While most visitors see gallery 690 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—“The Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Gallery”—as a mere corridor, there is art on the walls, too. Here the Department of Drawings and Prints has assembled a mélange of British pictures that collectively tell no grand story, save for a happy one about the breadth and depth of the Met’s holdings and the ability of its curators to secure quality works of art, whether by gift or purchase. “British Vision, 1700–1900” brings together more than seventy works from the museum’s collection, mostly watercolors and drawings, from what probably were the best centuries of British art (partisans of Van Dyck and Kneller might disagree, though it must be noted that neither was born in Britain). In those two hundred years, cultural confidence was high and many artists took advantage of increasing links with Continental Europe to see and sketch sights beyond the damp isle.
Which is not to say that there wasn’t plenty to see domestically. Among the best items in the exhibition is Thomas Sandby’s The Moat Island, Windsor Great Park (ca. 1754), rightly included in the show as Thomas and his brother Paul did much to popularize watercolor sketching in Britain. Their talents attracted royal patronage, and in 1746 Thomas was appointed deputy ranger of Windsor Great Park by the Duke of Cumberland, King George III’s younger brother, after having served as Cumberland’s private secretary. The sheet on display at the Met is a masterclass in the watercolorist’s art, with foreground trees, their leaves a convincing medley of shades of green, and the faint water of the Bourne Ditch behind. Grazing cows and sheep give pastoral atmosphere and serve as guides to scale; the trees tower over them, ancient indeed.
Paul Sandby, younger by a few years, was always the more humorous of the two brothers, known for composing light verse and for sketching, in addition to landscapes, grotesque figures. Joseph Farington, the artist and diarist, recorded circumspectly in 1811, two years after Paul’s death, that he
could not but sensibly feel the great difference between [Paul Sandby’s] works & those of Artists who now practise in Water Colour.—His drawings so divided in parts, so scattered in effect,—detail prevailing over general effect.
That division in parts is on display in Paul’s Valle Crucis Abbey, Denbighshire (ca. 1770–79), a large, detailed watercolor made on one of the artist’s visits to Wales. The ruined Cistercian abbey slumps in front of a wispy mountainous background, trees overgrowing its disused fabric. On the lawn in front a bull charges a milkmaid, who flees with alacrity, while another milkmaid observes bemusedly from a plank bridge crossing a rushing foreground stream. The two women have the sepulchral aspect common to many of Sandby’s human figures, adding a grimly comic tone.
A foreign note is struck by Edward Lear’s Peasant Women from Ragusa (1866?), a sketch sheet with studies of traditional Dalmatian costume, the three central figures assuming a position almost like that of the Graces. Lear picks out their hats in a gauzy red, like spilled wine. That item is perhaps the best nineteenth-century work on display. The Victorian landscape watercolors on view, mostly located on the west wall of the gallery, are less appealing than their predecessors. These later works have a treacly sheen that the sketchier Georgian ones lack. Perhaps the Victorian watercolorists had learned too much, for their work became too studied and more self-serious.
Joshua Reynolds—here represented by a sketchbook from an early 1750s visit to Italy, turned to a page showing Bernini’s colonnade at St. Peter’s in Rome—told his students that a “mere copier of nature can never produce anything great.” The point is proven by the best works on display here, which take nature as a starting point and not an end.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 6, on page 51
Copyright © 2024 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com