Review of Paul Sandby: Picturing Britain

The following is my report in the Paul Sandby exhibition which appeared in the last Birkbeck Early Modern Society Bulletin. I saw the show in Edinburgh but as it’s now in London. You can see the original review – which includes pictures – at

Paul Sandby: Picturing Britain
The National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
7 November 2009 − 7 February 2010

The Royal Academy of Arts, London
13 March 2010—13 June 2010

This exhibition celebrates Paul Sandby’s bicentenary. Born in Nottingham, Sandby (bap. 1731-1809) started his artistic career as a draftsman on the Military Survey of North Britain in the 1740s. He was captivated by the scenes and people of Scotland and his work soon went beyond map making. Sandby worked with his brother on the ‘Great Map’ of the Highlands of Scotland. When he wasn’t working on his cartography, Sandby was creating landscape scenes, castle views, and street scenes from Edinburgh. He was a master at using watercolour to create vivid pictures. Even his maps included vignettes of the places the map recorded and details about what people were doing. Thus a castle in the distance might be fronted with an image of Jacobite prisoners being marched to their destination.

When he returned to Edinburgh, Sandby took on the Old Town as a subject. (The New Town, of course, did not yet exist.) His drawings are full of tiny details like a wee sign reading ‘Good eating down this close’ as a guide for hungry visitors in an image of 1751. By the late 1750s, Sandby was back in England and ready to take on the art world. He engaged in a feud with William Hogarth by ridiculing the latter’s ‘line of beauty’ theory. Sandby created a series of prints depicting Hogarth acting foolishly and nearly always featuring a sidekick called ‘Pugg’. The works come across as rather bitter and Sandby later distanced himself from these works. Sandby continued to develop his landscape style while also working on city scenes. His ‘Twelve London Cries Done from the Life’ of c. 1759-1760 is a series of portraits of London workers. Unlike traditional images which tend to show cheerful characters going about their work, Sandby’s figures are a bit scary and surly. The fish vendor, for example, is so frightening that she’s even able to scare a cat who would surely be interested in her wares.

Sandby was incredibly prolific. He next turned to travelling throughout England, Wales and Ireland to capture views of towns, abbeys, castles and country houses. He used his camera obscura to good effect but his drawings and watercolours always have a feeling of movement and light. He also did full scale paintings. His depiction of The Rainbow (c. 1800) which is usually in Nottingham is marvellous and harks back to the Dutch Old Masters. (Sandby is particularly good at painting animals.) Sandby’s ‘Views’ from his travels were collected and published in The Virtuosi’s Museum (1778-1782) but each print was also available separately as a monthly instalment.

Paul Sandby: Picturing Britain is an exhibition which should do a lot to restore a virtually forgotten artist to his rightful status. I have been to the exhibition in Edinburgh twice now. But, be warned, it is free here and you’ll have to pay to see it in London! [Ed. note, March 2010: worth it tho’!]

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