Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bonington, Richard Parkes

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BONINGTON, RICHARD PARKES (1801–1828), painter in oil and water colours, was born at the village of Arnold, near Nottingham, on 25 Oct. 1801. His grand-father was governor of Nottingham gaol, to which posthis father succeeded, but the latter lost it through irregularities. His mother’s name was Parkes, and she kept a Ladies’school at' Arnold, which was afterwards moved to Nottingham; but it was broken up by the imprudent conduct of her husband, and the family went to Calais. The father had previously taken to painting, and he exhibited a landscape at the Royal Academy in 1797, and a portrait in 1808, and published a few coloured prints. At Calais he set up a bobbin net lace factory with Clarke and Webster, and was one of the first to promote in this locality an industry which has since become very prosperous there, His partnership was, however, broken up in 1818, and he subsequently kept a lace slump with Webster in Paris. When very young Richard showed a great love for art and acting. He is said to have sketched ‘everything’ at three years old, and to have drawn with accuracy, and even taste, when seven or eight. At Calais he gained instruction from Louis Francia, the water-colourist. At Paris, when only fifteen, he studied at the Louvre. It was there, in 1516 or 1817, that Eugene Delacroix, then himself a student, was first struck with Bonington’s skill, as he watched him silently copying old pictures, generally Flemish landscapes, in water-colours, and a friendship soon sprang up between them. ‘Je l’ai beaucoup connu et je l’aimais beaucoup,’ he writes in a letter published in Burger’s study of Bonington in C. Blane's ‘Histoire des Peintres.’ At this time painting in water-colour was almost unknown in France, and his drawings, whether originals or copies, sold rapidly when exhibited in the shop windows of M. Schroth and Madame Halin. He became a pupil at the Institute, and for a while (in 1850 certainly) drew in the atelier of Baron Gros. His progress was very rapid, but he is said to have disregarded academic precepts, and also to have displeased Gros by his laxity, till one day, after seeing one of his water-colours in a shop, Gros embraced him before all the pupils, and told him to leave his atelier and marcher seul. He also studied and sketched much in the open air, taking excursions down the Seine. In 1822 he for the first time exhibited at the Salon, and obtained a premium of 430 francsfrom the Société des Amis des Arts for his two drawings—Views at Lillebonne and Havre.

In 1824 the same society purchased his ‘Vue d‘Abbeville’ at the Salon, where Bonington also exhibited a coast scene with fishermen selling their fish, and a ‘Plage sablonneuse.’ He as well as two other Englishmen, Constable and Copley Fielding, received a medal. The work of English artists in this years Salon is acknowledged to have revolutionised the landscape art of France, and Bonington had certainly no small share in founding that illustrious modern school which, commencing with Paul Huet, has produced the genius of Rousseau, and Corot, and Diaz. It must have been about this time that he was engaged to mnke drawings for Baron Taylor's great work, ‘Voyages Pittoresques dans l'anncienne France.' The second volume of the section devoted to Normandy was published in 1825, and contained several fine lithographs after Benington, of which the view of the ‘Rue de Gros-Horloge' is generally considered his masterpiece of the kind. He also contributed to the section on Franche-Comte, and published several ‘Vues de Paris’ et ‘Vues prises en Provenci-,’ working for the lithographers much as Turner did in England for the steel engravers. When in towns he is said to have sketched from a cab, in order to free himself from the curiosity of the vulgar, an expedient adopted also by Turner. A work called ‘Restes et fragments du moyen âge,’ called ‘La petite Normandie' to distinguish it from the larger work of Baron Taylor, contains ten lithographs by Bonington, and he sometimes drew on stone the designs of others, as in Rugendas’ ‘Voyage nu Brésil’ and Pernot's ‘ Vues pittoresques d’Ecosse.’

It was not till 1824 or 1825 that Bonington began to paint in oil colours. In the latter year he went to England with Delacroix, where they studied the Meyrick collection of armour, and on their return to Paris they worked together for a time in Delacroix's studio. It was probably after this, and not in 1822 as has been stated, that Bonington visited Venice and other places in Italy. In 1826 he exhibited for the first time in England, sending two pictures of French coast scenery to the British Institution ; but his name was so little known in his own country, that the 'Literary Gazette’ declared that there was no such person as Bonington, and that the pictures were by Collins. The next year he exhibited at the Salon the first-fruits of his visit to Italy-two grand views of Venice, the Ducal Palace and the Grand Canal, and besides these the celebrated pictures of ‘Francis I and the Queen of Navarre’ and ‘Henry III receiving the Spanish Ambassador,' a ‘View of the Cathedral at Rouen,’ and ‘The Tomb of Omer.' The last, a water-colour. was highly praised in an article in ‘Le Globe’ after the artist’s death, and was destroyed at the sack of the Palais Royal in 1848. To the Royal Academy he sent a French coast scene only, but in 1828 he sent over the most important of his Salon pictures of 1827-the ‘Henry III' and the ‘ Grand Canal ’—to the Royal Acaderny (as well as a coast scene), and to the British Institution the ‘Ducal Palace,' together with the ‘Piazzetta, St. Mark’s,’ which was purchased by Mr. Vernon and is now in the National Gallery.

In 1827 he took a studio in the Rue St. Lazare, where he lived in good style and enjoyed the intimacy of several rich amateurs. In t is year he paid a visit to E land, bearing a letter of introduction to Sir Thomas Lawrence from Mrs. Forster, the daughter of Banks the sculptor, which from diffidence he failed to deliver. In the spring of the next year he brought another from the same lady, and was received as a friend hy the president. It was at this time that he painted his ‘Deux femmes au milieu d’un paysage,' which was engraved for the ‘ Anniversary of 1828. Next year his lust sketch of ‘ The Lute ’ was engraved for the some annual, and his picture of ‘A Turk’ was exhibited at the British Institution. But meanwhile he had died. He had returned to Paris with his fame fully secured, and commissions flowed in upon him; but over-pressure and overwork, combined, it is said, with the effect of imprudent sketching in the sun, brought on brain fever, from which he recovered only to fall into a rapid decline. He came again to London, to consult the celebrated Mr. St. John Long, but lived only a few days after his arrival. He died at the house of Messrs. Dixon & Bamett, 29 Tottenhmn Street, on 23 Sept. 1828, and was buried at St. James's Church, Pentonville. Sir Thomas Lawrence, Howard the academician, Robson the water-colour painter, Pugin the architect, and the Rev. J. T. Judkin attended the funeral. The sale of his drawings at Sotheby’s after his death realised 1,200l. His works exhibited in England were nine in number, four at the Royal Academy, and five (one posthumously) at the British Institution.

In person Bonington was tall and striking, his eyes were dark and penetrating, his eyebrows thick, his forehead square and lofty. His air was thoughtful and inclined to melancholy, and he stooped a little. His disposition was mild, generous, and affectionate.

Notwithstanding his early death Bonington achieved a position among the first artists of his time in France and England, and he is claimed by the schools of both countries. His fame has increased since his death, and whether he is regarded as a painter of coast and street scenes, or of historical genre, he is entitled to high rank both for power and originality. His French coast scenes are remarkable for their fine atmosphere, his views in Venice are bathed in warm and liquid air. He was a refined draughtsman; his touch was light and beautiful, and his colour was brilliant and true with a gemlike quality of its own. He was distinguished by his technical skill in oil and water-colour and with the point. He was in short a man of rare and genuine artistic faculties, cultivated with great assiduity, and combined constant observation of nature with careful study of the methods of the old masters. In principle he was eclectic, desiring to unite the merits of all previous schools, and his pictures vary greatly in style an method. His earlier work in oils is marked by its impasto, especially in pictures where costumes form a string feature, but he modified this greatly in his later work. His main faults as an artist are a want of firmness and solidity, especially in his figures,and his imagination was delicate and graceful rather than grand or passionate. In some of his designs he did not scruple to borrow figures bodily from well-known pictures, but he made them his own while preserving their life, so that this practice did not impair the value of his works or give them the quality of pastiches.

The principal purchasers of his pictures in England were the Duke of Bedford, the Marquis of Lansdowne, Mr. Thomas Baring, and Mr. Carpenter. The latter published some twenty engravings after pictures by Bonington in his own and other collections. In France the greatest collector was Mr. W. Brown of Bordeaux. At his sale, in May 1837, were fifty-two oil pictures and six drawings and water-colours which sold for what were than considered large prices. Several of his pictures are in the Hertford collection, now belonging to Sir Richard Wal1ace. At Lord Seymour's sale in Paris the late Lord Hertford bought ‘Henry III receiving the Spanish Ambassador’ for 49,000 francs, and at the ‘Novar’ sale at Christie's in 1878 ‘The Fish Market, Boulogne,’ and ‘The Grand Canal, Venice,’ brought 3,150l. apiece. The Louvre contains a number of his studies and one famous picture-‘Francis I, Charles V, and the Duchesse d’Etampes.’ In the National Gallery are the ‘Piazzetta, St. Mark's, Venice’ (Vernon), a sketch in oil, ‘Sunset’ (Sheepshanks), and three water-colours. The British Museum possesses one water-colour and a sketch-book of Bonington, as well as a fine collection of lithographs by him and after him.

Bonington etched a plate of Bologna, which was published by Colnaghi, but this is his only known etching except six trials in soft-ground etching. He also made illustrations for many books, and of these the most curious are seven outline drawings in imitation of mediæval illuminations, which were published in a little work by J. A. F. Langlé called ‘Les contes du gay sçavoir: Ballades, Fabliaux et Traditions du moyen âge,' Paris, 1828. A catalogue, by Aglaüs Bouvenne, of lithographs, &c., by Bonington was published in Paris in 1873; it mentions sixty-seven known works. A celebrated collection of his lithographs was made by M. Parguez. M. Burty compiled the catalogue of its sale.

[Cunningham's Lives of British Painters (Heaton); Annual Reg. (1828); Gent. Mag. (1828); Redgrave's Century of painters; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists (1878); Blanc's Histoire des Peintres; Library of Fine Arts; L’Art, Feb. 1879; Portfolio, April 1881; Nouvelle Biographie Universelle; Catalogue de l’œuvre gravée et lithographiés de R. P. Bonington, par Aglaüs Bouvenne; Catalogues of Royal Academy and British Institution, &c.]

C. M.