This beautifully preserved watercolour drawing by Paul Sandby was made in 1779, when he was at the height of his powers as a landscape artist. Depicting the view of Eton College from Crown Corner in Windsor, on the south bank of the Thames, the drawing is filled with the combination of incidental detail, social observation and careful topography which made his works so sought after by contemporaries. Preserved in outstanding condition, the present drawing is one of the most impressive of a number of iterations of the same view Sandby made during his career.
Paul Sandby’s elder brother, Thomas, began his life as a military draughtsman in the Ordnance office in the Tower of London. It seems likely that Paul learnt his early skills as a draughtsman and watercolour artist from his elder brother. In 1747 the brothers were employed as part of the military survey of Scotland, commissioned following the Jacobite Rising. Sandby’s early training was therefore rooted in the accurate recording of views for practical purposes. Around 1764 Thomas Gainsborough wrote to a patron declining to paint ‘real views from Nature in this Country’, but praised Paul Sandby as ‘the only Man of Genius… who has employ’d his Pencil that Way.’ Gainsborough’s comment was something of a backhanded compliment, but it is evident that he respected his fellow Royal Academician’s ability as a landscape artist.
It was in the 1760s that Sandby established himself as a landscape painter of distinction in London. His reputation seems to have been founded particularly on the remarkable group of drawings Sandby made in and around Windsor. His connection to Windsor was through his elder brother, Thomas, whom the Duke of Cumberland, then Ranger of Windsor Great Park, had employed as draftsman from the 1750s. Thomas’s residence in Windsor made Paul a regular visitor, especially after Thomas was appointed Deputy Ranger in 1765. Many of Paul’s most spectacular drawings were panoramic, in which he combines a delicacy of colour and meticulous detail to provide information and telling records of the scenes he is depicting. As his son noted: ‘he aimed at giving his drawings the appearance of nature as seen in a camera obscura with truth in the reflected lights, clearness in shadows and aerial tint and keeping in the distance and skies.’ Sandby transformed these topographical views into more complex landscapes filled with human incident and social commentary.
The present drawing is a particularly beautiful example of his Windsor views. Depicting the distinctive profile of Eton College Chapel seen across the river Thames, Sandby has populated the foreground with an industrious group of figures. On the far right a stonemason is seen at work, cutting paving slabs from a block of stone; this was a favourite motif of Sandby’s which he repeats in a number of his Windsor views. The vignettes of Thames-side life depict a boat unloading coal, a fisherman stepping out of his boat carrying a recently caught eel and a woman and her children carrying pales of water. On the left Sandby has included another favourite motif, a waterseller’s wagon.
The wagon and woman carrying pails appear, from a different angle, in Sandby’s aquatint of the same view published in 1776. The technique of aquatint – which had only recently been developed – was especially suited to the reproduction of watercolour drawings and Sandby became an early pioneer. Forming part of a series of ‘Views of Windsor and Eton’ the aquatint shows the way in which Sandby experimented and elaborated his landscapes. The distant view of Eton College, with the framing tree on the right remain the same, but the figures in the foreground change in each different version of the composition. This suggests the composite nature of Sandby’s landscape practice. In a late, ambitious version of this view, executed in gouache, Sandby shows the same mason at work, but different traffic on the Thames and frames the composition with an additional tree on the right.
From the 1790s onwards, Sandby was increasingly viewed as a pioneer of the emerging school of ‘painters in water-colour’. In 1796 a very brief account of Paul Sandby’s career appeared in the European Magazine and London Review, it praised him:
‘For force, clearness, and transparency, it may very truly be said that his Paintings in water colours have not yet been equalled; the Views of Castles, Ruins, Bridges, & c. which are frequently introduced, will remain monuments to the honour of the Arts, the Artists, and the Country, when the originals from which they are designed are mouldering into dust.’
This was particularly true of his watercolours of Windsor and its environs which have long been celebrated as his most beautiful works.
- Ed. John Hayes, The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough, New Haven and London, 2001, p.30.
- The Monthly Magazine, vol.31, June 1811, p.440.
- Ann V. Gunn, The Prints of Paul Sandby (1731-1809) A Catalogue Raisonné, Turnhout, 2015, cat. no. 230, p.233.
- See eds. Andrew Wilton and Anne Lyles, The Great Age of British Watercolours: 1750-1880, exh. cat., London (Royal Academy of Arts), 1993, cat. no.256.