Turner to Monet
De Wint is widely known for his expansive vistas of flat landscape executed with a confident breadth of handling. His peaceful, open, often sunny, always optimistic and productive landscapes and rural scenes seem oblivious to, or perhaps consciously avoid, the social upheavals of his time, brought about by the Industrial Revolution. As the novelist William Thackeray wrote, ‘[One] might have called for a pot of port at seeing one of De Wint’s haymakings … everything basked lazily for him, and one wondered whether he remained torpid in winter’.1 De Wint’s works are nostalgic and romantic scenes of reaction. He produced simple watercolour sketches of Dutch-like flat landscapes, often taken around Lincoln in south-eastern England. They showed grain-harvesting and haymaking, or conventionally imposing views that included such institutional subjects as cathedrals, county houses and castles.
De Wint painted the subject of Kenilworth Castle many times. This is a large exhibition watercolour, the biggest and most highly worked of his known versions of Kenilworth Castle. The castle, in the midland county of Warwickshire, has romantic historical associations from early Norman to Elizabethan times, when it became the seat of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite, who entertained her lavishly. It was immortalised in Walter Scott’s popular novel Kenilworth, first published in 1821, only a few years before De Wint painted this watercolour. A visitors’ guide to the castle published in the 1820s says, ‘… as we tread the ground so much famed in history as Kenilworth, the mind is naturally affected with a pleasing pensive melancholy’.2 This is the mood evoked by the artist. John Clare, poet of the natural world and a friend of De Wint’s, wrote in his ‘Essay on landscape’: ‘The only artist that produces real English scenery in which British landscapes are seen and felt upon paper with all their poetry and exillerating [sic.] expression of beauty about them is De Wint’.
The balanced composition and careful rendering follows the spirit and grand style of Claude Lorrain who painted in Rome nearly two hundred years earlier. The middle-distant medieval ruins, like Claude’s Roman ruins, are silhouetted against a sky radiating with the warm glow of a setting sun. This magical Claudean light is reflected up from foreground water, and it backlights the classically balanced framing foliage. By capturing the golden light De Wint transforms the subject from mere topography into a landscape of poetry, evoking the passage of time. In doing so he is stylistically linked to his great contemporary Turner, as is amply demonstrated in his Romantic castle of similar date, Alnwick Castle c. 1829, and earlier golden Scarborough town and castle: morning: boys catching crabs c. 1810.
Adapted from Ron Radford, Island to empire: 300 years of British art 1550–1850, Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2005, pp. 245–6.
1 W.M. Thackeray, Critical papers in art London, 1911, p. 269.
2 F. Smith, An historical and descriptive guide to Leamington Spa with an account of Warwick and Kenilworth London, first published 1820s, reprinted in 1831, n.p.