One of the joys of working with original art is being able to hold in your hand – and pour over in detail – exquisite works which are not far off 250 years old. We have been lucky enough to acquire a fantastic collection of watercolours by 18th century Swiss topographical artist Samuel Hieronymus Grimm (1733–1794), described by critics of his time as a ‘man of genius’. The fresh colours and crisp lines of these watercolour and pen and ink drawings seem to defy their age. But it is these qualities that define the great topographical artist – a subject I’d like to look at in more detail here. It is the lasting precision of these works that gives them their impact today, offering a glimpse into the lost and pre-industrial landscapes of late eighteenth-century England.
Grimm was born in Burgdorf in 1733, the son of a Swiss notary. He received early training under Bernese topographer J.L. Aberli, known for his colour prints of Swiss scenery. He then travelled in France until 1768 before settling in England. Grimm was for many years an exhibitor at the Royal Academy, but he was dependent for his livelihood on private patrons and the expanding market for antiquarian publications. His professional output was shaped by four antiquarians and a naturalist: Sir William Burrell, who commissioned views in Sussex; the Rev. Sir Richard Kaye, for whom Grimm became travelling companion; H.P. Wyndham, with whom he toured Wales in 1777; Cornelius Heathcote Rodes of Barlborough Hall in Derbyshire, for whom he produced views of the house and surrounding countryside; and Gilbert White, for whose celebrated Natural History of Selborne (1789) Grimm contributed illustrations.
It is interesting to consider then what being a topographical artist, reliant on commissions, meant for Grimm’s artist practice. The topographical artist’s chief responsibility was to record clearly and accurately the physical facts of specific places. In an age before photography, such paintings and drawings were the way to record historical events in the kind of detail that might otherwise have gone unreported; the British Library credits Grimm with producing the only surviving scene of the coronation of Edward VI.
The term ‘topography’ has, however, been disputed for centuries. Topographic views are often seen as secondary to fine art landscapes, due to their purpose being functional rather than free artistic expression. The Royal Academician Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) famously dismissed topography as ‘the tame delineation of a given spot’. But this dismissal overlooks the artistic value of the fundamental skills of the topographer. It was essential that eighteenth-century landscape painters understood outline. In 1841, the leading topographical watercolourist David Cox (1783-1859) published a manual for amateur artists and wrote emphatically: ‘A clear and decided Outline possesses a manifest superiority over the imperfect or undecided one… He who devotes his time to the completion of a perfect Outline, when he has gained this point, has more than half finished his piece.’
Moreover, J.M.W. Turner, that master of free artistic expression, was brought up as a topographer and underwent early training as an architectural draughtsman. His methods of gathering information throughout his life show that he continually relied on the medium of the ‘line’ in order to record and transmit essential information. Turner’s famous sketching tours took topographical art to new levels of artistic ambition. His numerous sketchbooks from his visits to Italy, for example, show the artist recording architectural features with great detail, to later be included in his sublime, fully-worked oils.
Grimm, in his topographical works, developed a technique which has been described as ‘stained’ or ‘tinted’ drawing, in which in careful pencil underdrawing and layers of grey wash were superimposed with ‘local’ colour and pen outlines to clarify form. We see that the addition of pen black ink allows for extremely fine outlines – minute strokes delineating stonework, and boulders, and treelines. This style, as well as rendering views with great accuracy, also suited the requirements of print reproduction, allowing such images to be easily engraved, printed and distributed.
In topographical works figures take subsidiary place to the landscape, but they are nevertheless an important aspect of the composition, giving a point of reference and scale for understanding a view. This valuable feature of topographical style is in fact applied to many landscape paintings in general – as can be seen in the diminutive figures which commonly appear in the great oils of Turner, and before him, Claude Lorrain. In Grimm’s view of Stonehenge, for example, the figures in the foreground give the monolithic stones a sense of scale, and also present a specific moment in history, an encounter between eighteenth-century gentlemen and these timeless monuments, which is fascinating to the modern viewer.
Topographic views have responded to historical shifts in taste, aesthetics and style. Holding a significant place in art history, they provide a background for the ‘landscape’ tradition, and played an important part in the rise of the Picturesque landscape in the late eighteenth century – the taste for irregular and ‘natural’ scenery. They were also more than just straightforward factual records, as they served a variety of functions depending on the reason for their commission – be it documenting landed property, serving military and imperial purposes, commercial travel or tourism. It seems that there is more to topographical paintings and drawings than meets the eye.
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