view of wynnstay

Fidelity and elegance: The aquatint landscapes of Paul Sandby (1731–1809)

Ann Gunn explores Paul Sandby’s pioneering achievements in aquatint through prints in the King’s Topographical Collection. A printmaking technique popular for its ability to mimic the effects of watercolour, Sandby used aquatint to reproduce many of his own landscape drawings created on tours of England and Wales.

Paul Sandby (1731-1809) was a founder member of the Royal Academy and a prominent figure in the development of British watercolour painting. Through his work, he gave the British public images of their country which contributed to the emerging appreciation of British landscape and the development of tourism within the British Isles. He is best known as a watercolour artist but in his lifetime, his images were disseminated through prints: etchings and engravings to begin with and subsequently aquatints, a medium in which Sandby was a pioneer.

When naturalist, antiquarian and travel writer Thomas Pennant published his Tour of Wales in 1778, he noted in the preface that:

Those that wish to anticipate the views in the intended progress may satisfy themselves by the purchase of the late publications of the admirable Mr. PAUL SANDBY, in whose labours fidelity and elegance are united.[1]

He was referring to the three sets of views in North and South Wales that Paul Sandby had published between 1775 and 1777, using the new print technique of aquatint.

Wynnstay, seat of Sir Watkin Williams Wynn Bart

Paul Sandby published this view of Wynnstay as part of his influential series XII Views in North Wales (1776)

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Pennant’s words are a testament to Sandby’s status as a well-known and esteemed landscape artist, one whose works helped form a growing appreciation for British landscape.

Another commentator, writing of Sandby’s paintings, declared that:

...for force, clearness, and transparency, it may very truly be said that his Paintings in water colours have not yet been equalled; the Views of Castles, Ruins, Bridges, &c. which are frequently introduced, will remain monuments to the honour of the Arts, the Artists, and the Country, when the originals from which they are designed are mouldered into dust.[2]

The same can be said of Sandby’s prints, which disseminated his images much more widely to a range of audiences with diverse interests:

Scarce a view in England or Wales that deserved the attention of the tourist, the artist, or the amateur, but came under his pencil, and was given in aquatint, either plain or coloured.[3]

Paul Sandby was born in Nottingham in 1731. His professional career began in 1747 when he was appointed as a draughtsman to the military survey of Scotland which was undertaken in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite uprising. Travelling with the surveyors offered the young artist the opportunity to hone his skills while studying and sketching the Scottish landscape.

Printmaking was an integral part of Sandby’s career. He etched landscapes and figure subjects while in Edinburgh, and he announced his arrival on the London art scene with the publication of a set of Views in Scotland in 1752. These were followed by the grand Views of Windsor Great Park, 1754−58, a set of prints after drawings by Paul’s brother, Thomas Sandby. Throughout the 1750s he produced landscape etchings in different styles, as well as figure subjects and satirical prints, but in the mid-1760s he ceased making prints, instead concentrating on his burgeoning career as a painter. His professional status and subject matter were signalled in the inscription below his portrait, reproduced in mezzotint in 1763 after the painting by Francis Cotes: ‘Ruralium Prospectuum Pictor’ or Painter of Rural Prospects. His growing reputation was such that by 1764, Thomas Gainsborough could recommend him as the ‘only man of Genius to paint real views from Nature’.[4]

Portrait of Paul Sandby

Mezzotint portrait of Paul Sandby by Edward Fisher

A mezzotint of an original painting by Francis Cotes, depicting Paul Sandby, created in 1763.

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What brought him back to printmaking in the early 1770s was the development of the aquatint method of etching.  The advantage of aquatint is that it is tonal and can imitate the quality of watercolour paintings in a way that line engraving and etching cannot. Fine resin powder is dusted onto a copperplate and melted, or dissolved in spirits and poured over the plate. The plate is immersed in acid and the resin grains leave a delicately reticulated pattern which prints in tones rather than lines.  A number of artists had been experimenting with variations of this technique and the French artist J. B. Le Prince is credited with producing the first aquatints in 1768.  Sandby acquired a version of his method from P. P. Burdett in 1773 or 1774, paid for by his pupil and patron, the Hon. Charles Greville.[5]    He proceeded to experiment, developing the spirit ground method of applying the rosin which he later described to a friend.

Pound some white Rosin dissolve and dissolve it in rectified spirit of wine, & mind, the fine tints are made by a small quantity of Rosin & the netty by a greater. ....You will find by this method the ground is perfectly smooth & clear, & it will receive the touch with ease. – You will see through a glass the most beautiful grain.[6]

He also perfected the sugar-lift process to draw his image on the plate, a technique which reproduced his brush strokes exactly.

When you have done your design with Treacle, whiteing & a little lamp-black, when dry varnish it over with a thin varnish made of white Rosin & spirits of Turpentine which stands the aqua fortis better than mastic – it will dry in a few minutes, – lay it there in water & you will find the touches rise up soon, stroke them off with a soft feather & dry the plate.[7]

Sandby took to this new process with such enthusiasm that for a time he did nothing else, as he told his friend John Clerk of Eldin in September 1775.

[…] I perceive you have been trying at Le Prince’s secret, know my good Friend I got a key to it and am perfect master of it, you will perceive by the inclosed trials of mine I soon made a progress in it. I have already done 24 Views in Wales and 4 Large Warwicks which I will send you as soon as they are published. I own no hobby horse in the world woud [sic] suit me eaqual [sic] to this, indeed I have rid so closely these 4 month past I have scarcely done anything else, the work is so delightful and easy to me now in the execution I do it with the same ease but with more pleasure than on paper.[8]

Sandby published over 140 aquatint prints, principally his own views of landscapes and townscapes. The major sets include views in Wales; Windsor Castle and its surroundings; Warwick Castle; scenes of towns along the river Severn; and three views in Canterbury.

The Entrance of Warwick Castle from the Lower Court

Published as part of a set entitled Four Views of Warwick Castle, this aquatint depicts the entrance to Warwick Castle from the Lower Court. 

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He also published scenes of the military encampments set up in London after the Gordon Riots of 1780; a number of gentle satires about the craze for ballooning in 1784; and prints after drawings of Ionian antiquities by William Pars, Neapolitan scenery by Pietro Fabris, and views of the Roman Carnival after David Allan.

Sandby’s aquatint views were collected and enjoyed by his contemporaries to satisfy a variety of interests. Pennant recommended them to travellers as illustrations to accompany his Tour of Wales for those in search of ‘views’, and he included the sets in his own eight-volume extra-illustrated copy, now in the National Library of Wales. The antiquarian Richard Gough praised Sandby for his contribution to topography. In his British Topography, Gough highlighted Sandby’s Scottish landscape etchings, observing that:

Scotland has had a small share in topographical illustration […] those given us by Mr. Paul Sandby served but to make us wish for a further acquaintance with the many wild prospects of this country from his pencil.[9]

He also noted in the entries on the county of Kent that:

Paul Sandby proposes to publish by subscription, at two guineas, six prints, from the original drawings in water-colours, to be executed in imitation of the drawings, in their various colours, in a new method, called Aqua Tinta.[10]

Antiquarians also appreciated Sandby’s views. Richard Godfrey copied many of them, including several aquatints, for Francis Grose’s Antiquities of England and Wales, and Antiquarian Repertory, ‘a miscellany intended to preserve and illustrate several valuable remains of old times’.[11]

Chepstow Castle in Monmouthshire

A plate taken from Sandby's first set of XII Views in Aquatinta from Drawings Taken on the Spot in South-Wales, depicting Chepstow Castle in Monmouthshire.

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Sandby’s views may have been appropriated by others to illustrate their preoccupations, but his interests were neither antiquarian, nor strictly topographical. He did not record the minutiae of architectural or archaeological detail in the ancient buildings he depicted. He was interested in depicting ‘fine views’.[12] His landscapes, while recognisable, were not always strictly accurate but were often manipulated for pictorial effect.

View of Llangollin, in the County of Denbigh

This is a plate from Paul Sandby’s second set of Welsh views, XII Views in North Wales (1776)

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On the other hand, what Sandby’s contemporaries valued about his views, both painted and printed, was his apparent truth to nature, his ‘fidelity’, combined with elegance, or taste.

It is but bare Justice to own that every Object pleases, because every Part is a just Representation of Nature; nor can your Figures be better disposed, or placed in more graceful Attitudes.[13]

In many of his exquisite delineations, uniting fidelity with taste, the beautiful scenery for which this Island is so eminently distinguished, is displayed as in a mirror.[14]

Sandby was interested in the pictorial aspects of the views he selected, and also their reflections of everyday life. In his title plate for his first set of Welsh views he described North Wales as ‘that fertile and Romantick Country’, emphasising both its use and its picturesque appearance. His landscapes and buildings are places of contemporary work and leisure, locations of everyday activities, often depicted with humour. Real people animate the scenes, as depicted in the images below: a ruined castle is being repaired, or perhaps quarried; haymakers lark about at the end of the harvest; an artist’s tranquil sketching expedition is interrupted by an angry bull.

View of Manerbawr Castle, from the Inward Court

Manorbier Castle in Pembrokeshire was one of the antiquarian sites visited by Paul Sandby on a 1773 tour of South Wales, led by Sir Joseph Banks

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His views of Warwick Castle (see The Entrance of Warwick Castle, above) are populated not by elegant aristocratic company, but by a gardener staggering under the weight of a large plant pot, and a man and a boy trying to free a kite which is stuck in a tree. Sandby’s aquatints repay very close inspection. They are full of tiny details: a boat shooting the rapids below Pont-Aberglaslyn; a minute post-chaise toiling uphill towards Wynnstay (see View of Wynnstay, above); a figure stuck in the mud in the river below Chepstow Castle (see Chepstow Castle in Monmouthshire, above). But these details do not distract attention from the overall compositions, nor from an appreciation of Sandby’s handling of the aquatint medium with which he produced prints with great subtlety of tone and texture.

Pont-Aber-Glasllin

Sandby visited Pont Aberglaslyn in Caernarvonshire during a tour of North Wales in 1771

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Sandby’s spirit-ground and sugar-lift method of aquatint did not catch on; the plate surface was too fragile for a large print run and the process was too labour intensive. It was a technique better suited to the painter-etcher, not the reproductive print publisher. The rosin dust ground proved more durable, and the reproductive print trade used the quicker stopping out process to imitate flat washes in the topographical prints made in the next decades. Only in the 20th century were the painterly qualities of aquatint and the lift-ground method rediscovered as a means of artistic expression.

Today Sandby’s aquatints continue to be valued by a variety of audiences. Artists and print connoisseurs admire his technical virtuosity. Social and cultural historians can find a wealth of material in the depictions of the people who inhabit the landscapes, their activities and pastimes. And tourists in Wales can continue to ‘anticipate the views in the intended progress’, following in Sandby’s footsteps and discovering that some things have changed very little in the last 250 years.

[1] Pennant, Thomas, Tours in Wales, 3 vols. (London: 1778). p. v.

[2] ‘Memoirs of Paul Sandby, Esq. R.A.’, The European Magazine and London Review, 30, (1796), pp.75–76

[3] ‘British School of Engraving’, Library of the Fine Arts; Or Repertory of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture and Engraving, 3 (1832), p. 384

[4] Thomas Gainsborough to Lord Hardwicke, c. 1764, see Woodall, Mary, (ed.), The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough, revised edition London, 1963, pp. 87-93.

[5] Gunn, Ann V., ‘Sandby, Greville and Burdett, and the “Secret” of Aquatint’, Print Quarterly, 29 (2012), 178–80.

[6] Paul Sandby, Extract from a letter to Patrick McMorland, 14 November 1791. A manuscript note in John Leigh Philips commonplace book, Manchester Central Library Archives, Local Studies Unit M84/3/5/3. Published by Martin Hopkinson in ‘Paul Sandby and the Secrets of Aquatint’, Print Quarterly, 20 (2003), pp. 380–82.

[7] ibid.

[8] Letter from Sandby to John Clerk of Eldin, London, 8 September 1775. London, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Art Library, MSL/1932/1563

[9] Gough, Richard, British Topography Preface to Vol.1, pp. xx–xxi. London 1780

[10] Ibid. p. 471

[11] Francis Grose Antiquities of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, (1785 to 1797), 12 vols.; The Antiquarian repertory: a miscellany intended to preserve and illustrate several valuable remains of old times: adorned with elegant sculptures (1775 to 1786) 5 vols.

[12] Paul Sandby to Thomas Pennant, 23 June 1777. Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, Misc letters, Ms.14,005E f. 180

[13] Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Saturday 25 April 1778.

[14] The European Magazine wrote in 1796.

  • Ann Gunn
  • Ann Gunn teaches Museum and Gallery Studies at the University of St Andrews. She writes on 18th–20th century British art and is the author of The Prints of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: a complete catalogue, (2007).  She started working on Paul Sandby when she was Keeper of Art at Nottingham City Museums and has recently published The Prints of Paul Sandby (1731–1809): A Catalogue Raisonné (2015).