Richard Parkes Bonington
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Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Shipping Off the Kent Coast, 1825
Pen, grey ink and watercolors over pencil with scratching out
15.8 x 23.5 cm
Presented by Prof. Luke Herrmann through the National Art Collections Fund (from the Bruce Ingram Collection), 2002
WA 2002.20

This 1825 watercolor coast scene belongs to a prolific period of such scenes produced in Bonington’s life. Born in England but later emigrated to France, the artist took short travels back to his native England. A trip in 1825 had a considerable impression on his watercolors due to a renewed his interest in Constable and Turner. The coast of Kent is located off of southeastern England and was a major port in the nineteenth century. Although it has not been established whether Bonington passed through Kent on his travels back from London to Paris when this watercolor was executed, it is entirely possible. This watercolor was preparatory to an oil painting in the Wallace Collection and closely resembles those of the Dutch and Flemish traditions in the seventeenth century. In fact, port scenes of van der Cappelle or van de Velde are frequently invoked in discussions of this drawing, which Bonington painted shortly after returning from London. During much of his training in Paris, Bonington spent extensive time in the Louvre looking at, studying, and copying Dutch and Flemish paintings, including marine and coast scenes. The lowness of the watercolor’s horizon and the large amount of the canvas left to the sky, along with his attention towards atmospheric qualities and light techniques, can likely be attributed to Bonington’s predilection for the seventeenth-century masters Cuyp and Ruisdael.

While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what types of ships these are, it is likely that they are associated with transportation of goods. The boat in the front resembles a cargo ship, to its left a smaller vessel perhaps a fishing boat, and the largest vessel in the background most closely resembles an ocean-going ship. The light sweeps of color to denote the sky, clouds, and horizon-line is perpendicular to the vertical ship masts which again contrast with the undulating waves of the sea. Verticals and horizontals interpentrate to forge a balanced composition. Bonington utilizes the “scratching out” technique, a method of pigment removal with a sharp instrument, to outline and highlight the waves of the sea. The effect is vivid, creating a more textural and almost frothy quality, particularly at the leftmost edge of the boats.

Many sources comment on Bonington’s artistic precocity at such an early age. When both of his parents’ careers failed, Bonington’s father acquired a sum off of selling his son’s works. Even after the artist’s death, his father continued to sell his son’s works. When inventory dwindled, his father would try to pass off his own works as those of the artist’s. Not only does this show that Bonington was recognized in his day, but also that his works were in marketable demand. After receiving a gold medal at the 1824 salon along with Constable, Bonington’s reputation was firmly established. His watercolors and landscapes were regarded very highly, and in France, was one of the first artists to paint outdoors rather than in the studio. A group of paintings previously attributed to the artist were actually painted by close followers, another testament to the influence Bonington had on nineteenth-century watercolors.

Anny Su

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