Prout, Samuel (DNB00)
|←Prout, John Skinner||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 46
PROUT, SAMUEL (1783–1852), watercolour painter, was born at Plymouth on 17 Sept. 1783. When about four or five years old he had a sunstroke, which had lasting consequences on his health. Always subject to violent pains in the head, he never passed a week without being confined to his room or bed for one or two days, 'till after thirty years of marriage.' At his first school, and afterwards at Plymouth grammar school, then under the Rev. J. Bidlake, he found masters who encouraged his early proclivities to art, and at the latter he formed acquaintance with Benjamin Robert Haydon [q. v.], two years his junior, with whom he witnessed the wreck of the Button, a large East Indiaman, which was cast ashore under the citadel on 26 Jan. 1796. Both boys were greatly impressed by the scene, and made it the subject of their first pictures ; and the effect on Prout is to be traced in his drawings for a great many years, e.g. 'Wreck of an Indiaman in Plymouth Sound' (1811); 'A Man-of-war ashore' (1821); 'An Indiaman dismasted' (1824). When in the reading-room kept by Haydon's father, he became acquainted with John Britton, then in want of drawings to illustrate his 'Beauties of England and Wales.' Britton took him for a walking tour in Cornwall ; but the result was failure, as his sketches were not good enough to engrave. They parted good friends, and Prout took lessons in perspective, and worked so sedulously that a portfolio of drawings which he sent to Britton in 1802 secured him attention. He then went to London, and in 1803 he exhibited, at the Royal Academy, a drawing of 'Bennet's Cottage on the Tamar.' His adress is given in the 'Catalogue' as 10 Water Street, Bridewell Precinct ; but the next year it is changed to 21 Wilderness Row, Goswell Street, where he lived with Britton for about two years, and was employed in making copies of drawings by Cozens, Turner, Girtin, and others of the best draughtsmen. During this time he also made drawings in Cambridgeshire, Essex, and Wiltshire, some of which were engraved in 'Beauties of England and Wales' and others in 'Architectural Antiquities,' and in 1804 he formed an intimacy with David Cox (1783-1859) [q. v.] He exhibited scenes in Cornwal, Devonshire, Somerset, and Wiltshire in 1804 and 1805; but in the latter year he was obliged to return to Devonshire on account of ill-health. He still contributed to the 'Beauties and other topographical works, and sold his drawings through Palser of Westminster Bridge Road. Palser paid him 5s. a drawing, and he sold others at prices varying from 3s. a piece to 5l. a dozen. He did not exhibit again till 1808, when be was residing at 35 Poland Street. In this and the two following years he sent four drawings in Devonshire and Cornwall to the Royal Academy. In 1810 he became a member of the Associated Artists (or Painters) in Water-colour, and in 1811, and for many years afterwards, his address was 4 Brixton Place, Stockwell. He exhibited at the Associated Artists in 1810-12, the Society of Painters in Water-colours in 1811-12, the Royal Academy in 1812-14, at the Bond Street exhibitions in 1814-15, and at the Society of Painters in Oil and Water-colours in 1815-20. His drawings of this period show that he had been as far south as the Isle of Wight, and to the north as far as Durham, Jedburgh, and Kelso. He added to his income by giving drawing lessons, and by circulating designs as 'copies for beginners.'
Besides the engravings from his drawings which appeared in the 'Beauties of England and Wales' (23 plates, 1803-13), the 'Antiquarian Topographical Cabinet,' 'Relics of Antiquity' (W. Clarke of New Bond Street, 1810-11), and other works of the kind, a series of educational books was published by R. Ackermann, 101 Strand, with designs etched on soft ground or in aquatint by Prout. Among these were 'Rudiments of Landscape, with Progressive Studies,' 1813; 'Prout's Village Scenery,' 1813, plates coloured; 'A New Drawing-book for the Use of Beginners;' 'Studies of Boats and Coast Scenery;' 'A Series of Easy Lessons in Landscape-drawing,' 1820; 'A New Drawing-book in the Manner of Chalk,' 1821 ; 'A Series of Views of Rural Cottages in the North of England,' 1821. Ackermann also published a number of detached etchings by Prout of marine, architectural, and rural subjects, mostly boat studies, and a number of drawing and model books too numerous to mention. The 'Rudiments' (1813) and the 'Series of Easy Lessons' (1820) also contained some pages of sound and simple instruction to students. The plates of the latter showed the process from chalk to finished colours.
Down to this time Prout had made no special mark as an artist, and his subjects had been mainly confined to simple shore and rustic scenes ; but in 1818 or 1819 he paid his first visit to the continent, which ad for many years been closed to artists by the wars. He went from Havre to Rouen, and brought back sketches of the old picturesque architecture of Normandy, some of which were utilised for his contributions to the Water-colour Society's exhibition in 1819. He had now found his true vocation. In those old streets of gabled houses, paved with cobble stones, in the market-places crowded with quaint costumes, in cathedral and church with crumbled masonry and time-worn sculpture, he found an inexhaustible field of the picturesque. Though he was not the first to discover it, for Henry Edridge [q. v.] had been before him, he soon made it his own. His broad and effective treatment of light and shade, his broken touch with chalk or reed-pen, so valuable in suggesting atmosphere and rendering the picturesqueness of decay, helped greatly to his success. He had also a fine sense of scale, which enabled him to give the true value to the bulk and height of the buildings he drew. Neither as a draughtsman nor as a colourist did he belong to the first rank, but he drew surely and effectively, and he was skilful in the arrangement of his tints and in enlivening the general tone with sparkling touches of local colour. It was a maxim with him that an artist painted in colour, but thought in chiaroscuro. His figures individually were poor, but he knew how to group them naturally and to introduce them with efiect. They admirably perform their function of aiding the composition and filling it with life, and no one has preserved for us so fully the aspect of continental streets in the early part of the century before modern architecture and modern costume had seriously impaired their picturesque charm. The withdrawal of members from the old society in 1820, when they again decided to exclude oil pictures from their exhibitions, would have been still more serious than it was but for the efforts of a few men, of whom Prout was one. In 1821 Prout showed nineteen drawings, and in 1822 half the collection was supplied by four artists — Prout, Fielding, Robson, and Barrett. This and next year his drawings showed that he had been to Belgium and the Rhenish Provinces, and in 1824 he exhibited some large and boldly sketched scenes in Bavaria. Except that he in 1824 included Italy in his wanderings, there is little to add to the history of this artistic progress. He remained till his death the most popular painter of continental streets, and one of the most important members of the Water-colour Society. To its exhibitions (1816-32) he contributed 547 works in all — thirty-six as an exhibitor, and 511 as a member.
In 1835 Prout moved from Brixton Place to 2 Bedford Place, Clapham Rise ; but in the following year he had a pulmonary attack, and went to Hastings, where he resided for several years, in a depressed state of health and spirits, mourning his absence from 'dearest and sweetest London.' From 1840 he was well enough to go to town in the summer, when he took up his quarters at 39 Torrington Square. At the end of 1845 he came to 5 De Crespigny Terrace, Denmark Hill, Camberwell, where he lived till his death. He was now a near neighbour of his friend, Mr. John Ruskin, who has written of him and his works with intimate sympathy and inimitable charm. Even now, notwithstanding his reputation, he had to work hard for his living. His prices were one, three, or six guineas, according to the size of the drawing; and when, five years later, he raised his prices (apparently for the second time), on the plea that his health restricted his production, it was only from three and a half to four guineas, and to ten for the larger size. Some of these have since sold at prices ranging from five hundred to a thousand guineas. His last visit to Normandy was in 1846, and he returned from this in such a shattered state of health that he was obliged to withdraw from all society but that of his intimate friends. His cheerfulness and his industry were, however, indomitable. Though unable to begin work before the middle of the day, he would continue it till late in the night. In 1852 he was seized with apoplexy, and he died at Camberwell on 9 or 10 Feb. 1862.
A great many of the drawings of his continental period were lithographed and published in volumes. Among these were 'Facsimiles of Sketches made in France and Germany,' 1833; 'Interiors and Exteriors,' 1834; 'Sketches in France, Switzerland, and Italy,' 1839; and 'Sketches at Home and Abroad,' 1844. He also published 'Bits for Beginners;' 'Hints on Light and Shade, Composition, &c.,' 1838, republished 1848; 'Prout's Microcosm;' and an 'Elementary Drawing-book.' Engravings from his drawings are scattered in Pye's pocket-book series, the 'Landscape Annual,' 'Continental Annual' (1832), 'Forget-me-Not' (1826-34 and 1836-8), 'Keepsake' (1830-2), 'Fisher's Drawing-room Scrap-book' (1832-4), and other publications.
[Roget's 'Old' Water-colour Society; Ruskin's Notes on Prout and Hunt; Art Journal, March 1849 (Ruskin); Mrs. Hall's Retrospect of a Long Life; Athenæum, 14 Feb. 1852; Ackermann's Repository; Somerset House Gazette, ii. 47-8; Mag. of Fine Arts, i. 121-2; Monkhouse's Earlier English Water-colour Painters; Redgrave's Dict.; Bryan's Dict. (Graves and Armstrong).]