The Wallace Collection

Richard Parkes Bonington:‘On the Coast of Picardy’ (P341)
Treasure of the Month - January 2005

Richard Parkes Bonington:‘On the Coast of Picardy’ (P341)

THIS IS SURELY the finest landscape among the ten oil paintings by Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28) in the Wallace Collection.

It probably dates from 1826, the year when he made his exhibition debut in London with two coastal views after touring the northern French coast with his fellow artist Eugène Isabey (also represented in this gallery by a painting: Court Reception at a Château).

Bonington, an English artist who spent most of his career in France, was one of the most gifted painters of the nineteenth century, but his career was cut short by tuberculosis at the tragically early age of twenty-five.

Coastal scenes, with their subtle contrasts of sea, land and sky, were perfectly suited to his instinctive mastery of tone and colour. Having recently been cleaned with the aid of a grant from Woodmansterne Art Conservation Awards, this painting’s exhilarating freshness, formerly obscured by discoloured varnish, can once again be enjoyed as the artist intended. Coastal scenes, though of seventeenth-century Dutch origin, had been staple features of English painting for more than thirty years before this work was painted, and the great economic and social significance of the coast – it was at this time that sea-bathing first became popular – encouraged its appeal as a subject for French artists in the 1820s. Here Bonington beautifully suggests a bright and cloudy morning by a sea that is obviously subject to storms – there is a grounded vessel in the middle distance and a fallen crow’s nest in the foreground, details which add a small element of drama to what is otherwise a calm and reassuring scene. From his sketching tours and his long stays in Calais and Dieppe he would have been well aware of the dangers faced by those who ventured out into the treacherous waters of the Channel.

The title, On the Coast of Picardy, is derived from a lithograph after the painting by J.D. Harding published in 1829, the year after Bonington’s death. It has recently been pointed out however (by Patrick Noon of the Minneapolis Institute of Art), that it is more likely to be a view of the Cap de la Hève from Le Havre, in other words a view on the coast of Normandy. The same view was sketched by Turner in about 1832 when he visited the Channel Islands and the northern French coast. If this is confirmed it will be necessary to change the title that the painting has borne since the Wallace Collection opened to the public in 1900.

Further Reading

  • Stephen Duffy, Richard Parkes Bonington, The Wallace Collection,second edition, 2004
  • Patrick Noon, Richard Parkes Bonington: ‘On the Pleasure of Painting’, New Haven and London, 1991