A spacious horizon is an image of liberty, where the eye has room to range abroad, to expatiate at large on the immensity of its views, and to lose itself amidst the variety of objects that offer themselves to its observation. Such wide and undetermined prospects are as pleasing to the fancy, as the speculations of eternity or infinitude are to the understanding. (Joseph Addison, in The Spectator, 1712.)
With this, the English essayist Joseph Addison introduced landscape as one of the pleasures of the imagination and characterized the intent of many panoramic works on paper on view in the Museum’s Porcelain Gallery. Each of these represents a particular place, yet their function was to impart aesthetic pleasure rather than record minute detail. They are expansive in scope, affording grand vistas from bird’s-eye views. They are also deliberately simplified,allowing for speculative imagining. An exception is Thomas Stothard’s Hamlet on a Hillside, which presents a more descriptive or topographical approach to the panorama.
The landscapes on view also share certain technical concerns. In four examples, the artist painted across two or more pages in his sketchbook in order to achieve a horizontal panorama. In every case, watercolor was applied over lines drawn with ink or graphite.
This type of artwork was termed “tinted drawing” by contemporaries. The predominant blues, greens, and yellows and calculated progressions between fore-, middle-, and background also indicate more concern for idealization than naturalism. In most cases, the artist sketched onsite and then colored the drawing in his studio.
The majority of drawings here were executed prior to a number of innovations in watercolor technique introduced by Thomas Girtin and Joseph M.W. Turer in the early 19th century, such as doing away with contour drawing in ink or chalk. Even after these innovations were intrdouced, some artists, among them Francis Towne in his view of Plymouth, retained the earlier technique. Others, such as Thomas Barker, were deliberately old-fashioned. His Scarborough recalls Renaissance pen, ink, and wash drawings, which would have been known by contemporary viewers.
This is the first in a series of exhibitions in the Porcelain Gallery featuring selections form the Museum’s fine collection of British watercolors. Thanks to the remarkable generosity of an anonymous donor, the Museum’s holdings in this area number nearly 900 sheets and include all the major practitioners.