Most of us are up for blockbuster exhibitions: the kinds that draw the crowds, cost a fortune, and give you bragging rights for attending. But there is, you know, a place in the great scheme of things for small exhibitions, a show of pieces that a gallery already possesses but which don’t get out much, or which cast a fresh eye on an artist we’re familiar with.
And it’s that latter sort that we get at the Wallace Collection, which is staging a little show in the room behind the gift shop of 10 watercolours of Turner and his lesser known, younger contemporary, the Anglo-French artist Richard Parkes Bonington.
The Wallace doesn’t often show its Turners – a series of paintings from Yorkshire, and a shore scene with crab pickers. As for Bonington, he’s represented in the main gallery with his oil paintings, chiefly depicting whimsical French historical scenes (there’s a jolly one of Francis I) and some marine or riverscapes, but with the watercolours we get the opportunity to put him next to the artist with whom he was obsessed, Turner.
The Yorkshire Turners are from the shooting holidays he spent with Sir William Pilkington – and I bet you never envisaged Turner shooting grouse – and are an affectionate evocation of place. In the one called Woodcock shooting on Otley Chevin, the pine gets more attention than the woodcock but what it does have is interestingly scratchy technique, for he scrapes away at the paint to depict rubbly earth and bare rock. The other technique for giving density to the earth tones is, it seems, the addition of gum Arabic to the paint. Hackfall near Ripon is more characteristic, being a hazily atmospheric riverscape, with a woman in white (there’s a novel in that).
But London is hardly short of Turners; the landscapes of Richard Bonington are a rarer treat. Poor Bonington died of consumption (or tuberculosis) like so many other artists, when he was just 26, but not before his talent had matured. His admiration for Turner did not translate into imitation; his serene landscape style is his own.
Fishing Boats, painted when he was just 20, show his gift for depicting water, with repeated horizontal sweeps of colour. The cathedral at Rouen is seen from the river, a hazy presence behind the fishing boats. As for his views of Venice, it was a brave choice, given that Canaletto had pretty well copyrighted the city, but it’s interesting to see what a lower eye-view delivers: it’s less grand but there’s more human interest for one thing, and a more human perspective.
This little show does not perhaps show a master-disciple relationship between Turner and Bonington (they may not have met) but if you’re looking at Bonington in the main collection this is an opportunity to see another aspect to a painter who died too young. As for Turner, can you ever have enough? And if you’re in the Wallace for the predictably popular dog painting show, drop by when you’re in the gift shop. It’s free.
Housekeeper’s Room, to April 21, 2024; wallacecollection.org