a mere 28 plates, and the English south coast round to Torquay only 52, yet the south coast of Devon and Cornwall round to Daniell’s starting point at Land’s End is the subject of another 31 plates.
This allocation of pictures is probably still in accord with modern taste in coastal scenery, but the preponderance of scenes from the Scottish Highlands and Islands pioneered a romantic way of viewing such landscape, which would once have been dismissed as desolate and uncultivatable wilderness. Daniell’s distinctive aquatint colouring had a genius for representing sombre and moody scenes of mist, water and sky. These included plates of towering mountains reflected in lochs, as in the plates of Loch Duich (Plate 3: ‘a striking union of the sublime with the beautiful’), or Loch Scavig on Skye (Plate 4), recommended to Daniell by Sir Walter Scott himself, or Loch Coruisk (Plate 5: ‘the rugged and sublime features of the surrounding rocks and mountains’). Other plates cultivate a taste for sheer cliffs with wheeling seabirds, as in a sequence depicting Staffa and a striking view outwards from inside Fingal’s Cave (Plate 6: the text rubbishes all previous artists’ efforts to depict the cave), or the soaring heights of the Old Man of Hoy (Plate 7) , or the beetling cliffs of the Shiant Islands (Plate 8: ‘the flocks of seabirds hovering about this mighty precipice were inconceivably numerous …’).
Above all, Daniell has a genius for depicting the very movement of the sea, as in his plate of the gale-lashed Ardnamurchan (Plate 9), the boiling sea at Land’s End or at Slanes in Aberdeenshire (Plate 10), or near Beachy Head where, with poetic licence, he imagines a wrecked ship breaking up in heavy seas in the foreground (Plate 11).
The accompanying text on coastal scenery is at best uneven but this was not Daniell’s strong point. At first the text was rather well written by Daniell’s friend Richard Ayton (1786-1823), a bright young author and sailing enthusiast. But Ayton was a social reformer who, for example, noted how the boatmen who took them out on a hair-raising boat trip to view the North Devon coast from the sea regarded the rocks as bread to their families and a bit of roast beef on Sundays (‘if it were not for some such impediments, pilots might starve’). Alongside a plate of the coal workings near Whitehaven Ayton wrote movingly of the exploitation of child labour in the mines. Ayton was sacked. Daniell wrote the rest of the text, rather stolidly.
The curiously uncompleted plate of Cumaes Head in Pembrokeshire (Plate 12) seems to be an accidental survival of an uncoloured engraved plate that was never aquatinted in and, by oversight, offers a revealing insight into how the underlying lines and shadings of a plate were laboriously built up. It will seem bizarre to readers today that in 1822 Daniell was elected to the Royal Academy in preference to John Constable by a margin of 17 votes to 11. Yet Daniell remains one of the finest practitioners of aquatint, and his Voyage is a decisive intervention in how British people came to ‘see’ their coastline, both on the ground and in the mind’s eye.
Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)
Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)Back to All Blog Posts