This elegant watercolour shows John White Abbott at his most impressive, capturing the dramatic monumentality of his native Devon landscape. Abbott was an amateur artist who spent most of his working life in Exeter as an apothecary and surgeon, drawing whenever he could find time.
His style with its flat planes of colour and finely penned contours was adapted from that of his neighbour and teacher, Francis Towne. This watercolour was made when Abbott was exhibiting regularly at the Royal Academy and, whilst he went on sketching trips to Scotland and the Lake District, his most sensitive and immediate watercolours were made in his native Devon. The dramatic composition of the present watercolour recalls the Alpine landscapes made by Towne on his Continental tour in 1781, particularly his great landscape, A View of the Source of the Arveyron now at the Tate, London. In common with Towne's great depiction of glaciers and mountains, White Abbott has drawn his view of the Dart in a vertical composition, throwing light and shade over the interlocking sides of the valley, reducing the view to an almost abstract series of planes of wash. In this way, White Abbott makes a significant creative leap, adapting a mode Towne developed to depict Continental scenery to treat domestic landscape. White Abbott can therefore be understood as engaging with one of the most intellectually important themes of eighteenth-century thought, imitation. For a Georgian audience, imitation was a sophisticated concept of adapting modes: in this watercolour White Abbott turns the undulating landscape of Devon into the Alps. This innovation had particular resonance given the date of this watercolour, painted in July 1800, when the Napoleonic Wars prevented British artists from travelling forcing them to consider British landscape in entirely new ways. White Abbott’s distinctive style, combining outline with controlled, flat washes, his new technical approaches, often using multiple sheets of paper to build up his finished landscapes and his adaptation of new visual modes, make him one of the most strikingly original landscape painters of the late eighteenth century and this bold, intense sheet a remarkable example of his unique vision.