Richard Wilson was the foremost of the great English Landscape Painters. His grand, brooding landscapes, all an exquisite study in light and shade, were to greatly inspire and influence the works of Turner and Constable.
Early life and Art Education
Richard Wilson was born on 1 August 1714 in Penegoes, Montgomeryshire in North Wales. His father was a Rector and the family background very high-class. They were connected with some of the best characters in 'Society'. One of these was the very rich and powerful Sir George Wynne, Wilson's maternal uncle, who was responsible for discerning his artistic talent and encouraging it. In 1730, he sent him to London to be apprenticed for six years with a leading painter of the time, Thomas Wright, and then later helped him financially in setting up his own studio.
For many years, however, it seems that Richard remained dependent on his Uncle's generosity and gained a greater reputation as a fashionable young man about town than as a painter. In the 1740s, however, he knuckled down to the serious business of art-making and gained several important patrons. The most important of these was the socially and politically prominent Lyttleton Family, many members of which commissioned portraits from Wilson. His growing success as a Society Portrait Painter enabled Wilson to move to a larger, more comfortable studio on the very fashionable Covent Garden Piazza.
In 1750, with the financial backing of his friend Commodore Thomas Smith, the son of Sir Thomas Lyttleton, Wilson embarked on the mandatory 'Grand Tour'. In those times, if you were an English gentleman, with any cultural pretensions, you couldn't avoid the European Continent, especially Italy. Your education wasn't complete until you could walk into your Club and announce loftily, "Yes, I had coffee at the Cafe degli Inglesi in the Piazza di Spagna. Then we did the ruins. They were so inspiring. You don't get ruins like those any more. Although, the other day I had a premonition that we'll be able to accomplish more striking modern versions in the very distant future."
After crossing the Channel, Wilson went to Venice and remained there for several months, studying the works of Titian and other Old Masters, and working as a Portrait Painter. He befriended a leading Venetian Landscape Painter, Francesco Zuccarelli, and a rich, art-loving Englishman, William Lock. Wilson painted a very striking portrait of Zuccarelli and took seriously his advise to concentrate on landscapes. William Lock bought his paintings and invited him to travel with him. Towards the end of 1751, Wilson left Venice in his company and traveled through various notable towns of Italy en route to that grand destination, Rome.
Wilson's Roman sojourn was to last until 1757. As was his wont, he chose to settle in the most fashionable location in town - the Piazza di Spagna. This was quite a magnet for artists, foreign and local alike, because aside from the birds of a feather concept, it was where the Grand Tourists from England gathered and, in those days before photography, you could count on them to buy your paintings of the Roman countryside and monuments and provide you with a very respectable income. Seeing the demand, Wilson decided to provide and then took landscape painting in the classical style with a vengeance. He was inspired by the works of Poussin and Claude Lorraine as well as that of contemporary painters like Vernet and Mengs. Aside from William Lock, he gained other important patrons like Ralph Howard, Viscount Wicklow, and William Legge, Earl of Darmouth, and the Earl of Leicester, and Cardinal Albani. For William Legge, he produced a quite remarkable series of chalk drawings of the Palatine Hill.
Back in England
Upon his return to England, Wilson took for himself an even grander studio than the one he had left, became actively involved in founding first the Society of Artists and then the Royal Academy of Art, held many exhibitions, gained a considerable reputation, and sold works to an increasing number of famous patrons at stupendous rates. Success, it seemed, was here to stay. Then, of course, came the great fall from the high perch. With all the money and adulation, Wilson had grown arrogant to the point of rudeness - there is a famous story about him telling King George III that it would be quite okay for His Majesty to pay in weekly installments when the King thought that 100 guineas per painting was just too bloody much. The King and Wilson's former patrons, miffed with his condescending attitude, turned their attention to other artists like the Irish George Barret and Wilson's old friend, Zuccarelli.
With little work coming his way, Wilson took to drink in a big way and it was one long slide into poverty and ill-health after that. After his friends' efforts to save him and his career came to naught, he was taken back to the family home in Wales. He died here on 11 May 1782.
'Snowdon from Llyn Nantlle', Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.
'Cader Idris', Llyn-y-Cau', Tate Gallery, London.
'Llyn Peris and Dolbadarn Castle', National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.