James Barry writing to the early theorist of the sublime, Edmund Burke, noted that the landscape painter George Barret: 'presents you with such a glorious assemblage, as I have sometimes seen among high mountains rising into unusual agreeable appearances while the early beams of the sun sport themselves … through the vast arcades and sometimes glances on a great lake whose ascending vapours spread themselves like a veil over the distance.'
This description of ‘high mountains’ and ‘great lake’ bathed in ‘early beams of sun’ neatly describes Barret’s impressive view of Ullswater. In this gouache view a ferry crosses the lake and a group of figures on the right-hand of the composition picnicking in a tent; Barret’s view is therefore an early celebration of the tourism to the area stimulated by ideas of the picturesque. Probably made for exhibition, the gouache survives in remarkable preservation and has been consistently praised as one of Barret’s most beautiful late works.
George Barret was born in Ireland, where he attended the Dublin Society drawing schools under Robert West. While there he coloured prints and in 1747 he won a prize in the examination. He became a friend of Edmund Burke, then a student at Trinity College, Dublin and by tradition it was Burke who introduced him to the wild scenery of the Dargle valley and the Powerscourt estate. In 1761 Barret moved to London where he had moderate success as a painter of estate views and idealised landscapes. By the date of the present powerful view of Ullswater, Barret had fallen on hard times and the following year Burke helped secure his appointment as master painter to the Chelsea Hospital, London.
This view of Ullswater was made on a tour of the Lake District; at least one other picture from this trip is recorded. In 1781 Barret exhibited at the Royal Academy a View of Windermere Lake, in Westmoreland, the effect, the sun beginning to appear in the morning, with the mists breaking and dispersing (no.40). A gouache of a similar view of Ullswater now in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin was the source for an engraving by Samuel Middiman for Select Views in Great Britain. Middiman describes the view of the bold promontory of Hollin Fell, in the centre, taken from Soulby Fell, with: ‘the vast chaos of mountains that guard the Head of the lake’ beyond. Barret has included an elegant group of figures enjoying a picnic on Soulby-Fell on the right of the composition; a ferry transports more tourists and their horses across the lake to the base of this hill. Tourism to the Lakes was gaining in popularity during the last decades of the century to the extent that it formed a subject for Wordsworth’s scorn in The Brothers published in 1800.
Barret usually worked in oil, but here is working in gouache, a medium which by this date was losing ground in popularity to watercolour. Rather than concentrating on the naturalism of the view, Barret has focused on the monumental grandeur and effects of light, emphasising the unreal qualities of sublime landscape. Painted at the end of a tradition of gouache painting which had begun with Marco Ricci in Britain, this remarkably well preserved and monumental view represents an unexpected combination of carefully structured topography and sublimity and ranks as perhaps the finest example of a landscape in gouache executed in Britain at the period.
- Ed. Edward Fryer, The Works of James Barry, Esq., London, 1809, I. p.16.
- Anne Crookshank and Desmond FitzGerald, The Watercolours of Ireland: Works on Paper in Pencil, Pastel and Paint c.1600-1914, London, 1994, pp. 52-4.
- John Murdoch, The Discovery of the Lake District: A Northern Arcadia and its Uses, exh. cat., London (Victoria and Albert Museum), 1984, p.27.