This exceptional drawing is one of the iconic images of the Grand Tour, executed by Richard Wilson in 1754 it is the first surviving sheet from the great sequence of Roman views commissioned by William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth.
The group of drawings Wilson made for Dartmouth represent the most substantial and distinctive surviving body of work from his Italian period. Originally numbering some 68 sheets, the commission was highly prized by Dartmouth and Wilson’s earliest followers, although only 26 drawings are now traceable. The commission is documented in a series of letters from Wilson’s earliest friend and broker in Rome, Thomas Jenkins, written to the Earl of Dartmouth. In June 1754 Jenkins noted that: ‘Mr Wilson…desires me to aquaint you that in this Summer he shall have finished twenty drawings views of the Environs of Rome.’ This first set of drawings numbering 20 in all, were all presented in a highly characteristic manner: mounted on white paper, with a lilac wash border, on which is attached a small paper label bearing the subject of the sheet. The second set, numbered up to 61, includes other views (two of a Rocaille Fountain at Villa Borghese) mounted on blue-grey paper. Of the 26 surviving drawings all but one of the first sequence of 20 can be identified thanks to the numbering on their mounts, the loss of drawing ‘no.1’ makes the present sheet the first surviving drawing from the group.
Wilson seems to have begun his great sequence of drawings of Rome at Villa Borghese, the great park situated to the north of the city on the Pincian hill. The present sheet and the sheet numbered 3 in the sequence, now in a private collection, both show the famous, stone pines that dominate the gardens of the villa. The present composition is unusual amongst the sequence for concentrating on vegetation rather than a monument or vista. Wilson does not include the suburban Villa Borghese itself, visible in the background is the complex of the Casa del Guardaroba, later the Casina di Raffaello, originally built by Cardinal Scipione Borghese. But the primary focus of Wilson’s spectacularly worked drawing are the pines themselves. The interest in the ancient trees, considered in the eighteenth-century relics of antiquity, points to a singular quality of Wilson’s interest in the city he encountered. Many of the Dartmouth sheets show barren landscapes, deforested and arid. Poor soil meant that the city contained little vegetation. In starting his sequence of views of the city in the shade of Villa Borghese’s lush pines, Wilson is signaling a rejection of the usual Grand Tour syllabus or archeological monuments, or Baroque architectural splendors, it is a rejection that would have a profound effect on succeeding generations of British landscape artists. John Robert Cozens, for example, in his great sequence of views of Italy made for William Beckford does not include a single view made within the Aurelian walls, but makes a sequence of powerful studies of the pines in Villa Borghese.
Wilson’s view captures an informal arcade of trees in front of the Guardaroba, but the view is more expansive than it initially appears as visible in the far distance is the top of a hill, probably Monte Mario. This points to a feature of the drawings that is under appreciated, as a sequence, Wilson links drawings by either showing features from multiple view-points or showing the actual view-point of another of the views. Thus, Monte Mario, is the feature of another of the Dartmouth views, interestingly the 4th drawing in the sequence: Ponte Molle, Monte Mario now in the Huntington Library.
As with most of the Dartmouth drawings, Wilson is careful to populate this landscape. At either side of the composition Wilson has depicted artists at work, seated on the ground with sketchbooks. Artists draw in many of the Dartmouth sheets. This meta self-portrait serves a powerful purpose, reminding the viewer that these drawings were made ‘on the spot’. Dispatched in portfolios containing drawings of famous classical sculpture by Jenkins and Pompeo Batoni, Wilson’s drawings were designed for Dartmouth’s library, as evocative reminders of places he had visited on his own Grand Tour. This topographical purpose is underscored by their accuracy, an aspect which has been largely overlooked by later scholars who have stressed Wilson’s use of ‘standard classical framing devices’ and underlined the ‘artificial character of these views.’ But the accuracy was a feature appreciated by contemporaries who understood that their value derived, at least in part, from having been made ‘on the spot’. On seeing the drawings in 1809, William Lock, Wilson’s earliest patron in Italy, is recorded by Joseph Farington as having: ‘pointed out situations in which He was with Wilson while he made sketches of some of the subjects.’ Farington himself noted ‘wherever Wilson studied it was to nature that he principally referred. His admiration of the pictures of Claude could not be exceeded, but he contemplated those excellent works and compared them with what he saw in nature to refine his feeling and make his observations more exact; but he still felt independently without suffering his own genuine impressions to be weakened.’
Later drawings in the sequence show the artist in contemporary costume, for example, in no.5 Palatino Mount now in the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford, the figure is shown in tricorn hat, drawing in the shade of the Orti Farnese being admired by a group of children. This dynamic is present in Wilson’s drawing of Villa Borghese. The seated artists are shown being admired by stylized figures holding staffs. This is possibly an allusion to the complex nature of British engagement with modern Rome. Many contemporaries saw the fate of the ancient city as a living parable for modern British commercial and imperial policy. British visitors were preoccupied by the transformation of the ancient forum from heart of government to cattle market. Wilson shows contemporary Romans not as heroic figures, but as agricultural labourers observing the artist at work.
Executed in black chalk, heightened with white the drawing is broadly handled pointing to the influence of French draughtsman working at the Académie de France à Rome. Wilson was close to a number of French artists, including Claude-Joseph Vernet and almost certainly developed his distinctive approach to landscape drawing from observing the work of French painters. There is evidence to suggest that Wilson went sketching with Gabriel-Louis Blanchet, whose drawings are close in style to Wilson’s early Roman work. The Dartmouth drawing shows how Wilson came to master the use of black and white chalk on toned paper. The expressive range of his Roman views recall a similar, grand sequences of landscapes made in the 1740s by Jean-Baptiste Oudry in the gardens at Arcueil. Wilson told Ozias Humphry that ‘the best and most expeditious mode of drawing landskips from nature is with black chalk and stump, on brownish paper touched with white.’ It was with this in mind that Humphry wrote from London to Francis Towne in Rome in April 1781: after sending regards to friends Jones and Pars in Rome he says, ‘I shall esteem it a great favour if you would be so obliging as to bring me three or four pounds of Black Italian Chalk but pray take care that it is really good, smooth & Black because we have an indifferent sort in great abundance here’. Preserved in immaculate condition having remained in a portfolio, unknown until its rediscovery in 1948, the subtle chalk surface has never been disturbed.
- Brinsley Ford, ‘The Dartmouth Collection of Drawings by Richard Wilson’, The Burlington Magazine, no.549, vol.xc, December, 1948, p.345.
- Staffordshire Record Office, Dartmouth Papers, (w)1778/III/204.1v.
- David Solkin, Richard Wilson, exh. cat., London (Tate), 1983, p.168 and Brinsley Ford, ‘The Dartmouth Collection of Drawings by Richard Wilson’, The Burlington Magazine, no.549, vol.xc, December, 1948, p.342.
- Ed. Kathryn Cave, The Diary of Joseph Farington, New Haven and London, 1982, vol.X, p.3532.
- ‘Joseph Farington, Biographical Note’, in Exhibition of Works by Richard Wilson RA, exh. cat., Hull (The Ferens Art Gallery), p.13.
- Richard Stephens (ed.), Correspondence of Francis Towne (1739-1816) online at http://francistowne.blogspot.co.uk Ozias Humphry, from Newman Street, London, to Francis Towne ‘au Café Anglois/ a Rome’, dated 17 April 1781.