Love and Landscape: Paul Sandby’s Prints
Quite often acknowledged as “The Father of English watercolour,” British artist Paul Sandby (1731–1809) was also a key figure in the art of printmaking, described by many as one of the most inventive and accomplished printmakers of his time. Of the more than 100 works by the artist in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, two etchings in particular encapsulate his printing prowess: Rustic Lovers and Elegant Lovers, both dating to around 1755. Together, these works highlight the many facets of Sandby’s art, including a fascination with landscape balanced by figure studies, and an impressive output in the scope of printmaking in 18th-century England.
Born in Nottingham around 1731, Sandby travelled extensively across Britain, establishing a career as both a progressive and visionary artist. Prior to his move to London around 1751, he spent five years in Scotland producing maps of the country and recording the ever-changing, rebellion-impacted Scottish landscape. Establishing himself as part of the London art community, Sandby became known as a landscape painter and expert watercolourist and in 1768 was nominated by King George III as one of the founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts. On his reputation as a pioneer in English watercolour, author Johnson Ball said “Of the thirty-six Foundation Members of the Royal Academy chosen in 1768, Paul Sandby seems to be the only one chosen principally for his powers in the water-colour art.” In spite of this decided reputation, Sandby also produced countless prints over the course of his career. A prolific draftsman, he became a master at engraving, etching and aquatint. Author Ann V. Gunn in her 2015 catalogue raisonné of Sandby's prints writes, “Sandby’s skill as a printmaker developed in parallel with his progress as a painter, and throughout his life there was a constant crossover between his work in the different media in technique and subject matter.”
In Rustic Lovers, Sandby’s careful execution and interest in repeated themes shine through. In the etching, a milkmaid walks down a woodland, river-lined path with a halter around her neck. Her lover gazes upon her, while she looks directly out at the viewer. Behind them, a cow retreats into the trees as a dog drinks from the tumbled pails at the milkmaid’s feet. Their clothing, contemporary of the period, is highly detailed, from its various layers to its buttons, creases and folds. Overall, the print speaks to Sandby’s expertise in depicting landscapes and his intense attraction to figures, nature and the pictorial motif of trees. As authors John Bonehill, Stephen Daniels and Nicholas Alfrey remark in the catalogue Paul Sandby: Picturing Britain, “Sandby’s ‘peculiarly English’ art was particularly attentive to the making and meaning of landscape, and alert to the interaction of people and environment.”
A probable companion piece, Elegant Lovers takes a similar approach. The composition is simpler but comparably well-executed, depicting a well-dressed couple relaxing beside a pond with a wooden fence, building and forest beyond. Again, the male figure gazes upon his lover, caressing her shoulder as she leans affectionately in. Similar to Rustic Lovers, this etching demonstrates Sandby’s graceful and careful execution of foliage, from the textured grass to the flowering plants and tufts of leaves on trees.
Purchased by the Gallery in 1989, Rustic Lovers and Elegant Lovers may have formed part of the original book of Sandby’s prints published by Ryland and Bryer in 1765. Interestingly, no two copies of this highly reproduced publication are known to be the same – some contain different works altogether, while others show variations of the same etchings in different sizes and ink. These two etchings have even been cited under different names, including A dairy maid and her lover and Seated lovers by a lake or river. The Gallery’s set of etchings includes 69 works, depicting the Scottish landscape and genre scenes.
Among the selection of etchings in the album, Rustic Lovers and Elegant Lovers are the only ones that portray amorous couples in tightly focused compositions. Based on their genteel pastoral content, they were likely inspired by genre scenes of lovers popular in Dutch and French art. They may even hint at the more satirical depictions of London Street personalities featured in another Sandby series, Twelve London Cries done from the Life, from 1760. Whatever the artist's motivation and inspiration, Rustic Lovers and Elegant Lovers remain emblematic and important in the study and appreciation of Sandby’s rather magnificent body of work.
For details of other works by Paul Sandby see the National Gallery of Canada's collection online. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery news, exhibitions and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.