We are delighted to announce the acquisition of an important watercolour – a harbour scene by the Anglo-French artist Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28). English by birth, Bonington moved to France with his family at the age of fifteen. In Calais, he trained in the English manner of watercolour with the artist Louis Francia before moving to Paris, where he shone by his talent as a watercolourist and did much to popularise the medium among contemporary French artists. A close friend of the painter Eugène Delacroix, he evolved in Romantic circles and became instrumental in the cross-Channel exchange of art and ideas during the post-Napoleonic era.
The watercolour is a picturesque view of fishing boats and a paddle steamer in choppy waters, painted around 1824-25 – shortly after the first regular steamboat service was established between England and France. For the Museum’s Curator of Ship History, John Graves, Bonington’s watercolour represents a pivotal moment in the ascendancy of steam over sail: even though the former is still in its relative infancy, the paddle steamer is ploughing onward purposefully to its destination, while the other craft seem to be struggling in the turbulent sea.
The watercolour was previously identified as a view of Dieppe, but new research by the Museum’s General Editor, Pieter van der Merwe, suggests that the work may actually be a view of Boulogne, in keeping with an old but previously discounted inscription on the reverse (compare, for example, with Frederick Nash’s contemporary view of the harbour at Boulogne, PAD1608). Let us know if you recognise the view.
Around the time he painted this watercolour, Bonington was becoming increasingly aware of the celebrated maritime and coastal paintings of J.M.W. Turner. In the summer of 1825, he returned to England for the first time, in the company of Delacroix and other French painters, and encountered Turner’s work at first hand. In the same years, Bonington also travelled extensively along the north coast of France, sketching the topography, harbours, and coastal communities on the beach or at sea. A handful of prints after these can be found in our collection (see, for example, the view of the mouth of the Somme at Le Crotoy, PAH2272).
In addition to recording early steam navigation between France and England, the dual cultural identity of the artist makes this watercolour a particularly attractive piece for our collection. But the French connection is only one aspect of its appeal. Even more seductive are the jewel-like quality, fresh colours and sophisticated use of the medium as Bonington invites us into the scene. The artist animates the sea with vigorous brushstrokes, a few nervous scratches within the thicker layers of paint evoking the foam of tumultuous waves. In the fishing craft, the figures are rendered in simple yet efficacious dabs. The overall scene is crowned by a delicate horizon and pellucid sky.
Looking at this dazzling watercolour, it becomes evident why, since his untimely death from tuberculosis at the age of 26, Bonington has been recognised as one of the most talented and original artists of his generation. He bridges two worlds, with evocative paintings that exerted a lasting influence on both sides of the Channel, attracting the admiration of the greatest collectors and the inspiration of such giants of art as Turner and Delacroix.
Dieppe (or is it Boulogne?) is the first painting by the artist to enter the collection and we look forward to being able to display it. Check back here soon to find out when it will make its first public appearance in Greenwich. In the meantime, we leave the last word to Delacroix, who wrote of his friend that “no one in this modern school, and perhaps even before, has possessed that lightness of touch which, especially in the watercolours, makes his work a type of diamond that flatters and ravishes the eye.”