Up, Up, and Away over Westminster

September 17 2015, 1:42pm

Carlton Hobbs LLC In the present pair of paintings, each depicts London from the same perspective view, however the scenes are separated by three hundred years. The first painting shows London in the late nineteenth century, the second revealing how the city would have appeared in 1584.1 The paintings are based on two engravings by the renowned English illustrators Henry William Brewer (1836-1903) and William Lionel Wyllie (1851-1931), which were published in May 1884 in the weekly illustrated magazine, The Graphic. Carlton Hobbs LLC Henry William Brewer was an artist and member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and was regarded as one of the most outstanding architectural illustrators of his day. His career began with a series of drawings of medieval buildings in Germany and from 1858 he became a frequent exhibitor at the Royal Academy.2 As well as his panoramas for The Graphic Brewer was also renowned for his drawings of fantasy architecture together with his illustrations depicting buildings no longer in existence. He also produced a series of 16th century views of London, described as showing the city “in the time of Henry VIII,” from which one of the present paintings derives. A selection of these were published in The Builder after the artist’s death in 1903.3 William Lionel Wyllie was a prolific maritime artist and accomplished sailor. He studied at the Heatherly School of Fine Art and the Royal Academy School, during which time he won the prestigious Turner Gold medal for his painting Dawn After a Storm in 1869 at the age of 18. From the 1870s, Wyllie was employed by The Graphic as an artist of marine subjects. He was closely associated with the navy and, shortly before his death, at the age of 79, completed a large-scale panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar for the Portsmouth Dockyard, measuring 42 feet long and 12 feet tall. Upon his death, Wyllie was buried with full naval honors including a rowed procession up Portsmouth Harbor. Brewer and Wyllie’s two views of London formed part of a long running series of panoramic cityscapes published by The Graphic in the 1870s and 1880s. Beginning in 1876 with Constantinople, the series also included Sydney, Cairo and Athens. Brewer, who specialized in aerial perspectives of cities, contributed views of Dublin and Rome as well as other British cites such as Liverpool, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Portsmouth, Oxford, Birmingham and Manchester. Figure 1 The view depicting the city in 1884 was initially sketched by Wyllie, who accompanied Brewer during a balloon trip over the city and was taken from a point 1,400 feet above St. James’s. In his commentary on the view in The Graphic Brewer complained that “the rate at which the balloon passed over [made it] impossible to sketch sufficient detail.” Furthermore, Brewer added that “when looking down upon London from a great height the effect of the smoke is remarkable. Sudden gusts of wind carry it away from one point and pile it up in great columns over others… the rays of the sun also seem to piece these great cumulus masses in the most strange and eccentric manner.”4 An engraving of a balloon trip over London by Wyllie published some years earlier in The Graphic (figure 1) gives an idea of the difficulties the artist would have faced in this precarious exercise. Wyllie recounted how the feat was accomplished in a 1902 interview for Cassell’s Magazine: “It was a curious experience…We took our seats in the car and all we could see was the ring of dirty hands of the men who were holding us down. They were taken away, and in an instant, so it seemed, the men were out of sight and in their place below us appeared a wonderful panorama of London. I afterwards prepared a map ruled in squares, and sheets of drawing paper with the same squares drawn in perspective, on which I traced the river and buildings from the map. It was, of course, a difficult task to draw on wood afterwards—for that was before the days of ‘facsimile process’—as naturally everything had to be reversed.”5 Figure 2 Following the balloon flight, Brewer filled in the details of the engraving by visiting individual sites and viewing the city from various vantage points such as Victoria Tower. According to The Graphic Brewer’s wanderings did not go unnoticed: “While prying about for some architectural details, with a black bag, folding easel, and a map marked with suspicious red lines and crosses, Mr. Brewer was arrested as a possible Fenian [Irish Republican] terrorist outside the Houses of Parliament.”6 When it was published by The Graphic (figure 2), the 1884 view as described as “one of the largest wood-engravings ever issued by a newspaper.” The historic view (figure 3) was published in the same issue of The Graphic for comparative purposes, however, it was a much smaller engraving. Brewer wrote of this smaller, historic view that it was, “compiled from ancient maps and views of London, chiefly those by Agues, Norden, Hollar & c., compared with descriptions given by Stowe, Speed and other writers.”7 Figure 3 Brewer’s ancient views were conceived within the context of a revival of interest in antiquarian circles in the history of London, which took place during the 1880s. The Topographical Society of London was founded in 1880 and in 1881-2 the Society issued, as its first publication, a panoramic view of London by Dutch artist Anthonis van den Wyngaerde dating from 1544. Wyngaerde was one of the most important topographic artists of the sixteenth century, and it is likely that his view proved a valuable source form Brewer in his quest to record many of the buildings, by then disappeared, which make his historic view so fascinating. This concept was previously explored by A.W.N. Pugin (1812-1852), who published an polemic volume in 1836 entitled Contrasts: Or, a Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries and Similar Buildings of the Present Day, which argued in favor of the revival of Gothic architecture as a solution to contemporary flaws in both building design and social structure based on idealized medieval principals. Although he took a biased position and the drawings were skewed in favor of his ideals, the book had a huge impact on 19th century architecture and design. Figure 4 illustrates a pair of plates in Pugin’s books depicting a Catholic town in 1440 contrasted with the same town in 1840; they are the most comparable panoramic views in Contrasts to those by Brewer and Wyllie. A further interesting connection can be made in noting that the Houses of Parliament are prominently featured in the 1884 view of London, for which Pugin made great contributions in the designs and decoration. Figure 4 Accompanying the two engravings of London was a key to the 1884 view (figure 5) identifying 80 buildings together with a commentary on both illustrations by Brewer himself. Regarding the historic view, Brewer notes the old St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was destroyed in the fire of London, London Bridge covered with houses, and the vast open expanse of Lambeth marshes which by 1884 had long since been covered by the ever expanding metropolis. It seems that there may have been a time lapse between the London engravings and the present paintings as Tower Bridge, completed in 1894, appears on the painting but not in the engraving. Figure 5 These paintings were formerly part of the collection of the Julia Overing Beals, descended from the Boit family, one of the most prominent and intersting Massachusetts families in the first half of the twentieth century. Mrs. Beals’ great uncle, Edward Darley Boit Jr., was an expatriate and artist who moved his family to Paris where he befriended the painter John Singer Sargent. Sargent’s famous group portrait, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, now in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, immortalized his four girls, Mary Louisa, Florence, Jane, and Julia Overing Boit. The two large Chinese vases in the painting were inherited by Mrs. Beals before they too were donated by her daughters to the Boston MFA, where they now hang alongside the Sargent painting.