'Real Views from Nature in This Country': Paul Sandby, Estate Portraiture and British Landscape Art

Article excerpt

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

When Thomas Gainsborough was invited in 1764 to portray the 2nd Earl of Hardwicke's newly acquired state, he declined, as the subject was beneath his artistic ambition, remarking that 'with regard to real Views from Nature in this Country, he had never seen any Place that affords a Subject equal to the poorest imitations of Gaspar or Claude', and recommending Paul Sandby as 'the only Man of Genius ... who has employ'd his Pencil that Way'. (2) Despite this disdain for estate portraiture in a British art world keen to raise its academic aspirations, commissioned views of aristocratic seats featured strongly in London's earliest public art exhibitions. Paul Sandby (Pl 1) was one of a number of artists who extended the power and scope of estate portraiture. In a nation where the estate was the basis of political power and social prestige, their art recorded landed property and its improvements, in varied and sometimes culturally complex views which included natural wonders and antiquities, and scenes of agriculture, industry and commerce, as well as parks, gardens and mansions. With the growing popularity of touring among all ranks of polite society, estate portraits projected public prospects as well as private views, a picture of the country, the nation, at large.

'The great articles in a prospect'

Sandby's earliest work as chief draughtsman on the Military Survey of North Britain in 1747-52 provided introduction to a powerful network of patronage, as did his elder brother Thomas Sandby's connections at Court. (3) Producing and exhibiting estate portraits for powerful public figures was an effective promotional strategy, commercially so, particularly as it was combined with making designs for the growing market for topographical prints. Rather than producing speculative and spectacular looking exhibits in oils, this practice enabled Sandby to successfully make the transition from a London art world dominated by the personalities around St Martin's Lane to a new world of annual shows, public appraisal and institutions, when other artists of the previous generation, most notably William Hogarth, failed. (4) Competition for patronage was such that, as landscape painter Thomas Jones was to note in his Memoirs, 'talent' and 'great Exertions' mattered less than 'great Interest'. (5)

The Sandbys' early experience with military drawing also provided a foundation for a form of landscape art which involved a good deal of exchange and collaboration between the brothers. In the service of the Duke of Cumberland, Thomas Sandby became expert in producing wide ranging panoramas of terrain, and working for the Board of Ordinance Paul Sandby became proficient in drawing maps and plans. These forms of view making provided a model for expanding the scope of topography, for laying out information about land and life, and a place's connections with regional and national geography. During his period in Scotland, Paul Sandby also undertook off duty work, including a commission at the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry's estate at Drumlanrig, Dumfriesshire, executing several drawings, including a panorama of Nithsdale. (6) Upon returning south in the early 1750s, Paul Sandby collaborated with his brother on a set of five views of Cranbourne Lodge, in Windsor Great Park, shortly after it had been acquired as a residence by the recently appointed Ranger, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. (7) These large, double-folio-sized, wide-angled views, take in broad expanses of Park and Forest, with trees and buildings, even in the far distance, finely delineated: Thomas Sandby drew the landscape, Paul the figures. In his royally appointed role as Deputy Ranger of Windsor Great Park, Thomas Sandby continued to produce detailed estate drawings as designs for improvement, and undertook some commissions elsewhere, notably at Norbury Park (Pl 2), the house of the noted art collector and connoisseur William Lock, making panoramic drawings as part of a project to build a new house. …