Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Picturing Britain: Paul Sandby Review

I'm pleased to say we made it to Nottingham (home to Robin Hood, above) just in time to catch the last few hours of the Paul Sandby show. It was held at Nottingham Castle's splendid Art Gallery (below) and seemed to be attracting quite a few crowds right to the last.

The show started off with some of Paul's (and his elder brother, Thomas's) early topographical works. This was particularly fascinating for me because the beginning of Sandby's career coincided with the failure of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion; the army's Board of Ordnance was ordered by the Duke of Cumberland to make a 'compleat and accurate survey of Scotland... that a country, so very inaccesible by nature, should be thoroughly explored and laid open'.

Paul Sandby: The taking of Jacobite prisoners

Sandby's role, in 1747, was as chief draftsman, mapping the recent war zone, Culloden, which he did so with the greatest detail. But his sketchbook, showing the military dress of an English soldier, and his off-duty works of Edinburgh street life, really bring the period to life and reveal Sandby's eye for comic detail.

This combination of technical dexterity, wry humour and urban commentary brings Sandby straight onto the patch of William Hogarth - something easily seen in Sandby's Twelve London Cries Done From Life (published 1760) showing such down-and-outs as the milkmaid, entertaining the vulgar crowds with a raree-show (or peepshow), the raucous mackerel-seller, and the hawker of a low ballad about the celebrated prostitute, Kitty Fisher. The accompanying collection of satires on Hogarth I have mentioned already and are crammed with vicious and obsessive detail.

Paul Sandby: View to the East from the Gardens of Somerset House

But perhaps Sandby's greatest achievements are the depictions of cities such as London and Nottingham, particularly his breathtaking views (from the East and the West) from the Gardens of Somerset House (above) which find Sandby committing to paper an incredibly accurate view of 18th-century London. Thanks to Sandby's camera-like eye, these two large canvases give a great sense of space to the viewer, as if they are actually standing on the riverfront terrace outside old Somerset House, admiring the magnificence of the London skyline.

Later views of Windsor have the tinge of romanticism that was less appealing to me than his honest images of 18th-century city life. Other highlights were Sandby's view of rush-hour at the tollgate near his home and a small watercolour of an artist's studio in St George's Row, Bayswater, which could have been either Sandby's own, or his 'dream studio', complete with a grand classical archway.

After such an enjoyable exhibition, it seemed only right to make a detour to Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem - established 1189 AD and reputedly the oldest pub in England (above) - which consists of a series of caves, hewn from the rock on which Nottingham Castle sits. We had a drink in the rock lounge, which seems to have been the original brewhouse, judging from the passageway/chimney above our heads (used for winching the kegs up into the Castle).

There's plenty to occupy the tourists including The Pregnancy Chair (below): believed to have the power to make any woman who sat on it conceive a child, and the Cursed Galleon: covered by what looks like 50 years of dust and deadly to anyone who attempts to clean it!

Photographs © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.

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