The year 1780 was a time of political unrest in London, which culminated in June in the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots. Lord George Gordon led an angry mob of approximately 50,000 participants to protest outside the Houses of Parliament. In order to quell the uprising the army was called in and encampments set up in Hyde Park and St James's Park until the rioting ceased in August.
At this time Sandby was at the very height of his career having held, among other positions, the role of Chief Drawing Master to the Royal Military Academy, since 1768. During the Gordon riots he recorded in watercolour the army's movements and in the following year exhibited six views of the various encampments at the Royal Academy, including two views of the camps in St James's and three of Hyde Park (see fig. 1). He subsequently published four large and two small sets of aquatints of these subjects.
In the present watercolour Sandby has captured a quiet moment at the encampment in St James's Park. His distinctive draughtsmanship and harmonious colour scheme are much in evidence as well as his love of incidental detail characterised by the carefully recorded contents of the officer's tents and the kettle boiling over a fire. Groups of officers and their families have gathered amongst the tents with the familiar sight of Westminster Cathedral in the background.
In a letter dated June 1780, William Whitehead, the Poet Laureate, wrote to Lord Harcourt: 'The camp at St. James's Park is so extremely pretty that you would be charmed with the sight of it...Tents, ammunition, colours, carriages, cannons and kettle drums. Only think of the lawn betwixt the Mall and the Canal thus spangled and ornamented in regular rows with the soldiery as spruce as the scene they are placed in. Hyde Park, I am told, is more warlike, but I have hitherto been contented with the milder appearance' (A.P. Oppé, The Drawings of Paul and Thomas Sandby in the Collection of His Majesty the King at Windsor Castle, Oxford and London, 1947, p. 50).
There is another version of the present watercolour in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, that was sold in these Rooms, 13 July 1965, lot 168 from the collection of the 6th Earl of Harewood (see R.J. Bonehill and S. Daniels (eds), Paul Sandby (1731-1809): Picturing Britain, A Bicentenary Exhibition, London, 2009, p. 144, no. 50).
There is a related watercolour study of the two boys and girl with a dog that appear to the right of the present watercolour in the Castle Museum, Nottingham. It is believed that the figures may be portraits of Sandby's son Thomas Paul, his sister Nancy, and their cousin, Jeffery Thomas. There are further watercolours depicting the Encampment at St. James's in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle and the British Museum.
The present watercolour is from the collection of James Augustine Harvey Thursby-Pelham. A leading expert in early English furniture, he filled his house at 55 Cadogan Gardens with fine works of art. He was adviser to Queen Mary but when she realised that he would not part with what he claimed were heirlooms, she ceased visiting, though she continued to rely on his advice. Much of his collection of drawings was acquired from Pawsey and Payne of Bury Street. His daily routine consisted of walking there from 55 Cadogan Gardens, browsing through the drawings, lunching at his club and walking home again. A large group of fine early portrait drawings from this collection were sold in these Rooms on 7 November 1995, lots 39 to 70.