This luscious panoramic landscape is a rare plein air oil sketch by Peter De Wint. Like many of his contemporaries, De Wint believed in the importance of working out of doors, sketching in watercolour – and less frequently oil – to capture effects of light, colour and atmosphere. In this way De Wint is perhaps the artist closest in approach to John Constable; Constable went so far to describe De Wint as a true 'brother in landscape'. The subject-matter of this small oil, labourers excavating gravel, points to his deep interest in, and sympathy with, agricultural workers. It is notable that his work was much admired by the poet John Clare who described De Wint's panoramic landscapes: 'as true as if nature had just left them' and argued that 'admirers of nature will admire his paintings - for they are autographs.'
De Wint began his training with the engraver John Raphael Smith in 1802 but seems quickly to have fallen in with the circle around the landscape watercolourist, John Varley. In 1806 he negotiated an early release from his apprenticeship with Smith, who let him go in exchange for 18 landscape paintings in oil. Friendship with Varley meant that De Wint gained access to the informal landscape academy run by the amateur collector and early patron of both Turner and Girtin, Dr Thomas Monro. De Wint was in turn encouraged to copy the works of Girtin as well as work from directly from the landscape around Monro's country house, Bushey in Hertfordshire. De Wint acquired from his study of Girtin the use of broad fluid washes of colour, a distinctive technique which is particularly apparent in the present sketch. Whilst the immediacy of De Wint's approach and his interest in light and atmosphere recall the work of Girtin, it was with Constable with whom he corresponded and shared profound visual sympathies. De Wint's watercolours were immensely popular and he achieved a degree of commercial and critical success. Contemporary commentators were struck by their faithfulness to nature; an assessment underlined by John Clare, the greatest labouring-class poet of the nineteenth century. De Wint’s watercolours are in full-sympathy with Clare’s description of the harvest landscape. In August from the Shepherd’s Calendar of 1827 – a work De Wint illustrated – Clare wrote: ‘Harvest approaches with its bustling day, the what tans brown and barley bleaches gray, in yellow garb the oat land intervenes, and tawny glooms the valley thronged with beams.’
This beautifully painted, small-scale oil does not depict a harvest scene, but instead depicts labourers excavating gravel from a quarry; the figure in the foreground is shown passing the excavated material through a sieve. John Linnell had produced a grand exhibition work of the same subject in 1811, now in the Tate. The first decades of the nineteenth century witnessed mass urbanisation across Britain and a concomitant explosion in building and infrastructure projects. These required the extraction of raw materials, providing new subject-matter for artists. De Wint’s rare depiction of an industrial scene raises questions of his political sympathies. Like Clare, De Wint tended to avoid depicting the mechanical innovations which were transforming the countryside. It was his verisimilitude, so admired by Clare, which was also noted by professional critics, such as John Ruskin, who wrote that De Wint's 'chief motive is the pride of being true.'
The present immediate and fluid oil sketch was made rapidly en plein air capturing an expansive, panoramic landscape. In subject-matter and formal approach it owes much to Linnell’s depiction of the Kensington Gravel Pitts, whilst the fluent, painterly style points to De Wint’s mastery of watercolour. Handled with a wonderfully lively touch, De Wint suggests a vast, flat landscape in miniature, the sky a complex vista of meteorology in full sympathy with Constable. Evidently highly prized during the nineteenth century this small painting was in the collection of the great Liverpool collector John Miller, one of the principal patrons of the Pre-Raphaelites, who put together an exceptional group of works by Rosetti, Ford Maddox Brown and others.
- Constable sent DeWint proof impressions of his mezzotints from English Landscape Scenery and corresponded with him throughout the 1830s. John Constable to Peter DeWint [May 6, 1831] quoted in Hammond Smith, Peter DeWint, 1784-1849, London, 1982, p.25.
- John Clare, ‘Essay on Landscape Painting’, in eds. J. W. Tibble and Anne Tibble, The Prose of John Clare, London, 1951, p.212.
- John Clare, The Shepherd’s Calendar, London, 1827, p.68.
- Eds. E.T. Cook and Alexander Weddeburn, The Complete Works of John Ruskin, I, p.427.