27 January 2021

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The topic of this week’s blog is Emmanuel’s rarely-surviving copy, in the Graham Watson Collection, of Philippe de Loutherbourg’s Picturesque Scenery of Great Britain (1801), with its six superb large aquatints of views on the south coast of England, and the light thrown on the skill and accomplishment of this by a companion volume, De Loutherbourg’s The Romantic and Picturesque Scenery of England and Wales (1805). 

Philippe de Loutherbourg (1740-1812), born possibly at Strassbourg, was the son and grandson of artists. He had great early success as a painter in Paris, where his abilities were noted by Diderot. Arriving in London in 1771, he was introduced to the actor-manager, David Garrick, who soon entrusted him with the scenery department at the Drury Lane Theatre, an arrangement that the playwright Sheridan continued when he took over the management of Drury Lane. Here De Loutherbourg won much contemporary acclaim – including from Sir Joshua Reynolds – for the subtle and sophisticated lighting effects in his painted scenery, as well as for more spectacular theatrical effects.  But after 1781 he returned to his easel, making tours of the Peak District, Lake District and North Wales and exhibiting many landscape paintings from his tours. He also enjoyed success with paintings of British naval battles (some now in the National Maritime Museum). In later life he became interested in mysticism and the occult, offering faith-healing services through ‘heavenly and divine Influx’.  

The large aquatints in Picturesque Scenery (each 51 x 34 cms) are remarkable for their dramatic compositions, bustling with closely-observed detail, and for the subtlety with which stormy skies have been engraved and coloured. They just cry out to be cut out and framed which, of course, is why the book is now so rare. The whole emphasis of the book is on these six plates, with only a page of text at the beginning to comment on the contents.


‘Ramsgate with a view of the new Lighthouse’ (Plate 1) is typical of De Loutherbourg’s eye for a seascape, with sails straining and human figures dwarfed by the elements. The text notes Ramsgate’s ancient advantage in offering some slight natural shelter for shipping in bad weather, now turned into a safer harbour by the construction of two stone piers and a lighthouse which in all took forty years to build, between 1750 and 1790, in which year 160 ships escaped peril by sheltering there during a terrible gale.


‘Margate from the Parade’ and ‘Margate with the Arrival of the Hoy’ (Plates 2 and 3) show calmer scenes befitting one of the new and growing seaside resorts. The text notes that ‘the great concourse of people to this place in the summer for sea-bathing has given rise to a great many new houses … a fine assembly-room … a bookseller’s shop of uncommon magnificence, and a very convenient and spacious theatre’.  Trippers came from London on regular passenger vessels called Margate hoys, and with the arrival of each boat, as depicted here, ‘the motley group assembled in the crowded hoys often affords much subject of entertainment’. 


‘Brighthelmstone, Fishermen Returning’ (Plate 4) catches Brighton in its transition from a fishing village into a fashionable resort, as the fishermen return to land their catch. The text duly notes the place’s new popularity which it attributes to the Prince of Wales (i.e. the future Prince Regent, later George IV) ‘who has built here an elegant summer pavilion’, but seems unconvinced the place is going to make it (‘the situation is so open that bathing is only possible in fine weather’). But the writer focusses on the fish market still held on the beach, chiefly for mackerel and sole (‘nine or ten thousand mackerel have been caught here in a net at once’ it notes, in the best tradition of the fisherman’s tale). All fishing is carried on at night and then sold on the beach, the majority for the London market, which it reaches in eight or ten hours.


‘Fishermen going out at Worthing’ (Plate 5) is similarly alive with the elements – straining sails and restive skies. It records what it calls another ‘insignificant fishing place’ on the cusp of development. A visit in 1798 by George III’s daughter, Princess Amelia, had set a trend, and many new buildings were going up to accommodate fashionable visitors.


‘Ramsgate in a high gale’ (Plate 6) is especially skilfully composed, and the human figures are full of interest under the towering canvas and rigging, with a foaming sea and high wind. As always in this book, the sky is represented with a remarkable use of colour.


Comparison with a plate of ‘Entrance of Ramsgate Harbour’ (Plate 7) in Romantic and Picturesque Scenery, however, serves to bring out how much De Loutherbourg, or any other artist, was in the hands of the engravers and colourists who translated their designs into the format of hand-coloured plates.  Here in the later book is a plate evidently based on the same or similar original drawing or painting of Ramsgate by De Loutherbourg, but handled by an engraver and a colourist of much more modest talent than those who worked on the earlier book. The later composition, by comparison, lacks tautness and the colouring is routine.

The same is true of the colouring throughout the later book, which is regrettable when De Loutherbourg has selected some important subjects. 


‘Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire’ (Plate 8) shows a favourite subject for admirers of the Picturesque, which William Gilpin, the great popularizer of Picturesque tourism, had notoriously said might be rendered even more picturesque by the judicious use of a mallet. So it is with this plate, which might be bettered and is very average in execution by the standards of this period.


The last two plates ‘Coalbrook Dale in Shropshire’ (Plate 9) and ‘Peak’s Hole in Derbyshire’ (Plate 10) are fascinating for their subjects, if not for the clumsy use of colour. The text declares Coalbrookdale ‘worthy of a visit for the admirer of romantic scenery no less than for the political economist’ and shows this dark satanic mill belching fire and smoke within a still-rural setting near the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The plate is said to show ‘the middle steam engine in the Dale with surrounding scenery’ as if the two are not in conflict. The plate of Peak’s Hole, here looking back towards the entrance, reflects another contemporary craze for picturesque caves and caverns where one might experience what the caption calls ‘that mingled emotion of fear and pleasure, astonishment and delight, which is one of the most interesting feelings of the mind’.


Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)

Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)

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