27th July 2020
NEWSLETTER 7- David Tress: Artists’ Travels
No doubt artists have always travelled. Renaissance artists travelled from city state to city state in fifteenth and sixteenth century Italy to find work and look for more generous patrons. Dutch and Flemish painters also travelled to Italy to add polish to their art, and the landscapes observed on their journeys made a great impression on them.
Jan Both from Utrecht travelled to Rome in the 1630s, and even after returning home to the flat landscape of the Netherlands he continued to paint landscapes with mountainous backgrounds bathed in a golden southern light. Jan Siberechts was one of many Dutch artists who came to Britain in the seventeenth century and brought with them the skills that provided the foundation for the flourishing of later generations of British artists. Siberechts was employed by aristocratic patrons to paint their country houses and estates, and these – often ‘bird’s eye’ views – are finely painted, but one painting of his stands out as quite exceptional. His ‘Landscape with Rainbow, Henley on Thames’ of about 1690 is a ravishing view of storm clouds and sun casting patterns of light and shadow over a river landscape with a double rainbow in the distance. It has such sensitivity to the power and pathos of light and shadow moving over the land that it could almost have been painted a century later in the Romantic period.
Both Dutch and Italian artists were powerful influences on the development of a British landscape school, and in the 1760s and 70s Richard Wilson used his knowledge gained from time spent in Italy to paint pictures of his British patrons’ country houses, transmuting their English country parks into Italianate settings.
It was in this period in the second half of the eighteenth century that humble watercolourists were employed by aristocratic patrons to accompany them on their travels – after all, without cameras what else could you do but bring an artist with you to record your holiday snaps! Such topographical artists might be taken to Italy on the Grand Tour, but later in the century when wars with France restricted continental travel the focus moved to trips within Britain. Thomas Pennant was accompanied by the artist Moses Griffith on his tours of Wales in the later 1770s, and the accomplished watercolourist John ‘Warwick’ Smith acquired his middle name after he accompanied the Earl of Warwick to Italy in the 1770s and 80s. Later artists gained more independence on their travels, the most indefatigable of them being J M W Turner who must have put up with many hardships to fill his sketch books with studies from England, Wales and Scotland. He managed to reach Inverness – no small feat on horseback and occasional coach – and even found his way to Loch Coruisk in the south of Skye.
For ten years from 2001 I worked on a project to follow the routes that these eighteenth century artists took in northern Britain. Having spent time researching their journeys I set out to follow their itineraries, travelling to different parts of northern England and Wales and to Scotland in a number of trips of ten days or so at a time. I took with me the same basic tool kit as the earlier artists – watercolours, ink and a sketchbook. These are admirably suited to the job being portable but still capable of great expression in capturing the details and also the atmosphere of the various landscapes encountered. I learnt many things in making these tours, and they answered numerous questions. Why, for example, did so many artists draw Dolbadarn Castle in North Wales? Well, it is an impressive isolated castle in wild surroundings which tuned in with the tastes of the time, but when I started mapping the eighteenth century artists’ routes it became obvious that there were – indeed still are – only two or three larger roads through Snowdonia, and any artists who chose to explore that area would have been almost certain to take a route that passed Dolbadarn. Some sites such as those around Ullswater in the Lake District had hardly changed in the 250 years since those earlier topographers had drawn them. In other areas the landscapes and buildings had been surrounded by high-rise buildings and busy urban life. When I made my own paintings for the project I relished the visual changes that I found as well as those places that had retained the stillness and emptiness of earlier centuries.
Today I still regularly travel to different parts of Britain and Ireland taking my sketch book with me. Recently I’ve been to Bodmin Moor, The Penwith Peninsula, Durham and North Yorkshire, Wiltshire and Exmoor. I’m always fascinated by the topography of what I find on these travels – the details, the shapes, the textures of what I see, but I also make paintings which explore the more visceral qualities of these landscapes – the feeling of light and space, the movement of sun and shadow and of rain squalls across the face of the land.
See images of David’s work here
To see a short film about the exhibition click here