RICHARD WILSON (1713-82)
WILSON fills much the same place in the development of a tradition of landscape painting in Britain that Reynolds does in the development of portraiture. Both appear on the scene at the same kind of moment, when the ground had already been broken for the establishment of a new style; both were sons of the clergy and had some pretensions to scholarship; both were in Italy in the early 1750s and became saturated with the Mediterranean tradition. But there the likeness ends and, in their outward circumstances, there was great disparity. Reynolds imposed his style upon contemporary public taste, but Wilson - although his qualities were always esteemed in the professional circle of artists and he became a foundation Royal Academician - had to wait until a generation after his death for serious appreciation. Reynolds had accommodating manners, a cool temper, and an eye for fame: Wilson had a sharp and explosive tongue and was no respecter of formality, and he loved his art more than his reputation. Wilson has less variety and range than Reynolds, nor did he steadily develop from strength to strength over a period of forty years: once formed his style changed little, and his best work was produced in a period of little more than twenty years. But it might be held that Wilson shows a greater intensity and power of creative imagination in establishing the classical British landscape than Reynolds required to establish the classical British portrait. His precursors had advanced less far along the road.
It is still matter for surprise that Wilson's landscapes met with such little success amongst an aristocracy which was modelling the landscape of its parks on the Italian scene, and hailed Claude as the master of the picturesque and Gaspard and Salvator Rosa as masters of the sublime. Wootton and Lambert had already introduced the conventions of Claude and Gaspard to some extent into British landscape painting. But a landscape to them was either a mere piece of decorative furniture or a record of an actual scene. It was Wilson who first charged the 'landscape' in Britain with the values of an independent work of art, sometimes - and in these he was less successful - by attempting the Grand Style and combining 'history' with landscape, and sometimes, which was his great achievement, by infusing into his scene a feeling, either solemn or lyrical, for the divine element in nature which can best be apprehended by likening it to the feeling which is the constant theme of Wordsworth. One cannot sum this up more clearly than by quoting Ruskin's words that with ' Richard Wilson the history of sincere landscape art founded on a meditative love of nature begins in England'.
We know something of Wilson's own views on landscape from a story related by Beechey,1 who once asked Wilson whom he considered the best landscape painter, and received the reply: ' Claude for air and Gaspard for composition and sentiment. ... But there are two painters whose merit the world does not yet know, who will not fail hereafter to be highly valued, Cuyp and Mompers.'2 Even without this, we should have no
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Publication information: Book title: Painting in Britain, 1530 to 1790. Contributors: Ellis Waterhouse - Author. Publisher: Penguin Books. Place of publication: Baltimore, MD. Publication year: 1953. Page number: 172.
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