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Paul Sandby RA: Picturing Britain, A Bicentenary Exhibition

Paul Sandby, Part of Wenlock Abbey in Shropshire (detail), c.1770s, Watercolour over graphite, 35.2 x 54.7 cm, Royal Academy of Arts, London, Photo Copyright Royal Academy of Arts/Slingsby

Exhibition preview

PAUL SANDBY RA (1731 – 1809): Picturing Britain, A Bicentenary Exhibition will be on display in the Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy of Arts from March 13 to June 13, 2010.

The exhibition, which marks the bicentenary of the artist’s death and celebrates one of the Royal Academy of Arts’ Foundation Members, will feature over 80 works by the artist regarded as the ‘father of English watercolour’.

Paul Sandby was celebrated in his day. The innovations and subject matter that he introduced into the practice of watercolour painting in Britain had a profound influence on artists of successive generations, including Thomas Girtin and JMW Turner RA. However, from the mid-neneteenth century, Sandby’s work slipped into obscurity.

This exhibition aims to redress Sandby’s position in the history of British art. It will highlight the range and variety of Sandby’s techniques and subject matter: from his exquisite watercolour depictions of the British countryside from Surrey to Scotland by way of Wales, to his print series of street vendors which capture everyday life in eighteenth century London with Hogarthian wit.

Sandby portrayed scenes throughout Britain, helping to give visual form to the idea of the United Kingdom as a nation state. Through his extensive tours, initially as a military draughtsman and later as a professional artist, Sandby pioneered landscape painting in Scotland and Wales. He sort new sites and portrayed familiar ones with a fresh eye.

His art is unrivalled among that of his contemporaries for its remarkable range of rural, urban, modern and historical subjects. His work captures the diverse nature of the landscape of his day and provides an important record of a country experiencing rapid social, economic and political change.

Earlier in the eighteenth century, enthusiasm for travel on the Continent had abounded among those making the Grand Tour, but towards the end of the century Sandby witnessed the rise of the ‘picturesque’ tour within the British Isles.

As tourists sought variety of scenery, evidence of ancient historical monuments, usually in ruinous condition, and intimations of early industrialisation, they demanded visual representations that not only recorded the actual topographical and architectural detail of specific sites but also conveyed their distinct atmospheres and historical and emotional resonances.

Sandby used his mastery of the watercolour technique and his innovative application of aquatint to meet the ever-growing expectations of the increasingly affluent and leisured middle and upper classes.

The exhibition will focus on the finest examples of Sandby’s work from a career which spanned fifty years. His celebrated watercolours including the majestic landscape The Rainbow (1800) and the picturesque depiction of Part of Wenlock Abbey in Shropshire (1770) will be on display together with works which demonstrate the exceptional range of his creative output, from maps of North Britain (one of which is over three metres in length), to paintings, prints and his set of twelve London Cries, including the curiously titled My pretty little Gimy Tarters (1759).

The exhibition will draw on all the major holdings of this prolific artist’s work, including the Royal Collection, the British Museum, the Yale Centre for British Art, the Royal Academy of Arts and the extensive collection of Sandby’s work held by Nottingham City Museums and Galleries, as well as private collections from which works will be being exhibited for the first time.

Paul Sandby RA: Picturing Britain Gallery

Admission: £9 full price; £8 registered disabled and 60+ years; £7 NUS/ISIC cardholders; £4 12-18 years and Income Support; £3 8-11 years; 7 and under free.

Times: Daily from 10am to 6pm (last admission 5.30pm), Fridays until 10pm (last admission 9.30pm).

In the Tennant Room and complementing the exhibition will be Eighteenth-Century Watercolours from the Royal Academy Collection, featuring works by ‘the father of English watercolour’, together with those of his celebrated successors including JMW Turner RA and Michael ‘Angelo’ Rooker RA.

Works have been selected from a group presented to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1865 by Augusta Thackeray, aunt of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. She had inherited them from her father, the architect John Yenn RA, who collected watercolours, prints and drawings by his friends and fellow artists. He purchased most of the items in his collection directly from the artists, in some cases to help alleviate their financial difficulties.

As an architect, Yenn gravitated towards topographical scenes, and the display includes impressive watercolours of Durham Cathedral and Battle Abbey. He also shared in the late eighteenth century enthusiasm for historic ruins, and these are represented in the display by views of Valle Crucis Abbey and Warwick Castle.

Admission: Free.

Times: March 9 to May 16, 2010, from 10am to 6pm (last admission 5.30pm). Closed Mondays.

Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD

Tel (public information): 020 7300 8000